Most people have heard by now that extremely catchy Enrique Iglesias song “Bailando” that won three Latin Grammy awards in November, including Song of the Year. Its English version has proved to be a very successful crossover hit as well. Perhaps a little behind in my celebration of the song, I only recently made efforts to see the music video with some girlfriends. The English language version was the first to appear. We hit PLAY. A visually exciting and fun video, we sat fully impressed by the video’s stars bouncing soccer balls off of their bodies in rhythm to the beat. However, what caught our attention most was the presence of the brown-skinned women of Dominican dance troupe Núcleo Extremo wearing their hair big, curly and in Afros right in the foreground of the video. My friends and I were so excited to see these girls that we literally clapped and cheered for their presence. These dancers seemed to represent an acknowledgement of Blackness among Latin@s, in the foreground rather than the background, and a rare celebration of kinky, curly and robust hair that illustrates African heritage.
I later searched on my own the Spanish language video, my preferred version of the song. When I saw it, my heart sank. The brown-skinned, curly, kinky, big-haired dancers had been excluded.
Whether intentional or not (though it is hard to imagine such an obvious creative decision not being intentional) the exclusion of the brown, curly, kinky, big-haired dancers fits all too well within the pervasive denial of Blackness visually, and in turn imaginatively, within Latin@ communities as reflected in our news media, film, advertising, television shows and music videos. It mirrors the exclusion of Blackness from images of beauty. It mirrors the kinds of racism that are embedded in those phrases we know all too well like “pelo malo,” (bad hair) and “hay que mejorar la raza” (one has to better the race, i.e. marry a person of lighter complexion). It is an exclusion that supports the continued adoration of whiteness at the expense of, and in rejection of, Blackness. Removing the Afro (literally) from the Spanish language video indicates that while there may be space for Blackness in the foreground of wider popular culture (the crossover English version) there is not within Latin@ popular culture (the Spanish language version).
Here are just a few reasons why the erasure of Blackness from the Latin@ visual field and psyche is an embarrassing example of collective self-hatred that should sadden and outrage us all. Scholars from various disciplines place the percentage of Dominicans with African ancestry at around 87%. Colombia and Venezuela compete with Haiti for the second largest population of Afro-descendants in the Western Hemisphere. Brazil has the largest. Skin tones from the lightest to the blackest brown can be witnessed all throughout Cuba, Puerto Rico (yes, Puerto Rico, go to the island), Atlantic coastal Central America, and down into Peru. There are even such a people called Afro-Mexicanos (google Costa Chica, Mexico). However, many would never imagine these countries or its people in this way. This kind of blanqueamiento (whitening) of Latino visual and mental spaces is not new. It goes as far back as the post-colonial eugenics projects that aimed to introduce European immigrants to countries with large populations of Afro-descendants to racially whiten the populace and continues today through hopes of mejorando la raza, and the erasure of blackness in media.
As legacies of this history, Latin@s have learned to reject all that is Black (or African) in exchange for all that is White (or Spanish), and to celebrate an indigenous ancestry that both historic and scientific information maintains that many of us from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean cannot claim as easily as we might like to. White is singularly beautiful and on the occasion that Black is thought to be beautiful (for example, Dominican models Sessilee López and Arlenis Sosa) it’s not actually because it’s Black, it’s because it’s “Indian”… right (eye-roll), or has the principal features of White beauty: straight or long hair, and noses with high bridges.
Also in keeping with these legacies, Latina girls are taught from a very young age to banish any trace of curl or kink from their hair, coincidentally (or not), the only physical feature betraying Blackness that can easily be changed. And after a few hours in the salon, as if it were magic: “Hay mami, ¡qué LINDA!” Thank God for Dominican hair salons. Without them would these girls even think themselves beautiful? If we aren’t taught to hate our curly, kinky, not straight or smooth enough hair, we learn to not love it because we never see Latina girls like the ones in Iglesias’ English language “Bailando” video shown in depictions of Latinas on TV or in magazines directed towards the Latin@ community. Instead we see only the girls from the Spanish language version: fair-skinned and straight-haired. Women are not the only ones to feel this. Let us never forget that Dominican baseball hero Sammy Sosa transformed from a moreno into a blue-eyed, straight-haired, blanquito before our very eyes.
Undoing this legacy and its work on Latin@ minds and media requires that Latin@s begin to embrace this profound dimension to our cultural background that has not only shaped our food, music, and dance (which some are happy to celebrate) but also, for many, our appearance: African ancestry. We need to collectively value it for how it has positively formed our beauty and diversity both physical and cultural. Negritud and Latinidad are not opposites. They are a part of one another.
Shout out to all the musical artists (Hector Lavoe, Susana Baca, Big Pun, Tego Calderón to name a few) and political leaders (Albizu Campos, Betances and many others) of our past and present who have proudly upheld their African ancestry. Shout out to Renzo for having a Dominicana with naturally curly and Afro-ish hair portray his love interest in the video for “Mi Favorita.”
Let’s make that a trend. Let’s make teaching little girls to love their brown skin and hair a trend, and unmake “pelo malo” as the descriptor for course or kinky hair. Let’s rethink always combining the word “pretty” with the word “white,” (¡Hay qué linda! ¡Y blanquita!). Let’s challenge the inversion of Blackness to Whiteness, if not so we can uplift ourselves into being a broadly self-loving community then at least so we can stop being the butt of jokes about collective denial.
Sabia McCoy-Torres is a writer and sociocultural anthropologist. Her work focuses on the African Diaspora, Latin America, Caribbean cultures and music, along with popular culture. Sabia is also an avid dancer and native New Yorker from The Bronx. Follow her on twitter @AcademicHustla.