Friday, July 25, 2014

Race on Race: a reflection of my error in using the African American experience...

Race relations are complicated even
between groups of color.
Talking about race, let alone presenting on it at a higher education conference, is a complicated and perpetual learning process. I don’t believe there is ever really a solid outcome to the journey. I think it continues throughout the entirety of our lives as our consciousness of it becomes more prevalent. I wanted to preface this piece with the understanding of such intricacy, yet it doesn’t excuse what I’m about to say. I made a mistake. I assumed, and I was not prepared.

A White former co-worker/friend and I presented on a theoretical framework I had been developing on the disruption of the normalizing tendency of Whiteness in traditional spaces of student leadership; in other words, a framework that could be applied to leadership offices in universities and colleges that would promote and sustain the desire for diversity and implement policy and practices to install it. Every presentation in Utah was a success with counselors being motivated to follow the framework according to their context and apply it with local educational institutions. In other words, it was a success!
Here we are in Chicago where the diversity of higher ed professionals is nothing like Utah. NOTHING! We are surrounded by Black, Asian, and Latino professionals everywhere. Our session was packed, over-packed! We began our presentation and followed it smoothly. People laughed, people took notes, they nodded, they smiled…etc. We broke our audience up into groups and had them dialogue using the worksheet we gave them and that too was a success. Afterwards, a number of people, Black, Brown, and White, came up to us and congratulated and thanked us for the presentation. It was awesome, and our heads were in the clouds…but like all powerful moments, a humbling is in order to bring balance—opposition in all things is some real shit.
A lady came afterwards later on and asked to speak with us for a minute. And being the already lofty sprits we were, we decided to welcome yet another round of compliments. Her demeanor was gentle but authoritative and she asked us, “I wanted to know why you used that clip in the beginning?”
This is where it hit me…
The clip was from the beginning scenes of The Butler. A film about a young African-American who served as a butler in the White House from the early years of Jim Crow to the election of Barack Obama. The film tracks the journey of the racial discourse through each era of race relations. The beginning scenes are set in a sharecropping farm with a cruel White master and his slaves working. The master grabs the  mother of the child-version of the butler and rapes her in a wooden shed where only the noise is heard. He then walks out amongst his slaves where the father of the butler protests and is shot in the head. No blood is shown, but the scene is still a disturbing one—I get it, why would I show such a thing in a professional conference?
Our intention was to magnify the power of context and experiential learning in the process of how one carries out their lives. The butler had always been hesitant of the civil rights and Black power movements, but at the end—which we showed as well—it depicted him joining his son at a protest for Nelson Mandela, something quite powerful as the butler engaged a new form of resistance and came to a much broader and radical consciousness. I shared with this woman—who was also Black—and she said she understood, but did not appreciate the clip and was upset that we showed it.
The romantic idealization of me as an awesome trainer on diversity in education, was broken…and my pride laid there in shambles—that’s what too much praise will do to you—and with a humbled heart, I began to listen.
Sometimes I think this phrase is
appropriate and other times
I don't. It's problematic, that's for
She said that we could not understand her feelings because we were not Black ourselves, nor of the African American experience. She is completely right. She mentioned that those kinds of images, that kind of tone and feeling that the film presented, shares a dark moment in history, something not to be exploited for a training on diversity where it will most likely not be truly understood or talked about; it needed deconstruction and a libratory dialogue where emotions could be dealt with and history contemplated, not overlooked. It’s horror is sometimes too much, because in some places things like this have not stopped. Nor has it’s racist attitude diminished, it has simply transformed into another vehicle—i.e. the prison system.
She ended her words with, “I hope you take this in the way that I’m telling this to you,” which was an incredibly gentle and soft manner, not angry just disappointed and somewhat sad. “Completely,” I responded, “and thank you, thank you so much for saying this, for having the courage to approach us and offer your words, thank you so much. I am learning, I think we all are, and your words will never be forgotten.” She smiled and I could only be disgusted with myself. Yes it was only her opinion, but I began to remember how a few of the older Black audience members also left after the clip and I could only regret showing the clip in the first place, regardless of my intention.
She mentioned the age difference, because a lot of the younger, not all, just some, Black professionals talked with us afterwards and applauded our presentation. Sometimes generational experiences differ, and sometimes they don’t, but that really isn’t important because I’m sure there were younger Black audience members that felt the same way.
The perfect example of the contradiction and tension of
race within the Latino umbrella. The young man is holding
a sign that says "I am Dominican too" in protest of the D.R.'s
new immigration policy on the deportation and stripping
of citizenship of anyone with Haitian ancestry. Global critique
has looked at this as a race-based issue against Black people
in the Dominican Republic.
She also said that we COULDN’T show such a scene in this context because we weren’t Black. Some people might get offended at this or become really defensive. I am not one of those people and I didn’t feel that way at all. I agreed with her. It is insanely problematic to show such images and continue with my presentation as if it did not affect me. OF COURSE IT AFFECTED HER! THIS HAPPENED TO HER PEOPLE FOR HUNDREDS OF YEARS! She wasn’t just seeing a fake scene of a Black actor get shot in the head, she was RELIVING that same oppression and violence!   
I cannot speak to the African-American experience and because of that I do not have a racialized knowledge about how to approach these things, and I typically do not have the right (the Black experience in my opinion is different than the African American experience because the term Black would include the Diaspora at large which includes many Afro descended identities and the many contexts that accompany them; the African American experience is a tragically unique experience in the history of race relations, Dominicans and Afro Brazilians may not be able to relate exactly but can adopt their racial politics). Because I cannot speak to the Black or African American experience—and this is important now so read carefully—I have to notice their racial realities are practically unknown to me and that I can pass through society without ever acknowledging their truths, and be perfectly fine.
Another moment of tension. Many Latinos offered
their voting power to President Obama in
support of immigration reform that supported
undocumented immigrants. Instead, his administration
is accused of record-high deportations, the
highest in decades.
In some ways, I can pass for White—an Eastern European White, Italian or Greek…etc. This helps me and grants me a certain level of privilege in society—not a lot but enough to get by. That privilege allows me to ignore any Black reality and still get ahead in society; like completely disregard it, and be just fine in the end. That’s the problem. I’ll go so far as to say that a lot of us Mesti@ Latinos ought to follow caution in this regard. We as a group, stand in danger of homogenizing the hybrid in our racial nature and having that become a dominant narrative, alienating both the Black and Indigenous experience—Rosa Clemente’s One-Third argument.  If you don’t believe it? Look at how many college campuses would rather focus on engaging the “Latino” population versus any of the other groups of color. This silences the narratives of too many of our brothers and sisters of color; these are narratives that may not have the population numbers to back them up in a board room discussing outreach and cost effectiveness. But we are not an investment, especially for or by any institution! This kind of discourse takes away from any attempt at solidarity, coalition or decolonization. They pit us against each other; divide us and leave the scraps for us to fight over them. These are distractions, and they are deadly ones if we are ever to be honest with each other about race relations in the U.S..  
What many people don't realize is that
there are many moments in U.S. history
 where Black and Brown communities
resisted together in solidarity. As early
as European contact, African and
Indigenous peoples set up rebellions
and even created their own communities.
During the Black and Brown Power
Movements, Brown Berets and Black
Panthers often worked together.
I will never forget her words. They made me reflect my privilege in a very profound way. I never like to say which group has it harder, but I think it’s important for us to check and challenge the way EACH of us thinks about each other. If she showed a film clip about violence perpetuated on a Latin American immigrant, I would get upset as well. There are certain things that we ought to think about before we act, and every process we encounter ought to be cognizant of the many oppressed realities that exist within our context. To avoid or discount them, is to participate in the erasure and exploitation of a group narrative. Talking about race and ethnicity is a difficult and complex process. It is a world filled with intersections across race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality. There is no easy way. It wasn’t meant to be. It was meant to act as a dividing force and to unlearn our colonization is hard, but doable. So continue challenging yourself. Continue learning and unlearning. Continue to listen, and take criticism when it’s given with love and with the intent to teach and share knowledge. Continue to resist mainstream ways of thinking; they will enslave you. Continue to make mistakes and continue to endure. The path to peace is a complex one as well as ongoing, but it is truly worthwhile and beautiful in the end.  
Always Learning Truths,

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Chicano NewYorquino & the Rise of OtHeR SeLvEs in our "Latino" Community

Identifying as Chicano is a choice, and one that has produced a sense of homeland, despite my not being of Mexican descent. I am the son of Honduran and Ecuadorian parents. What that exactly means? I honestly have no idea. I love pupusas and have learned about a regional Honduran context, local Garifuna and Maya histories, and not too much more from my Ecuadorian side except that we run off of Spanish bloodlines and a Nacza lineage—mind you this is powerful in itself, but I just didn’t feel connected. Not much more to it, although there could be I’m sure if I took the time. But I found something else that spoke to my struggle, that adopted me and rooted me in something, in somewhere. I am Chicano…

However according to mainstream Chican@ discourse being born of Centro and Sur American parents and raised under Caribbean urban influences in the East coast, really doesn’t qualify entry to the Southwestern borderland identity—I got to bleed Mexico in some fashion or another apparently. Whenever asked what I am or what I identify as, I mention my parents then that I identify as Chicano, but I’m scrutinized carefully and then told I can’t because I’m not a Mexican born and raised here. Whatever…fragmented, I guess is the best way to describe myself.

I came from one of the most diverse cities in the states, yet I felt that I could not classify myself. The term Latino proved to be hollow in defining who I was. I did not speak Spanish well, and Latinos from Latin America all called me Gringo. In other words, I was rejected. I could not claim their identity, nor their space, because I was not of them. Gringos/White people did not claim me either. White people would ask me where I was from, I stated NY but then they responded jokingly, “No, like where are you really from.” As if who I was had to be construed as foreign. Why did I have to be a stranger to this country?

I came in contact with the term Chicano in Utah through a book by Soledad O’Brian. Soledad described her experience as a journey webbed in social identities and opposing messages. She needed a label, but was surrounded by categories that had vied for her attention and fought for ownership. For the first time ever, I felt I had read something that spoke to what I was feeling, to what I felt haunted me my whole life—I believe Soledad had one hell of a journey too because her parents were Irish and Afro Cuban.

After Soledad I pick up on the term Chicano when I met other Latinos—specifically Mexican-American—who were not from Mexico but purposely re-identified themselves as from neither here nor there. I was amazed. This is what I felt, and they called themselves Chicanos. They seemed at peace with themselves, regardless of how often they defended their titles against Latin Americans. I began to search myself. Chicano authors like Corky Gonzalez, Sandra Cisneros and Rudolfo Anaya began to fill the void that broke me, fragmented me, and in their words I felt whole. In their words I discovered the middle ground, the separation of worlds and merging of perspectives, of occupying a mental state that was only intensified by a real-time geography experience.

I finally picked up Anzaldua—a Chican@ must-read—and never had someone’s words stimulate both body and spirit. Her writing was beckoning me to come home. Where? That was the thing, it wasn’t a real place I had to choose from; it was a space I could dictate and define according to my terms. The Borderlands. Anzaldua touched my heart and fulfilled me: “Until I am free to write bilingually and to switch codes without having always to translate, while I still have to speak English or Spanish when I would rather speak Spanglish, and as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate. I will no longer be made to feel ashamed of existing. I will have my voice: Indian, Spanish, white. I will have my serpent's tongue - my woman's voice, my sexual voice, my poet's voice. I will overcome the tradition of silence…I want the freedom to carve and chisel my own face, to staunch the bleeding with ashes, to fashion my own gods out of my entrails...” 

In mentioning Anzaluda, I have to be honest in that her literature very much represents the intersecting nuances of gender and sexuality at the same time as race. To withhold that information would fall on account of my privilege as male, and heterosexuality as a normative feature of society. Yet these additive features to identity—although I could not relate to and rightfully so—taught me so much more of the intricacy within the social constructs of self, and the power in disrupting categories by naming your own spaces. At the time, this was my gospel.

So I decided that I identify as Chicano. Why not? If race and identity is socially constructed, who are you to tell me where I belong and to who? The difficulty now is helping other Chicanos—specically Mexican-American Chicanos—come to terms with the fact that I too can identify as Chicano. Sadly, most Latinos and Chicanos have a very misunderstood and lacking conception of the term itself. Welcome to colonial imperialism 101.

Historically Chicano derives from the transculturation of Spanish and Indigenous language in Central Mexico originating in the conquest. One version contests that the origin of the term grew from the evolution of language in which Mestizos or Indigenous Mexicans came to be known as considering the real pronunciation of the Azteca people—the Mexica (the X being pronounced as a “sh” or “ch”). So one argument is the resulting cocktail of language that is used as a derogatory term to affiliate individuals who could not exactly adopt both worlds (Indigenous or European) or those who lived in the Northern lands till Mexico and the Western half of the United States were coerced as an imperialist strategy. This is one version and there are many.

But as we soak in the literature of the Chicano movement from the Civil Rights era and look at the anti-colonial aspect of what it’s formed into—a very anti-assimilationist project—we see resistance as a prevailing theme for what Chican@ truly signifies. Yes it might be a creative exchange of Spanish and Indigenous languages, but it is also the re-appropriation of resistance for a group who really had/has no home. It demands self-determination and representation. It seeks voice. That’s why the term speaks to me.

But what about the African or Black experience of Latin America? Does my identity not encompass that portion? Culturally? Racially? Yes. It does. 

Honduras and Ecuador are home to Afro-Latino demographics and to deny them as part of my reality would be disappearing them from a larger framework—this is how an entire people fade; their stories are never told.  Neither is this process new. Just like the Indigenous struggle of identity and representation, the members of the African diaspora in Latin America face an equally oppressive challenge.  No one wants to identify as Black…Colonialism part II—Mexico also had 4X as many African slaves delivered to their shores than the United States, FOUR TIMES as many, which suggests Mexico is just as much Black as it is Indigenous or European (you see, entire histories disappear)…

Mad love and respect to Juan Ernesto
(Tan shirt on the right) who passed
away. You're still in our memories
hermano...Rest in power...
I identify as Chicano but I can’t dissolve the Black experience of my identity, of the afros my dad’s side of the family dons naturally, of the cultural and racial salience my wife adds to the mix from the Dominican Republic, and the fact that my personal and familial community is now very Afro Latino. All of this adds to a complicated discourse on identity.

Nevertheless, as I seek to untangle and not fragment, but keep whole, I come to realize that there is true danger in the complexity that I’ve arrived at. Rose Clemente critiques the neutrality of the 1/3 argument, which is so contagious in the Caribbean—I am 1/3 Indigenous, 1/3 African, and 1/3 European. Contradictory to its own nature, hybridity results in the dominance and expression of ones identity, the colonizers’. This hides the racialized component of systemic oppression in one body. They will not see three in one, but only one; and it will be the most European, the most Western, the most White, and the most male. Politically this is a disadvantage.

Therefore, I identify as Chicano as a politically empowered front, but I take it a step further than that. I do what Junot Diaz does, I carry from the Caribbean and I introduce my other hidden selves by challenge through creation. I add my home geography because place and space are critical in this development, and I contribute with a contextualized Black experience of the Afro Caribbean. In other words, I arrive at my own etymology, my own conception of the borderlands and ocean gulfs: I am Chicano Newyorquino.

So let me make myself whole again, let me reintroduce the assorted voices into my one body, and by extension the knowledge I wish to share with my son one day. I’ve created the Chicano Newyorquino to withdraw from a Western categorization and deliver an alternative, something that speaks to my racial politics of adopting Atzlan as homeland, of resistance as dance and Santeria, of occupying, of disrupting, of transcending, of loving because my Brooklyn experience is all of this!…BUT…I say this with the understanding that a radical racial politics must also arrive for Centro Americano identities and Sur Americano bodies, LIKE ME! We can’t leave these folks hanging and expect that our alternative discourses naturally fit them or just plain old exclude them; yet they will have to define the parameters of their own philosophy—no one else should. It will be an in-depth and long project of race and decolonization. It begins ,and should be encouraged—not stifled—by all of us. In fact, it is beginning though with the heavy entrance of Central American youth into the United States from the frontera. People are beginning to realize that countries like Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras actually exist!

We as the mixed bodies of Latino parents now have an obligation to set up new spaces and disrupt current categories that would seek to label us. We must find the power to name ourselves and self-determine our bodies. If we feel like we fit into a current discourse, then let’s disrupt that shit! No one else should be doing this for us; not Chican@’s, not Boriquas, ni los Dominicanos, or other “Latinos”, and especially not White people. We must find a new means of existing and knowing—that we can do such a thing and in no one else’s shadow—or we risk our own narratives, and in the process…ourselves.


Note: I apologize for not adding references. If you'd like to know them please email me at 
I also feel that I did not explain enough about why we need a radical racial politics, why it's even necessary at all. Nor did I feel I provided a well enough application for Chicano to me. I hope you can forgive, but I just hashed it out and needed it out ASAP. One more thing, I want to acknowledge that my Honduran and Ecuadorean heritage have not disappeared. It's something I wish to search out better and understand more of. But I'd like to do this process with my son, and not by myself one day...