Dominican, Black, and Afro-Latino: A Confession/Dominicano, Negro, y Afro-Latino: Una Confesión

Written by: Jay Espy

“What? Black people in the Dominican Republic?” Yes amig@*, there are Black Dominican people whose ancestors descend from the African motherland. However, the question is not so much, “Are there Black people in the Dominican Republic?” as it is “Are Dominican people Black?” Ask that to a Dominican person and you might get cursed out. Contrary to popular belief, most Dominican people are in fact Black or African-descended, but Blackness tends to be defined in socially different ways depending on where you are in the world. For example, anyone from the United States who visits the Dominican Republic will find that most people there would qualify as Black if they lived in the states. Yet Dominican people see Blackness in a different way, and some of the most melanated Dominicans do not even claim their Blackness and instead default to “indio.” In reality, many Dominican people are as black as café, while others are as mixed as sancocho, as layered as cebollas, and a few as white as azúcar.

I was born to Dominican parents in a predominately Dominican neighborhood in the Bronx, New York, home to the second largest number of Dominican people in the world, after Santo Domingo [1]. My mother is light-skinned with thick, black, curly hair, my father is brown-skinned, and I am brown-skinned with thick, black curly hair. I was raised racially colorblind; the only awareness I had about race was every time my aunt in the Dominican Republic called to assure that I would not marry a Black woman because she didn’t want nieces or nephews “con pelo malo.”

As a child, I assimilated quickly into North American yanqui culture and identified as an “American” (even though anyone living from the North Pole all the way to the southern tip of Argentina is technically an American). I could not speak that well in Spanish, but I understood it very well, especially when my mother threatened to hit me con la correa whenever I misbehaved. And yet, Dominican culture, by way of food, music, and language, had penetrated my being for so long that I could not reject it. As a teenager, I eventually referred to myself as Dominican and proudly showcased the Dominican flag in my room as I blasted bachata, salsa, merengue, and reggaeton music.

But whenever I visited the Dominican Republic, I was seen as an outsider, a gringo from the states. It seemed that being born to Dominican parents was not enough to be Dominican. Although I was not born or raised in the Dominican Republic, I still felt an ancestral, cultural, and national connection to its people como familia. And yet, I was alienated by the very same people I identified with. Even though I was a citizen of the United States, I could no longer identify with a shallow “American” culture that aimed to whitewash my ethnic roots. I was quickly hurled into a state of identity limbo, a mind state that W.E.B. Du Bois famously referred to as “double-consciousness,” in which Black people struggle with two dimensions, descending from Africa but growing up in an American society that hates them. [2] Some later applied this term to Afro-Latin@s as “triple-consciousness,” in which “one ever feels [their] three-ness, — a Latin@, a Negro, an American; three souls, three thoughts, three unreconciled strivings…” [3]. It wasn’t until college when I overcame this confusion and finally solidified my identity.

As a Black Studies major, I learned about the powerful history and culture of African and Latin@ people of African-descent. I was challenged to obliterate the many myths and stereotypes I had about Black people. For example, Black history did not start during slavery; Black people in Africa were actually the first humans to build civilizations and lay the essential social, cultural, political, and economic foundations for modern society. Additionally, Blackness is not exclusive to African Americans in the U.S. Actually, there are Black people all over the world throughout an African diaspora that spans virtually all continents. This diaspora includes Ayiti, the original indigenous name for the island now known as Hispaniola, where the European terrorist Christopher Columbus set foot and virtually annihilated an entire people of the native Taíno and Arawak societies. Ayiti is now shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where hundreds of thousands of African people were sent to be enslaved by France and Spain during the trans-Atlantic African holocaust.

As a brown-skinned Dominican, the idea that I was somehow Black never crossed my mind. But what does it mean to be Black? Who is considered Black, and who is not? Am I Black? If I’m Dominican, can I be Black too? Am I Black enough? These are questions I struggled to answer as I embarked on a journey to come to terms with my European, Indigenous, and African ancestry and define my racial and cultural identity. Eventually, after deep study and reflection, I had discovered a racial and cultural fusion and finally admitted that I am the following: an Afro-Latino, or a Latino of African-descent, who identifies with their African roots; and an Afro-Dominican, which is simply a nationalized Afro-Latin@ identity. An Afro-Latin@ embraces four elements of African identity: their racial African features, like my thick, Black, curly afro; their cultural traits, which descend from African traditions such as music, food, language, and dance; their political identity, which is molded by their shared experience within a racist, anti-Black, system of white supremacy; and their social characteristics and personalities, which are African in nature. A Latin@ is simply someone mixed with African, European, and Indigenous blood.

I say “admit” because this acknowledgement of one’s Blackness is perceived by many Dominican people as an irrational confession and sometimes an unforgivable betrayal, for to be Black in the Dominican Republic is to be the antithesis of Dominican national identity, to be anti-Dominican, in other words, to be an “inferior” Black Haitian. This racist anti-Haitian ideology had begun following Dominican independence from Haiti in 1844 and then fully engrained into Dominican society a century later by Rafael L. Trujillo, a ruthless and Eurocentric dictator of Spanish, Dominican, and (ironically) Haitian-descent who was groomed and supported by the United States government. He is notorious for massacring tens of thousands of Haitian people in 1937 in order to mejorar la raza.

Trujillo’s preliminary efforts to whitewash the racial identity of Dominican people have left behind a devastating legacy of Antihaitianismo, or anti-Black racism against Haitian people and Dominican people of Haitian-descent in the Dominican Republic. This is exemplified by the recent Dominican Supreme Court ruling in 2013 that revokes citizenship from people born in the Dominican Republic after 1929 to Haitian immigrants who entered the country “illegally,” even though Dominican and Haitian people share a very similar cultural, political, and economic history, especially in their struggle against European colonialism and imperialism [4][5]. In fact, it was Haitian people who abolished slavery on the entire island after they won the most successful slave revolt and built the first independent Black nation in the Western Hemisphere.

Yet today, racism and white supremacy continue to oppress Afro-Latin@s throughout the Caribbean, Latin America, and the U.S. Many Latin@s, even those with dark skin, would rather identify with their European colonizer before even considering themselves African. Latin@s internalize this self-hatred and often perpetuate the racist stereotypes created by the same European oppressor they wish to emulate. The Afro-Latin@ identity, then, serves to embrace our African roots and directly reject the Eurocentric and anti-Black racism that has infected Latin@ communities. I am now proud to rock my big curly afro and embrace the Dominican and Black African in me, all at once. And when Dominican people ask me, ¿Pero cuando vas a cortar esos rizos? I’ll respond, “Cuando te dejas crecer los tuyo.”

 

Jonathan Bolívar Espinosa (also known as Jay Espy)  is a poet, writer, freelance photographer, community organizer, and member of the People Power Movement-Movimiento Poder Popular. He currently lives in the Bronx, New York, and manages a blog at Revolutionary-AfroLatino.tumblr.com.

 *The “@” is meant to reject the patriarchal, male dominant “-o” suffix and the male/female -o/a binary prevalent in the Spanish language. The “@” is inclusive of all genders.

Works Cited:

[1] Duaney, Jorge. 2011. Los Países: Transnational Migration from the Dominican Republic. Blurred Borders: Transnational Migration between the Hispanic Caribbean and the United States. (pp. 169-186). Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press.

[2] W.E.B. Du Bois. 1994. The Souls of Black Folk. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications.

[3] Roman, Miriam Jimenez & Flores, Juan (Eds.). 2010. The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States. Trinity, North Carolina: Duke University Press Books.

[4] Matibag, Eugenio. 2003. Introduction. Haitian-Dominican Counterpoint. New York: Palgrave Macmillan

[5] Torres-Saillant, Silvio. 2010. Introduction to Dominican Blackness. Dominican Studies Research Monograph Series. <http://www.ccny.cuny.edu/dsi/upload/Introduction_to_Dominican_Blackness_Web.pdf>

 

Comments

comments

11 Comments on Dominican, Black, and Afro-Latino: A Confession/Dominicano, Negro, y Afro-Latino: Una Confesión

  1. I always say Dominicans are black and in denial, same as PR and the others and Rosie Perez finally tell it like it is on the View. That is one country there is no reason for them to beat those Haitians like that when they go there for work.

  2. Excellents article!

  3. My mother was born in the Dominican Republic in 1902. I believe she was one of the earliest Dominican immigrants to the USA, arriving in 1924.
    She taught me all about how Trujillo, the Dominican dictator, ordered the slaughter of thousands of Haitians.
    My father was half Italian, half Afro-American (as we used to call ourselves.)
    I grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the Thirties. White people would say of us, “They’re not colored, they’re Spanish!” as nonsensical as that may sound. But I grew up with a sense of pride in being an American of African descent, sailing through the various appellations (“colored”, “Negro”, ”Afro-American”, “African American”).
    I, personally, prefer to be called Black. I feel that that unites us with our cousins around the world (India, Borneo, Southern China, South America and, of course, Africa.
    In the NY Times last week, David Gonzalez writing in an article, referred to and “Puerto Ricans and Blacks”, as if the terms were mutually exclusive.
    There is a definite movement afoot in America to “bleach” Latinos. Applications ask whether the respondent is “Black” or Hispanic”, as if speaking Spanish places one automatically in a different category.

  4. mylika Davis // April 13, 2015 at 6:13 am // Reply

    I love this story. Ever since Soledad O Brian did a story on Black in Latin America. I have been more intrigued. Growing up and not fully understanding history. I never thought of Puerto Rican or Dominicans as being black. I worked with a black puerto rican man nick named “blackie”He was the one that educated me on the fact that most puerto ricans in puerto rico was of african descent. Our other Puerto Rican co worker scoffed at the idea. To learn that there are blacks in most latin cultures that are not acknowledged or looked down upon is even more intriguing as well as devastating. Most people dont know the history. Keep sharing this information. People need to know we are more in common than we think we are different. Education can uplift a people.

  5. So, I’ll be honest. I really did enjoy this article and some excellent points are raised. However, I do feel that it really applies to those of us raised in the states, and even then, it would heavily depend on how much we identify with Dominican culture in its current form on the island.

    For example, while it is true that the anti- Haitian movement has gained a lot of ground recently, it’d a stretch to attribute it to Dominicans denying their African roots, because while true, both are mutually exclusive issues at the moment. The movement as I know it is based upon an almost crippling fear of Dominicans losing all that they’ve gained since their independence, most importantly their culture and identity, which you’ve got to admit has drastically changed from Haiti’s.

  6. I dare say this article applies to ALL of Latin@ America! Well done!

  7. Beautifully written. Your journey to discovering the complexities of racial identity and ethnicity is inspiring. Thank you, Jonathan.

  8. Well said!! it’s about time that every one accept their lantin roots and definetly our thru black roots.

  9. Very well written as well as historically supported “mi hermano”.As a Double Major in Afro Latino Studies/Communications but more importantly A Dominican Harlemite, I would remind all who cling to a flag is to respect the flag of another.When huMANs created kingdoms, borderlines, flags etc by default we bought into division.I have always said we in the US could not accept going back to British rule so how come some of us expect PANAMA, DR and other nations return to those whom they won their INDEPENDENCE from.Lets use ONE set of rules to play the same game.If we are playing Baseball lets get the Basketball rules off the table.I repeat very well written.

  10. I grew up in the U.S.and being quite honest, never knew the extent of anti-blackness in Latin America, specifically the DR. For years, I assumed Latin America in general was years ahead of the U.S. regarding race relations, i.e. the elimination of racial bias etc. Reading this well article about the D.R. and Haiti makes me feel that we, the Black race have been set back about 100 years.

  11. On the idea that dark skin people from a Caribbean nation self-identify as “not black” It rings so absurd that hearing it sounds like a parody or joke. And yet What history could have produced such utterances?

    Perhaps a look into this country’s history might yield some basis for what otherwise appears to most people a delusional journey in self hatred and debasement.

    Many people have no clue or historical references regarding the entangled and convulsive struggles of Haiti and the DR.

    Any serious attempt to deal with our racial perceptions entail going back into our past and boy what an entangled mess that is. There have been two racial discourses on the island of Hispaniola. Of the two, the Haitian version has had a far greater impact on racial matters or perceptions. The Haitian Revolution announced its Imperial Constitution in 1804 one of its pillars was to deny Blancs or Whites the right to Haitian Citizenship. Yes, a liberal document under the inspiration of the Age of Enlightenment based the right to citizenship on race. And all this coming forth after the Race Wars between the French and ex-Slaves in Haiti!

    Both the French and ex-Slaves in the Race War that ragged on during the Haitian Revolution struggle were bent on extermination of the other. When the Haitian leaders framed their basic law of the land for the new republic Only two groups had the right to citizenship under the Imperial Constitution: Noir or Black and aborigine or Indians/Tainos.

    Blancs or whites were not entitled to Haitian citizenship. An interesting historical side out here: when Polish troops sent by Napoleon to reconquer Haiti decided to stay in Haiti and fight for the new Haitian Army, they had to sign on as NOIR or Blacks! in order to be granted Haitian Citizenship under the Imperial Constitution of Haiti.

    When the Haitian Armed forces of Dessalines and Boyer and the rest of the military power of the Haitian State invaded and tried to annihilate culturally the eastern Spanish speaking part of the island of Hispaniola, they carried with them this same racial construct of Noir and Indian/Taino with their forces of occupation.

    Dominicans have always been a heavily mixed racial society and so all groups have had Constitutional rights to citizenship REGARDLESS OF RACE. Go and check out the first Constitution of the Dominican Republic and compare it to the Imperial Constitution of Haiti 1804. The DR and Haití had different modes of production during their colonial experiences and as a consequence a different perspective regarding the relationship between master and slave in their respective societies emerged. In the sugar plantation economy that developed in French ruled Haití only the masters rode horses and had machetes, but in the cattle ranching economy that was the basis of the Dominican colonial economic mode of production both master and slave had to use horses and had machetes. This gave the slaves in the DR a very different perspective and interpretation of their worth and station in society. In addition, the racial fluidity was far more lenient and acceptance a necessity given the lack of human resources available to the long neglected colony of San Domingo by Spain. The racial mixing between whites and blacks in DR was far greater than what happened in colonial and certainly postcolonial Haití.

    And then the Haitian occupation, 1820-42 under Boyar began, and with it Haiti’s persecution and attempt at systematic destruction of the Dominican way of life or culture. This attempt to annex and culturally assimilate the DR had lasting consequences, very negative ones, that would become the basis for Dominican attitudes towards Haití. Subsequently, the modern racist ideas would be tagged to these historical grievances especially during the reign of the dictador Trujillo.

    So when dark skin Dominicans say “we aren’t black” the Historical Context of their words is lost. What many are in fact saying is that they are not Haitians. Since the racial discourse of Noir was used by Haitian invaders to force a cultural assimilation and annexation of the Spanish speaking 2/3 part of the island of Hispaniola.

    Moreover, many illegal Haitians having lived among Dominicans quickly picked up the notion that to deny “blackness” or Noir was to deny being Haitian. So what else could you be if not a dark skin Dominican or Indian/Taino?

    {Many whites fled to PR, Venezuela and Cuba as a result of the Haitian attempt to annex the eastern 2/3 of the island. Many churches and the University of Santo Domingo were shut down as Haiti tried to wipe out resistance on the part of Dominicans and any cultural expressions that they might have to Haiti’s attempt at annexation.}

    After the Haitians were pushed out in 1844 there remained some communities of Haitians in the DR and as the border between the two nations was never a closed border given lack of human resources and difficult terrain, over the years tens of thousands of Haitians moved into Dominican lands.

    United States business interest greatly expanded Haitian participation in the sugar cane industry. Before the Americans got involved, domestic Dominican braceros were along side Cocolos and even some Puerto Ricans cane cutters employed to harvest the crops. These sugar interests insisted on the lowest price labor for their fields and thus laborers from Puerto Rico as well as Dominicans were denied jobs, priced out of jobs.

    The sugar cane business which had existed on domestic Dominican and foreign laborers, some from Puerto Rico, became dominated by the cheapest source of labor in the Caribbean Basin: Haitian.

    Dominicans have always had a heavy mixed racial dynamic than say PR or even Cuba where mainly, but not exclusively, waves of Spaniards in the late 19th century gave raise to lighter hue societies.”

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