“Hola Daniella, please come in”, Wendy, Raquel’s Mom, said as I stepped through the door. It was spring 1995, the end of my freshman year in high school. A few months earlier Raquel’s family moved from the South End and bought a house in West Seattle. I was sad when Raquel first told me of the news. The family of my other BFF, Tisha, had moved from MLK & Ferdinand to Seattle’s Central District a year before. With Raquel gone I’d be the last member of our South End crew.
“I wish you could stay”, I told Raquel,”I’m going to miss having you so close!”
“I know, chicka”, she replied,”but at least I’m not transferring schools! Besides it’s not like we won’t be able to still see each other!”
Raquel’s words came to pass. Her move had no effect on our friendship, and my visit to their home that afternoon would be one of many over the years. I smiled to myself upon hearing Wendy call me “Daniella”. In the mouth of native Spanish speakers my name flowed differently than it did in English and the ‘e’ always changed to an ‘a’. I met Wendy in the sixth grade, as she worked as a teaching assistant at our school. I ceased trying to correct her pronunciation of my name and accepted that I would always be Daniella in her home.
As my relationship with Raquel grew I learned more of her culture and her family’s background. “El Salvador means ‘the Savior’ in Spanish”, Javier, Raquel’s father, explained to me as he pulled out a map. “But look at how tiny we are! What are WE supposed to be ‘the savior’ of?”, he said, erupting in laughter! Javier always had a smile on his face and jokes ready on demand. His humor and Wendy’s vivacious spirit were all the more amazing in light of where they came from.Raquel’s family fled El Salvador in the 1980s, refugees of a civil war that made life impossible for them. Javier and Wendy told me the stories of El Salvador’s disappeared, of the piles of corpses of those accused of being communists, of death squads entering churches and assassinating Archbishop Oscar Romero. Months after giving birth to Raquel Wendy would have to flee for her life, reuniting with her daughter two years later. Hearing of the struggle of Raquel’s family and of the damage caused by America’s actions in Central America in the 80s made me hang my head in shame. I would remember them years later, when immigration was hotly debated in the public arena. Even now my ears burn when I hear talking heads speak of people like Raquel and her family as lazy exploiters, coming to the USA to have ‘anchor babies’ and pimp welfare. Raquel’s story of displacement, war, and immigration put a human face to the facts in my textbooks and forever changed my outlook.
But Raquel and her family gave me more than bone-chilling tales of pain. They introduced me to a world different from the one I occupied, beginning with music. Unlike my family, which was too sanctified to promote any music other than Gospel, Raquel’s family LOVED music and dancing.Prior to meeting Raquel I had little experience with Salsa, and I’d never even heard of Bachata and Merengue. All three genres were mainstays in their household. I still remember the first day I heard Bachata, of how I instinctively felt the need to sway and throw my hips about. It was at a party at Raquel’s house. I thought I was doing a good job of being inconspicuous in my seat, but soon enough Raquel’s Tia Dulce was standing in front of me.
“Daniella, ven a bailar!” she said, extending her hand to me.
“No Tia Dulce”, I said shyly,”I can’t dance; I have no rhy-”
“BAILA!” she replied as she pulled me out of my seat. That day I found out that Latina Aunties were similar to African-American Aunts-neither one takes ‘no’ for an answer! Tia Dulce led me to the side of our makeshift dance floor, patiently and slowly teaching me the moves. With her guidance I found that I actually COULD dance when I stopped being self-conscious, relaxed and followed the rhythm. From that day on I’d get up and dance without being prompted, feeling the exhilaration that only comes when you surrender your body to the drums.
In the circle of Raquel’s female relatives I also found a place where my femininity could be admired and celebrated. I can’t recall my aunts or elder female relatives ever complimenting me on my changing body or making me feel anything other than shame regarding my growing curves. When they did comment on my body it was to admonish me to completely cover it up. With Raquel’s Mom and Aunts, however, things were much different. The girls were doted on, and coming into womanhood was something to be celebrated, not mourned. This would culminate with Raquel’s quinceanera that year. I watched in amazement as Raquel entered the venue, the belle of the ball in a lovely hot pink gown, her dark hair meticulously curled and lacquered. Once the formal part of the ceremony ended everyone danced and ate for hours, the wine and good times flowing freely.
In high school I would share the story of my initial experiences with Latinos back in Cali and my initial apprehension in speaking to her because of it. She listened quietly as I spoke, then sighed when I finished.
“I’m honestly not shocked by any of that”, she said to my surprise, “Latinos can be very racist against Blacks, even in the countries that have an African presence! The only reason I’m not like that is because my parents made it a point of raising me differently and called people out when they said racist things around me. And don’t even let me get started on Mexicans! You should hear what they about us Salvadorenos and other Central Americans!”
“Really”, I responded, intrigued and curious to know more,”there’s beef with y’all too?”
“Yes! They call us ‘double illegals’ and Central American refugees are not always treated well in Mexico. In general though there is much anti-Black sentiment in Latin America, which is crazy when you consider how many African slaves came to the region”.
My studies on the African Diaspora would prove Raquel’s words about the African presence in Latin America true. Spending time at her home watching Telemundo and Univision would show me that her cultures issues with Colorism and White Supremacy were similar to those found within mine in the United States.
Raquel was born in El Salvador; I was born in the United States. My first language is English; Raquel’s is Spanish. My skin is double chocolate; Raquel’s is cafe au lait. Yet even with the surface differences, as I got to know her and her family I discovered how much we had in common. In America I was Black and Raquel was Brown but none of that stopped us from being sisters.