This summer’s controversy over the underrepresentation of dark-skinned Afro-Latinos in “In the Heights,” the Hollywood adaptation of the Broadway musical, laid bare the cancer of colorism in Latinx communities in the United States. The reckoning was long overdue, a pain that goes back as long as our community has existed. And the mainstream media was enraptured. It created what I think of as the spectacle — el espectáculo. I haven’t seen as high a demand for Latinx voices since the Pulse shooting.
“Latinidad” is the shared language, childhood references, music, food, inside jokes and idiosyncratic TV Spanglish among the Latinx in this country. It is the sameness that unites us no matter where we grow up, and no matter where our parents were from. But the idea of sameness can devastate as much as it can connect. An open wound in this world of Latinx has been the shame around darkness, our own and that of our family and neighbors and compatriots. According to media by us or for us, dark-skinned Afro-Latinos do not exist and if they do, they aren’t Latino. Not really.
Some seem to derive schadenfreude from our colorism problem, while others with a platform use it to accrue social capital when we call it out. It’s the kind of performative racial conversation that allows Americans to proclaim how antiracist they are while they continue to gentrify our neighborhoods and hide the fact that they get paid more than their Black or Latina co-worker.
The main issue we are asked to write about, other than the border crisis, is the issue of anti-Blackness in our community. When interviewers have asked me what Latinidad means to me, I fumble. For many people, I am a representative of undocumented, brown Latinidad, but my Latinidad is complicated, and it is personal. That space of always wondering — of constantly creating a version of myself that incorporates my race, ethnicity, nationality, migration to America, education and all the rest of my history — is my Latinidad.
Latinidad isn’t a race, and you can be Latinx and be of any ethnicity. And we are still talking about and around Mestizaje — a race that doesn’t exist in the racial binary of white and Black in the United States. Lately I’ve caught myself comparing the skin color of Latinx artists in my movies and on my dust jackets with ugly feelings, looking at their eyes and lips and cheekbones and noses and jaws, looking for tells of ancestry, assuming deception and theft.
There are the reckonings we have among ourselves, and they are messy, loud and deeply specific; they are conversations that are nuanced, containing not only facts, but embodied, familial and community knowledge. They are probably not conversations we are having for the first time, and probably not the first time they have brought many of us to tears. Anti-Blackness in the Latinx world causes those of us with skin in the game deep pain. As a brown artist I am only consumable by American audiences when I write about extreme suffering. I suggest that we interrogate within ourselves what our personal and professional stakes are in this conversation.
I think of the casta paintings, colonial-era paintings depicting the interethnic mixing among Europeans, Indigenous peoples, Africans and the existing mixed-race population in the New World. The paintings typically depict a man, woman and child, arranged according to a hierarchy of race and status, and denote the racial mixing that has occurred. A taxonomic atrocity where the child of a Spaniard father and albino mother is labeled torna atrás, or “return backward,” while an Indigenous couple and their child are considered Indios mecos bárbaros, or barbarian Indians. The race of mestizos, a mix of white and Indigenous, is something that allows people to talk about citizenship without naming it. Our ancestral caste system is created by a recognition of race that is so obsessed with blood quantum and phenotype that it becomes eugenicist.
It’s true that some people hear Latino and think of Ricky Martin, but others think of job-stealing Mexicans — a different binary altogether, of citizen and alien. Campesino means peasant in Latin American Spanish, but it is a word that signals race as much as it does class. You can call someone a campesino as a slur to mean they look Indigenous, but not Indigenous enough to be romanticized as a noble savage, just Indigenous enough to be barred access to cultural and economic capital. These categories unify even as they divide: A Latino is a Mexican is a campesino is an indio is an illegal.
I cherish being a mixed-race person. Some of my mestizo family’s most ingrained traditions come from the Black Caribbean, like the salsa from Joe Arroyo, whose songs kept my head held high when I felt shame as an undocumented student at Harvard. We sometimes speak Quechua at home, especially to describe good or bad feelings in the body that don’t have words in English or Spanish. But I am not Black and I am not native. I have had to decide for myself what is a respectful enactment of my culture and what might be romanticization of ancestors I don’t know. What is an authentic expression of my culture and what is appropriation? It takes deep personal reflection. It takes education.
What was once Latin culture in New York, what was once Spanish culture in New York, has meant growing up mixed-race alongside mixed races. People on the ground — from organizers of racial justice movements and day laborer centers to gangs in New York and Los Angeles — have all placed deep emphasis on intersectionality and coalition-building. When we tear down what is rotten, we must build something new in its stead — we must support those on the ground dedicated to educating and organizing.
I moved from Ecuador to Brooklyn and then to Queens. In my neighborhood, nobody looked the same, and we shared common enemies — landlords, I.C.E., the cops, the blackouts, Giuliani, the new young white people who drove up rents. I feel that kinship with other Latinos, with immigrants, with Black people, with Asian people, because they were my neighbors. We shared the fire hydrants in the summer. We needed each other to make a life worth living for ourselves.
We share nutrients through our roots deep under the forest soil. We warn each other about encroaching dangers, and reach for the same piece of sky. Together, we must protect the saplings in the parts of the forest where sunlight does not reach, whose majesty is not visible to those just passing through. The goal, I think, is to stand strong and reliable, to stay alive ourselves and keep the others alive. And above all, send sweetness and strength to those who do not yet reach the sun themselves.
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio is the author of “The Undocumented Americans.”
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