When my family moved from North Jersey to South Florida in the late 80’s, I was a teenager. We had a new, rich, Afro-Cuban neighbor who became good friends with my Afro-Cuban mom. I recall that neighbor often saying to my mom, “Los negros somos la raza sufrida.” Translation: “Blacks are the suffered race.”
That phrase confused me. First of all, are we black? And if we are, where’s this suffering our new neighbor was referring to? I mean we both resided in this affluent, security-protected high-rise condo on the beach.
Over time, I kept thinking about that phrase as I observed the world around me. Regarding the “suffering” component of that comment, I observed that yes, no matter the part of the world being discussed; there exists a correlation between depressed socio-economic standing and the black race. The reasons for this marriage between these two factors are subject of much debate and focused study. I won’t attempt to delve deeply into it now other than to declare I find the correlation to be valid.
As for the question, “are we black?” for me, the answer is yes, at least in part (I expand on this notion in a prior post titled, “I’m Not Black, I’m Hispanic.”
Interestingly, it appears that the identification and meaning of one’s blackness is country-specific. In the United States, one-drop of black blood and you’re black by most accounts. However, throughout the world, the answer is not so “black and white.”
Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. tackles the subject of black identity in his current PBS series “Black in Latin America.” So far, he’s released video features on the Dominican Republic & Haiti, Cuba and Brazil. Here’s my simplified interpretation of how this documentary explains how blacks in these countries reconcile their racial identity:
- Dominican Republic – Due, in part, to their legacy of strife with their proudly black island neighbors, Haiti, Dominican’s generally resist the black label
- Cuba – Afro-Cubans embrace their black race, but are Cubans first and foremost
- Brazil – They proudly account for a multitude of color shades. Brazilians aspire for a color blind democracy but it eludes them.
The next two countries Professor Gates will address are Mexico and Peru (episode premieres on Tuesday, May 10th at 8 PM EST on PBS). It should be interesting to see how the narrative changes when the story of black identify is told from the prism of these Caribbean-centric nations to Central America (I realize that Brazil is non-Caribbean, but I view their cultural nuances to be more aligned with the Dominican Republic and Cuba than Mexico and Peru…I may be wrong).
Growing up in the United States, where the question of race and identity is simply boiled down to the “one-drop rule,” by studying Latin America, it is interesting to see how the story of race is characterized by such a broad spectrum of country-specific experiences. I’m intrigued to know how the story changes, or not, when we explore the history of race and identity in non-Latin America countries.
If I were to run into my mom’s old Afro-Cuban neighbor today, I’d tell her that her notion that “los negros somos la raza sufrida” is interesting, perhaps somewhat true but definitely incomplete.