Dominican, Black, and Afro-Latino: A Confession/Dominicano, Negro, y Afro-Latino: Una Confesión

jayJonathan Bolívar Espinosa (also known as Jay Espy) is a poet, writer, freelance photographer, community organizer, member of the People Power Movement-Movimiento Poder Popular, and a former intern at the New York Foundation. He currently lives in the Bronx, New York, and manages a blog at Revolutionary-AfroLatino.tumblr.com.


Originally published in La Galeria Magazine
Written by: Jonathan Bolívar Espinosa (Jay Espy)

April 28, 2015

“What? Black people in the Dominican Republic?” Yes [email protected]*, there are Black Dominican people whose ancestors descend from the African motherland. However, the question is not so much, “Are there Black people in the Dominican Republic?” as it is “Are Dominican people Black?” Ask that to a Dominican person and you might get cursed out. Contrary to popular belief, most Dominican people are in fact Black or African-descended, but Blackness tends to be defined in socially different ways depending on where you are in the world. For example, anyone from the United States who visits the Dominican Republic will find that most people there would qualify as Black if they lived in the states. Yet Dominican people see Blackness in a different way, and some of the most melanated Dominicans do not even claim their Blackness and instead default to “indio.” In reality, many Dominican people are as black as café, while others are as mixed as sancocho, as layered as cebollas, and a few as white as azúcar.

I was born to Dominican parents in a predominately Dominican neighborhood in the Bronx, New York, home to the second largest number of Dominican people in the world, after Santo Domingo [1]. My mother is light-skinned with thick, black, curly hair, my father is brown-skinned, and I am brown-skinned with thick, black curly hair. I was raised racially colorblind; the only awareness I had about race was every time my aunt in the Dominican Republic called to assure that I would not marry a Black woman because she didn’t want nieces or nephews “con pelo malo.”

As a child, I assimilated quickly into North American yanqui culture and identified as an “American” (even though anyone living from the North Pole all the way to the southern tip of Argentina is technically an American). I could not speak that well in Spanish, but I understood it very well, especially when my mother threatened to hit me con la correa whenever I misbehaved. And yet, Dominican culture, by way of food, music, and language, had penetrated my being for so long that I could not reject it. As a teenager, I eventually referred to myself as Dominican and proudly showcased the Dominican flag in my room as I blasted bachata, salsa, merengue, and reggaeton music.

But whenever I visited the Dominican Republic, I was seen as an outsider, a gringo from the states. It seemed that being born to Dominican parents was not enough to be Dominican. Although I was not born or raised in the Dominican Republic, I still felt an ancestral, cultural, and national connection to its people como familia. And yet, I was alienated by the very same people I identified with. Even though I was a citizen of the United States, I could no longer identify with a shallow “American” culture that aimed to whitewash my ethnic roots. I was quickly hurled into a state of identity limbo, a mind state that W.E.B. Du Bois famously referred to as “double-consciousness,” in which Black people struggle with two dimensions, descending from Africa but growing up in an American society that hates them. [2] Some later applied this term to [email protected] as “triple-consciousness,” in which “one ever feels [their] three-ness, – a [email protected], a Negro, an American; three souls, three thoughts, three unreconciled strivings-” [3]. It wasn’t until college when I overcame this confusion and finally solidified my identity.

As a Black Studies major, I learned about the powerful history and culture of African and [email protected] people of African-descent. I was challenged to obliterate the many myths and stereotypes I had about Black people. For example, Black history did not start during slavery; Black people in Africa were actually the first humans to build civilizations and lay the essential social, cultural, political, and economic foundations for modern society. Additionally, Blackness is not exclusive to African Americans in the U.S. Actually, there are Black people all over the world throughout an African diaspora that spans virtually all continents. This diaspora includes Ayiti, the original indigenous name for the island now known as Hispaniola, where the European terrorist Christopher Columbus set foot and virtually annihilated an entire people of the native Taíno and Arawak societies. Ayiti is now shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where hundreds of thousands of African people were sent to be enslaved by France and Spain during the trans-Atlantic African holocaust.

As a brown-skinned Dominican, the idea that I was somehow Black never crossed my mind. But what does it mean to be Black? Who is considered Black, and who is not? Am I Black? If I’m Dominican, can I be Black too? Am I Black enough? These are questions I struggled to answer as I embarked on a journey to come to terms with my European, Indigenous, and African ancestry and define my racial and cultural identity. Eventually, after deep study and reflection, I had discovered a racial and cultural fusion and finally admitted that I am the following: an Afro-Latino, or a Latino of African-descent, who identifies with their African roots; and an Afro-Dominican, which is simply a nationalized [email protected] identity. An [email protected] embraces four elements of African identity: their racial African features, like my thick, Black, curly afro; their cultural traits, which descend from African traditions such as music, food, language, and dance; their political identity, which is molded by their shared experience within a racist, anti-Black, system of white supremacy; and their social characteristics and personalities, which are African in nature. A [email protected] is simply someone mixed with African, European, and Indigenous blood.

I say “admit” because this acknowledgement of one’s Blackness is perceived by many Dominican people as an irrational confession and sometimes an unforgivable betrayal, for to be Black in the Dominican Republic is to be the antithesis of Dominican national identity, to be anti-Dominican, in other words, to be an “inferior” Black Haitian. This racist anti-Haitian ideology had begun following Dominican independence from Haiti in 1844 and then fully engrained into Dominican society a century later by Rafael L. Trujillo, a ruthless and Eurocentric dictator of Spanish, Dominican, and (ironically) Haitian-descent who was groomed and supported by the United States government. He is notorious for massacring tens of thousands of Haitian people in 1937 in order to mejorar la raza.

Trujillo’s preliminary efforts to whitewash the racial identity of Dominican people have left behind a devastating legacy of Antihaitianismo, or anti-Black racism against Haitian people and Dominican people of Haitian-descent in the Dominican Republic. This is exemplified by the recent Dominican Supreme Court ruling in 2013 that revokes citizenship from people born in the Dominican Republic after 1929 to Haitian immigrants who entered the country “illegally,” even though Dominican and Haitian people share a very similar cultural, political, and economic history, especially in their struggle against European colonialism and imperialism [4][5]. In fact, it was Haitian people who abolished slavery on the entire island after they won the most successful slave revolt and built the first independent Black nation in the Western Hemisphere.

Yet today, racism and white supremacy continue to oppress [email protected] throughout the Caribbean, Latin America, and the U.S. Many [email protected], even those with dark skin, would rather identify with their European colonizer before even considering themselves African. [email protected] internalize this self-hatred and often perpetuate the racist stereotypes created by the same European oppressor they wish to emulate. The [email protected] identity, then, serves to embrace our African roots and directly reject the Eurocentric and anti-Black racism that has infected [email protected] communities. I am now proud to rock my big curly afro and embrace the Dominican and Black African in me, all at once. And when Dominican people ask me, ¿Pero cuando vas a cortar esos rizos? I’ll respond, “Cuando te dejas crecer los tuyo.”

*The “@” is meant to reject the patriarchal, male dominant “-o” suffix and the male/female -o/a binary prevalent in the Spanish language. The “@” is inclusive of all genders.

Works Cited:

[1] Duaney, Jorge. 2011. Los Países: Transnational Migration from the Dominican Republic. Blurred Borders: Transnational Migration between the Hispanic Caribbean and the United States. (pp. 169-186). Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press.

[2] W.E.B. Du Bois. 1994. The Souls of Black Folk. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications.

[3] Roman, Miriam Jimenez & Flores, Juan (Eds.). 2010. The [email protected] Reader: History and Culture in the United States. Trinity, North Carolina: Duke University Press Books.

[4] Matibag, Eugenio. 2003. Introduction. Haitian-Dominican Counterpoint. New York: Palgrave Macmillan

[5] Torres-Saillant, Silvio. 2010. Introduction to Dominican Blackness. Dominican Studies Research Monograph Series. <http://www.ccny.cuny.edu/dsi/upload/Introduction_to_Dominican_Blackness_Web.pdf>

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