The legacy of White Supremacy and institutionalized racism are subjects which I’ve written about and discussed extensively. I’ve addressed them so often and so unrelentingly that it has caused certain individuals to accuse me of being ‘racist’ and hating White Americans. It would probably come as a surprise to said individuals to learn that the most painful, bitter experiences I’ve suffered personally regarding race and color have actually been in my interactions with other people of color. In this four-part series I will discuss the evolution of my relationship to Latinos, and how a friendship helped me open my mind and my heart.
The lesson that blackness made me different and inferior to others was not one I picked up from a white person. I discovered this at the age of six years old, from the parents of my Mexican-American best friend Sandra. Sandra and I were like peas in a pod from the beginning of the school year. I was excited when Sandra’s birthday neared and looked forward to attending. My happiness turned to shock when Sandra told me that her parents said I couldn’t come as Blacks were not allowed in their home. My young mind couldn’t understand why my color should bar me from attending. It was unfair! My Mama never did the same! If my Mama could be fine with me having non-Black friends like Sandra over why couldn’t Sandra’s parents let me come over? A week later I felt left out listening to my White and Chicano classmates talk about Sandra’s party. Sandra and I remained friends but I never let go of the feeling that what her parents did wasn’t right.
My exclusion from Sandra’s birthday party would be the first in a string of episodes on Black-Brown tension. When I began the fourth grade my family moved to a different neighborhood of San Diego. My neighborhood was predominately Chicano. Our next door neighbors were Chicano, and soon after moving I became friends with the youngest daughter of the family, Candice. Candice and I were the same age. We spent long hours playing on the sidewalk in front of our place, joking and smiling as children do. As with most kids we occasionally had disagreements. One Saturday things became particularly ugly. I can’t remember what sparked it exactly but I can still see Candice’s face flushed in anger. “You just WAIT”, she snapped, “I’m going to have my sister deal with you!” With that she turned on her heel and ran up the stairs. Less than two minutes later I heard the plodding of feet stomping down the stairs. True to her word Candice had summoned her sixteen year old sister Beatriz. “Candice I told you to stay away from these fucking mayates “, Beatriz spat. She stepped closer to me, poking me in the chest, “You worthless little black piece of shit “, she yelled, “if you ever upset my sister again I’m going to stomp your nigger ass into the ground!” The sight of Beatriz stomping towards my direction was bad enough. Hearing her use such racialized insults-and the look of joy on her face as she did so-made me shake with fear. I knew that word was bad; it was not used in my family. I’d been taught that there was no greater insult. Shaken, I retreated inside. I did not play outside for days, scared to run into Beatriz and Candice. My Mama asked what was going on. I told her the truth. She fumed. “Danielle why didn’t you tell me about this when it happened?” I didn’t know how to answer her. My Mama was strong and defiant, telling me to be proud and always stand up for myself. So how could I tell her of how bad I felt listening to Beatriz, how the pure shock of it left me immobilized? “I don’t know why Mama”, I mumbled. She sucked her teeth. “That girl had no business talking to you that way! I’m going to deal with this!” And deal with it she did, knocking on Candice’s door and telling her mother how unacceptable she found Beatriz’s behavior. Though Candice would return to my door days later wanting to play, my mother told her to go away. “The parents are where Beatriz gets it from, Daniellee”, she said, using one of her nicknames for me. “You don’t need to be around people like that”. And with that I lost my second friendship with a Spanish-speaking little girl.
The situation at school wasn’t much better than the one in my apartment complex. Whereas the school I attended from grades 1-3 was about 70% white, 20% Chicano and 10% Black, my new school was 95% Chicano. That was when I discovered what it truly felt like to be a minority. The Chicano kids referred to all the Black students as cucarachas, mayates and the all-American favorite niggers.No exceptions were made based on how light or dark you were. Diona and Deirdre, a pair of honey-bronzed twins from Louisiana with wavy hair that hung down their backs like thick ropes, were harassed and insulted for being black just as much as I was. There was one benefit,however, to all of this: the handful of Black students had each other’s back. In an environment where we were so outnumbered fighting among ourselves wasn’t an option. The shoddy treatment we all received and the solidarity it bred was one of the prime reasons my later discovery of Colorism and self-hatred between Black kids would be such a disappointment to me two years later in 1991.
Though much of my interaction with Latinos in Cali was marked by hostility there was one glorious exception: my neighbors Ms. Eva and her daughter Roxanne. Ms. Eva and Roxanne lived downstairs and were Puerto Rican. Ms. Eva was like an older Aunty to all of us, making us desserts on the weekend and letting us play with her makeup and costume jewelry. Aware that Ms. Eva’s honey beige foundation wouldn’t work on me I instead played with her black mascara and pranced around the apartment with one of her feather boas. I knew that Ms. Eva and Roxy were different in some way from the Chicanos I’d met. One Sunday I discovered why.
Bored in my room I decided to visit them. When I knocked on the door Ms. Eva beamed. “Come on in little one, you can eat with us!” I stepped in and saw a middle-aged couple , a six year old boy and a sixth grader I knew from school, Becky. When Eva introduced them as her cousins I was confused, because they all looked like they could be members of my family. Indeed, Becky ‘s deep cinnamon skin wasn’t much lighter than mine. The thick tangle at the roots of her relaxed hair revealed that we had the same hair texture. I’d assumed that Becky was Black American like me, and I’d previously thought that Latino meant one looked a certain way. Forgetting my filters and my home training I blurted out my confusion to Ms. Eva. “You and Becky are related? But they are all black like me; I don’t get it!” To their credit they laughed at my confusion but didn’t get offended. Ms. Eva gave me a brief overview of the history of Puerto Rico, explaining that many Africans were brought to the island and that Puerto Ricans came in all colors. Thanks to Ms. Eva and her family I learned that Latin America wasn’t all European and Indigenous; there was an African presence in certain nations as well. The warmth and acceptance that they showed me-in contrast to what I received from Chicanos-gave Puerto Ricans a special place in my heart. And though I never traded racial insults with the Chicano kids or responded in kind I grew to fear and distrust non-boricua Latinos all the same. But two years later I would leave sunny San Diego for the city of my birth: Seattle, Washington. And in the sixth grade I would meet someone who would forever change the fear and prejudice that had already seeped into my young mind.