The Skin I’m In: This Afro Latina Defines Who She Is
By SILI RECIO
I started writing this post last April and I never finished. Mainly because this is a topic that I’m very…I guess the word would be invested in.
The reason I’m writing this today is because I have had way too many encounters in my life where people that are not in my skin take it upon themselves to define who I am. What I consider myself. What I am comfortable with.
This post is about race. And about ethnicity. And about nationality.
I was born in the Dominican Republic. A country whose racial makeup is clear in that it is mixed. But also a country so ravaged by self-hatred in the form of colorism that it is difficult to extrapolate who we are as a people. Until we get taken out of our little comfort zone and thrown, let’s say, in the US. According to the World Factbook, DR is made up of 73% mixed race, 16% white and 11% black.
After a 30+ year dictatorship that aimed to decimate any and all traces of “black” in the country, I can tell you that the lines of who is what is blurred at best. So entrenched is this hatred that when the quincentennial monument was being built to honor the discovery of America, European countries were honored with a place in the monument but not one African nation was recognized as helping build the country. Sound familiar?
Take my family for example. I’m considered a “java.” This is a term used for a light skinned person with “black” features, mainly the hair. A cousin of mine relaxed my hair when I was four because she had a hard time combing it. I did not wear my hair curly until I graduated from college, such was the deep disapproval of extended family and friends.
I had an extra set of parents growing up. In DR they take the “it takes a village” motto seriously. Papa was pitch black on a good day. Mama is light skinned like me. Their older daughters were black. And then there was me. I didn’t think I was any different from them. I learned about racism at a very early age by hearing people that were supposedly related to me by blood speak very condescendingly towards this most loving couple who opened their hearts to Mami and I. Moreover, I took it personally because at an early age, I had no way of differentiating them from me. So the racist remarks struck a chord with me.
Fast forward to us moving to the States a month before my 5th birthday. Dad had migrated here in the late ’60s. As a kid, I clearly remember my dad’s stories of hardship in a new country. In a country where he found his identity. Papi has piel canela, cinnamon skin. This is where mixing is fun. Papi’s dad was blonde haired and blue eyed. He was first generation Dominican. His dad (my great grandfather) was Sicilian. His mom was…black. My blonde-haired, blue-eyed grandfather married a black woman like his mom and had papi. Ever since, we joke that there’s no telling what any of our kids are going to look like. I have cousins that are sisters: one blonde-haired, petite and blue-eyed and the other tall and dark.
Dad recounted many stories of how he naively thought he would bond with the Italians because of his heritage only to be called a mulean. See, in the late ’60s, Papi found out a secret that’s well kept in the Caribbean: he was black. Throughout his stories he would always come back to “you are black. And don’t you forget it.”You are not allowed to nor required to define me. Click To Tweet
I always thought it was crazy for him to say that. How could I forget? Then I grew up and realized that what Papi meant was “don’t let other people define you.” That’s what’s been happening all of my life. And certainly that’s what’s been happening lately.
If I take a survey when I walk into a room about “what I am” I will get “you’re mixed” eight times out of 10. But then when I open my mouth and speak my native tongue, that changes. And here’s what happens: other people start defining who I am based on their own hang ups and limitations.
So back to the question: ethnicity, nationality and race.
- I belong to the Latino ethnic group. My food, my culture, the way I do things in my house and the way I raise my child certainly goes along with the culture I was raised in.
- I am a naturalized citizen of these great United States. But as far as nationality is concerned: I am Dominican.
- Despite how you might feel about how 1 & 2 affect this question understand that you are not allowed to nor required to define me. That was done a LONG time ago. I am black. My sister’s genetic makeup (if we believe she’s not adopted) gives us specific numbers. I’d love it if you would take a test so we could compare. Yes I am mixed. But as is always the case, when it comes down to one or the other, I chose the box I was raised to believe I fit in.
A friend of mine asked me what group I felt the most comfortable in. I feel more comfortable in the group that is less likely to judge me and more likely to accept me as I am. A group that does not question me or define me. I feel most comfortable in a group that’s comfortable in their own skin and thus is able to allow me to feel the same.
“You’re black and don’t you forget it.” Papi didn’t say Afro-Latina, Afro-Caribbean or any number of politically correct terminology. So I consider myself to be black. I check off black when the question is split up in appropriate boxes (not everyone puts down the three choices but I sure do appreciate it when they do).
I love all aspects of myself. I have groups of friends that I easily flow in and out of though I will be very honest and tell you that the group I have the most difficulty with is my own ethnic group.
Because I don’t tolerate the racist remarks or off-colored jokes and I’m personally offended when I hear it and will more than likely say something to that effect. Because I refuse to be made to feel less than because of my wild hair or whatever else I’m being judged upon.
I love all of my friends dearly. My ethnic groups, my mami groups, my blonde bombshells, etc.I’m raising my child to be a black girl. A black girl with a Dominican mami who is also black. Click To Tweet
The thing that the people in my life taught me, the ones that loved me unconditionally and colored my world, was that it is about love. While I identify with many different people, I ultimately feel that I do that because of a connection that goes beyond the color of our skin or the hue of our hair. It’s beyond the kink in my curl or the roundness of my hips.
I’m raising my child to be a black girl. A black girl with a Dominican mami who is also black. She will be bicultural. But she is NOT biracial. You can feel about it however you’d like but, you can’t define this for us.
One day I had the frog princess in a particularly adorable outfit and Uncle Pete shouts out “she looks mad Dominican in that” to which the (ex)man piped in “and black.” Which made us laugh.
And then my brother, who is the biggest jokester in the world but who also grew up with a deep understanding of who he is beyond the yellow of his skin said this: “That’s like having a chocolate cake in front of you and saying it’s chocolate and then having someone say ‘and eggs.’ You can’t say the cake is also eggs because the eggs make up the flavor of the cake.” Did you get that? How simple it is (thank you chocolate cake).
So, the next time you wish to define someone, please remember this. And the next time you wish to question me on any of these remember: this is the skin I’m in. And my definition of me is deeply rooted in an understanding of my history, my past and certainly my future.
Question: who do you consider yourself to be?
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Sili Recio is the owner and Chief Executive Mami of the Organizada Planner and My Mamihood. She was selected as one of Latina Magazine’s Top Bloggers to Know in 2014 and Latina Magazine’s Top 10 Mommy bloggers in 2013. Mother to a 7-year old daughter and campaign fellows for MomsRising.org round out her current passions. Sili is deeply committed to changing the world and coaching you toward your purpose. She is viciously awesome. Sili raises armies and builds empires. She also bakes cookies and thangs.
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.
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