50 Shades of BROWN: A personal examination of Black-Latino tensions

50 Shades of BROWN: A personal examination of Black-Latino tensions – and why it must stop
By: Katia Bolero Roma
theCAMPUS December 10, 2012 www.ccnycampus.org

“Ignorant Spanish bitch.”

That was what he called me, and his cutting words hurt. Why didn’t this guy understand that one of the many rivers of blood flowing through my veins is African – just like his? Or that my African ancestors’ struggles are buried in the roots of my thick, dark brown hair? Couldn’t he see that he was disrespecting somebody of his own kind? It felt like a brother disowning his sister and spitting in her face.

I am half Puerto Rican with ancestors of both African and European descent. My skin is a peaches and cream color, but my mother’s is caramel, and my grandmother’s chocolate. Unlike some Latino families of African ancestry, we embrace our heritage. We have always considered ourselves Puerto Rican and , to us, being Puerto Rican also meant being ethnically mixed. We know and accept that the dark skin in our family came from African ancestors – where else could it have come from?

Even with my mixed heritage, many times I have felt left out of a group of African Americans because, according to them, I wasn’t Black; I was “Spanish.” On the flip side, I have heard some African Americans say that they feel that Latinos think they’re better and superior to them. And I don’t blame them, because yes, there are some Latinos who look down on Americans of African descent. Some Latinos keep their distance from African Americans, because they say they don’t relate to “Blacks.”

As the demographics have shifted uptown over the last several years and the population has become increasingly Latino and less Black, this conflict has increased. But the more I see or experience this, the more I get upset. I struggle to understand the tensions between us, but I know it has to stop. At the end of the day many Latinos, especially those of us who come from the Caribbean, are African Americans. Even though we may speak different languages, we all have African blood.

Entwined History

Beginning in the 1500s, European settlers brought African slaves to the Americas to work the crops that brought wealth to their colonies. They produced sugar, coffee, tobacco and cotton.

Though slavery ended long ago, its legacy left behind millions of descendants in all shades of brown throughout North, Central and South America and the Caribbean. Brazil, for example, had the largest population of African descended people outside of Africa itself. In fact, almost half of the Africans that were brought over to the Americas during the slave trade were sent to Brazil – ten times more than came to the United States. In Columbia, a quarter of the population is of African descent and in the Dominican Republic, it is 84 percent.

Not only is African ancestry evident through our history, but it has also embedded into our culture. Listen to the music of Latin America and the Caribbean. You can hear the rhythm of the drums in genres from the Honduran punta to the Puerto Rican bomba. Sounds that were forbidden during slavery have made their way to folkloric and traditional dances and now to mainstream music and movement. Taste and smell our food; the fruits and vegetables of Africa are blended into our recipes and served onto our plates. Plantains and okra, for example, were introduced to the Americas and are widely used in Latin American cooking today.

Shifting Communities

As the presence of Latinos gets stronger, the tension grows. Look at the neighborhood where we go to school. Harlem has changed tremendously. In the 1940s, it was a predominantly African-American neighborhood, with Spanish Harlem off to the East. Though there have always been Latinos in West and Central Harlem, when I walk down Broadway, I see the streets lined with more and more Latino-run businesses: barbershops, bakeries, restaurants, and bodegas. Harlem sounds different: I hear more conversations in Spanish as cars driving down the avenues blast their bachata, merengue, salsa, and reggaeton.

As the neighborhood changes, it’s important for all of us to learn and understand the history – that includes Latinos who deny their African descent and African Americans who deny ours. We may have different ways of speaking and different influenced in our cultures, but we too are African American in all our different, and beautiful, shades of brown.