According to Merriam-Webster, the term Latina was invented in the 1970s to describe a woman who is a native inhabitant of Latin America living in Latin America or the United States. Merriam-Webster, however, does not consider Afro-Latina a word. In America's most trusted dictionary, Latin American people of African ancestry do not exist. It is an unofficial term attributed to those who have felt the noose but have only loosely been hung by the tree. Or maybe she is the tree? The way her roots always got they foot on the neck of all cultures. Thank a Black woman for always giving you something to be micro-aggressive about. To fawn over in disbelief.
Latina, an adjective that behooves to be seen. Afro-Latina: a myth. A folk tale. A thing she becomes after the search party leaves. Like she hadn’t been standing there all along. Clearing the forest, while you grind her bones to fertilize the soil. This isn’t a metaphor for Black-girl-magic or anger. This is me, no longer flat ironing my ‘fro to fit inside a term dependent on my proximity to whiteness.
I am not Black and Latina. I am a Black Latina. I am an anomaly strangers whisper about, confident my tongue don’t conjugate like theirs. I am creating my own eulogy before they write me out of the wrong story. Contort my surviving into their savior. Build me a shrine to die on. Haven’t we always been damaged goods? Sold at a bargain price. Carbon-copy us into ash. Snap their fingers and blow us into dust. Her silhouette, the standard. Her Afro, a wig they take on and off. Her melanin packaged and sold. Her culture, a billion-dollar commodity. Merengue. Bachata. Salsa. Rumba. Samba. Tango. Name a beat her hips ain’t formed. And twerked into baile. Into ritmo. Into música. When Celia says, La Negra tiene tumbao she is speaking for millions of Afro-Latinas who go missing in history books. On television. In movies. In conversations about their own identities. In real life. Afro-Latinas. Black women. Poor women. Marginalized women. Are targets. Are dying. And those who love her culture won’t attend her funeral. Will not speak of her life. Instead tape up her house. Ready to thrift and shop her culture away. Buy up heirlooms and call them spicy. Bloody red with passion. Do you see it? How easily Black girl becomes wallpaper to the building of her own identity. A mime always in front of her to edifice a movement.
My culture is not your cash crop.
My mother's country is not your paradise.
My bilingual tongue is not your inquisition to crusade over.
Dicen que "soy Latina," until I start talking about colorism.
Until I check them on erasure.
Until I choose to speak on my own behalf.
Until I remind them my Afro comes before Latina.
Volvio Juanita /
Mami & Papi
back to the States. Mami lost her tan. Papi lost his patience. Mami packed a mystified mirror of nationalism. Papi packed hair grease, an Afro pick, and a Presidente. Mami forgot if she was ever really Black since she was taught to be everything and nothing. Mami, daughter of Juanita, was born with kinky hair and confused roots and maybe ignorance became her bliss and beauty as much as it became her birthright. She packed hair relaxer, rolos, and cigarettes. Papi never got to tell us how he made peace with his dark skin. His skin made white women clutch their purse. His skin got him arrested at customs for human trafficking. His skin-the type that got you calling your light-skin mama to hire lawyers and pay bail. His skin got people making all types of assumptions. Skin that made cops ask for papers and receipts. Skin. All it takes is a particular shade of skin. Skin that left Mami with 3 unambiguously Black babies and stares. Skin that let them know exactly what Papi looked like. Casket fresh & Black. Skin that called us Negro, Prieto, Moreno, Africano. Anything but Blanco, fino, pelo bueno. I once heard someone in my family call us indiecito and I laughed. You mean, Indigenous as in African? As in,
the Blacker the berry, the harder it is for you
to loosen the noose.
What are you
-arranged marriages and feminine virginity.
-Telemundo and BET.
-Beyoncé and Fefita la Grande.
-mangoes and plantains.
-hammocks & daily naps.
-coconut oil and olive oil.
-the exploitation of my father's strength.
-the fetishizing of my mother's beauty.
-a palo dance circle in a batey and a swag surf in the club.
-Caribbean spice & Southern BBQ.
-humorous Black Twitter and sad-girl memes.
-yo' mama jokes and afterschool cyphers.
-the trauma of Trujillo and the hope of Obama.
-a New York City summer and a Dominican winter.
-the exhaustion and excitement of having to answer
a question that seems as foreign as you.
Smuggling a Mango
Origin: The mango is native to southern Asia. It spread early on to Malaysia, eastern Asia and eastern Africa. Spanish and Portuguese explorers of the fifteenth century brought mangoes to the Caribbean along with genocide, slavery and whitewashed religion.
I tried smuggling a mango through customs. I got caught and pulled to the side. They asked if there was anything in my bag that could be incriminating. I confessed; I’ve got three mangoes from my grandmother’s garden. He opens my bag and confiscates them, leaves the bottle of foreign liquor and winks at me. I don’t tell him that the mango is more valuable than the liquor. I don’t tell him that this mango has helped nourish a home out of many shamed bodies, a dysmorphia of scattered features. That America has waged a war on anything foreign, including organic fruits, cultures and people. I don’t tell him that he is building a wall on my childhood and that this is a souvenir from a tiny paradise. I don’t tell him that I wonder if he would be giving me such a hard time had I been a White tourist co-opting “tropical vibes” for the aesthetic of erasing Indigenous cultures and people.
Right before stealing my mangoes, this white Latinx man proceeds to say, “Pero eres una morena bella y que tu eres?” Which translates to, You are such a pretty Black girl, what are you? I chuckle or choke. Finding it not-so-funny how anti-Blackness translates so well. His question posing between bleach and sun. A fetishized love trial. My genetic makeup, a lab experiment. How even the language of romance has a fear of Black beauty. How startling of me to be pretty for a Black girl in two separate languages. Assimilate to these constructs of beauty and still be seen as collateral damage. Me, market-fresh produce waiting to be spritzed and labeled. Appraised at a boosted bill for the joy of stuffing me into two different boxes. Both Black and foreign. Both Black and woman. All foreign and Black and woman. How the prickling of my skin fumigates his slander, pulpifying my pride back into its fruit.
There is not enough juice in me today to come up out this pacified demeanor. Not enough code switching to stitch me back together. I smile, all nervous, all shaken, still unbothered with white probing, all light skinned and some privilege. Still tired. Still zesty and firm, denying another man agency to comment on my body. Reminded that I am always the question mark at the end of, What are you mixed with? I reply, Have you ever tried chewing on a mango seed? Don’t.
before the girliesss tussle 'bout it
remember that manhattan is an island too
i was raised in loisaida, the lowa, baruch projects
the crevice between the fdr drive & the ave
i wasn't born an island gyal
but the vibes suit me
ni de aquí ni de allá is a farce
and i would like to move past the fallacy
of claiming nothing when you're made of everything
some women have labored in boats
some babies are born over ocean water
some of us have wasted too much time wading
in water instead of living and winning
this is the poem that dances with both hips
this is not to discredit the confusion or pain
this is just a reminder that all energy has purpose
and wouldn't you rather spend it whining that waist
and touching the earth than explaining
to some uncultured fool how you,
poor you, blessed and favored you,
were gifted too much culture
and too much light
and too much talent
and too much body
and too much history
and too much autonomy
and you foolishly have no idea what to do with it.
The first time it happened I was five. A baby tooth that got punched in by my oldest brother. It slid pass my tongue and clung to my throat. I swallowed in horror. He laughed with honor. He thought himself heroic and mighty. I learned fear before I learned words. He says it was already unhinged and he, gentle boy, tried to be helpful. I hadn't yet mastered ducking and he hadn't learned the word femicide yet. The way it forces a fist in your mouth leaves the shape of a woman trapped on an underground train looking for an exit begging to find her next breath.
The second time I was seven and Lloyd pushed me dramatically to the ground. I was devastated. My crush on him would have to fade for he was a boy with an anger problem and thought little girls in overalls were worthy stepping-stones. I counted my scrapes and stopped daydreaming about Lloyd and tulips. I built a barbed wired fence around my skin, called it a garden and buried what was left of my baby teeth within the soil.
The third time I was ten and breathless. My fifth-grade teacher whom I liked, broke my heart. More than broke, left me feeling less human and more monster. She called me mean and bossy so I learned to shrink and hunch more. I spoke less and listened more. I developed scoliosis and anxiety. I developed imposter syndrome and a tiny white woman inside my head who was always telling me what a mean and bossy, unloved little girl I was. She smiled at her achievement, receiving a teacher-of-the-year trophy. I smile at her entitlement. I learned that monsters are good at teaching others to swallow teeth for fear they might never find the strength to uncover their own.
The fourth time I was twelve and Jacob with a hairy unibrow said my arms looked like Chewbacca. I said right back atcha. But I went home and cut off skin in an attempt to shave off the hair clinging to my arms. The meat of the cut trampolined up and the scar would not fade. My forever insecurity blanket. This time I swallowed more than just teeth; the blood made its way down my throat just as easily.
I decided once the baby teeth were gone, I would stop dying a little each time someone asked me to swallow their disdain, their fears, their reflections. There was nothing left to swallow but my own truth. Instead, I learned to sharpen my fangs, I learned to chew my food nice and slow. Swallowing teeth taught me to spit up all my inhibitions and give birth to all the versions of me begging to be freed.
Coming to America
in III Parts
The year is 1963 and Rafael Trujillo, a gruesome dictator in the Dominican Republic, has been dead for 2 years. The government is unstable and the United States has offered visas to those who can afford it. My grandmother has six kids and three baby daddies, she's ready to leave this country and her triflin' ex-husbands behind. She buys her way out of the country and settles in the promised land. Señora Luisa exhausted all the teachings of ladyhood and societal clout as the daughter of a Dominican politician in Santiago to prove herself worthy of a green card. Before her Prince Charming came along, she spent her days sewing up a blanket of dreams. Needling through years worth of fabric to afford her children's residency in America. Coming to America affords you the luxury of making a little less for the promise that one day your kids will make a little more. Isn't the American dream so ridiculous and enticing?
My father, a newfound American citizen, arranges to marry a woman he has only met on the phone, thus becoming my mother's ticket out of a poor Dominican ghetto. This being what the '90s taught me about how beauty and virginity were exchanged for passport stamps or the Dominican virgin rendition of Pretty Woman. My mother is 21, an unplucked flower desperate to see more than the garden she has grown too big for. My great-aunt has convinced herself she is a botanist matchmaker determined to pair an orchid with a black rose. And maybe even have their first sprout named after her. My father, smitten with the idea of being the first to pluck this orchid, travels through fields to reach her. Notice how much we are conditioned as women to use our bodies and beauty to survive? There is nothing foreign about this cycle of romantic entrapment.
My coming to America: how a first-generation American learned the ropes to dodging the hard questions like, Where are you from? and How are you Black but speak Spanish? whilst seemingly having blue passport privilege all the while growing up in the projects of New York City. I don't know much about struggle, is what I have concluded. I do know I have yet to see a crystal stair. It's been tight walkups ten flights above and the elevator, always broken or unhinged. My mama and neighbors' tempers and paychecks hanging by a loose thread. The baby bloods threatening me with a butter knife. They called us underprivileged or underserved. Either way, we so invisible in this city. It's been hot sweaty train rides to the Bronx and back. It's been summer flights to visit family living in wooden cabins. It's been amoeba pains from drinking unfiltered river water. It's been poor but at least we hoodrich. It's been the best time of my life during the worst of circumstances and conditions. I have nothing but grace and glory for the tiny hoods and barrios that raised me.
a newlywed american portrait: my mother & father
handcuffed at customs
i picture them so innocent and young. maybe they wore white linen as newlyweds often do. outfits coordinated and tailored. the air on the plane from haiti to florida smelling like vanilla cake and champagne. the flight attendant is singing, "por que dios te hizo tan bella." i picture them dancing salsa as they land in miami. the humidity, their hips swinging. security already warned, keep an eye on them. they must've seemed too joyous and carefree. too busy smiling and dancing onto the promised land. i picture my mother six months pregnant with my oldest brother. my father, a nervous happy wreck. my mother, angry that he claimed her as his own. my mother, insisting she does not know this man. my mother, hoping he makes it out free so he can send help. my father, reaching for his new wife. my mother, calm and calculated. my father, pulls out his blue passport as if it were a trophy. my father and his trophy wife are being detained. my mother knowing, they know, her documents are fake. my mother and father handcuffed at customs. my father, fitting the description of el machete, the lawyer he paid off who made immigration easy for so many. with his help, you no longer needed to climb a border or survive a boat ride. with his help, you could make it to the states on a first-class seat. with help, reparations came faster for caribeños. with access, thousands of families got to eat good, not just enough. the truth is, i come from immigrants who came from immigrants who came from stolen people who learned to survive on land they did not steal nor did they inherit. they simply squatted and plotted and peeled themselves a meal, an acre, a home. i come from loopholes and grievances and immigration lawyers who get paid to turn a criminal into an exceptional negro. i come from detention centers, and green land, and busy saintly streets. and maybe this is not my land but who is more deserving of it than me?
Copyright © 2023 by Melania Luisa Marte. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.