It took a very long time to find pride in the brown of my feet—when I was small white, and not brown, was the color of style. Straight hair, not curly and furiously fighting any attempts at straightening, was the style. Being young, brown with happy to be nappy hair made life almost impossible.
“Your daddy’s a ni**er…that makes you a ni**er too!” It certainly made me a Mexicana that had to prove my Mexican-ness.
It seemed lost to everyone in my family, that among all my cousins, I was the only bilingual one—I couldn’t possibly be “pura Mexicana”. I would look at my aunts and uncles, as beautifully brown as I, distressed about our black neighbors taking over the neighborhood. I didn’t understand. Black power lived as an affront to hyphenated-Mexican sensibilities. My Mexican abuelita taught me how to read people and books—in that order of importance. Lupe said “todos tienen historia” and it was up to me to learn how those histories defined their motivations.
I would turn thirteen before I discovered proud, black, Latinidad. An African Colombian abuelita who hugged a frightened confused teenager banished to a land 8,000 miles from home where Spanish was spoken with a speed and ferocity equal parts confusing. Bogota Colombia in the early 1970s was a pseudo democracy beginning to feel the effects of the increased cocaine demands of the United States. Drugs were not the fatal global economy they would become, but inside Colombia, there was a prevalence of violence and power, providing a new graphic episode each night on the news. I learned about the country’s history through the variety of Colombian neckties applied to the warring dope factions everyday.
I couldn’t keep up with any of it, until la abuelita Colombiana, hugged my lost, lonely, homesick self and said “ay mijita” the universal mothering action that plants the safety bubble of Latina love and concern around your body, willing all bad far away, just long enough for recovery. I stayed in Colombia for seven days, returning to a U.S. of less drugs, guns, tanks and soldiers asking why I was standing in anyone spot for more than five minutes. La abuelita Colombiana was absolute power in her home, raising five daughters and a son to be just as fierce and determined to live in their brownness. I didn’t see shame, embarrassment or confusion about color. I realized then there were places in el mundo Latino where color may have been an issue but not one of shame.
Celia Cruz has always been an influence in my life—la negra Cubana that makes it, embracing being “bien negra” not just black but black with style. I’ve heard the song La Negra Tiene Tumbao’ so many times but only recently thought about how much it does describe who you have to be to be Black and Latino. The song describes a proud, stylish, black woman who will not be moved off her life path by anyone.
I think Latinidad is a great way to describe the variety of countries, cultures and colors we are as Latino. I also like Latino because the sound of the word, like Salsa, “tiene ritmo” but I wonder, why does it feel like Africanidad better describes the frequent feeling of African-ness in someone who has black blood?
I hear La Negra Tiene Tumbao and I think, yes I am someone, black and proud, brown and proud, bilingual and proud, with brown toes dug into the reddish brown clay of this Nebraska soil, getting my PhD to then teach others of Latinidad and Africanidad. I sometimes walk out of my office and dance salsa in the hallway, making my Africanidad known to any and all as witness.