In the 1950s, legendary baseball player Roberto Clemente had to confront racist attitudes both inside and outside the locker room after coming to the United States from Puerto Rico. It was a stigma that he had not known back home, according to his biographers. One wrote, “Even as a dark-skinned Puerto Rican, Clemente never knew of the existence of racism before coming to the U.S. mainland. He would tell reporters that he learned that dark skin ‘was bad over here’.” (David Maraniss, Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero)
Young people interviewed by CTLatinoNews say that times have changed, that stigmas against dark skin in the United States have greatly diminished. Now, the color of your skin seems far less consequential than what language you speak. “I was in the Spanish cluster because I didn’t speak English when I first came from D.R.,” said Dahian Rodriguez, describing his experience at Hartford’s Kirk Middle School.
Today, Rodriguez speaks excellent English, and as a nineteen year-old student at Goodwin College in East Hartford, he talks as if all cultural lines have vanished. “From what I have seen so far, everything is diverse,” he said. “I have white friends, black, Asians, actually.”
17-year old Hartford High school student Chabely Nunez, also Dominican, feels similarly about the absence of barriers and labels: “I get along with everybody; I never choose one over the other.”
CTLatinoNews asked a third Dominican student, Massiel Astacio, whether she has experienced any kind of prejudice or bias. “Not that I have been aware of or noticed,” she replied. “I don’t think that I have experienced that, thank God.”
Whether the experiences of teenagers give the whole picture is an open question. In some parts of the United States, looking black can affect first impressions because visually it implies having multiple generations of family in this country, while “looking Latino” can signify foreign-ness.
At the same time, those with multiple identities are able to relate to different groups of people. “I do sort of consider my self black,” continued Astacio, who attends Capital Community College. “I understand that the Dominican Republic is mixed with natives, Africans and Spanish. Thus, I don’t think of myself as one thing, but rather a mix of it all. This is also why I can relate to the mainland born African Americans. I can identify with the way they live their daily lives, certain customs, and also the poverty they face.”
Glaisma Perez Silva grew up and attended college in Puerto Rico before coming to the United States. As a dark-skinned Puerto Rican who worked as a special education teacher and a college counselor in Hartford for 33 years, she has both the personal and professional experience to describe the subtleties of the black/Latino identity.
“In the melting pot of the Caribbean we cannot talk of race as an isolated topic since we are considered the same by nationality. We are Puerto Ricans, not white or black,” she says. “We are the product of a racial blend that happened during colonization.”
Silva maintains that greatly diminished racial prejudice in the United States does not mean that color lines have disappeared, writing, “The experience on the Island is totally different than the one in the USA in terms of racial identity!”
While having multiple identities is common in a nation of immigrants, it is also poorly understood, because mainstream culture in the United States often discourages discussion of the complexities of race and ethnicity. Many North Americans feel awkward talking about concepts that defy categorization.
“The problem is that neither category—ethnicity or race—adequately defines an incredibly diverse group of people who include Afro-descendent Cubans, Guatemalans who are Maya-Quiche, Brazilian Jews, and Hondurans of Lebanese descent,” wrote Anne Gebelein, Ph.D., Associate Director, UCONN’s El Instituto: The Institute of Latino, Caribbean and Latin American Studies.
It can also be confusing and frustrating for those required to reduce their identities to little check-boxes on official forms. Gebelein continued, “Latin American immigrants often arrive in CT completely mystified by the categories they have been assigned to, as they are not of a binary mindset in many of their home countries, nor do they feel part of a nebulous third space of ‘Hispanic’.”
North Americans generally lack the ability to discuss the subtle gradations of skin color, another thing that tends to hamper the conversation. “Cultural norms dictate that one can talk about skin color freely when describing an individual in Latin America, in colors that range from ‘negro’ (black-skinned) to ‘prieto’ (dark) ‘trigueño’ (wheat-colored) to ‘café’ or ‘café con leche’ (coffee with milk) to ‘canela’ (cinnamon) to ‘color crema’ (cream). This is logical in countries with centuries of intermarriage. African-Americans also have a colorful palette, from ‘high yellow’ to ‘chocolate brown’, but it is a vocabulary whose subtleties often escape less observant whites, who may only see ‘dark-skinned’ and ‘light-skinned’.”
In Spanish, one might hear a song lyric such as “Cuerpo de ébano y de café,” which translates to “Body of ebony and coffee.” This comes from Spanish singer Anna Toroja’s “Diosa del Cobre” (“Goddess of Copper”). In the United States, and especially in culturally reserved corners like Connecticut, discussing identity is even more awkward when gender is also part of the mix.
Cindy “Cin” Martinez is a 29-year-old actress, Puerto Rican living in Hartford’s north end, a largely black West Indian neighborhood. Martinez described experiencing a whole range of reactions to her race and ethnicity. On the question of sexuality, she wrote: “Men are reluctant to pursue a dark skinned woman like myself. They do hold fantasies and would rather have sex as opposed to a relationship.” Martinez wrote that dark skinned Latinas “are simply fantasized in private and sought after erotically as if we are too strong too bold too not enough or too much to be engaged in an ideal relationship.”
Under less intimate circumstances, Martinez often struggles to find answers to awkward questions and situations, like the question of “What are you?” And when words are not up to the challenges of a situation, those like Martinez who are sensitive to the reactions of others find themselves adjusting their own behavior accordingly.
Wrote Martinez,: “Most common experiences was having the need to be extra friendly and extra smiley so that other people could feel comfortable/less tense around me or to get (for instance) fair/similar treatment like my white coworkers or the folks the next table over. I always felt the need to speak extra properly to prove that I was an equal as opposed to an inferior human being. Feeling the need to be conscious of my facial expressions and check my attitude because I didn’t want to be another mad Rican. And with all that, majority of the time I still was invisible. But I didn’t hide, I didn’t speak quieter. I would chipper-ly ask for a menu when the folks next to me would be offered one. I would be kind and well mannered. And when violated I would go through proper channels to address it. Only in times of extreme subtle and or blatant discrimination would I get, well you know-sassy. I recall being an over achiever, almost like I had to represent for the rest of us.”
To hear Martinez tell it, American society still has a ways to go. As she puts it, “The way skin tone is viewed is so deep rooted that it’ll take a ton of rewiring to be viewed as the nurturing, fierce, beautiful princess warriors that we are.”
By Wayne Jebian CTLatinoNews