Written By: Kleaver Cruz
I began to understand I was a child of the African Diaspora abruptly. It was the beginning of 9th grade at the predominantly white high school I was attending with my brother Walter as an A Better Chance student in the predominantly white college town of Amherst, MA. We were living with 6 other Black and brown boys (of various ethnicities) and the Puerto Rican and African-American couple that served as our Resident Directors.
I remember one day after school, we were all filling out one of those school surveys that asked about income and other demographic markers, when my housemate Manuel*_ looked at my form.
“What? You .5 better than us?” He asked. Confused, I responded defensively, “What? I’m Latino.” He laughed and said, “OK, but we Black.”
Manuel is Dominican like me, has dark straight-ish hair and to many would probably read as white. I remember some of the other guys I lived with chiming in and adding to the laughter towards me for checking “Latino” and not “Black.”
I would keep returning to that moment for years to come. As I became more woke in the years that followed, I began to connect the dots for myself. I began to question why my dark-skinned grandmother insisted on identifying as “india” and why there were countless times when anyone in my family was assumed to not speak Spanish. Why did we call bananas “guineos?” And where did the magic in Botánicas come from?
Reading, intentionally traveling to parts of the world where people that look like me live, writing, questioning and talking to people around me I’ve come to be clearer on my position as a child of the African Diaspora. I identify as Black in solidarity with the diaspora and Latino because of the culture I’ve inherited as well as a tongue that has come with it.
I struggle with identifying as Afro-Latino because for me there is something in hyphenating language that establishes an existence outside of a norm or standard. That is to say that both in and outside of this country, Latino is often defined as someone who isn’t perceived to be Black and that is easily evident in novelas, magazines and the rest of the ways we as a people are popularly represented.
I’ve been on the search for language that indicates we are Latinos of African descent and are also the face of Latinidad, not a special category within it. As a second generation American, this conversation gets complicated for me because I didn’t grow up going to the Dominican Republic (D.R.) and didn’t have some of the experiences that my peers had growing up. I grew up listening to Biggie and Mary J. as much as Tito Rojas and Hector Lavoe. Older white women clutched their purses tighter when I walked by and I too was followed in stores. The plátanos I love and the Ochra I’ll never eat both have roots in a part of the world I have yet to visit, but am clear are the places where my oldest roots lie. Baldwin’s writing about being Black in America resonates with me as much as Junot Diaz’s stories about life on either side and along the borders of D.R. and the U.S.
What does this all mean practically, in the day to day? Mi gente are deeply entrenched in anti-black sentiments in the midst of de-nationalization on the island and here as the state continues to sanction violence against our Black bodies in the U.S. What does it mean when these days most of my fellow Dominicans assume I either don’t speak Spanish or that I’m “just” a Moreno? Or that we sometimes experience pushback in our community for saying that we have sangre africana in our veins? What does it mean that my uncle was stopped 13 times two summers ago simply for driving while being Afro-Latino, so to speak?
When I left high school I was angry. I was angry that I had gone through an educational experience that didn’t reflect who I was as a person, but that anger also caused me to read, learn about where I came from and connect dots in ways that I’m sure I couldn’t have, had I taken a class on it. I learned about movies, music, art, places and people that said my Blatinidad was beautiful, complex and deeply rooted. For that, I am thankful.
What I’m learning is that we have to claim these roots more openly, confidently and with conviction. It’s important to acknowledge that there have been folks holding it down for this part of the diaspora since at least the first step was made on the shores of the Caribbean Isles. For me, it means openly and loudly embracing my Blackness as an element of my identity that doesn’t contradict my Latinidad. It means finding the words both in English and Spanish to affirm my Blatinidad. It means embracing the magic that is being a child of the Diaspora.