Sometimes you've gotta channel your inner Tag Team to get things done.
My relationship with Puerto Rico always feels complicated. And subsequently so are my trips there. I often have this sense of being in a space that is quite familiar, yet distant and foreign, which probably isn't particular to me. I think many of us first-generation mainland US-born Puerto Ricans have this sense. Linguistic barriers and bi-racial/ethnic identities further murky the waters of a clear sense of what Puerto Ricanhood means for me. I didn't grow up speaking Spanish, although it was often spoken around me for a number of years. My mother struggled as a child when she arrived in the United States* in the 1950s. Unable to speak English she was kept out of school for a year and attempted to teach herself with her neighbors' schoolbooks. Growing up discriminated against in the North Ward and Ironbound sections of Newark, New Jersey, she was adamant that I wouldn’t have similar troubles with English, which centered on a false belief that bilingualism causes language difficulties as opposed to reinforces cognitive abilities.
*A de facto colony of the United States I prefer to speak of Puerto Rico as a distinct nation
Like my mother initially with English, I’ve struggled to gain fluency in Spanish. A glutton for punishment and determined to master the language, I decided to conduct essentially all of my ethnographic dissertation research in Spanish. What a damn nightmare. But before I officially began this work in Cartagena, Colombia in 2011 I spent the summer in Puerto Rico. And one of the greatest frustrations at the time was speaking to people in Spanish and having them respond in English. This was done primarily in San Juan and sometimes by people who clearly couldn’t even speak English as well as I could Spanish. It just threw sazón on my wounded ego.
But a noticeable shift happened during this trip to Puerto Rico in March. My challenge with Spanish has always been an emotional one, hardly about actual retention and processing. I only came to realize this while studying Portuguese in Brazil in 2001 and finding it easier (even though it is technically more difficult than Spanish) due to the lack of pressure and guilt. Since 2010 my time living in Colombia and Chile has helped to markedly improve my Spanish. While it is still an uphill battle towards what can technically be called fluency, or hell good grammar at times, my confidence has improved dramatically since 2010. So feeling a bit more like didn't have to be ashamed when I spoke brought about a comfort that allowed me to see the island as much more than an ancestral home. It started become more of an extension of myself.
The journey began with my mother and I rolling out in typical goofball fashion.
We kicked it with our amazing friend Sonia who has become so much like family to me over the years. And of course we hit up various beaches around the island because well hell, my soul is tropical and as my girl Marci said, “@machetesymiel is always on the damn playa. I like my fish frozen and shaped like stars muchas gracias.”
I just have to throw this in here because my mother’s obsession with basketball kills me and comes out at the most random of times. This is us at Walgreen’s buying sunscreen on our way to Luquillo Beach.
I visited the town of my mother’s birth, Dominguito, located in Arecibo. By coincidence there was a festival going on and I had brought the family tree I’d obsessed over last year. I was determined to find information about my great-great-great-great grandfather, Jose Ramon Larrieu y Despiau, who was apparently mayor of Arecibo in the 1800s. There’s a legend about him that sounds like some shit straight out Love in the Time of Cholera, well probably because he and bunch of other members of my family all died of cholera. Given his French ancestry my fear is still that our family was plantation owners who fled to Puerto Rico from Haiti during the revolution. I can neither confirm nor deny this potentially shitty historical background. I ended up running into a woman who was selling her book on Arecibo history and I had to point out that she’d missed my great X4 grandpapa. It was a pleasant exchange in my opinion but my mother has since used this incident as an example of something that is just "very typical Melissa.”
(Video Disclaimer: I had not spoken Spanish in 3 mos. #TheStruggleIsReal)
Me, my mother and Sonia hung out in Arecibo for a while. Some of it was quite beautiful and being there was refreshing.
But there was this other side to being in Arecibo that reflected the struggle of the island, one that tourists don't see or care to see. I was struck by the emptiness of the center of town on a Saturday and the abandonment of so many properties.
Yet even amongst the abandonment there were people still trying to make a life in spaces that had lost a sense of vitality, in some ill way like a fetus trying to grow and survive in a mother who has passed on.
We headed to Dominguito and visited my mother’s first cousin who lives in the house once owned by my great-great-grandmother, Concepción “Concha” Rodriguez. I spoke with Junior and other family members who lived nearby about the family tree and although I’d met a few of them before I didn’t feel as connected as I did this trip. I had a sense of who people were, going back for generations, and that made their faces light up. I listened to stories of our family and looked at artifacts of my great-grandmother’s.
Wait, is that antique bottle called, Old Colony??
My mother went back home and I got to spend a few more days basking in the glow of the island. I got to spend time with people who I have grown to appreciate (one of whom will at some point be featured in the memoir... LIBRO!) and see places I’d known over the years.
I was on a quest to buy this serigraph this trip. I first saw it during my summer in Puerto Rico and I had to have it. I shopped around for it and sadly couldn't find it for purchase this time.
However, I did manage to come up on this gem of a silkscreen that I had to cop for obvious reasons.
The struggle for a place in the world is one that is constantly being battled by Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans everywhere. Puerto Rico was one of Spain’s longest held colony (if not the actual longest). It was then almost immediately seized by the United States in 1898 as a result of the Spanish-American-Cuban War and has been a de facto colony ever since. Now the island is deep in the throes of a major financial crisis (for a breakdown, check out Ed Morales’ article). As Morales points out, the colonial experiment has clearly failed. American imperialism has rendered Puerto Rico neither foreign, nor domestic. The Immigration and Nationality Act gave Puerto Ricans statutory citizenship, yet the nation remains in limbo without the rights of sovereignty or true US citizenship stemming from the 14th Amendment and statehood. As I struggle to find my own place on La Isla del Encanto I can’t help but to wonder what does all that's happening now mean for its identity and its future? What future will Puerto Rico carve out for itself? What will continue to be imposed upon it? What role do people like me play, those of us who have Puerto Rico in hearts but a life outside of it? My hope is that the we'll see the light before my issues with identity become meaningless because there will be no unique Puerto Rico with which to connect.
I’ll be honest. I haven’t seen many photos, much video footage or any news coverage (short of that in the commentary of comedians) from the recent uprising in Baltimore. It’s too much. It’s too painful to witness, even second hand. It’s not just that we don’t have time to mourn the death of one woman, man or child at the hands of state-inflicted violence before we receive news of another. It’s that every fallen tear, strained scream, rock thrown, or window smashed represents centuries of injustices, of frustrations about hopes dashed, of compounded inter-generational pain and suffering, of communities purposely left to languish. And yes, this is what resistance sometimes looks like.
When I was 12 years old, using a tape deck and a notebook, I wrote out the words to “Trapped” by 2Pac (who called Baltimore his home from around ages 12-17). And when I realized what was going down in Baltimore, those words about police brutality and feeling like prey and the bubbling up that comes from deep within memories of a history so old that you can’t even recall them, all came to me.
They got me trapped
Can barely walk the city streets
Without a cop harassing me, searching me
Then asking my identity
Hands up, throw me up against the wall
Didn't do a thing at all
I'm tellin' you one day these suckas gotta fall
Cuffed up throw me on the concrete
Coppers try to kill me
But they didn't know this was the wrong street
Bang bang, down another casualty
But it's a cop who's shot there's brutality
Who do you blame?
It's a shame because the man's slain
He got caught in the chains of his own game
How can I feel guilty after all the things they did to me?
Sweated me, hunted me
Trapped in my own community
One day I'm gonna bust
Blow up on this society
Why did ya lie to me?
I couldn't find a trace of equality
Work me like a slave while they laid back
Homey don't play that
It's time I lett'em suffer the payback
I'm tryin to avoid physical contact
I can't hold back, it's time to attack jack
They got me trapped
Understand that I’m not quoting Pac to in any way advocate attacks on police officers. But the idea of retaliation harks back to a moment earlier in the week when I found myself proud of my adviser, Shamus Khan. In his lecture to Columbia University undergrads he attempted to put all of the events transpiring in Baltimore in context, weaving together the semester's foci on categorization, decision-making during times of uncertainty, and social stratification. The most poignant moment for me was when he said that we can’t confuse the attention that non-violent protest has been given as meaning it was historically the only mode of protest that brought about change, even during the Civil Rights Movement where it's often highlighted. And it hit on something that I discussed a lot on social media in the wake of the events in Ferguson. Of course nonviolence is the mode that would be ideal for many. Folks don't really want to put their lives in jeopardy or live in communities even more rocked than they had previously been. But we live in a country that was literally founded upon violence, massacre and destruction. So the United States speaks the language of violence quite fluently. And as oppressed people the civil unrest that we have utilized here has often deinvisibilized us and served as a catalyst for change.
The idea that those at the federal level would advocate non-violence whilst simultaneously using violence as one of the dominant courses to achieving its ends of empire and global economic and political domination is but a reminder that they will unequivocally seek to maintain their monopoly on violence, and any sort of contestation of this violence will only be met with even more extreme forms of it. We know how fucked up the response by law enforcement will be when we attempt to challenge the militarized policing of our bodies and communities, yet we also know that there has to be a strategic organization of tactics that will draw attention to the plight of those in communities where disinvestment, criminalization and stigmatization has been the norm. In addition, we have to focus on the simultaneous dismantling of structures that produced those norms.
It sounds and feels daunting as hell. But there can be a few ways for those locked in a cage to break free. Some will sweet talk the guards. Some will slowly file away the bars in the corner on the low. Some will sit around and pray help comes. Some will collude to use their collective strength to bend what seemed unmalleable. Regardless of how it happens, trust that you can’t keep us trapped forever.
**Check out my event post about yesterday's NYC to Baltimore/NYC Rise Up demonstration in solidarity with the people of Baltimore here.**
*Another version of this post can be found on https://nacla.org/news/2014/10/16/let’s-talk-about-race-latin-communities#
They say that the Devil’s greatest trick is convincing the world he didn’t exist. While I’m not a religious person, I find something alarming about the notion that a sinister force is exacting its will on humanity while successfully going undetected, and therefore uncontested. Racism in Latin America has a similar invisible, but insidious, sort of quality.
Bring up racism amongst those from Latin America and you’ll often get an exasperated groan, followed by something about how class is the predominate stratifying principle in Latin America, and a plea to stop applying your U.S.-based take on race to those in Latin America and the Caribbean. They may even throw in a “we’re all mixed” or “what is race?” rejoinder for good measure.
They will likely bring up the fluidity of racial boundaries as a way of suggesting, not simply that the struggles around this form of discrimination has its own set of particularities when in a different setting, which is a legitimate claim, but that such particularities somehow absolve them from having to deal with the repercussions with any sort of diligence because the situation is somehow less maleficent.
Fortunately, there are now numerous organizations and scholars carrying out the tireless work of bringing to light, documenting, and challenging the cumulative effects of centuries of oppression that continue to negatively impact the lives of millions of Afro-Latin@s. Recognizing the need for a critical analysis of the social reality of African-descended people from Latin America, local activists and scholars led by Juan Flores and Miriam Jiménez Román founded the afrolatin@ forum in New York in 2007. It was a moving experience to serve on the executive board of the forum in New York City in 2011 and help coordinate its first conference, “Afro-Latin@s Now!: Strategies for Visibility and Action.” The afrolatin@ forum is committed to advancing an understanding of the afrolatin@ experience in the US and abroad. But on a personal level it has also heightened an understanding of racial marginalization and resistance for me and many of my co-organizers. Working with this collective, I feel my own identity as an Afro-Latina and scholar-activist has been affirmed.
This October’s second afrolatin@ forum conference, “Afro-Latin@s Now: Race Counts!” will provide a space to examine the structural and ideological barriers to full Afro-Latin@ representation and discuss opportunities for positive social change. The event will focus specifically on how race structures the life chances of Latin@s of African descent and how it is therefore critical that our experiences be shared and our numbers be counted in the census.
Categories have meaning. They have been shown to be attached to differential treatment and life circumstances which reflect historical and social trajectories . The conference will explore the relationships between racial ideologies and classifications and their social and political consequences. Afro-Latin@s are experiencing multiple levels of discrimination in the US and in Latin America in areas such as healthcare, education, housing, employment, transportation and political representation. In Latin America, African descendants are well over a third of the total population, yet significantly less self-identify in most nations. In the United States, less than 3% of all Latin@s identify as racially Black. What does this mean for access to resources determined by numerical representations for millions of Latinos and Latinas of African descent?
It is often difficult to name one’s pain. It is especially the case in places such as Latin America where groups are racialized, yet an open dialogue about how such racialization impacts one’s life is neither popular, due to a nationalistic discourse which elides intra-national differences, nor practical, due to a limited language to engage this issue. However, race is often at the forefront of many interactions, whether articulated or unspoken. Normalized ideologies about race and racism are revealed every time someone tells their child “hay que mejorar la raza.” They are hiding beneath the words about places in completely different countries that are well known to be associated with Afro-descendants, all of which are discussed in an eerily similar manner. “Oh those people over there are so lazy. They just love to party all the time. You know they aren’t very smart. Be careful because it’s so dangerous there.” It’s a wonderfully convenient way to talk about a racialized group without ever bringing up said race because everyone knows who has made Limón in Costa Rica, Salvador in Brazil, Loiza in Puerto Rico or Cartagena in Colombia their homes, be it by favor, by force, or by finance. Or maybe it involves a micro-aggression during a tale about how love conquers all and the evidence is that there was once a beautiful white man with blonde hair and blue eyes who loved this uuugly, black black woman with hair that was nappy nappy (even worse than mine), as I was told in Colombia.
Sometimes being AfroLatin@ doesn't travel well. “Last name Valle, first name Melissa.” “Oh!You’re Latina? I was expecting someone who looked so different,” says the very European-looking receptionist during check-in at a hostel in Quito, Ecuador. I quickly respond, “Yeh? Because there are quite large populations of Latinas who look like they could all be my sisters, particularly in the Caribbean where my mother is from. Are you Ecuadorian?” “Yes, I am.” In my most incredulous voice, “Reeeeeally?? I would’ve never guessed you were Ecuadorian. Wow, ya see how that works?” But even as I spit out my retort I knew that in spite of how often white Latin@s think that a simple swapping of skin tones on the opposite end of the alleged racial color spectrum makes all things equal; that by saying “oh, but as a White person people don’t think I’m Latin@ either” means that we are in comparable positions. We are not. The way the receptionist is perceived as white grants her privilege over my perceived blackness.
In White Logic, White Methods, scholars Tukufu Zuberi and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva say that “Race is not about an individual’s skin color. Race is about an individual’s relationship to other people within society.” The reality is that while race as a social construct may be more ambiguous in Latin America than it is in the United States, a defined racial hierarchy does exist. This racial order closely maps on to the existing class order resulting in significant social, economic, political, criminal justice, and health disparities based upon race within the Latin@ populations throughout the Americas. While race is neither a fixed nor a biological fact, racism, oppression, discrimination, and the disparities based upon racial identification are very much social facts that exact a high price on people’s lives. Sadly, if and when the disparities are revealed, the blame is placed on those who have been marginalized, making it almost impossible to develop the sort of correctives to ameliorate racism’s ills.
The poorer health, education, and financial conditions of Afro-descendants and Indigenous groups compared with those considered white in Latin America are are said to be a function of cultural depravity, perceived biological differences or a lack of capabilities unrelated to their historical circumstances or the mechanisms which lead to differential outcomes such as both institutionalized and symbolic racism.  As part of my graduate studies, I conducted my own study of Afro-descendant migrants living in Santiago, Chile where I interviewed and photographed 48 participants who hailed from 15 countries, 8 of which were in Latin American and the Caribbean. One of the primary reasons I photographed participants was to provide a visual representation of an often invisibilized population. I have repeatedly heard the same comments from those with whom I’ve shared the photographs, friends, fellow scholars, etc. Things like, “They have Black people in Peru???” It is evident that both the media and statistical—through inaccurate census counts--invisibilization of people of African descent in Latin America and the Caribbean have had ripple effects for Afro-Latin@s in the United States, as many believe that Black and Latin@ are mutually exclusive categories. In the absence of disaggregated data about the Latin@ population in the Americas, the dramatically different experiences of Afro-descendants remain largely masked.
During the first conference in 2011, we united more than 500 people for three days of dialogue and exchange, and produced a document, “Resolution: An Afro-Latin@ Plan for Action,” in which we mapped out findings and recommendations for future actions that came out of all of the panels. One of the crucial issues that emerged was the need for Afro-Latin@s to challenge prevailing ethnic and racial group categories used in the census and other official documents, so that our present socioeconomic conditions can be acknowledged and addressed. Since the conference, debate over the relationships between race, identity, and the socio-political position of Latin@s has intensified. The case against George Zimmerman’s apparently racially motivated shooting of Trayvon Martin sparked a conversation about whether Zimmerman’s label of “white Hispanic” was accurate, and what the label might mean in the future. A recent New York Times article about Hispanics declaring themselves white on the census triggered further debate around whether the growing Latin@ population has designs on whitening en masse.
As Afro-descendants continue to be pushed to the margins of society we must have an understanding of historical processes related to enslavement, colonization, and imperialism that have produced existing racial disparities and the contemporary practices that perpetuate them. This year’s conference is a continuation of the afrolatin@ forum’s work to combat the racism that generates an unequal distribution of rights and privileges based upon racial identification. By convening activists, cultural workers, community members, academics, and other stakeholders representing the diverse Afro-Latin@ population, we will provide a unique opportunity to consolidate networks, advance common educational and advocacy agendas, and chart out strategies for future collaborative work. We hope it will serve as a vehicle to make sense of racial inequality and stratification among Latin@s and prove valuable to anyone interested in identifying opportunities for positive social change and racial justice.
Rodriguez, Clara. (2000). Changing Race: Latinos, the Census and the history of ethnicity. New York: NYU Press.
 For examples of studies see: RACIAL AND ETHNIC DISPARITIES IN HEALTH IN LATIN AMERICA AND THE CARIBBEAN EDITED BY ANTONIO GIUFFRIDA , LOS AFROCOLOMBIANOS FRENTE A LOS OBJETIVOS DE DESARROLLO DEL MILENIO, DUAL ETHNICITY AND DEPRESSIVE SYMPTOMS: IMPLICATIONS OF BEING BLACK AND LATINO IN THE UNITED STATES , SUBGROUP PREJUDICE BASED ON SKIN COLOR AMONG HISPANICS IN THE UNITED STATES AND LATIN AMERICA
This weekend I took my fourth trip to IKEA in the last three weeks. I’m sort of in disbelief that I’m still purchasing throwaway furniture at IKEA. If you would’ve told me during my first visit while at Howard in 1999 that FIFTEEN years later I would essentially be making the same purchases I would’ve told you to stop your lies, you foolish girl. But alas, here I am still stuffing things into those yellow bags at the Elizabeth IKEA. The first visit in this latest round of trips was with my mom on a Sunday afternoon. Heaven help us. The masses. The mayhem. The mispronunciations of everything in sight. But it’s a bit fascinating, in a sociological, yet gag me, sort of way. Everyone’s flooding into this little international house of families trying to create, recreate or just envision their own spaces. Lots of these clearly "about to move in with each other for the first time" super-excited folks, then these others with 2-3 kids who all think the place is one big romper room. Then there are the older heads who look like they are shooting for some kind of, any kind of change and think that maybe installing those new cabinets will do just the trick. Then there are the college kids with their parents thinking “how many people can sleep simultaneously on this Klippan couch?” And “will it absorb alcohol or just let it roll right off of it?” And as it turns out these 19 year olds are my peer group right now in IKEA. Mercedes and I are in a faux bedroom pulling out drawers made of particleboard with Sally from Secaucus and her mom who are pretty much on the same shit. How did this happen? As I look at how IKEA is putting together their 270 square ft. space my mind is exploding when I realize that that’s what I’m about to squeeze my life into. I almost snap one of those tiny little pencils at the thought and the only thing that satisfies my soul is the $1 cinnamon bun that I literally finish by the time I get to the checkout line. "This was a cinnamon bun," I tell Check Out Lady as I stand with nothing but a piece of white wax paper and frosting on my nose.
My second visit was to make actual purchases on move day with an extremely attractive male friend. I pitifully thought, “Yeh, I’m ‘bout to front like this is my boooooo to redeem myself.” Except that it was 11am on a Wednesday and the only people there were the five guests shopping and the IKEA B-squad of workers who seemed to make it their business to whip through the maze-o-furniture anytime I had a question. There goes that idea. Game…IKEA.
The third trip I went dolo, as I had to reconsider what I had purchased given my inflated estimates of my box-like space limitations (270 sq. ft. deez!). I think “Okay, I get halfway through and I shall reward myself with a cinnamon bun. I can at least have sweet deliciousness if I can't have some adult dignity. Right?” Wait, an empty tray?! “What’s the meaning of this?! Don’t you understand that a cinnamon bun's all I've got right now, you Swedish mutha #$%!?!” Woh, calm down. No need to throw around pejoratives at folks’ nationalities. But you got this, IKEA. Plan foiled... again.
This last time I went back to drag some broken boxes full of heavy-ass wood pieces. And get this, without a receipt. I knew I was in for a challenge. I tried to size up the cashiers. Tricky returns almost always come down to whose making the decisions about them. My number was called and I ended up at the register of a young Muslim sista. She seemed friendly so I was hopeful. I gave her my “don’t make me take allll of this alllll the way back to NYC.I’m about to buy a bicycle and it can’t all fit in my mom’s car.She’s waiting outside.Yes, it’s just mom and me.Why you gotta judge me?” speech and face. It was real. When she couldn’t officially pull the trigger and called to a manager I fretfully thought “No!! Not her! She looks pissy! This’ll never work!” But thankfully that woman was too busy to play me. Then a brotha came by who also had decision-making power. My hope was revived. I gave him the rundown along with a big smile mixed with a heavy dose of desperation. The second he said “I can only give you store credit” I felt like dancin'.
I decided to do a quick reverse-run through the maze and pick up a few things when, and it’s a good thing I felt like dancin’, this reggae/calypso band was playing near the final registers. Why? I have no damn idea. Neither did the sales associate I would later ask. But who cares?! I could almost jam to the break of dawn in this joint now. Finally, IKEA was letting The Kid win.
What does it mean that all roads seem to lead back to IKEA? Shit, what does IKEA mean? Maybe IKEA stands for "I Know Everything Already" and the subliminal message is that as long as I keep going to IKEA, i.e. thinking that I know everything I will not win (except when there’s a reggae band involved). Maybe it stands for “I Keep Evil Aliases” or “If Kidnapped Explain Accurately” or hell, “I’ll Kick Everyone’s Ass.” Maybe something like "Immaculate Kisses Eventually Accelerate." Maybe not. A friend said that there's no exact translation but in Swedish it roughly refers to the moment a woman's eggs dry up. Hardy har har. Hell, if that’s the case then I really deserve a cinnamon bun.
It’s around 2:15am right now in Japan. I can’t seem to make it to bed before 2am no matter how tired I am. I get some sort of second wind when I realize everyone at home is really starting to dig into their day. I don’t know when the last time was that I got a solid 8hrs. I’m aware that I’m the worst at keeping up this blog. And I need to get to bed so this ain’t gon’ be Valle’s most eloquent verse, but I just had a realization that I think others can relate to so I figured I'd put it down.
The last 11 months have been some of the most difficult, yet simultaneously amazing of my life. And trying to reconcile the flood of what, at times, seem like completely antithetical feelings can be sort of dizzying. I moved to Cartagena around 11 months ago to conduct research for my dissertation. I guess you could say it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I just returned in May and still haven’t really processed all that was that experience. That unforgettable, awesomely awful, superbly silly time. I've been on the move so much. It's what Carmen Jones Sandiego has chosen to do for the last two years.
I found myself scrolling through my Instagram pics a short while ago (which I only started using since moving to Cartagena last August) and was sort of floored by all of the faces and different spaces. All of the color. All of the moments and the newness. All of the sights, smells, sounds, the tastes and the touches. And all of the darkness that often loomed in the background or pressed itself smack dead in my face. In just the last six months I’ve spent time on the soil of ten countries, on four different continents. I don’t even know how I made that happen. Feel like I’m watching my own movie and went to bathroom when they told that part.
And I’m sitting here in my room in Yokohama, Japan after packing up my things to head back into Tokyo in the morning so I can leave for Kyoto on Fri., come back to Tokyo on Monday, then back to the States on Tues. (feels like it sounds but with good theme music). I look down at my arms. I got the meanest bites of my life when I was in Austria, no bullshitting. And it hits me that these bites look as if they will permanently scar my arms. I go into a mini-panic. But I’ve worked so hard to prevent scars! What will I do?! Scars are ugly and hard and just unbecoming. I’m a single woman. I can’t be unbecoming! Who will love me if I am not pretty?! Gasp! Pause. Tranquiiila.
I’m fairly certain I got these scars from the mosquitos that went berserk while drinking spritzers with new friends and colleagues at a vineyard in Vienna. And how often will I get to do such a thing? How long will I get to go on these adventures? Ultimately we get older. We will change. And as long as we aren't standing still, we will bruise. We will have pain. We will scar. But as it turns out, scars are merely the price of truly living.
* A similar version of this post can be found on the afrolatin@ forum blog.
El Festival Internacional de Cine de Cartagena de Indias (FICCI) ended here in Cartagena, Colombia a few weeks ago. It was an incredible opportunity to enjoy some cinematic gems from around the world (Pelo Malo from Venezuela is excellent!!). I recently watched La Grande Belleza, an Italian film that deservedly garnered a number of awards last year. Truly a thought-provoking, visually beautiful work of art. But oftentimes what’s most captivating about a film is the audience’s response to it.
There was one scene where a Mother Teresa- saint like character was supposed to be visiting Rome. Religious figures from around the world gathered to greet her and the camera cuts to a white nun staring at a man whom we are supposed to assume is African. Well, the (primarily Afro-descendant youth) audience I was surrounded by just found that hilarious. But not more hilarious than when the larger group of Africans was taking a photo with “the saint.” That’s when the audience really had a good, hard laugh. Nothing like images of Africans wearing what people believe is the “traditional” dress to add comic relief to any program. ***le sigh***
During the festival I got to witness another common strategic use of representations of African people: to invoke fear. I watched the movie Default as part of the film festival and within moments of watching it I began to cringe. It starts with fictitious news coverage of Somali “pirates” and the reporter says something to the effect of questioning “the making of the modern African criminal.” What, pray tell, is that? We’re talking about the second largest continent in the world (NOT A COUNTRY!). Replace any other continent with Africa and it would sound ludicrous to most. Yet these kinds of statements are made regularly and go uninterrogated.
I have been collecting data for my dissertation in Cartagena for the last seven months (10 months over the course of the last 2.5 years). What has become patently clear is that, like most of the world, there is a very limited understanding of Africa here in Cartagena. Thanks to a history or colonialism, slavery and the media (both national and international), Africa is viewed as being nothing more than a place of primitivity and violence. I watched four different independence parades in Cartagena in November with “Africanness” represented repeatedly by animal prints and spears (see below). When asked why the participants were dressed as they were, the director of one group told me, “to represent the African fantasy.” Oh, your fantasy of Africa you must mean.
I’ve watched blackface performances, replete with red lips, “cooning” faces, exaggerated clown-like bodily movements, the whole nine yards. Minstrel show 101. And when I asked one performer (see below) why he was making such faces his response was that they represent “African violence.” Again, what, pray tell, is that?!? At a minimum if they were talking about African warriors and attempting to bring some dignity to a painful history of struggle, that would be one thing. But these crude representations are nothing but mockery and a perpetuation of dangerous stereotypes, no matter how many ways you attempt to slice it. In practice, they don't mock the Spanish slave owners, as it has been suggested. They belittle the people they attempt to represent and perpetuate a continued assault on the dignity of Africans and their descendants.
So here we are watching an entire film about the African criminal and the white victim. Yes, they made pitiful attempts to make it more critical and give one character cause and depth, but at the end of the day the damage was done and you simply had the violent Africans, the Black woman servant, and the white victims of the African violence. In that auditorium I could almost feel as the idea of the African as a violent criminal got solidified in the minds of the audience. In La Grande Bellezathe principle character, Jep, during an interview with an artist asks her to explain something about her work and she says “I’m an artist. I don’t have to explain jack shit.” This license to create without consciousness or criticism is highly polemic. But images, particularly through cinema, have a way of entering the psyche and the consciousness of people. Representation matters. So how do we work to deconstruct and alter this African fantasy and move beyond “Africanness” as something to be feared or mocked (and can’t forget the third part of the misrepresentation trifecta, sexualized)?
One of the reasons I'm a fan of romantic comedies is not just because typically everything works out in the end, but because of that turn around process to get there (see Legally Blonde, Bridesmaids, Clueless You've Got Mail, Bridget Jones' Diary etc.-blonde white women have this shit on lock apparently). You know it, where basically everything the protagonist holds dear turns to shit. One way or another they are heartbroken. They fail miserably in their jobs, careers, school. They have a fall out with friends. They are emotionally broken, often looking a hot mess. And then classic climax. They see something or have an important convo which leads to this epiphany, followed by a video montage set to music of them finally coming out of their funk, going inward and doing all the things best for them, all the things they should've always been doing. It often involves some sort of class or learning, some physical/health activity, spending a lot of time by themselves and maybe with people who truly love them whom they may have previously neglected, them working really hard on some sort of big career life-altering project, typically to make up for one that turned to shit. You see seasons change to suggest this isn't an over night process. And then boom! Suddenly everything gets better. They make up with friends. The grand project comes to fruition. They finally get over the partner who left them or that person comes crying back to them realizing the err of their ways. But often times they end up having a magical new relationship with someone who was probably there the entire time. They have a great sense of happiness and satisfaction and largely because they were able to say “fuck this” and got their minds right.
I periodically envision my own little turn around montage set to some Jilly “Slowly Surely” as I come out from the dark, followed by some “Inside You” (of course from the Last Dragon) as I start doing the necessary “stuff” to get my life together, and closing with something from my “Sweet Little Ditty” playlist, probably involving Ne-Yo. But the reality is when I attempt to actually execute the turn around, somewhere I get stuck. If I even do get out of “the funk” (a nice name for depression which at some point I'll have the courage to frankly write about) enough to consider what it would look like, the execution seems impossible. I had a quasi- George Costanza moment yesterday afternoon. But instead of thinking that all my instincts were wrong and doing the complete opposite of what I would do normally, I realized that my instincts are in fact typically right. Where I fuck up is by doing the opposite of my instincts. It usually goes something like this: “This would be a bad idea.” ***Do it anyway*** “I immediately regret that decision.” So now I'm thinking WWTBVOVD? What would the best version of Valle do? What would I be doing if I went with what I know is best for me right now, in this space, to carry out the turn around? I love me some lists and so do you, so here's one.
Get the fuck to work. I'm in Cartagena for a short ass period of time. I need to be writing field notes every single day. Interview the hell out of people. Read and write every day like my career depends on it. Oh wait, it does.
Drink more. Bet you didn't see that coming. But seriously, I know myself. I know how my brain's on 10 when I go out. How I'm sociologically analyzing every party goer and every interaction. I am not having the fun and brain quiet time I need. Mo' rum. Mo' shakin' like no one's watching.
Check Facebook 3x a day and no mas. I look to it for news, which only further depresses me. And while I do genuinely get happy periodically from some of folks' posts which are funny or beautiful, for the most part looking at FB all the time just makes me feel like I'm off my game, professionally, financially and romantically. Fuck that.
Cook more. While I don't enjoy cooking, I enjoy eating, feeling my food won't be the obvious cause of my demise, and not having to figure out what the devil I'm going to eat for major meals. Thank the heavens for Tupperware.
Expend no energy thinking about those who aren't 'bout that supportive life. Living abroad is tough. Doing dissertation field research is hard as hell. Battling depression is ridiculous. Trying to do all of the above simultaneously feels like trying to win the big prize in a carnival game. While a few nail it and leave with an arm full of fluffy Tweety birds, for most it feels damn near impossible. I've been living in Cartagena for almost 4 months and haven't heard a word from some of the folks who understand what I'm up against and I thought were supposed to give a shit. Fuck 'em.
Have regular convos with the real riders in my life. These talks go a long way and are coming from sources I hadn't even necessarily expected. Cheers to the riders.
Work out. No montage is complete without exercise. I don't really enjoy it and never seem to get that adrenaline rush that others do from working out but I'm going to find something that I actually enjoy doing that will still get the heart racing. Riding my bici around town is stressful and feels like I'm fighting for my life every time I hop on that seat, but maybe I need to find a route further out. Maybe go back to Zumba. Somethin'.
Get all of these experiences down on paper more. There's so much happening and I've been a chronicler of my own life since I started a diary in 1988 that I've actively maintained for the last 25 years (counts on fingers. Yep, 25). But the deeper I get into this Bizarro World the less I can articulate what's happening. I said I would blog about the travels but I get caught up in the words. I just need to get 'em down and if I feel compelled I can play with them later. Maybe I can swap tears for words in some kinda cathartic process.
Avoid goddamn “situations.” This one is huge for me. Situations are those messy little romantic stints that grand scheme of things mean nothing but somehow end up meaning everything while you're in them. They're easy to fall into and hard as hell to get out of. Now don't get me wrong. I truly believe experience for experience's sake has real value. It keeps life interesting and makes you a hit at parties as you run down how you ended up in Naples, Italy to see a man you met in Cartagena the year before, only to find out he bagged up a girlfriend 8 days prior to your arrival (true story). I can look back and laugh at a lot of situations, but depending on what I have to do in my life or where I am emotionally, they can be just way too taxing. If I were able to emotionally disconnect and just enjoy moments for what they were I'd be far better off. But I'm not that person. Which leads me to my final turn around task.
Remember who the fuck you are and play your position. I am fuckin' awesome. Like for real. Yet soooomehow I lose sight of this and end up in spaces that are far less than awesome, and by that I mean they blow. And I may be dope but I'm also HELLA fallible, so playing my position also means knowing my limitations. For example, I have recently come to realize that there ain't an easy breezy bone in my body. And unless I get exposed to radiation, making me a mutated comic book hero, that's not likely to change. So I therefore can't engage in exhausting and frustrating conversations with people who will unlikely never even understand what I'm saying or spend time with enervating people who just take take take. Because I just end up pissed off. And I don't look good in Bitter Blue.
So how do I go from the mental movie montage to actually improving the quality of my life? I certainly can't stay on my present course for much longer. But shit, the fact that I even have the desire to make a change is a step up from the last few months' sense of hopelessness. But this is about baby steps. For now I'll have to be content with asking myself WWTBVOVD?
*A version of this post can be also found at http://bknation.org/2013/11/vulnerability-black-female-body/
While walking from the supermarket with a male friend from Spain recently in Cartagena, Colombia, a man in a group purposely threw a fish head at my feet. Yeah, you read correctly, dude threw a fish head at me. As if this weren’t vexing enough, the man I was with did nothing. I couldn’t tell with whom I was angrier, the fish hurler or the mute. After a few days of letting it stew and fester, I had to bring it up. First off, my friend claimed that he didn’t even realize it had happened. He could afford to be oblivious apparently. Secondly, his response was “I’m not your body guard.” What the?? My homies from home would NEVER stand for that shit! What was a play here? His white Europeanness? His lefty politics? My brown skin? My Afrodescendancy? My Latinidad? My Americanness? Suddenly I felt ashamed for even expecting him to take a stand for me.
Now even though I do regularly think of myself as Vanity from Berry Gordy’s Last Dragon (but come on, who doesn’t?), I don’t need an actual bodyguard. But, ya know what? I am a Black and Latina woman trying to survive in a world that often sees me as an undervalued, and consequently a very easy target for all forms of assault. Yes, I am strong. I am capable. I am powerful. But that doesn’t somehow change the skin I’m in. It doesn’t change the fact that people feel that they can attack me without fear of societal or legal retribution.
In the United States, few differences exist in the rates of sexual violence across racial and ethnic groups over time . However, male perpetrators receive less severe sentences and are convicted less often when the victim is a Black woman as opposed to a White woman . Black women can be harmed with fewer consequences because they are deemed to be less credible, more desiring of sex and more at fault when an assault does occur .
While I don’t know what the statistics are in other countries, I do understand how similar the stereotypes of women of African descent throughout Latin America are to those in the United States. These pervasive attitudes have very real consequences for the vulnerability of Black women and of their bodies. Latin American versions of the stereotypes often blend the asexual subservient “Mammy” figure and the hyper-sexualized, seductive, amoral “Jezebel”. Black women are perceived as tough and impervious to pain compared to other women; they are subservient, with an insatiable animal-like sexuality. Stereotypes easily translate into the notion that violating a Black woman isn’t an assault at all because she’s not actually hurt by it, or because she was deserving of it. And even if it is technically an assault, who will stand up to care?
Two years ago in Cartagena, I was leaving a bar with two male Brazilian friends when an Irishman leaving at the same time cocked his hand back and smacked me on the bottom for all to see. I was livid. I tried to yell at him but could barely find the words. My male companions did nothing but usher me into a cab. I felt mortified that the violation had an audience and hurt by the fact that my friends did nothing.
When an elegantly dressed gentleman in his late 30s, standing with his back to me during rush hour on a train in Santiago, Chile, started to graze my crotch with his thumb, I uncomfortably assumed that it was an accident and tried push myself away as best I could. As his thumb moved with my every move, I began to panic as I realized this dude was tryna cop feels. I shifted and wiggled, anything to get away. I couldn’t. Then I looked around with this sense of shame, like I’d done something wrong…wondering who was watching and if I had allies. Scenarios quickly ran through my mind of what would happen if I were to confront this vile opportunist.
The scenario that dominated my thoughts was something out of The Color Purple, akin to when Miss Sophia, played by Oprah Winfrey, is slapped by the white man who she then knocks out. A hostile crowd of white people quickly descended upon her, shouting at her until she was knocked unconscious with a firearm. I pictured a slightly less dramatic version, sans firearms, in Spanish, and me with an inability to understand all the voices amidst the frenzy. The scenario seemed more frightening than the actual violation. It spoke to my fear of victim-blaming that I assumed would ensue, not just because I had dared to wear shorts in the summer (crazy, right?), but also because I was a Black woman who had done so.
My understanding of what it meant to be a Black woman in Chile made me believe that the little old ladies staring at me would say I asked for it; that the men already with their eyes transfixed upon me would somehow sympathize with the pervert; that the women of my own age group would think that it served me right for wearing sex so prominently. So I slid away as soon as I could and said nothing, contemplating what I could’ve done differently, bearing this sense of shame, as he left the subway car unscathed and possibly with some sick sense of satisfaction. I was likely wrong about the presumptions that I made of my fellow commuters. But they speak to the fears of someone feeling that she is alone in the fight to protect her vulnerable body.
 U.S. Department of Justice-Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Female Victims of Sexual Violence, 1994-2010 http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/fvsv9410.pdf
 Cassia Spohn & David Holleran- Prosecuting Sexual Assault: A Comparison of Charging Decisions in Sexual Assault Cases Involving Strangers, Acquaintances, and Intimate Partners https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/199720.pdf
Gary D. LaFree:-Rape and Criminal Justice: Social Construction of Sexual Assault http://www.amazon.com/Rape-Criminal-Justice-Construction-Assault/dp/053411055X
Marvin E. Wolfgang & Marc Riedel- Rape, Race, and the Death Penalty in Georgia, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1939-0025.1975.tb01193.x/abstract
 Gail Elizabeth Wyatt- The Sociocultural Context of African American and White American Women’s Rape http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1540-4560.1992.tb01158.x/abstract
*A Spanish version of this post appears in Rufian Revista here
*Una versión en español de este artículo se puede encontrar en Rufian Revista aquí
I think a lot about what makes a thing appear “normal” to people. How you get to the point where something that could seem extraordinary doesn’t even make you bat an eyelash. I imagine that it’s some combination of an experience being repeated over time, in multiple spaces, among different populations. There's a word in English that I've found useful when thinking about how racism and discrimination become normalized. Inured. I haven't been able to find a true equivalent in Spanish. Maybe ennegrecer. But the word inure isn't just about becoming hardened by or accustomed to something. What is built into this word are the conditions necessary for this process to take place. To become inured to something means “to habituate to something undesirable, especially by prolonged subjection.” You're accustomed to a certain state of misery or ill-treatment and in time you think it's just the way that things are. When this goes on for generations that ill-treatment can begin to seem intractable and no longer a function of human interaction, history, economics, or politics, but something that always was and therefore will always be.
People in Latin America just love to tell those of us from the States that racism is a US phenomenon, that their respective countries have issues with classism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, every “ism” but racism. And this is typically coming from someone who in the Latin American context identifies as White or Mestizo. And we laugh every time. Not just because of the many blatant instances of racism one will witness or personally experience while in Latin America, or how much research has dispelled the Latin American racial democracy myths, but because it’s comically ridiculous that someone who will not typically bear the brunt of racism would think they are in the position to tell you whether it is extant. What a privilege.
Coming from the United States, a place with its own unique brand of racism deeply imbedded into the fibers of everyday life, can make us sensitive to both the subtle and blatant ways one can be discriminated against. Many Afro-descendants from the United States are acutely aware that racism’s many manifestations are not figments of the imaginations of race-baiters and rabble-rousers. Some would argue that we have a hypersensitivity, but it is this thinking that allows racism to perpetuate and become something that is simultaneously internalized and invisibilized. Racism in Chile was distinct, yet sadly similar to racism in other Latin American countries. The racism Indigenous groups, most notably, The Mapuche, have experienced there is well known and has extended to immigrants coming from places like Bolivia and Peru. But the Afro-descendant population has been historically small in Santiago, so the marginalization and exclusion of this relatively recent influx of people from the African diaspora is only beginning to be openly discussed and documented.
Racism is systemic. And like most systems of injustice, it cannot be willed, wished, or hoped away. One of the first steps we can take to combat racism is to engage with those on the receiving end of it to understand how it operates. I arrived in Santiago in January 2013 and did just that. Thanks to a wonderful Chilean friend who would serve as my Chile guru from New York I was a visiting scholar in the Sociology department at a progressive university in Santiago. I conducted an exploratory research project where I interviewed 48 immigrants, visibly of African descent, about their lives and experiences in Santiago, Chile. It was eye opening and painful, but also cathartic, as I begin to work through my own experiences in Chile. I realized in how many ways those I interviewed were distinct from me, yet similar in one way that was given precedence in that space, our perceived similar racialized identities. I interviewed people of African descent from various walks of life, people who cleaned homes, were unemployed, party promoters and bartenders, entrepreneurs, physicians and other professionals. They hailed from 15 different countries where their native tongues included Spanish, English, Portuguese, Creole, French, Swedish and Swahili. They were between 19 and 65 years of age, men and women, all in a country that was not originally their own, all hoping for something better than what they had previously known.
The United Nation’s Committee of Racial Discrimination (CERD) made its closing report on racism in Chile in August and while that report is unavailable as of right now, if it does not find that racism and xenophobia are alive and well with regard to Afro-descendants in Chile, I would seriously question its credibility. Some whom I interviewed felt that the racism they experienced in their home countries was so intense that what they were experiencing in Chile was either milder or at the same level, which seemed to make them almost inured to the varying degrees of injustices they experienced. For others, in spite of what they had experienced previously, they were dumbfounded and troubled by what had happened to them in Santiago. Some hadn’t experienced things directly but virtually everyone knew an Afro-descendant who had and were able to recall specific instances.
I can only speculate about the reasons I didn’t experience more overt racism. Like many Latin American societies, Chile has a fairly well-defined class-based hierarchy so this could’ve been at play. There are a number of potentially mitigating factors: my lighter brown skin, ability to speak English, perceived higher educational and economic status as a US citizen, clothing, or the general assumption most made about me being from Brazil (a nationality that some have suggested has a favored status in Chile). The more I listened to the accounts of the interviewees, the more fortunate I felt that I hadn’t personally been on the receiving end of some of the more deplorable acts of racism. I did not have people shouting “shitty black man or shitty black woman (Negro/a mierda)” at me in the street. I hadn’t been assaulted in a nightclub and had racial epithets yelled at me. I hadn’t had those same hurtful words yelled at me as I was robbed, attacked or had my shoulder broken with a bottle. I hadn’t been fired from a job and later told by a co-worker that my former supervisor said he did it because I was black. I hadn’t worked in hotels and felt that because I was black I got assigned the worst and most arduous of all tasks; that I was blamed for anything that went wrong while white co-workers made egregious mistakes and were never penalized. I hadn’t called about a job advertisement where someone could clearly hear that I was not Chilean, told to come in for an interview and when I arrived told that the job was for Chileans only, reminding me that it was my appearance that triggered that reaction, not my foreignness. I wasn’t forced to watch my in-laws laugh at people jeering and making monkey noises at black soccer players. I hadn’t been in places of business, government offices and hospitals where I felt I was blatantly ignored or forced to wait while white people who clearly arrived after me were catered to first. No, these were not my experiences. They are the accounts of those I interviewed in Santiago, a place that Chileans will tell you does not really see race (unless you’re Mapuche, of course).
I can, however, personally attest to the incessant staring that makes you feel like you’re under surveillance or some sort of sideshow freak that folks have paid a quarter to be entertained by. And while it’s not uncommon to be looked upon as an outsider when residing in a foreign country I was amazed at the intensity and frequency of the gazes in Chile. And you couple such stares with people constantly yelling about your color on the street (“MORENA, MORENA, RICA, QUE RICA!!”), people asking to touch your hair and in the case of a number of those interviewed, especially those who’d been in Chile for more than five years, asking to touch your actual flesh, you’re left feeling like you’re in some sort of alternate universe in Chile. What’s even more bizarre is when people don’t even ask. They just touch you as if you are an animal in a petting zoo. The relatively high level of economic development contrasted with social behaviors that one would associate with a society that has been disconnected from the broader global community is just confusing. Many times I was left thinking, “Am I really that unusual to you? What year is this?”
The primary reasons many gave for going to Chile were because it’s becoming this beacon of light for those seeking to improve their economic conditions, a space for order and safety for those escaping cities and countries of conflict, a land of opportunity right in South America’s southern cone. And while a number shared that they are content with the economic strides they have been able to make in Santiago and the general peace they feel, some also shared that the labor abuses are particularly disheartening because they mar the reasons which motivated them to come to Chile in the first place. Employment discrimination and the daily work required to just get through day thanks to racism left many saying that they couldn’t foresee Chile being a permanent home for them.
Many seemed to believe that they were without any recourse, that there was nowhere to turn when they experienced racism. This led me to begin to understand the various mechanisms Afro-descendant immigrants were using to cope with their multiple positions of marginality: being foreign, of African-descent, many times without much economic or social capital and for some, being women. Some of the very blatantly racist comments they described were considered to be “all in good fun,” just some harmless jokes between friends, or a function of youth, a lack of education or awareness. I was struck by how often the people I interviewed were unwilling to make generalizations about the Chilean population, no matter what their experiences had been. They often qualified their stories by voluntarily giving me actual percentages like “oh I would say 30% of the people here are racist and 70% are not”. Even when the percentage of racist or “bad” people was closer to 100 they still always told me about the Chileans that they’d met who were good to them or helped them when they were in need and they therefore could not forget them or assume that all Chileans were bad people.
Many were uncomfortable discussing what they had experienced. It was almost as if they had feared retribution, or that talking about it would highlight their differences or make the experience far too real or painful. One young woman I interviewed from Haiti, when asked about her racial identity told me she didn’t understand the question and when I repeated it said that she’d NEVER thought about it. I probed because she’d attended undergraduate school in the United States where she met her Chilean boyfriend. This history plus something about her cadence and demeanor made me sort of incredulous of her incognizance. As the conversation continued, with an uncomfortable smile she told me that she had been verbally assaulted by Skinheads in a subway station. “Go back to your country! I’ll kill you if you come by here again!” And with that same uncomfortable grin and tears literally welling up in her eyes, she eventually told me that a woman at her place of work said that she shouldn’t be with her boyfriend because Chileans needed to improve the race and that couldn’t happen with a black girl. She told me that it made her cry because she’d never heard such a thing. This was apparently not normal to her. And just when I thought she hadn’t quite become inured to the racism just yet, she giggled a bit then proceeded to tell me something that I would hear so many times during these interviews, “but ya know, there are racist people everywhere.”
People often ask me what I do all day here in Santiago. To be honest, I spend a lot of time thinking about what needs to be done to make myself feel better: better about work, better about relationships of all kinds, better about the world. This involves doing mindless things which relax me, like chatting with people from back home and being social with folks here. It also involves trying to be productive. Reading. Working through ideas. Writing. I have an office at a university here, but the solitude sort of drives me bananas. Especially since the blasted computer won't let me download the plug-ins or programs necessary to listen to music and for some reason no one can give me a wi-fi password (weird). Then I just feel real Scarface-like, “I sit alone in my four-cornered room staring at screens.” So I started this new plan two days ago to go to a local library for around 2 hours, beginning at 9am, and then go to my yoga class. Yesterday morning as I was writing I felt a hand on my back and was startled, thinking “who in THE hell is touching me up in here?!” It was a woman who I'd seen the day before, a sista, about my complexion, with similar natural hair, slimmer and slightly older than me, dressed neatly, like a grad student I would see in one of Columbia's libraries. I didn't do much to connect with her at the end of the long row of seats when I initially saw her because I've found that folks of African-descent, so few in number compared to other places in Latin America, do a lot of ignoring here, at least to me. Now I'm one of those Blacks who sort of looks away for fear of an awkward interaction. Boo. So when I saw it was her speaking to me yesterday I was surprised. She said that the guard asked if we were sisters. She pointed to where he was waiting for me to acknowledge him. He smiled and waved like he was proud of himself. “I've united the coloreds!” She was from Bahia, Brazil. We spoke in Spanish at first, her Portuguese accent slightly penetrating every word, but when I told her I was coming from New York we started speaking in English. She was fluent, which said a lot about her class. She asked what I was doing in Santiago. I told her. Then she told me what brought her here. She and her Chilean husband of ten years had been living in Malaysia and he's kidnapped their two daughters and brought them to his parents here. He's back in Malaysia now. She said she's fighting battles on both fronts, with a hearing there on Thursday and one here Wednesday (today), but refuses to leave Chile without her girls so she's going to have to miss the one in Malaysia. When I asked their ages she said 6 and 4 “but 5 and 3 when I last saw them.” It's been four months. I was shocked and as an empath had to work hard to keep the tears from welling up. “How is this even possible?” I asked her. Apparently this dude is über rich and powerful here and that changes the game entirely. She was stoic but I could see and feel her fear and sadness. But she was also clearly comforted and pleased by talking to someone who could finally relate to her. We spoke briefly and somewhat excitedly about our experiences as sistas (she rubs the skin on her forearm). The way everyone responds to us on the street here, as if we were from another planet and not just another país. How most in Chile assume I'm Brasilian first, Colombian second, ignoring that those from the US are not all super Euro-looking. The way everyone in Malaysia just says she's African, never accepting that she is an afrodescendiente from Brazil. How when she was in Kenya no one could believe she wasn't Eritrean. Gotta love Diaspora talks. But soon the young lady beside me had had enough of our yammering and asked us to go outside. I wrote my Chilean cell phone number on the back of my card and gave it to“my sister”, telling her to reach out to me whenever, especially if she wanted to do something to take her mind off things. I then went back to thinking and doing what I do. I stopped by her when I got up to head for yoga. We kissed on the cheek and I saw that she was watching a movie on her computer. I realized that's what she'd been doing to pass the time, waiting for relief I suppose.
My dad and I used to spend hours watching movies when I was younger, basically whichever ones he recommended. It’s how I fell in love with Braveheart and enjoyed flicks such as The Warriors, The 13th Warrior, Goodfellas, The Godfather I and II, American Me, Once Upon a Time in America and any other well-done gangsta/battle flick. But Dad threw in one love story that has always stuck with me, The Way We Were. Many of you will remember this movie coming up when Carrie on Sex and the City likened herself to Barbara Streisand’s character, Katie. After Big married the model, Natasha, Carrie dropped Katie’s famous line “Your girl is lovely, Hubbell.” Now while Carrie didn’t quite fit into the typical box, she was hardly a major outlier either. Katie, on the other hand, was this super political, bold woman with curls so tight she was a humid day away from a fro. Even as a twelve-year-old I connected with her character and just could not make sense of the ending. How could it go down like that? (Spoiler alert) How could she and Robert Redford just completely call it quits and walk away, given all their love, not to mention their child??
Then incidents as early as high school would begin to shed a little light. I recall getting into an argument about the self-hate of brothas with s-curls in the presence of a B-list R&B singer who had an interest in me and him later telling my friend something to the effect of “she’s too serious, too much.” I was more turned off by his comment than he was by my argument, I’m sure. Further moments such as these exposed a veritable pillar of adulthood: being the person that makes other people comfortable with themselves can get you exceptionally far. And in the dating world this has meant watching a bunch of simple, boring and basic chicks win. And there are many variations. She does what is expected of her. She doesn’t complain or dissent. She isn’t mercurial. She is “even” and “wakes up in the same mood as when she went to sleep” (actual quotes). When asked about what’s going on in the world she says things like “I can’t keep up with ________, it just keeps changing.” She isn’t informed enough to know you are speaking nonsense, or at least is too bent on being liked not to call you out when you are. She hasn’t a hair out place and spends far more time on clothing and self-maintenance than on things like thinking, reading, learning (Chris Farley airquotes). If she is bright she works hard not to rock the boat in any way. She’s just lovely. To be clear, I’m not juxtaposing this kind with the hyper “extra” woman either, the woman fighting for attention all the time. She’s typically just the other side of the same insecure coin as the basic gal. I’m speaking up for the women like me. We are bodacious and sometimes brash, because we just can’t help it. Sometimes hair is plain ol’ everywhere. Speaking out of turn. Cursing…a lot. Picking battles wisely but not fearfully and knowing when it’s time to object. Passionate, emotional, sensual. Weird, quirky, interesting.
She is machetes. She is honey.
These complex melodies make your mind expand, your libido pump and your blood boil. She's not cruisin' for a bruisin' but trust you don't waan test the rocket launcher. At some point she makes even the nicest of folks wanna kick her out of his/her apartment (raise your hand if we’ve been "serious" and you haven’t told me or had to fight not to tell me I can go at least once. Anyone, anyone? Nope). She's not off her rocker, she's just not always what you want her to be. She sees you as you really are. She’s who you think about when you are with basic boo. She’s the one who challenges you and therefore the one with whom you are scared to be.
This is for Harriet. For Nina. For Lauryn. For Lolita. For Celia. For Angela. For Zora. For Venus & Serena. For all of those incredible women who thankfully made the mediocre uncomfortable. This is for all of the amazing women I know who don’t fit into a box. If you haven’t already, may you find the person who wouldn’t change a hair on that head, a word out that mouth or a thought in that head. You.Are.The.Shit.
And I know many of you aren’t going to feel this one. But hey (shrug), if I said it, I meant it. Bite my tongue for no one. Call me evil. Or unbelievable.
*update: THIS! Warsan Shire - "For Women Who Are Difficult To Love"
Depending on where I am, I can hear many of the same questions over and over again. In Colombia, “How tall are you?”, “Are you Brazilian?” and “Do you play a sport?” top the list. When I was in my twenties and would travel to Puerto Rico everyone would ask if I had a boyfriend. And if I said “no” they would follow up with “have you eeever had a boyfriend?” Are you curious as to whether I’m a lesbian or plain ol’ unboyfriendable? It didn’t matter that by 25 I already had a master’s degree and was in a position where everyone of equal rank was 11+ years my senior, or that a year later I was purchasing a home. “Do you have a man though?” For a while this line of questioning was reserved for my family and host families throughout my travels in Latin America. But the repeat offender for the last 4 years or so in the US has been: “So um, Melissa how is it that someone like you isn’t married or doesn’t have kids?” This first assumes that those are things I desire. And while I am open to marriage and absolutely do want children, as a society in the US we’re at the point when people can be honest about these not being things they aim for in life. And given the planet’s population growth and rapid destruction rate, it’s not a must that everyone churns out a few offspring, particularly those who have no intention of actually parenting. Also irritating is the idea that marriage is the only type of legitimate partnership. A single type of family form works great in societies where there is a single type of people. The second underlying assumption is that as “a catch” I shouldn’t have too much trouble bagging a man or getting knocked up. And the corollary to this is that it’s by virtue of some hidden defect that these things haven’t happened.
Getting pregnant is simultaneously the most amazing and simplest thing a woman can do. Short of there being problems that would make being impregnated biologically difficult or impossible, we can literally conceive of a human being while asleep or in a coma, with someone we have absolutely no feelings for, or in the case of rape, someone whom we fear and loathe. It’s amazing thanks to nature, but real talk, your human effort should barely even afford you a pat on the back (now nurturing a child in utero is different). It has actually taken more work to prevent pregnancy since puberty. And I feel like folks aren’t very open and honest about how they came to have babies when not blatantly trying. Unless you are in denial or a product of Abstinence Only Education, you know how babies are made. I assert that after a certain point, usually around your early 20s, if you get pregnant, even if you claim it was an accident, deep down you knew you made a decision. No, it may not have been a definite, “let’s start trying” type of thing, but you basically said, “hey, I’m going to roll the dice and see what happens.” You may have experienced Pregger’s Remorse and regretted the dice roll, but you knew that at that moment, when things could’ve gone a different way, you thought, “I doubt that it will happen but eh, let’s see.” So the fact that I don’t have children means that I have made a conscious decision about not wanting to have them up to this point.
And then there’s the marriage issue. I’ve had to drop two married female therapists because when I started talking about men and marriage they started behaving like it was an indictment of their marriages and saying really off-the-wall shit that I’m sure violated some oath somewhere. And this was when I really began to understand that lots of women define themselves by partnership, and by putting a ring on their fingers they suddenly feel valuable, that someone validated their worth. And I know that we all use different mechanisms for seeking external validation (hell, I’m getting a Ph.D.), but I’ve never seen women emanate such unwarranted smugness as when they get hitched. Like getting married signifies they are somehow happy or have been able to achieve something miraculous. But how many times have you peeped the Facebook “happy couple” charade? And seriously, have you conversed with or seen some of the folks who are wed? Many prove that getting married is far from a feat. Staying in an honest partnership that mutually serves, satisfies and enlivens both parties, however, is. Yet folks aren’t as curious about that for some reason. Folks want to know why I’m not MARRIED, even when all signs suggest that life is NOT necessarily better for the married woman.
Here’s my Billie Jean-set the record straight- comment. Had I fewer dope options or been a social conservative I probably would’ve jumped on the first solid thing that came knocking. But a conservative of any kind, I am hardly. And as much as I complain about the boo thangs in my life (yes, boo thangs), I have rolled tough with some stellars. If I could unite the ones I’ve cared for deeply since adulthood they’d be like the Avengers of The Diaspora. I would’ve already convened a world domination meeting around a Godfather-esque table were it not for my concern about lots of awkward moments, mini-brawls, or worse, they’d all get chummy and collectively speak ill of me. Gasp. But I digress. I am willing to concede that as a maximizer (see Paradox of Choice) I have grown increasingly unwilling to forgo many things in a partnership. But I don’t believe I’ve gotten to the point where I can be considered unreasonable. I’m just not trying to settle for something that doesn’t significantly enrich my life because it’s something I’m supposed to do. I know love. And I know love in its many funky configurations. But I’ve learned that on the list of vital things necessary for a relationship, compatibility and timing are right up there with love. I can love you to death but if we aren’t sexually compatible, or you believe that Jesus is Lord, or you think your sperm is forever golden and want to wait until you’re 45 to start conceiving and we are the same age (Homeys, please see this week’s NY Times article http://tinyurl.com/9tpwp2f), or if my monsterness makes you feel like shit, well then it’s going to take far more than love to conquer all.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that at 33 I’m feeling the pressure to “settle down.” And it’s not because of “The Happy Life of…” Facebook montages because, honestly, I have yet to meet a married woman with whom I’d want to swap places. But like I said earlier, I do want children. And these are the moments when Mother Nature and Father Time clothesline and DDT me. Because my exponentially depleting eggs don’t care how many well-off women are getting in vitro in their late 30s and 40s or that Michelle had Sasha at 37 (If you’re reading this Mrs. Obama, HEYY! I love you!!). These eggs are chuckin’ up the deuces. The challenge then becomes whether to stay down for the count and go out like so many settling women before me, or continue to wait for the stars to align (as a friend recently told me she’s shooting for). While it isn’t all about children, this is the thing that is most time-sensitive. I’m enjoying my life in a way that would be damn difficult if I had any hard-core commitments, like a partner or children. But I do want a lifelong partner (if that’s possible) and often imagine what some of my adventures would be like were I to have one. The thing is, I know what it’s like to feel that I’ve found him. I’ve experienced that twice as an adult. That sense that I’d be willing to “hang up my guns” (as my dad says), cast aside all others and roll out back to back against the world with someone. And it wasn’t because I feared Mother Nature and Father Time. It was because at those particular moments, we fit. All was right with the world. While I’m not willing to miss the opportunity to have children because my time has run out, I’m also not willing, just yet, to let fear drive my decisions. Life is too good and there’s no greater loneliness than being with the person you know isn’t for you.
*A second version of this post can be found at: The Shadow League: Analyzing The Street Harassment Epidemic
I write this entry on a plane to Brasil (sidenote, at this moment the only male Brasilian flight attendant is taking photos wth passengers. It’s weird). I’ve had the great fortune of being on three continents other than my own since May. Brasil will be the fourth country where I’ve spent my time and Portuguese will be the fourth official language I will have heard spoken since May. The last few months have been thrilling, to say the least. Egypt, Italy and Colombia were all rich and unique experiences and I value each and every moment. Hol’ up. I retract the aforementioned statement. I value ALMOST every moment. In reality I could’ve done without most of the street harassment.
My girl told me in advance that if I wanted to minimize the harassment by men in Cairo I needed to rock a long tunic that covered the hip, thigh and derrière regions, long sleeves, no cleavage. Wow. I literally went from a beach club in Naples where women with weird fake tans wore thong bikinis one day to a place where showing too much forearm was deemed provocative the next. Gotta love travel. I can’t imagine what the harassment would’ve been like had I not dressed as my friend suggested, because it was intense when completely covered. But the harassment there felt unlike any I had experienced before. Somehow it felt scarier, more threatening. I’d been told in advance that men grab and touch in Egypt, so this was one of the sources of my fear. Talking shit to me can be annoying but touching any body part is taking the violation to an entirely different level. But the other source was the way in which men stared and spoke. There was this air of disdain or contempt that I’d never really experienced and found very worrisome. My own defensiveness, coupled with the fact that my homegirl is a fellow spitfire, had me wondering at point we were going to get into some kind of fight with the men of Cairo. Fortunately I made it out unscathed (although my girl did get into an argument with some men who were ogling lasciviously while on the women’s train car when I wasn’t around).
Rome and Naples, Italy
Before I ventured out to Rome and Naples I was told by many how aggressive Italian men can be, what lovers of women they are and about their perceived attraction to Black women. And to be honest, I was not terribly vexed by the attention I got from men in Rome. And trust this is not me giving them a white-man pass. They just never seemed overly aggressive or obnoxious. They did however express their appreciation of my physical attractiveness. And I’m not going to front like this is not something that I value. Herein lays one of those internal contradictions I struggle with. I’m totally aware of the beauty myth. The idea that beauty as we know it is socially constructed and is used to disempower women by making us compete against one another and constantly struggle to meet unattainable standards (check out Naomi Wolff for more). I understand how beauty is used to make some of us appear powerful with regard to men but that in reality anything we attain from physical attributes can be seen as a Pyrrhic victory due to all that we must sacrifice in order to achieve it. But at the same time, I would be bullshitting if I didn’t say that I DO NOT want to be invisible. I want to be aesthetically appealing, sexually attractive. I want to have a fan club full of fawning men. But fawning in a way which doesn’t demean me or minimize all of my other attributes that I feel are far more important. The way that Italian men expressed an appreciation was tolerable to me. I could deal with the intense staring, comments, and teeth sucking because it wasn’t incessant, loud or overwhelming. And quite honestly it didn’t seem like there was any less interest than in other places. It was just expressed differently. I was in Rome alone and while my East Coast armor wasn’t allowing me to be too open to folks there, I never felt threatened. During my last day in Rome this guy tried to pick me up around the Coliseum and win me over with the idea that he was an archaeologist once he found out that I was a budding sociologist. And as nice as it would’ve been to go out my last night, I didn’t trust him or the other two men who asked me later. But one, Giovane was quite interesting, very forward and honest. He spoke English and despite my firm “I don’t want to talk to you stranger” demeanor, he proceeded to try and chat me up. As a result of this demeanor he said that I was very hard and that if I didn’t want men to approach me then I shouldn’t dress sexy. Um, mi scusiiii?? Despite the fact that I really wasn't doing the most, he basically said that he could see my booty from down the street. “Italian women don’t have all that” (they really don’t, flat as boards) and gestured around his hip, thigh and derrière regions (must be a source of power judging by how much it’s emphasized everywhere). Besides the fact that I am never going to support the notion that I need to change so that grown men know how to control themselves, his forwardness was throwing me all off. And this is where I realized how even in NY folks are just not this direct. I was particularly taken aback by his openness with discussing race. He said “you’re black but you’re white white white. I’m darker than you.” Uh, say what?? He was darker, but still. Who feels the need to point that out after 3 min. of discussion? He said “white men in The States don’t approach you do they, only black men? Italian men aren’t like that.” Correct, sir. We discussed this for a while then he tired of me and my standoffishness and said he was leaving because I was too tough. Deuces. I later spoke to an Italian friend about the conversation and he shared that in reality there aren’t a lot of women of African-descent walking around there who weren’t prostitutes. That hurt to hear. Because no matter how much I go back and forth about my feelings about sex work, it never feels okay that people equate dark female bodies with prostitution.
I often tweeted my frustrations about the harassment in Cartagena. Last summer when I spent a month there I was floored by it. My first day there I was walking around by myself and at some point it was so intense that I had to go home. When you’re in a new country you never quite know what the line is. Do people grab here? At some point I realized that men there in general didn’t grab, they just stare, comment and slurp. Interestingly enough, last year I was touched twice and it was not by Cartageneros but by two people who thought they had license to do so: one drunken Irishman leaving Havana Café at the same time as I was and who had looked like he had been waiting all night to smack me on the bottom, and a massive female prostitute who pinched my leg as I walked through her turf when coming from the beach. Those two experiences sucked, particularly with the Irish dude because I felt humiliated and undefended by my male friends. This summer I returned to spend two months in Cartagena and wanted to hit someone with a little Puerto Rican judo pretty much every day. In the neighborhood where I lived there was a lot of curiosity about where I was from for a while, most assuming I was from Brazil or a daughter of Colombia who had returned. As I came to know more people in the neighborhood the word seemed to go around that I was coming from New York. And this was obvious when I walked through La Plaza from yoga and one idiot screamed out for all to hear in English, “Beautiful ass!!” Grrrr! This type of foolishness I just can’t adapt to. And I shouldn’t have to. A friend in the DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia for my non-uuureah readers) asked “oh they are worse than here?” HAHAHAHAHA. Trust, Cartageneros would get the gold were “hollering” an Olympic event. And not because they are good at it but because they are persistent. They make 125 in Harlem look like an oasis of respect for womanhood. And these distinctions are where I start to notice what makes daily harassment tolerable. I’m harassed everywhere Black men are found in mass. So it’s not as if I came to the coast of Colombia a virgin to this. But the way it’s done there appears compulsive. If I walk by ten men at least eight of them seem COMPELLED to speak, like their manhood depends on it. And what was even more pitiful was the damn script. The power of the word is a big deal on the East Coast. Spitting game is literally a game folks are trying to win. And while you do get a lot of the same dirty “God bless you, Ma”s folks mix in a lot of other lines so at least you don’t get bored. Not in Cartagena. It’s like they are given a script at 15 years old and that’s pretty much what they are going to use until they die. Because harassment knows no age limit. “Hermosa, belleza, la reina, saborosa, modela, blah blah blah.” Every guy, in the exact same rhythm too. Oh and the PSSTing and SSSSSing. I ignore once, he does it louder. I ignore twice, three times and he continues, getting louder every time as if the reason I’m ignoring him is because I didn’t hear him. This kind of daily work just to get through the streets is taxing. My rule is that if you don’t address me respectfully I ignore the shit out of you. And men really do seem to have a problem with basic greetings. There were very few “hello, how are you?”s. Always some extra nonsense. And what was most unfortunate was that you get to the point where it is impossible to make eye contact with men because then they take it as an invitation to go even harder. I couldn’t even see an elder and greet him because he too would turn around and make me feel absolutely disgusting. It’s beyond an appreciation of the female form or a love for women. You begin to wonder whether men see you as anything else but a sexual object. People will tell you “oh that’s how men on the coast are.” Well what’s that about? Then it begins to seem like the men are feeding into some stereotype about hypersexuality and Black maleness, which makes the whole production even more frustrating.
I present to you my “Damn, you used to be my shit and now I can’t fucks with you” list. This list is composed of some things I have GENUINELY valued and have since been forced to eliminate from my life due to actions or positions that I find JEM-like (yes, truly truly truly outrageous). In order of when they were purged from my life:
#1 R. Kelly- 2002
This is the man responsible for the “Bump & Grind Remix.” You know the song where, for shits and giggles, he threw in “show me some ID before I get real deep in.” We loved him for every line in that cut. And as any card-carrying member of “90s R&B Lovers” will tell you, R-ah could do no wrong for almost two solid decades. Folks let the fact that he married Aaliyah when she was about 15 years old totally slide (really gross to hear him say that “even little cute Aaliyah” (who was about 13 at the time) had that “vibe” on his first hit). I’m giving myself a pass on the oversight as I was but 14 at the time.
But I was 22 and madly in love with TP-2 when the videos of R. Kelly urinating on teenage girls surfaced and it became clear that he wanted to see IDs to confirm that his ladies were in fact underaged, not some kooky 20 year olds tryna pass for 14. I lived in Philadelphia at the time and remember being disgusted by comments on morning radio. Somehow because we all used to jam to “It Seems Like You’re Ready” (another one that seems disgusting in retrospect) he was absolved of blatantly preying on impressionable, vulnerable, still-developing-brained, young girls. At the time I would ask “if you found out that Ray Charles had been smashing your underaged mother in her youth would you still be the first one to cop his new album?” Of course not, because you care about your mother. If it were your sister you’d be ready to set it off like Latifah. But folks saw these young women as accessible fair game, some even ridiculously arguing that the sexual skills that they believe they witnessed in the videos meant they were experienced enough to be with a 35 year old man. Friends from Chicago told me that seeing him at the Rock & Roll McDonalds cruising for teens while they were in high school was a legit regular occurrence. But the VIBE magazine article really put the nail in the coffin for me. I’m convinced. I’m still not even sure how he managed to get away with reduced charges and acquittals. All I do know is that I can’t fucks with him and it hurts cuz I used to love H.I.M.
# 2 NIKE (2010)
This would have been #1 on the list had I not taken so long to break up with NIKE. I found out how NIKE got down back in 1999 when I was interning at Manna Community Development Corp. in DC. A colleague placed this nifty little button on my laces.
And then he ran down its well-documented history of sweatshops and child slave labor. Oh the horror. Turns out NIKE has now been synonymous with exploitation since the early 90s: child labor violations out the wazoo, worker abuse, slave wages, the works. And while I reduced the frequency with which I made purchases, I just didn’t know how to quit him. But at some point you can’t help but confront the fact that you being a slave to fashion is endorsing others being literal slaves of fashion. And for goodness sakes, kicks just aren’t worth it.
#3 Mel Gibson (2010)
Who couldn’t love Mel Gibson, the hunky partner of our beloved Danny Glover in all the Lethal Weapons? And then to beef up the love he goes and makes Braveheart??? Literally, probably my #2 favorite movie of all time (yes, Berry Gordy’s Last Dragon will always be #1). But then William Wallace went bananas. And suddenly this dude…
became this dude...
Okay, maybe it was always there and we chose not to see it.
The abuse of his girlfriend, crazy rants ending up regularly in the news. And as appears to be the norm when white men go off on such batty rants, racial epithets are to follow. "You look like a f*king pig in heat and if you get raped by a pack of ni**ers it will be your fault." Oh Mel, I’m gonna need you to ask yourself WWWWD?
#4 And coming to the stage the latest addition to the list, CHICK-FIL-A (2012)
You had me at waffle fries Chicky. I hadn’t been able to indulge very often because of their locations, but that only made eating a Chick-Fil-A chicken sandwich all the more like Christmas. But oh noooo, here you go Dan Cathy opening your yap with a hard-core denunciation of gay marriage.
I understand corporate advocacy. It’s your company. Trust that if I had a business I would be using it to push all that I believe in. And I’d accept that I would lose money from the Tea Party crew, bigots and Black Eyed Peas lovers everywhere. And as much as we would like to use government power to obstruct the businesses of douchebags because they say something we vehemently disapprove of, we can’t. That’s where the First Amendment advocates have to chime in because it’s a slippery slope. But I’m an individual, not the government. So I have the right to criticize the hell out of a company and deprive myself of the golden chicken goodness, to make sure Dan Cathy & Co. won't get any of the money in my chicken account (You don't think I really have one do you?? Racist. Smh).
There are plenty of other things that I’m certain should be on this list. I’m not saying I am the prime contender in the running for Ms. Sacrifice, but every day we make decisions that speak to what we believe in, who we are. And these decisions can have tremendous effects that reverberate beyond our immediate space. Consider where South Africa would be right now without divestment. Where you choose to put your dollars matters. Whom you choose to back counts. When the R. Kelly scandal broke I remember wishing it had been Ja-Rule because I welcomed the end of his career (the Universe was listening and gave me 50). Not supporting Ja would’ve been so much easier. But it seems as if life is often about the decisions that don’t come easily. Some things are not so egregious as to warrant complete denunciation. Others just are. And even when we don’t want to admit it, we always know where that line is and who or what should be added to the list.
I was in the check-out line of a Target-equivalent last year in Bogotá, Colombia when I came across this candy. I couldn’t help but to start looking around like “No one else thinks this is nuts!? Am I taking crazy pills??” Blank stares as far as the eye could see. These kinds of things still leave me nonplussed even though at this point I should’ve grown somewhat accustomed to the many overt displays of racism that people seem to find acceptable throughout Latin America. This little delight is produced by Nestle and as much as I complain about the treatment of race in the US, I’m fairly certain a chocolate covered candy called “Kiss of a Black Woman” could not, in this day and age, fly at home. And just two weeks ago I came across this advertisement on an ice cream delivery truck in Cartagena. It reads “Rejoice with chocolate kisses” and below “Share the taste of the people, buy yourself Mimo’s.”
Now of course many will assert “oh no, things like that aren’t racist” (as they did last year in Facebook comments). But this notion seems related to an inability to believe that racism is still quite alive and well and due to a lack of understanding of the many forms in which racism presents itself that don’t necessarily involve burning crosses and nooses.
Can you imagine something white being called the equivalent of “Kisses of a White Woman”?? Heavens, no. THAT would be ridiculous. O_O But the image of the Black woman can be exploited at will. Two of the most pervasive archetypal characters depicting women of African descent in the United States have been the “Mammy” and the “Jezebel.” The “Mammy” figure is characterized by the physically large and overweight woman with distinct African facial features, tight, kinky hair and darker skin, that is an asexual subservient being whose life revolves around tending to the needs of whites (think Aunt Jemima before the perm). The “Jezebel” is the hypersexualized, seductive, amoral and promiscuous woman who is often slightly lighter in skin complexion with less African facial features and straighter hair that uses her sexual prowess to exploit men (think Birth of a Nation). Both of these stereotypical characters emerged in the US South during slavery.
Latin American versions of these archetypes are often blended. Take for example this advertisement I saw at an airport café in Cartagena last summer:
The product is called “La Negrita Rhum” which basically means “Little Black Woman Rum.” The woman featured is of African descent, darker-skinned and reflects a sense of subservience and domesticity. She is slightly bent over and smiling, suggesting she is pleased with her role in this position. What distinguishes her from the typical Mammy archetype is that here she is sexualized. Her stance, the fact that her blouse is somewhat open and her bare feet suggest a domestic worker who could also serve in a sexual capacity for the person she is serving.
The combination of text and image in this photo suggest the “Jezebel” archetype, even though the drawing appears to be of a young girl. The name of the product ““Mi Cañita” means something to the effect of “little cup of beer or wine,” which suggests intoxication. Yet because it is made of cream, fruit and sugar it is conveying the idea of sweetness. This small girl of African descent is almost sweetly intoxicating. The use of “Mami!!” at the end of the tagline is common in Latin culture and does not typically refer to a mother, but is a way to refer to a woman and is often sexualized. It reflects the trope of the “Spicy Latina.” The way she is peering through what appears to be sugar cane suggests a sort of jungle-like quality, typical of stereotypes of women of African-descent. The manner in which the ice cream is near the figure’s mouth could also be seen as phallic.
The combination of text and image in the “Beso de Negra” photo also suggest the “Jezebel” archetype, but far more blatantly. Just the name of the product alone reflects the hypersexualization of the woman of African descent. In order to attract consumers, this chocolate product has been dubbed “Kiss of a Black Woman.” The character’s lips are pursed. She is wearing a strapless top, exposing her cleavage and large breasts.
The fact that all characters are adorned in a similar fashion suggests that a stereotype exists of what women of African descent in Latin America typically wear. They are all in bright red lipstick, large hoop earrings and a head scarf to match their attire like it’s some sort of Afro-Latina uniform. And what does each of these things represent? The red lipstick historically implies that the woman is a vamp. The head scarf could be similar to a kerchief, which suggests domesticity. The earrings could imply a certain degree of loudness and “Latinidad.”
When taken collectively, we see the repetition that both naturalizes the myth and reveals the intentions of the creators of the myth. We see an assertion of Eurocentric aesthetic values and white male hegemony. We have been fed these types of images so often that they have been normalized. No one accidentally puts a brown face depicting a woman of African-descent on a package. Someone had to sit there and think that these are appropriate representations that could be effectively used for pushing products. Before you know it you are seeing such images and not even recognizing that they are constructed. And that’s the magic of myth-making. You won't ever feel like you're taking crazy pills. This foolishness will seem normal and even acceptable.
Carolyn M. West, “Mammy, Sapphire, and Jezebel: Historical images of Black women and their implications for psychotherapy.,”Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training 32, no. 3 (1995): 458-466.