Latinos and a Growing Racial Awareness
- For New York's Black Latinos, a Growing Racial Awareness
By MIREYA NAVARR, The New York Times, April 28, 2003
Sometime next year, Dominicans in New York City
plan to open a museum and cultural center to
document their immigrant experience.
That is not surprising, given the growth
of the Dominican population.
But the name chosen for the center
may come as more of a surprise:
"Afro-Quisqueya," a nod to these Latinos' African roots.
As Latinos surpass `African-Americans'
as the country's largest minority,
Latinos who [also have some part] `black' [admixture] have been
increasingly asserting their place as a Hispanic subgroup.
Only 2 percent of Latinos counted in the
2000 census "identified" themselves as `black'.
But the proportion is much higher in New York, which
has a large concentration of Latinos from Caribbean
countries with a legacy of African slavery.
Of those Latinos in the United States who identified themselves
as `black', 28 percent more than 200,000 lived in New York City.
The Afro-Latino presence has been felt locally in recent years
in a proliferation of music and cultural events, in new college
courses and conferences that explore `black' roots in Latin
America and in the growing numbers of Dominicans, who
are predominantly `black `and are expected to eventually
surpass Puerto Ricans as the city's biggest Latino group.
"The Dominican Republic is a country with a tremendous African
influence; you see it in our daily customs, our music, our foods,"
said Moises Perez, executive director of Alianza Dominicana,
an advocacy and social service agency that is building the Afro-
Quisqueya Cultural Center on West 166th Street in Manhattan.
Quisqueya is the Indian name for Hispaniola,
the Caribbean island shared by
Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
"Black"-Latinos straddle America's main racial divide as well as two
distinct cultures, and sometimes navigate treacherous waters.
As a student at Fordham University,
Fernando Ramirez joined a black fraternity.
At Brooklyn Law School, he interned with the
NAACP* Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
His Latino friends were curious, he said, wanting to
know why he did not work at the Puerto Rican
Legal Defense and Education Fund instead.
(*National Association for the Advancement of Colored People)
"I could tell what they were asking was,
`Why are you at the `black' one?' " said Mr.
Ramirez, 35, now a lawyer in New York City.
Mr. Ramirez, born to a black Dominican mother and a white
Puerto Rican father and raised in Washington Heights in
Manhattan, is light-skinned and wears his hair in long dreadlocks.
He goes to Spanish Mass and has a Puerto Rican fiancée.
Of his two closest friends, one is Puerto
Rican, the other African-American.
By now, he is used to being scrutinized.
"When I tell some `African-Americans' I'm "black"
a "black"-Latino they think I'm being cute," he said".
I push it.
I ask, what does `black' mean?
No one has a monopoly on `black' culture".
Jay Jolliffe, 36, a dark-skinned Panamanian who runs a marketing
research firm in New York, remembers being called the ugliest
of racial slurs used against `blacks' when her family moved
to a white neighborhood in Queens when she was 6.
All her life, she said, some whites have subjected her
to their stereotypical views of `African-Americans'.
She still feels pressured sometimes to choose
between her racial and cultural identities...
Here, you have to define who you
are within these very narrow margins".
But recent surveys have shown resistance
among Latinos to racial classification.
Almost half the respondents to a national survey last year by the
Pew Hispanic Center and the Kaiser Family Foundation said
they would rather answer "Hispanic" or "Latino" and leave
it at that than choose from the standard racial categories.
This was also evident in the 2000 census, where 42 percent
of those identifying themselves as "Hispanic," "Spanish"
or "Latino" also identified themselves as a member of
"some other race" besides black or white.
An additional 6 percent said they were
members of "two or more races".
Many of those choosing these options are Mexican-Americans, whose
racial background includes a strong indigenous
influence, experts in Latino demographics said.
But such preferences made Latinos
"virtually alone in breaking away from
the standard racial categories,"
the Pew/Kaiser study reported.
This resistance to racial categorization
worries some advocates for minority groups.
"If you have populations that need certain remedies,
what do you do to identify them?" asked William A. Darity,
director of the Institute of African American
Research at the University of North Carolina.
Self-identification is the only way, he said,
"while being careful that how they are seen by others
can be quite different from the way they label themselves
and that may be more important in
the kind of social treatment they face".
Some "black"-Latinos say that how others perceive
them has an effect on how they identify themselves.
Maria Perez-Brown, 41, a Puerto Rican television producer and
entertainment lawyer in New York, is the daughter of a dark-
skinned Puerto Rican mother and a white Puerto Rican father.
She marked "Hispanic" and "black" on the census form.
"A lot of times society makes that decision for you," she said".
The way American culture works, you select one or the other.
If you're brown-skinned and you say you're white,
you're going to grow up with a lot of conflict".
But self-identification can also be a personal choice.
Nina Paulino, 42, a Dominican who organizes a festival of
Dominican African dance in New York every year, is blue-eyed and
olive-skinned but said she identifies herself as a "black"-Latina
as a `political statement', to honor her father's side of the family.
"I had never given respect to that side of me" while
growing up in the Dominican Republic, she said.
Almost half the Latinos responding in the census 47.
9 percent identified themselves as white, even though
many Americans might not see some of them that way.
In Latin America, by contrast, the concept of race tends to be more
elastic, said Roberto Suro, the director of the Pew Hispanic Center.
It often starts out from a baseline of mixed heritage
rather than one that is purely black or white.
"In the Caribbean we're white, but in this country we would be
black," said Neyda Martinez, Fernando Ramirez's fiancée,
who was born in Chicago to Puerto Rican parents.
She is dark-skinned, with long wavy hair, and is
often regarded as Indian in Puerto Rico but is
more accurately mulatto, a mix of black and white.
"It's empowering for Latinos to say you're `black' instead of
Indian," said Ms.Martinez, who identifies herself as a "black"-
Usually people try to hide behind the
romanticism of saying you're Indian.
For some it's a denial of the `blackness'.
It's a very personal thing how people identify themselves.
You can't go by skin color".
Among the young, hip-hop has given black Latinos the
confidence to express a `black'...identity, said Raquel Z.
Rivera, author of the just-released "New York Ricans
From the Hip Hop Zone" (Palgrave Macmillan), which documents
the Puerto Rican roots of hip-hop, particularly in the dancing.
Some performers have even branched out from hip-hop
to reclaim African rhythms of their parents' countries,
rhythms like bomba, a Puerto Rican music form that
has become popular among Puerto Ricans in their
20's and 30's in the last five years, Ms. Rivera said.
Will Jones, a 26-year-old "black"-Latino of Panamanian descent,
said that when he was a teenager, hip-hop gave him
a platform to rap about racial matters and bond with
[those]...who shared his urban experiences.
"When hip-hop began, most people thought it was just "black"
people, but it was really `blacks' and Latinos and it became
the middle ground both groups could feel part of," he said.
Mr. Jones, now a sales representative with Fat Beats,
a Brooklyn hip-hop label, said he has moved comfortably
in the Hispanic and African-American worlds
because he sees himself as belonging to both.
"I'm 100 percent `black `and 100 percent Latino," he said".
I don't swing back and forth the
pendulum is always in the middle".
Ms. Perez-Brown, who grew up in the East New York
section of Brooklyn, said that when she attended Yale
University there was a division between the Puerto Ricans
from the island "rich and blonde," she said and
"mainlanders" like her, dark-skinned, urban and more in
tune with `African-Americans' from the same background.
"It was a "class" issue, but class and
race became commingled," she said"...
These days, Ms. Perez-Brown is busy trying to pick the right skin
tone for Kaelyn, the lead character in an animated series she is
creating for Nickelodeon that features preschool superheroes.
The character's parents are Puerto Rican and
African-American, like Ms. Perez-Brown and her husband.
Ms. Perez-Brown also has two other
Nickelodeon shows to her credit.
In the superheroes' circle of friends, one character
is African-American, another is Native American
and a third is non-Hispanic white.
Kaelyn's brother is pink.
Ms. Perez-Brown was leaning toward making
Kaelyn a medium brown, not unlike herself.
While a marketing team may look at the character's coloring as
something that will help determine its commercial success as a toy,
Ms. Perez-Brown said, she has other priorities in mind.
"I want `black' and Puerto Rican girls to
be able to say, `That's me,' " she said"...