Between Black and White: Latino/as In the US

-=[ Black and White and Spic and Span ]=-
-Naaaahhh… You ain’t no Porta Reecan.
-I keep telling you: The boy is a Black man with an accent.
Wille Perdomo (for Piri Thomas), Nigger-Reecan Blues

[Editor’s Note: I’ve been lazy and as the Latino contingent of this blog, I’ve been remiss in my duties, what with this being “His-Panic Heritage Month” and all… Anyway, this is in response to some here calling Rick Sanchez “white.” Just letting you muthafuckas know, first gringo (black or white) calls me white, gets a visit from the Nuyorican Hit Squad! LOL!!]

Growing up, I had a friend who we nicknamed, “Shadow.” Shadow was a Golden Gloves champion, a Puerto Rican whose dark skin earned him the moniker. He was dark, but not as black as another childhood friend we used to call “Blue.” LOL. Blue was an African American, a cocolo as Puerto Ricans used to sometimes refer to African Americans (yes, it was a pejorative).

The thing with Shadow was that, though he was dark-skinned, he had a sister who was very light-skinned — light-skinned as in “white” not “Creole,” or “high yellow.” In fact, they looked as if they came from different families. I have blue eyes and I am light-skinned. I was often mistaken for being white. Shadow and I used to hang out and we would watch each other’s backs because the rough and tumble ghettos of New York City where we were raised, we identified as Puerto Ricans.

Blacks and whites used to get very confused around Puerto Ricans because we would refuse to identify as either black or white. I am not white, in the sense that I identify with whiteness as it is defined in the U.S. Shadow didn’t identify as black as it is defined in the US. Before anything, we were were first Boricuas — Puerto Ricans.

These issues caused many problems for Puerto Ricans. At home, we were treated equally: there was no “white Puerto Rican” vs. a “black Puerto Rican,” we were brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles. Our mothers didn’t say, “My white Puerto Rican son, Eddie,” or “My black Puerto Rican niece, Nydia.” We were Puerto Ricans.

We were familia, communidad, and skin color wasn’t a determining factor for accessing love or whatever benefits our families could provide. The same, however, wasn’t true when we were exposed to the social institutions in the USA. At school, we were often separated though my cousin at home was just as smart as I was. Though I don’t identify as a white, I learned quickly that I was given preferential treatment because of my Eurocentric features. We all learned this early on in our lives. In some cases, it served to makes us cling more closely together, in other instances it was a source of much pain and grief — of identity crisis.

We were pressured by our peers and authority figures to identify according to the dominant racial paradigm. Coming up, the worst insult you could pay me was to call me white. Not because I had anything against whites, but because by identifying me solely by the color of my skin, you were attempting to rob me of my autonomy, my choice to define myself, and to maintain my cultural heritage.

It was the same for the darker-skinned Puerto Ricans, they also would come under a lot of pressure to identify as black. So, if there was some sort of conflict, and Shadow chose to stick with me (and I with him) we were ostracized for being “sellouts” or “nigger lovers.” Truth be told, most of the time, we didn’t really give a fuck, but it bothered all of us at some deeper level. Or perhaps we were all experiencing what some sociologists call perceptual dissonance. Whatever the case, it wasn’t until many of us read Piri Thomas’ semi-biographical account of growing up Puerto Rican in New York, Down These Mean Streets, that we found an outlet to discuss and internalize these issues.

I still hear complaints from my African American brothers and sisters, who become frustrated when Puerto Ricans and other Caribbean Latino/as (as well “blacks” from the “Islands”) insist they are not black. For African Americans, this insistence on cultural identification amounts to a denial of their blackness, and to a degree, it is, but I don’t think that perspective misses the full story. When Shadow (who would eventually identify as an African American) used to say he wasn’t black, he wasn’t denying his blackness, he was attempting to assert his own identity, his culture, his Latinidad, his Puerto Ricanness. It’s the same with me when I correct people about my assumed “whiteness.” We were saying we were Puerto Rican. we asserting our cultural heritage, which is more than skin color, or just speaking Spanish (and not all Puerto Ricans and other Latino/as speak Spanish).

To be sure, there is racism in the Caribbean; to say otherwise is, in my estimation, a racist statement. However, how Puerto Ricans and other Latino/a define, talk about, and conceptualize race is very different from the way it is discussed in the United States. I believe Latino/as have something to offer to the profoundly dysfunctional racial dialog (or lack thereof) in the U.S.

Let me start with a rather controversial issue. In the 2000 census, the residents of the island of Puerto Rico (effectively a colony of the USA), claimed itself to be 81% percent white. This is in stark contrast to Mainland Puerto Ricans in the United States, where only 46% identified as white. This finding caused a shitload of controversy with people from all over the ideological map making claims ranging from Puerto Ricans’ denial of their African heritage, to countless other assumptions. What also wasn’t lost was the fact that Puerto Rico was whiter than the U.S., where 75% identified as white. LOL! I think we need to contextualize these numbers properly.

Culture and context, my friends, is everything.

First, let’s take note that there is a racial ambivalence in Puerto Rico that doesn’t exist in America. In Puerto Rico, racial identification is less important than cultural identification. In the U.S., the opposite is true: racial identification largely, determines cultural identification. Therefore, as I have demonstrated earlier, when asked the all-too divisive question, “What are you?” Puerto Ricans of all colors and ancestry usually answer, “Puerto Rican.” In contrast, most New Yorkers will likely answer, black or white (or maybe even Jewish or “of Italian descent”). I am not saying that Puerto Ricans feel no racial identification, but rather that cultural identification is more important.

Another important factor is that Puerto Ricans’ perceptions of race are based more on phenotypic and social definitions of what is a person than on genotypic knowledge about an individual. Put simply, physical and social appearance is used to classify instead of biological classification. In the U.S., the legal definition of white meant that the biological offspring of a mixed race union would be considered black (i.e., the “one drop” rule) regardless of their physical (phenotypic) appearance. In that way, the children of a white master and a black slave would still be considered slaves.

Historically in Puerto Rico, a white appearing offspring of an interracial couple would be considered white. On the other hand, an obviously dark-skinned person may not be considered as black, especially if there are other mitigating factors, class being an important example.

Another aspect of racial classification for Puerto Ricans is that racial categories are based on a combination of color, class, facial features, and the texture of hair. This is quite different to the mostly color-based, white, black, yellow, and brown classifications of the U.S. This makes for a fuller spectrum of racial perspectives for Puerto Ricans. For us, there are blanco/as , the equivalent of U.S. whites; indio/as are the equivalent to the U.S. conception of East Indians (dark-skinned and straight-haired); moreno/as are dark-skinned with a variety of features — black and Caucasian; negro/as are black as conceptualized in the U.S (as a side note, this latter term is also used as a term of endearment, equivalent to the English “honey” or “sweetie” and has no racial connotation). Finally, there is the term I have used previously, trigueño/a, which can be applied to what is considered brunettes in the U.S. or to negro/as who have high social status. For me, trigueño/a is like a racial catch-all term. It can be applied to both white-looking and black-looking Puerto Ricans.

I will finish this already too-long post by emphasizing the importance of the contrast between a multiracial, multiethnic society versus a homogeneous society. While in the U.S., racial/ ethnic minorities have been segregated, the same doesn’t hold true for Puerto Rico. In this way, blacks in Puerto Rico were not a distinguishable ethnic group. This is not to say that blacks are evenly distributed throughout the social structure. Race and class still intersect, but they intersect in ways vastly different from the way they intersect in the U.S. But in terms of housing, institutional treatment, political rights, government policy, and cultural identification, black, white, and tan Puerto Ricans are not different. In addition, Puerto Ricans of any skin color do not perceive race as an issue in the same way it is perceived on the mainland. In contrast to mainland Puerto Ricans, who identified deeply with black power politics, Island Puerto Ricans have a much more ambivalent racial attitude..

In a very real sense, Latino/as in general, and Puerto Ricans in particular, have approximated the largely unrealized ideal of the Melting Pot. One manifestation of Puerto Ricans’ racial perspectives is that there isn’t the same taboo on racial intermarriage that exists in the U.S. Puerto Ricans have intermarried and continue to intermarry at a higher rate than other U.S. groups. In addition, the emphasis on strong extended family ties makes the world of most Puerto Rican children one that is inhabited by people of many different colors and these colors are not associated with a racial hierarchy. This intermingled rainbow of colors taken for granted by Puerto Ricans is foreign to most children as well as adults) in the U.S.

I’ll leave it here for now, but not before I add part of a poem by Aurora Levins Morales
that I feel encapsulates the Latino/a identity:

… I am not African. Africa is in me, but I cannot return.
I am not taína. Taíno is in me, but there is no way back.
I am not European. Europe lives in me, but I have no home there.

I am new. History made me. My first language was spanglish.
I was born at the crossroads
and I am whole.