NATIVE SON: Guilty by Disassociation
by: Elliott Ray Lassi Lugo
The rainbow can definitely not be enough if one can still find it emotionally, spiritually, and at times, physically exhausting to even come close to fitting in the niche of one shade. Forgive my brother’s ignorance, but I’ll box with God to learn what he will learn tomorrow and in this case, I’ll keep him. Along with the purple colored bruises on my psyche; while I am trying to keep an objective tone, I can’t help but be subjective. So this can be a narrative… of sorts.
I turn 27 the first week of November this year, 2017, which makes it four years since I’ve come into my own blackness. Yes, I only discovered I was of African descent at age 23. No, I am not embarrassed, yes, something inside me told me this years ago. No, I didn’t bother to investigate ‘cause silly me trusted the NYC Board of Education would have that handled, but after reaching adulthood I realized ‘that was a lie’. Discovering - or better yet - uncovering facets of the diamond that is my genetic, my history, my story, letting them capture and reflect the light; if my story could serve as a guide for a brother or sister on the same journey, I’ll gladly accept that responsibility. The – for lack of a better word – Latino community is born into this with a dissociation to their own genetic gifts, history, and identity (not subconsciously, however, since colored folk have strong, almost unbreakable, spiritual gifts, but there is a conscious, working, functioning, living disconnect). I assume the only reason colored folk haven’t all been hospitalized (the same reason Joy de Gruy Leary’s Post Traumatic Slave Disorder theory won’t really adhere to the general consensus) is because the psychological community of scientists still can’t agree as to whether identity disorders are a by-product of trauma or an actual neurological defect. Nonetheless, our pain still won’t be acknowledged, felt, empathized, nor sympathized with.
Every child dreaded the days when their parent had to pick them up from school, but I never noticed the reaction my father’s presence would garnish; sometimes even prompting my teachers and classmates to ask under hush breaths like I was being put on to some kind “Elliott, you’re black?” – “No, I don’t think so… I mean, my dad is dark-skinned but we speak Spanish.” Right? That automatically excludes us from all those black people problems, right?
15 years later...
I’ve gone native. From having gone completely ignorant, to nearly considering joining the Black Panther Movement, I am now that guy at family functions and dinner time that can’t let a meal digest without having to mention the latest injustice just so everyone can feel as physically ill as I do. Life changing, much? Perhaps – “Baby”, fate said to me, (imagine Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost) “you black, girl.” Today, looking in the mirror, I fall in love more and more with my complexities each passing day – my nigga nose, my big lips that surprise people get when I kiss them (“damn, where’d those come from?”), and yet, I still experience an immediate fear when I consider the crucible that is my existence at this point in life. In recognizing a part of who I am and who’s side I am really on, where can I start playing the game and putting in the good fight? Calculate that I’m a gay man, high-yellow, casi moreno Afro-Taíno Europeño*, a New Yorker, living in post-9/11 America; the list of complications go on and on and on…
Finding the disconnection
Excuse me, but where can I report my grievances for having been lied to about my past, my people, and who it is I really am, and my place/function/position, in this world, in society, (or more like “American society”). It goes beyond introspection, actually prompting me to play the victim! – Do I blame my teachers for promoting lies? Did they know it was fantasy and nonsense? Or do I blame my parents for being ignorant to the fact and not sitting me down and explaining our history to us? I had to go and learn it for myself. The findings were, to put life changing when I sat my confused ass on Google and typed “where do Puerto Ricans come from?” What we’re actually learning about instead in our American History classes (from K-12 to University) is: 1) a dangerously, historically inaccurate and a sanitized description of the human condition and consciousness at the time; 2) a morbidly subjective, biased, and harmful interpretation of the experience from both the victor and the victim(s); 3) a story that cannot apply to most residents in the United States since (most) are not indigenous to the Americas. Ultimately, according to Labias Blancas, the story of our antiquity as colored folk begins in places like La Amistad rather than, y’know, Africa.
Purificando la raza
A myriad of factors contribute to this inherit disassociation that seems to permeate each generation of Afro-Latino children. If not from societal influences, this can be attributed to immediate or familial emotional traumas. Growing up afro-latino, in your lifetime you will hear things like, moreno, mulata, cocolo, Negro, mono – god forbid you are born into a colorful family, these terms can be malicious or endearing. The kind where your grandparents are white latinos (“naturales”) and the people in your generation range from rubia (Cameron Díaz) to café con leche/mulatto (Beyoncé, Mariah, Drake, Eric André), caramelo y chocolate (Tatyana Ali, Aaliyah), indio/a (Danny Trejo, Zoe Saldaña Nazario), negra(ita)/morena/o (Viola Davis, Denzel Washington, Whoopi Goldberg); you find this incessant need to separate oneself from this idea of blackness, sometimes using otherwise comforting and playful terms that are connected to flora and fauna, but in essence are very harmful and degrading.
Before our children master their mother tongue we are already conditioning them to believe that they are ugly. All things black, even the most beautiful features, are frowned upon in LatinX communities. Tight, kinky, curls… beautiful puffy afros are called el maldición (the curse), or brillo, after Brillo pads (if the owners curls are especially tight); bemba(s) for lips, anything that’s not pelo bueno (U got dat good hair). Mothers will tell their coming of age children “no te case con un Negro, tú vas a dañar la raza” (lit. don’t marry a black [wo/man], you will damage the race).
At the time of New Spain’s (New World territories under dominion of the Spanish Crown, i.e. modern day Columbia, Mexico, etc.) inception, while considering the influx of Africans to the New World, the Spanish nobility devised a campaign that offered free land in the Caribbean as an incentive to white European families who were willing to 1) pay their own way 2) swear allegiance to a) the Spanish Crown, and b) convert to Catholicism. The Cédula Real de Gracias (1815, Royal Degree of Graces, think NAFTA, but taking place on 4 continents) would stimulate a mass migration of Europeans to the newly colonized Spanish territories in the Caribbean and South and Central America. A feat that Spain had achieved in the 1500s after the expulsion/murder of the North African Muslim and Jewish communities that thrived in Al-Andalus for 700 years prior to the Gothic expansion – el Blanqueamiento (lit. the bleaching), or the whitening of the race – para purificar la raza (to purify the race). One of the most infamous cases of Blanqueamiento in recent history occurred the first week of October 1937 in the Dominican Republic when then dictator (and outspoken proponent of Antihaitianismo) Rafael L. Trujillo Molina, otherwise known as El Jefe, led a third-Reich style campaign across the borderlands of the Dominican Republic and Haiti that would lead to the extermination of some 5000 or more Haitians and Haitian-Dominicans (the figures vary depending on who you ask). The incident would later come to be known as the Parsley Massacre. In a speech in his hometown of Dajabón, Trujillo said to his people, “to the Dominicans who were complaining of the depredations by Haitians living among them… I have responded, ‘I will fix this.’… Three hundred Haitians are now dead in Bánica. This remedy will continue.” The pronunciation of the word “parsley” in Spanish (perejil) would decide their fate, since the French R is guttural (from the throat) and the Spanish R is an alveolar trill (from the tip of the tongue), the Creole would stick out like a sore thumb.
Today, 75 or so years after the Parsley Massacre, the government in the Dominican Republic is hell bent on finishing Trujillo’s work by exiling all Dominican born Haitians, stripping them of their citizenship, and in some (all) cases sending Haitian-Dominicans who have never been to Haiti, or even speak Kreyol, back to the western half of the island.
Disassociation as a Survival Tactic/Ancestral Baggage
In an effort to protect me (from people like Trujillo… or Jim Crow), provide social mobility, and make (good) use of my racial ambiguity, my mother gave me a Hebrew name at birth as opposed to a traditional Spanish name, because “no one is going to hire someone named ‘Ramón Lassi III’ or ‘José’ some Spanish shit… that’s why I gave you a white name. Trust me.” Call it social pressures, assimilation, a survival tactic, self-hate/pity. Some (for lack of a better term) African-Americans and Latinos are more inclined to attribute their color to being Indio, not Africano (I’m 1/16th Cherokee, Blackfoot, Navajo, Lenape, Mik’maq…), that even today, some younger Puerto Ricans and Dominicans renounce their European ancestry entirely and claim to be 100% Taíno indian when one gains new insight in regards to the European conquest of the Carib, Taíno and Arawak nations.
A prejudice practiced so fervently throughout my family pathology has trickled down the generations so much that today my mother causes me to cringe when she calls a black man a monkey. Ay, “pero si no es dinga, es Mandinga – y tu aguela, a’onde ejtá?” reads a famous Puerto Rican poem that highlights an example of disassociation with blackness by asking the reader about a [his] particular dark-skinned relative that is kept out of public view, “and your grandmother, where is she from?” Should I bring the topic of blackness to my brothers, I am met with mixed responses. The 19 year old argues ‘I’m Puerto Rican-Dominican and that’s good enough for me, we’re not black’ whilst the 15 year old says ‘wait, we’re black? That’s so cool’. It’s hard to pin-point where this disassociation within my generation came from. Not my own family per se, but within certain groups of my demographic. I realize that there can never be a way to separate the Latino from the African culture since the two are so heavily entwined, you would – like a tapestry – unravel if you tried. Considering this history, it’s no wonder my paternal grandparents (both Haitian-Dominicans by genetic and cultural heritage, and namesake), barely legal, changed their names and left to Puerto Rico in the mid-1960’s before finally settling in New York City. This just being an immediate case of ancestral baggage, having explored my family tree and researched my lineage back to Puerto Rico’s colonial era, I learned that I am the descendant of both slave and slave owner.
Diamonds from Sierra Leone/The African Mystique
I was born to a light-skinned Puerto Rican mother (we call them Jibara; the white peasant mountain folk, otherwise known as Campesinos) and a dark-skinned Haitian-Dominican father, moreno. My father’s side never spoke of their Haitian ancestry and even denied the possibility when I confronted my grandmother; this was another piece of information I had to find on my own. Both of my parents practice Santería, a denomination of a Yoruba religion that became syncretized with Catholicism in an effort to covertly practice their native religion. The stories of the Converso Jews that secretly practiced Judaism while pretending to be Catholic in Spain, and Angolan slaves that brought Capoeira with them to Brazil and hid it within their communities, closely parallel the experience of the Africans in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
Today, at social events, should I find the group of Latinos that I can communicate with using this method of language and dance, we are probably still met with the same apprehension, confusion and fear my ancestors received from the public for openly practicing their method of worship. Even once being told by an (Afro-Latino) attendee to “miss [him] with that shit” when I would sound a cowbell near his general vicinity. While I can’t vouch for Dominican music (since I didn’t really grow up listening to it) but, there are plenty of songs from Puerto Rico that highlight the effects of racial prejudice and its personal and social consequences. Much like the Fortunato Vizcarrondo poem previously mentioned, Ismael Rivera’s El Negro Bembón narrates a racially biased murder when after lloró el mundo noche y día, porque el negrito bembón/ todo el mundo lo querian, the assailant confesses to killing the man solely because he was black, causing the townsfolk to “escond’a la bemba porque ahí viene el matón.” Exemplifying a pre-existing discourse on the matter of acknowledging and embracing the entirety of your genetic being, but there is a palpable fear that exists in this range of conversation that can make abuela’s sweetest dinner go completely sour with the mention of any black ancestors; possible or otherwise.
Call it an African Mystique; everybody wants to be black until it’s time to be black. I found blackness in music, in body language, in the way my family treats people; strangers and friends. Without the help of textbooks or teachers, or class or university (and hardly ever sober) I let my intuition lead the way and through experience and raw sensuality I discovered my blackness through life itself, in observation and reality; in the rhythms from Jamaica and Trinidad, the way black brown and red people move their bodies. Percussion is our common denominator, a heartbeat, and everyone moves the same. Salsa, Kizomba, Lambada, Merengue, we’re holding each other close and our dances mimic birth, life, death, and rebirth, and I can’t help but get low-low-low and bow my head in tandem with the offbeat.
Through the help of technology and some of my peers who have provided me with an intense yet necessary introduction that I’ve been receiving as to what it means to be a child of Africa, it is safe to say that I’ve embarked on an unorthodox pilgrimage; one that is afforded through the help of the Internet, dubious study, and raw experiences since I lack necessary the means to leave and experience these places myself. Instead, I recently completed my own DNA test after reading about it in several media outlets, and even some friends have had life-altering revelations after reading their genetic breakdown, and I wanted to explore this realm of science and history so a friend bought me my DNA test. This is a most fortunate experience and I implore everyone – especially POC – that I meet to explore this technology.
It is one thing to know ‘okay, I have African ancestry’, but to have the name of a place that signifies a specific point of origin, and the name of a tribe of people that you have blood connections with is especially humbling. In hindsight, the phrase ‘you attract what you are’ has to be the truest statement I can ever attest to, for I have always made significant relations with African-Americans who maintained a connection (immediate or distant) to Senegal, Ghana, Benin & Togo, Côte d’Ivoire, and especially Nigeria. Matching higher genetic percentages with these places than I did within places in Europe. In hindsight, I can say I always knew this, but I can appreciate that I came to know these things as I entered young adulthood as opposed to having a traumatized youth.