Joanna Chin is an Afro-Latina writer, lifelong New Yorker, and self-proclaimed nerd. She graduated with a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies from Wheaton College and an MSW from New York University, where she currently serves as an academic advisor. You can see more of her musings on racial identity, faith, and social justice on her blog graceriot.
Somos mestizos. I remember my first visit to the Dominican Republic. Threading through el mercado in Santo Domingo, every wall was covered in images. Vibrantly colored paintings absorbed all the warm light of the island in their depictions of beaches, the countryside, and finally, round-faced people with full lips and ancient eyes.
So much art in the DR is inspired by the Tainos, the Indigenous people who originally populated the island. Taino symbols crop up not only in paintings, but also in jewelry, clothing, and tattoo designs. My time on the island impressed upon me this Dominican pride in mestizaje, the mixed nature of our heritage that celebrates our African, European, and Indigenous roots.
Kindred to the concept of mestizaje, the term Latinidad was also constructed to represent the diverse nature of “Latinness,” or what it means to be Latinx. However, its origins reach farther back to both the conquistador days and the “Hispanicization” of what we call Latin America as well as independence movements there.
It’s a pan-ethnic label that summarizes the widespread experiences of peoples originating from those lands, unifying them in a harmonious vision of diversity.
As someone who is ethnically mixed (my mother is Dominican, and my father is Black Jamaican with Chinese heritage), I clung to the dual ideas of mestizaje and Latinidad, convinced they were the answer, the resolution to all the years of insecurity during my childhood when I felt on the margins of the Black and Latinx groups at my predominantly white schools.
I struggled to feel authentically anything and even called myself a “mutt” in elementary school until a friend told me to stop. There was something in me that didn’t feel “pure” when it came to my ethnic and racial identities, and so the concept of Latinidad felt heaven-sent as a framework to absorb all my identity angst.
The ignition of the Black Lives Matter movement, the #NODAPL movement for Standing Rock, and the recent presidential election have challenged me to interrogate the concept of Latinidad, once a source of comfort to me.
I started noticing the silences.
The election especially highlighted the anti-Black and anti-Indigenous attitudes in my Latinx communities as I observed, to my heartache, influencers I followed on social media and even friends wielding the colorblind rhetoric of a supposed post-racial and post-colonial age. I remember scrolling through Facebook and seeing one friend’s post complaining about how all this focus on race was “unnecessary” and only further dividing us.
There is a danger in instrumentalizing Latinidad to avoid uncomfortable dialogues about our community’s relationship to race and indigeneity and skip ahead to the part where “we are one.”
Latinidad and even the much-contested label “Latinx” aim to construct a diverse space where African, Indigenous, and European threads weave seamlessly together. However, they fail as a collective framework if our use of them does not result in honest engagement with the historically-rooted systemic problems that shape the lives of Black and Indigenous peoples.
These are the very people that supposedly make up part of our beautiful Latinidad, and yet if the books we read, the podcasts we listen to, and the social causes we advocate for exclude their voices and struggles, our mestizaje becomes more myth than reality.
In our striving toward ethnic unity, we must also honor the specificity of our diverse experiences within Latin American communities and actively address the role of Indigenous neglect, exploitation, and racism in the U.S. If we do not make space for honest wrestling with difficult truths, we end up projecting an illusion of history that erases the ongoing effects of settler colonialism (which involved the murder of Indigenous peoples like the Tainos) and slavery.
Wade in the Water
For a people professing pride in our diversity, particularly our Indigenous roots, we have to ask ourselves this: Are we actually showing up for these communities when they cry out to be heard?
And how do we show up? We can start by making movements toward reevaluating all-encompassing frameworks like Latinidad in favor of joining the work others are already involved in to complicate our histories, “educating ourselves about the history of our diaspora,” as Araceli Cruz puts it.
Thanksgiving and Native American Heritage Day provide a prime time to acknowledge the romanticized nature of the histories we were taught and to reconsider them with honest and humble eyes.
We leave behind the comforting vision of harmonious Latinidad diversity to draw near the margins and delve into the historical tensions in our communities. Our responsibilities are to locate ourselves amidst this intersection of cultural and racial tension and collaborate in working toward justice and healing.
I choose to listen to and learn from the experiences of my Black and Indigenous family and enter into the dialogues already unfolding that challenge us to expand our conception of Latinx identity. The paintings en el mercado don’t speak, but we do, and our voices are needed in this struggle to recognize and uplift those in our communities who are often forgotten.