This story has been donated to the New-York Historical Society's History Responds initiative.
Growing up my father’s favorite nickname for me was “ni--er”, next only to Kunta Kinte.
As the darkest person in our Puerto Rican nuclear family (on both sides) the dark color of my skin was under constant discussion, constant ridicule. While my father’s behavior was and still is very troubling to me, I have always loved the color of my skin. I accepted that I was Black at a very young age because the world told me that it was important to accept that I am Black. I did not know at the time how super-charged that word is. It has only ever bothered me how much it bothered so many people around me that I was Black. It still does. For years I believed that I was adopted and that my real parents, an old Black couple with kind faces that smelled of cocoa butter—that I can still see so vividly in my imagination—would come pick me up one day in a ‘57 Chevy. The idea still comforts me. (I have no idea why a ‘57 Chevy. So be it.). I did see a picture once, of my 7-foot-tall, African (I am not sure how many generations before me) grandfather who had the most beautiful BLACK skin. He was darker than me, and I loved it.
I list Indigenous between Black and Latino when describing my identity because although it is the identity that is most mysterious to me—I experience that identity deepest in my core, always pulsing—calling to me. Maybe it is this mystery—a result of the rape, and genocide of the Arawak and Taino people that occupied the island that would be named Puerto Rico by colonizers—that makes my indigenous identity feel so deeply buried inside of me. Perhaps the night filled with spiritual phenomena that I spent with my Taino great-grandmother when I was a kid (she lived to be 105) left some of that deep impression on my soul. Recently, distressed that I had never known her name, I called out to my great-grandmother to ask her name. That night I heard a voice whisper what sounded like, “Ayoktol.” I don’t question the pulsing when it speaks. Her name was or I should say is Ayoktol. The mass genocide of the indigenous Arawak and Taino people who occupied the land now called the Caribbean and Antilles; and of the indigenous people of the land that is now called ‘The Americas’ is a story that remains largely untold and wildly understated —anesthetized intentionally from the consciousness of Europeans and their super violent offspring—the Americans. I highly recommend that everyone innervate their consciousness by reading “Tainos and Caribs: The Aboriginal Cultures of the Antilles” by Sebastián Robiou Lamarche and “An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States” by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.
For years I believed that I was adopted and that my real parents, an old Black couple with kind faces that smelled of cocoa butter—that I can still see so vividly in my imagination—would come pick me up one day in a ‘57 Chevy.
Finally, although my genetic heritage includes Spanish slave traders who committed heinous acts like rape, looting, and murder, I do not relate AT ALL personally to Europe and its colonization of the world. “Hispanic” in popular use, in my opinion, is a claim to Europe and to Whiteness (and the dangerous myth of European exceptionalism) that has zero appeal to me. I actually find the popular use of the word, especially among Anti-Black Spanish speaking people, quite loathsome! Also, I grew up in Alamogordo, New Mexico around Mexicans, far away from Puerto Rican culture, food, and language. So, I relate much more to “Latino” people and culture. And of course, I love my boricuas! Identity is not laden with mutual exclusives. Despite the seeming connotations of poverty and worthlessness in the popular use of “Latino,” I am most comfortable identifying as Latino, to honor my connection to Spanish speaking people and our cultures—and our languages. Spanish—New Mexico Nuyorican flavored—is my first language. In fact, I spoke only Spanish until I attended school, and it was beaten out of me—and news anchor level accentless English beaten into me. That experience, along with other severe traumas that occurred in the context of Spanish-speaking people, makes Spanish an emotionally loaded language for me to this day. The sound of native Spanish speakers causes equally strong feelings of comfort and discomfort in me. It is a strange feeling to try and describe. For a more thorough discussion of the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino”, I recommend starting with “‘Hispanic" and ’Latino’: The Viability of Categories for Panethnic Unity” by José Calderón.
There has always been a need to confront systemic racism. Always!
That said, I have mixed feelings about any type of terminology in popular use that dehumanizes racism. What I mean when I use the word dehumanize right now is: to make mechanical in our personal ontology of the world. Systems are created, maintained, and guarded by people. And so, it is people and the racism that lives in their minds, hearts, and souls (explicit and implicit) that I am most interested in confronting. What I mean by ontology is how we, as individuals and by extension, groups determine what is true and real—and what is not true and not real—about life and the world. Ontology is the DNA of belief. And belief determines all human behavior. If it is true, hypothetically, that White people are exceptional, then anything White people do is interpreted through the lens of a belief system that perpetuates a “truth” that they are exceptional. This is why, for example, a person like Dylann Roof can enter a Black Church, kill 9 innocent people, live to tell the police he is hungry, and allegedly have those same police officers bring him food fr