My Body as Resistance
This piece is part of a blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called "Stages of Resistance." The series welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more!
My Body As Resistance
The only difference between Racism in English and Racismo in Spanish is the O.
I took my seat at the theater. Excited to watch a play based on one of my favorite books. My friend and I chatted about auditions and shows before the lights dimmed and the announcements to turn all cellphones off came on. I was enveloped by the darkness of the theater, my body was ready to watch the show. Lights went up and the first scene started out with very talented actors saying very beautiful words. I was quickly engaged. It wasn’t until the second scene that my heart sank to the floor and I heard ringing in my ears. I never thought I’d ever see Blackface front and center in my lifetime. And I don’t mean Blackface as a social commentary or a critique on the minstrel era of days gone by. But as the real portrayal of a character that was written as Afro-Latina, with curly, kinky hair. The actress had darker makeup on her face and a curly wig to fit the description of the character, which was based on a real person. Without saying a word, my friend and I looked at each other in disbelief. When intermission came around, all my friend could say was, “Is anyone going to say anything about the Blackface?” I don’t remember what I answered, I was trying to keep myself from crying. But I quickly calmed myself. I was resigned. All I could think to myself was, “Why am I surprised?” Blackface is still a common occurrence on Spanish TV channels, and actual black characters/actors are almost non existent. I remember when the Queen herself, Celia Cruz (mayGodresthersoul), was said to be in a soap opera. I was excited at the thought of finally seeing myself represented on screen, in Spanish no less. It was to my disappointment, that the great Celia Cruz was playing the role of the ever loving and wise maid, who later turns out to be the mother of the white, blond, blue eyed lead actress (how convenient…with a side of eye). Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a maid in real life, but to have one of the few instances in telenovela history feature a black character and the role feeds into stereotypes that we fight about in English language television? I was disappointed, but I also wasn’t surprised. Albeit things are changing, they are moving at the speed of molasses…I will admit this phrase never fully made sense to me, but to use the King’s English, it applies.
I grew up in Chicago. A very diverse, and very segregated city where the Latinx population is mostly Mexican, with Puerto Ricans coming in second. Outside of my family, there were few to no Dominicans around me, this has been slowly changing in the last decade. There were also few to no Afro-Latinx people of any nationality. At an early age, I was made to realize that I was not like “the other Latinos.” My darker skin made others question my identity as a Latina. To be specific, my identity struggles never lay with white Americans, except for my third grade teacher (who was a racist as they come). I’ve come to realize, after a lot of reading and listening, being a light skinned black women made it easier to move through the “English world” (the microaggressions were still very real, however). I acknowledge my privilege in this. Most of the pushback I have received for my skin has come from the Latinx community. I was humiliated one way or another on a daily basis by Latinxs that felt I didn’t belong. It didn’t matter that I had a very thick accent in English, which was later ironed out by a teacher so I could better enunciate in speech competitions. It didn’t matter that my parents were immigrants just like theirs and our struggles of assimilation and survival in this country were akin to one another. The only thing that mattered was that my skin was darker than theirs. Their parents warned them to stay away from people that looked like me. And therefore, I wasn’t welcome to be part of the group. I was marginalized in my own community. Marginalized within a marginalized group…the irony is not lost on me. Most of my friends were Latinx, although this didn’t stop some of them from making ignorant comments about black people. To them, I “wasn’t one of those people, you’re different”. I was commonly told, “you’re dark, but one of us”.
The last five years have been a journey of self discovery and most importantly, self acceptance. The trauma that is caused from being made to feel unaccepted and unloved in your own community is deep. It has psychological and physical ramifications. It’s a wound that has the hardest time healing no matter how much salve you put on it, mainly because the healing has to come from within. I stopped relaxing my hair, which came with a great deal of angst and thought. Would this affect me getting cast in things? Would people see my kinky hair and believe me when I say I’m Latina? Would I look acceptable? Will I be loved less (or more)? Looking at the countless Latinx and Spanish geared magazines, the lack of anyone with a darker hue is obvious, and much less those with kinky hair. Anyone that has transitioned from relaxed to natural hair, knows the painful, exciting, and frustrating journey that it is. I remember talking to a friend about my frustrations and she interrupted me saying, “Girl, you talk a lot about your hair.” That was her kind way of saying, can you stop talking about your hair already? Even though we were both Latinas, there are many things that she couldn’t relate to and my hair was one of them (or she was legitimately tired of me talking about my hair because I talk about it A LOT). Mind you, two women with natural hair could spend hours talking about curl type, porosity, length, products, no heat options, etc. But I realized, not all my struggles and pains would be understood or received by everyone, even if they were my closest friends. Some things are relatable, it’s in the subtleties that one can feel like an outsider. Saying things like ‘Pelo malo’, or ‘She’s dark but has beautiful eyes’, or leaving out blackness and Africa in conversations about Latinidad are all forms of exclusion and antiblackness, whether they’re intentionally said or not. There is a lot that is ingrained in us.
I’ve gone through phases of anger and resentment for not having been taught as a kid all that I’ve learned in the these last few years (and I still have a lot more to learn truth be told). But I’ve also found nuggets of peace in myself that carry me on. For a long time I felt I was in identity limbo, too light to be black and two dark to be Latina. Where did I fit? Reading books and watching plays that speak to me personally and spiritually have given me much insight and positive introspection. Theater has proven to be an outlet for me to express myself as an artist, as a woman of color, and more specifically as a black Latina. And even more so, I’ve been reflecting on what completely decolonizing my identity would look like. Would identifying as Latina feel right to me? Does that properly reflect what makes me who I am? The current play I’m writing is my way of examining where my identity lies and how I can decolonize it to best fit the parts of me that are reflected when I look in the mirror. For me, Anacaona and Yemayá Taught Me… is a journey to self-love through ancestral knowledge. It’s a hero’s tale for Latinas of color. So many times I’ve asked myself, how can I continue to identify with a community that refuses to accept and give space to those that look like me? But at the same time, any DNA testing will show that I am the product of black, white, indigenous, Asian (yes, Asians are also part of Latin America) peoples surviving each other. I’m still examining my identity, but I am in a place where I won’t allow others to tell me how to identify. My work reflects me and my body and it’s my form of resistance against a society that marginalizes those of us that don’t ascribe to the status quo of Euro-centric ideals. Specifically, my plays put Afro-Latinx characters and our stories front and center. Too many times, I’ve seen Latinx identity be defined under European and Indigenous definitions, with Africa sprinkled in here and there. Yet, the very music and food that we use to define our identities as Latinx would not exist if it wasn’t for Africa.
There are countless plays about undocumented immigrants and the constant fear of being caught. There are countless plays about the Latina maid or the landscaper or super. And while these experiences and stories are worthy of being told, where are the plays about the Dominican nannies in the Upper West and East side of NYC? Or the plays about being an immigrant while black? Or the plays about the anti-blackness in the Latinx community? Where are the stories about the black bodies that built Latin America? Or the black bodies that died and are still dying in protest? The various genocides of black bodies in Latin America? Or the indigenous struggles that still occurs to this day? Now, I know these plays either exist or are being written as we speak, but why aren’t they being produced or at least highlighted as much as the “typical Latino story”? I wonder, how is it that we can ask for inclusion from white American institutions when we don’t practice what we preach? I fear that we won’t get far in our calls for inclusion if we don’t look within and call for better inclusion of ourselves. Our history is longer than that of the United States. Our history began way before a sadistic man with a bad sense of direction set foot on the island of Kiskeya (or Ayti, there’s still a debate on the actual original name of the island). Our story continued with a new narrative when slaves were brought to Latin American shores by the millions to build the Americas. Our stories lie in the revolutions that lead to countless liberations and independences. We are brimming with stories that fall outside of the “typical Latino” narrative. We have our own folklores and our own mythologies. Immigration, though important, is only the tip of the iceberg. There is richness in our ancestors, in our grandparents, and within ourselves. In Viola Davis’ powerful 2017 Oscar speech, she says, “People ask me all the time, what kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola? And I say, exhume those bodies. Exhume those stories. The stories of the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition.” I echo her in saying to exhume the black and indigenous bodies that were slain to build nations. To truly show our “diversity” by highlighting the stories of the different Asian communities that exist in Latin America. To look within ourselves and create new narratives. Narratives that will heal us from within. These are the stories I have committed myself to writing. I can only pray that others follow suit. And in writing these stories and creating these characters, stay away from Blackface. Afro-Latinx people have survived slavery, genocides, marginalization, discrimination, and mistreatment by our own people. So let us tell our stories from our own mouths.