“What are you?” “Where are you from?” “What kind of name is that?” “You don’t look Puerto Rican.”
These are all things you hear a lot when you’re a three-quarter-Rican from The Bronx. I’m used to people being curious about my background, and my hippie-dippie first name, but I’ll never get used to people telling me I don’t look like a Puerto Rican.
What do we look like? What are we “supposed” to? It’s true, I don’t look like JLo, but then again, who does…besides JLo herself? I also don’t look like Joan Smalls, or Bruno Mars, or Julia de Burgos, or Aubrey Plaza. Or any number of Puerto Ricans. We don’t have a uniform “look.” We are, indeed, a rainbow race. We come in all shades and colors. In my last job, I got to interview Puerto Ricans everyday to add to an archive of our history here, and I’ve seen just how varied we are.
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I felt most Puerto Rican. Being mixed means continuously coming up against moments and people that try to make you feel the least. For me, it’s been a series of moments affirming my connection to my culture, more and more each time. Maybe it was the moment I pulled my first pernil out of the oven, with some help from Elba Cooks 4 U.
Maybe it was the first time I read an entire news article in Spanish, or perhaps all those times when my non-Latino friends have called me their Puerto Rican/Latino “expert.” Every one of these moments stands out in my mind. Maybe I felt most Puerto Rican when I was asked to present an undergraduate paper at a Latino studies conference, or when I met a respected Boricua academic after reading her work in college, and following her on Twitter, and hearing her introduce me as “Shakti, another Latina tweeter!” I’ve worked hard to feel connected to my culture, to learn about Puerto Rican history, and to try to speak Spanish whenever possible.
But I’m not “just” a Puerto Rican. I’m Latina también. To me, this is more than just having a Spanish surname or being from Latin America or the Caribbean. For me, “Latina” is a political identity, one that lets me embrace the mezclada heritage of my island and myself. When I tell someone I’m Latina, I am proudly proclaiming my Indigenous and African heritage, a history not readily apparent when one sees my light-skin and blue eyes. I am embracing two races that are vitally important to the conception of a Puerto Rican culture, that too many are quick to forget. Embracing the term Latina means I am aligning myself with others, in our “home” countries and diasporas, and declaring solidarity with their struggles. When I call myself a Wise Latina, I’m embracing Latinidad, the idea that we in the Hispanic Caribbean and Latin America are all connected, through various languages, cultures and races.
Some months ago, I visited the art installation of the Día de los Muertos Collective in El Barrio. The installation, a Day of the Dead altar and art project created by Puerto Rican artist Adrian ‘Viajero” Roman, and Mincho Vega, housed at the Julia de Burgos Center, was a beautiful tribute to those who had lost their lives attempting to cross the United States-Mexico border. The Collective partnered with The Colibrí Center for Human Rights, a non-profit whose mission is to assist families searching for lost loved ones, and to identify the remains of those who have died in the crossing. The Center loaned the altar objects belonging to the dead. It was humbling to see the photographs, jewelry and clothing, the most precious items that belonged to these people, that they carried with them, hoping for a new life. The items belong to those who could not be identified, whose loved ones could not be found. In that moment, it struck me how different my history, the history of my people was, from this. While no one can say Puerto Ricans have had an easy go of it in this country, the horror of the crossing is not one we know.
There are important similarities between us, specifically the history of racism and displacement encountered in this country, even more so, the fraught relationships the United States has and maintains with our homelands. But our differences are important as well. “Latino” can be a polarizing term, and with reason. Latinidad can be a problematic concept, when it relies on erasure, a new way of being “Hispanic,” that is, easily categorizable to others, outsiders, people who need to name us and move on. We don’t fit neatly into the Black-White binary that US history rests on. I can understand why friends and colleagues shy away from embracing the term as I have. That fear of erasure is a sentiment I understand. One academic I know, a transnational Puerto Rican writer, told me he prefers the term Caribenidad, to connote the affinity he feels for other Caribbean nations, Spanish-speaking or not, and our shared regional history. Some friends, colleagues, and other cultural workers, have also expressed an uneasiness with the term, and their unwillingness to embrace a Latinidad that erases their AfroLatino experience and chooses, against all demographic and statistical data stating otherwise, to identify itself as light, white, anything but Brown and Black. They rightfully rail against a “Latino monolith”, numbers and figures that only represent a small portion of the varied experiences that comprise “Latino” or “Latin American.”
These are valid points, and ones we must sit with as we examine an anything-but-homogenous “Latino” history. For me, Latino is an imperfect, imprecise term, but the best one I have available to me, so I imbue it with my own meanings and use it as shorthand for ideas and sentiments that are (and should be) more complicated and generate more reflection. I embrace the term Latina, the concept of Latinidad and have found great meaning in putting it into action on a daily basis.