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Thursday
Sep302010

Black Latino/Latina Isn't A Dirty Word

Actress Zoe Saldana repping for Voto Latino back in 2004.Clutch Magazine posted an article recently entitled "Is She Even Black?" in reference to black Latina actresses, models and status climbers like Zoe Saldana, Amber Rose and Sessilee Lopez. I've often heard black people gripe about Saldana in particular (also Rosario Dawson), accusing her of passing or claiming mixed heritage or whatever magical thing people think "Latina" means other than being a descriptor for being from a place in the Americas where people speak Spanish.

More after the jump.

From Clutch:

There’s something to be said about our racial placement of Zoe Saldana outside of her largely Black female film roles. Many of us get a kick out of keeping her in an exclusive, no exit, Latina territory. “Is she even Black?” one reader slammed, even though the rising actress has repeatedly laid claim to her Afro-Latina background. The “Avatar ” star has been vocal about the difficulties faced by actresses of color in Hollywood, and she was the cover of the April issue of Essence magazine. Yet somehow, there’s this odd expectation for Saldana to choose. “Does she want to be Latina or Black?” one reader wrote. Zoe Saldana was born to a Dominican father and a Puerto Rican mother. Her cocoa skin looks like yours and mine, why is that not enough?

I personally blame Richard Nixon. His administration created the term Hispanic in an effort to give people with Spanish surnames a "racial-lite" label even though "Hispanic" or "Latino" is not a race. Hispanics and Latinos can be of any race or color and the word doesn't even exist outside of the states.

From The Future Uncertain:

(A)s soon as one crosses the Rio Grande from the north there is no such thing as "Hispanic." There are instead races: "whites," and "Indians," and mestizos, and "blacks," and all of the above together. And there are nationalities: Dominicans, and Salvadorans, and Hondurans, and Mexicans and Brazilians. But in the United States these disparate nations and people, who sometimes go to war at least proximately because of soccer games and who argue over the racial stereotyping in their television soap operas, through the waving of a bureaucratic wand in an obscure office at the end of an obscure hall in Washington magically become a single demographic group.

If you're Chinese and were born and raised in Cuba, you're, shock-shock, Chinese Cubano, aka ... a Chinese Latino. This does not make you any less Chinese. When a black person says they're also Latino it's honestly no different than a black person saying they're French or German or Senegalese or Cape Verdean or Dominican. They're still black. They tell you as much when they say things like "Afro-Cuban." But still, people will accuse Saldana and others of some fancy form of 2010 passing.

I don't know how you pass when you're on the cover of Essence and you're that, frickin' brown and you say things like "I'm black" or lament about how hard it is to make it as a black actress in the states.

But because American's often treat Hispanic as a race when Hispanic is like saying "From Spanish speaking countries in North, Central and South America," there is this confusion and accusation of a black person being a sell-out if they proudly claim their Latino heritage. This is like cursing out Obama for big upping Kenya. Or hating Idris Elba for being a black Brit. THIS MAKES NO SENSE. Many Latin countries participated in the Atlantic slave trade. Millions of blacks wound up all over the Americas and adopted the language and culture of their captors. What else can you do considering the circumstances? But the black American reaction at times to Saldana, Dawson and Rose is almost like when I meet the occasional African native who thinks black Americans aren't really African and bristles at those who over-eagerly embrace African cultures in their pursuit for a better understand of themselves.

After all, like black Latinos, black Americans aren't exactly "pure." We're mixed people who married and impregnated other mixed people after hundreds of years of rape, love and lust, racial strife, anti-racial mixing laws while people "mixed" any-ol-damn-way, often living in the same crappy neighborhoods as poor whites and early Irish and Italian immigrants. It's true that in some Latin countries blacks are treated horribly. Which, AGAIN, makes the slam at Saldana for claiming their black Latin roots more bizarre.

There is no advantage to saying "I'm black" in most of Latin America. Especially if you're dark. None. There are black people in Latin America now who look at CNN's Soledad O'Brien like she's a crazy person for telling folks she's Afro-Cuban. Most people who are that light, based on the rampant discrimination against black Latinos, wouldn't have acknowledged the "Afro" part at all and gladly would have passed as light Creole, mixed or Spaniard.

Case in point: I had a good friend who's wife was Latina. She was Mexican and Cuban. We were the exact same complexion (golden brown). We had the exact same hair texture (frizzy, wavy, kinky in the back). She had a short fat nose, also like mine, and was married to a black American man who was half Puerto Rican. She was older than me and would sometimes, jokingly, tell people I was her daughter. IT IS VERY OBVIOUS THAT I AM A BLACK PERSON. One day I was at their home hanging out, chatting with her and she was complaining about her hair. How everyone in her family had straight her but her and how unfair that was. I said, "Ah, but that's where the black comes from, right?" thinking I would get some "Yeah, great-grandma was Negra" bonding time. Her face scrunched up like I called her the bitchiest black bitch in the history of black bitches and she INSISTED she did not have a drop of black blood in her. Her husband then looked at me and rolled his eyes.

"She black," he said after she left the room in a huff.

Her reaction to being brown and "nappy" headed, but not blue black blackity black is the NORM in most Latin American countries. There is no skin tone paradise in Latin countries and there is no advantage to shouting out "I'm Negra" if you look "mixed." If you look mixed you start naming yourself after color gradations. And none of those gradations are called black.

It's actually AMAZING that Rosario Dawson, Amber Rose and Soledad O'Brien all loudly claim their black heritage. They totally could just say "I don't know those black people hiding in my gene pool" like so many other "brown" people do from Latin America.

If I moved to another country and if they told me I had to deny my Midwest/Southern black American roots to be fully accepted as a "real" black person in that country I would laugh. I can't not be a black person. My roots are African slaves, some white slave masters and random Native Americans who wandered in and out of the picture. It is who I am. It is my culture. It is how I identify myself. People who claim black and Latin are just explaining their background, not grasping to some false identity in order to assimilate. This isn't a Tommy Mottola tells Mariah Carey to describe herself as mixed and say her Harlem-born father was Venezuelan to cross over to a mainstream (white) audience situation. These are women claiming their heritage and proudly saying they're black as well.

Zoe Saldana is black and Latino. You can be both. This is not a trick. Zoe is not trying to pull a fast one on you. She's just trying to rep for her fellow Afro Latin peeps who people treat as if they are a myth, who face their own discrimination and rarely, if ever, see one of their own on the cover of magazines or on television in their native countries.

For contrast: I'm black and American. Also not a trick. I'm not trying to "hide" my African heritage behind an American label. I have a friend who's half Jamaican and half American. Also black. I once dated a guy in college who was black American, white British and Kenyan. Also black. I had a good friend high school who was black and Creole. STILL BLACK, ALSO CREOLE. Same with most Haitians I know, both dark and light. All Creole. All black. I have quite a few long-time French African readers and one German woman who is half African American. Despite the fact that she could have passed for white and knew very little about her black American heritage, she still claimed her father's side, wanting to learn more about black American culture. My half Puerto Rican friend with the "I ain't black even though I look black" wife. BLACK! These are not a tricks! Just pronouns to describe a background.

Stop being all mad at my internationally black peeps. Them being something other than American has absolutely nothing to do with you.

Celebrate the Diaspora.

(H/T reader Kim for the link)

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Reader Comments (90)

This quantification of Blackness thing never ceases to surprise me.

September 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterViv

Seriously people who go around questioning other's blackness have too much time on their hands.

September 30, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterthelady

The fact that Zoe Saldana is a black woman of Domincan heritage is one of the main things holding black Americans back. I'm glad I read that article at Clutch mag so I now know what "our" biggest hurdle is.

Wait a minute... I'm light-skinned so I guess I shouldn't have said "our" biggest hurdle.

Dear Snob,

I'm light-skinned and I even get a tan in the summer. Am I black enough?

September 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKeith "Wu" Young

Preach, Sister, Preach! I never thought being black and American were mutually exclusive. According to some, I need to be brought up to speed by reading that "What It Means to Be Negro" memo.

September 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterD.A.L.W.

Thank you so much for this post! I am a HUGE fan of Zoe Saldana. It pisses me off to no end when I see a post about her on a Black website along with a slew of comments about her being Dominican and NOT Black. It's just plain ignorance. Back in the day, Black Africans were deposited in a host of other countries before they arrived in America, yet some Black folks here like to claim that only African Americans went through slavery. People are also ignorant about the differences between someone claiming a particular nationality (Domincan, Puerto Rican), an ethnic group (Latina), or a race. There are numerous combinations and claiming one doesn't cancel the other out.

The other day I was on another blog of a Black women whom I respect a lot. She mentioned watching "The Event." The first thing she stated was that she was disappointed because she was expecting a Black president, but instead she got a Cuban. I wanted to question her as to why she didn't think a Cuban could also be Black, and secondly when the hell did the constitution change to allow Cubans to become President of the US? I found out that Cubans could be Black when I was little girl, since the first Cubans that I ever met in person were unambiguously Black!

Folks need to read more, travel a little further than their own cities, and meet new people.

September 30, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersheryl

Good post, but I thought Amber rose was Italian and Cape Verdean. Cape Verde is off the coast of west Africa #i'mjustsayin

September 30, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterkiaberries

Great post! However it should be noted that Latina does not mean someone that speaks spanish. A latina is someone that speaks a language derived from latin. This includes portugues, french, italian and spanish. Hispanics are spanish speakers. Someone can be both hispanic and latino but they can also be latino and not be hispanic. Amber Rose like myself is Cape Verdean this makes her a latina but not hispanic. Same thing goes for Brazilians.

September 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterShante

Good post, but an argument not worth having as those ignorant enough to question a person's "blackness" cannot are not easily persuaded to see things from a different viewpoint. Common sense doesn't rule those kinds of discussion.

September 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle

"Folks need to read more, travel a little further than their own cities, and meet new people."

This needs to be repeated.

September 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterT. Rogers

So while I agree with you, I also understand the other perspective. Having grown up in the Northeast, where there is a significant PR/Dominican etc... population, many folks get the side-eye because of the "white-up" effect that often happens. By this I mean the PR, etc... folks who are down with being Black, hanging with Black folks, marrying them and everything else...... until they get a little success. Then, not remarkably different from some Black folks, they want nothing to do with Black folks, start anglo-ing up their names, foresaking beans and rice unless they are 2 separate and distinctive dishes being served out of two separate bowls etc.... Okay, sliding into silly, but the point remains. I think lots of Black folks resent their ability "white-up" in a way that is reminiscent of the white overseer who was poor as dirt, but at least he wasn't Black.....

September 30, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterdivaliscious11

This is the last Plantation, once people of colour cross this boundary, we will be mentally free!

September 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPaul W

This is the last Plantation, once people of colour cross this boundary, we will be mentally free!

September 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPaul W

I agree with the comment above, Black Americans many of us are colour struck, and still operating from a Antebullum colour caste system within our community, ITS OUR DIRTY LAUNDRY...The most progressive thing President Barrack Obama did in my humble opinion is marry a brown sister like Michelle Robinson, and celebrate his love and appreciation for her publicly.

SHAME on all the Black Athletes, Rapper entertainment consortium...and you hierarchical class oriented light skinned folks too, who feel light is right! And I got love for you snob...we know you be chasing those yellow brothers too!

So in all seriousness, once we overcome this mental burden...we can move on to more progessive matters as a people!

September 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPaul W

People really need to travel. Depending on where you are in Africa the people look different. There isn't one all inclusive African look that represents for the entire continent. There isn't one cookie cutter look for west, south, eastern and northern africans. So people that claim these women are not black because they do not look like black american are stupid. Go to Cape Verde and you will see black people with blonde hair, green eyes, pale and dark skin. If you resent someone because they can pass for white well that is your own self hate. Why hate on the latinas that are proud of being black just as much as being latin. I am cape verdean and a beautiful shade of brown and I am a black latina. My great grandfather could pass but he refused and demanded to be known as a black portuguese man. Some people need to get a life. There are bigger fish to fry.

September 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterShante

Divaliscious11 makes a valid point that can be applied to Hispanics (or anyone else who isn't technically Anglo) here in the South. Wait, I'm in Texas - we're not considered the South. Does that make me part Black mid-western? Ah hell. Oh yeah, back on point. You run across a larger number of 2nd - 5th or whatever as long as they aren't 1st generation Mexican-Americans who consider themselves White, don't speak a lick of Spanish (which sucks when you need one to translate to the housekeeping staff), and deny their rice and beans status.

Yes, thank you US Gov and NIH for forcing us to make the distinction - being Hispanic or not, Black, non-Hispanic, Black-Hispanic, Other, Pacific Islander - just what are Filipinos anyway?

September 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTexNYQueen

This article reminded me of someone saying I was ashamed to be Black because I said I was "of Haitian descent".

September 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCreoleSoul

This was a great, much needed post.

September 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAsh

Sad to say our color caste system will not stop until all Black people globally take down the system.

Really it means all people of color must take this system out.

Without this system there would be no need for Black people to try and escape, separate or deny their African ancestry.

Personally, I think it will never happen because there are too many of us who are not willing to give up the privileges, perks, preferential treatment, or the perceived "racial edge" we have under this system.

September 30, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterdivalive

I had sooo much to say in support of this post and then got TOTALLY distracted by CreoleSoul's comment - the person told you WHAT?!!

Did they know that Haiti was the first independent black country in the West? So then how can you be ashamed to be black? Lord, my head hurts at the ignorance.

But it just illustrates the point that many African-Americans' perception of race is very... weird, particularly when it bumps up on the whole concept of being Hispanic. Being hispanic doesn't mean you're not black - it means you're from a Spanish-speaking country that isn't Spain.

Shoot, actually I don't even know if it means that - because if it includes all of the Americas south of the U.S. where does that place Brazilians - are they Hispanic? And what about Guyanese - it's right there in South America next to Brazil and Venezuela but they speak English and play cricket and are of mostly black or East Indian descent. They mostly consider themselves West Indian except when they're going on about their 'continental destiny'.

Or Belizeans who are in between Mexico and Guatemala but speak English? Or Surinamese who speak Dutch but are also in South America? Or French Guiana - also in S. America and sandwiched between Suriname and

Hmm, maybe you're wrong Danielle - it is a trick!

September 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterIslandista

again, the height of ethnic insecurity.

September 30, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterswiv

This may be a throwback to the days of my childhood when Negro children preferred to say that they were ANYTHING rather than just plain old Negro. Often, kids would claim to be "Spanish" or part-"American Indian."

The debate is ridiculous, but I think it reveals how declasse it is to be Black American. Much better to be "exotic" in some way.

And honey, if I could get away with faking an English accent, I would.

More seriously, black people have always drawn distinctions among themselves. Caribbean blacks who arrived in the beginning of the 20th Century considered themselves quite different from native-born American blacks. I read a history book in which a woman of the time said it was too bad that she and other new immigrants didn't have their own language, which would distinguish themselves from ordinary blacks in Harlem.

September 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterReader

@ Shante
Thank you for adding that clarification! It irks me to the core when people confuse the differences of Latina/Latino and Hispanic. Don't forget the other languages included under the Latin umbrella, Catalanand Romanian.

September 30, 2010 | Registered CommenterClaude Jordan

I agree with a lot of what you wrote Danielle, but I feel the issue is slightly more complicated. Saldana claims black because she doesn't really have a choice. She quite clearly is not white and so cannot really claim that in America I don't think. The problem is, and I say this as a black man, is that she represents the accepted face of black women that white America want to foist on our people. I don't know much about her but she has not associated herself with the black community in the same way as an Eva Marcille for example e.g. look at her relationship status. She may describe herself as black now she is in the limelight and benefit from publicity due to that, such as being put on the front cover of essence magazine, but who knows how she lived her life up until this point. A mixed race actress in Hollywood will be treated like she is black, and in order to get work will audition for roles as a black woman and will be involved in black films. That doesn't make her sincere about truly engaging with the black experience in America. I'm just contributing because as a black man who will one day father black women (hopefully), I don't want them to live in a society where the representative for black womanhood is light complexioned, long haired, thin nosed and generally European looking. Fine she has black heritage, but the black community has the right to embrace who they want and not have to accept a definition of black womanhood foisted upon them by Hollywood.

September 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNaijaboy

When i say she has no real choice, i mean only now that she is in the public eye. Look at the ridicule Tiger Woods was subjected to as evidence for my point.

September 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNaijaboy

She's definitely not white and too dark in simple-minded hollywood's eyes to play a latina. At least she's not going all Jessica Alba "Don't call me latina" route. She's negra.

September 30, 2010 | Unregistered Commenternovnova

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