“Tiene el pelo hermoso! No es como el pelo Negro” – My Colombian grandmother, about my daughter’s hair
“If you marry a *Spanish expletive for a Black person*, I’ll disown you.” – my Mexican father, to me when I was young
“Stay out of the sun or else you’ll get too dark!”- Latin American proverb
On Raising Paloma
I remember a conversation I had with my daughter’s father just before she was born. We were talking about the delivery and he said to me, with deep concern on his face, “What if she is dark?” My heart dropped. I looked at him with the despair of knowing that this was a real question, and simply replied, “Then she will be a beautiful dark-skinned child.” I think back on that moment often, because I realize that I never had that concern while pregnant with Paloma. While I certainly have consciousness around being a woman of color, I have no concept of what it means to traverse the world as a Black woman. What I know, comes from the books I read, the history I studied, the friends I have and from diligently watching how white supremacy and anti-blackness operate. Having an Afro-Latina child though, heightened my awareness.
Peace. It feels impossible some days.
There isn’t a day that goes by that I do not sit and ponder the kind of world my daughter exists in. I wonder how, in the years to come, she may emerge from her childhood and to a shade that keeps their proximity to whiteness and its privileges close at hand, ,but giving them the skin color people are born with, shamed for and often times places them in precarious situations in the midst of white supremacy. I have read and heard countless stories of Black girls being denied entry into spaces because of their hair, skin tone, and physical features while white women constantly consume this particular vehicle of culture without any ramifications other than being declared “pop culture icons”. And then I see the bodies. The bodies of indigenous women, Black and brown women, assaulted by police, disciplined incrementally more harshly than their white and white passing counterparts, interrogated about their presence in a certain space, and murdered- while waiting for the BART. How do you even prepare your child for a world that crue
I am careful, cognizant most times and constantly in a state of criticality now that I am a mother. Every choice I make comes with a large degree of analysis around how these choices might shape my child’s consciousness around her identity. I try to engender in her a strong sense of self and love so that she never questions the ferocity of either. Every choice I make around raising her is guided by my desire to combat the systems, people and institutions that she will inevitably encounter, that will try to diminish her spirit and steal her joy. I am committed to giving her the love, in all the ways I know how, that the world wants to deny her. Love is our weapon of resistance; I tell her she is a warrior, and a queen. She is everything that her father’s ancestors and my ancestors ever dreamed possible.
I do wonder what it means, for her to have me as a mother, a non-black woman, someone she resembles but who lives in a different skin and what it means to have a mother who doesn’t mirror you, in the ways that might matter most. I am also constantly trying to navigate giving her the beauty of all the culture that exists within her. Being Afro-Latina is rife with contradictions and is at times a contentious and precarious space to exist in. In 2018, there are a good number of people who still don’t understand the concept, nor the identity of Afro-Latinx existence. “How can you be both?” is often a question I hear. It is a testament to virulent nature of the mechanisms of white supremacy that Latinx identity, whose very culture is predicated in large part to the diaspora, can be seen as mutually exclusive of blackness. I wonder, when Latinx identity so often denies and excludes any narrative that includes Blackness how do I raise my child to exist in both spaces? Unequivocally, there is now and has historically been a pervasive anti-blackness in Latinx culture, and so to raise a child that straddles this divide, it is imperative that I create a space where it is safe for her to explore what it means to be a Black AND Latinx. There is so often, this compulsion for people to categorize, to put other people in packages that make sense to them in order to know how best to consume and determine their value. Afro-Latinidad complicates that for people, especially when so much of history has been either intentionally hidden or misrepresented. The ways in which “race” has been constructed, and it is precisely that; a divisive colonial construction, does not allow for brown and black bodies to exist in ways that might allow for nuanced representations of our collective histories. The legacy of colonialism has a great many people fooled into thinking you must either be “Latinx” or “Black”, because the idea that one’s proximity to whiteness is what not only differentiates them but privileges them. Colonialism tells us that Latinx idenitity then must not be associated with the “inferiority” of Black experience while simultaneously denying the very ways in which the African diaspora directly shaped what we know to be “Latinidad”. Just this past year, I went to an exhibit at the Hammer Museum entitled “Radical Women: Latin American Art 1960-1985”. That is a twenty-five year span of history, of a massive geographic space that consequently also has the largest population of African diasporic people– and yet, there was one Afro-Latina in the entire show, of about 250 works. When I tell you anti-blackness exists, this is how it persists in our institutions and globally. This is what we are up against. That we can deny and erase histories of black bodies where they have literally contributed to fundamental parts of a culture is not only irresponsible, it is dangerous. These are the ways in which “Latinx” identity becomes exclusive of Blackness. Paloma though, she not only complicates that narrative, her existence is a contemporary iteration of the many who have come before her in other spaces and times that directly forces us to critique and investigate the ways in which our identities have been shaped for us through white supremacy.
And so how does one occupy both spaces of being Black and Latinx? She is both. She is mine, and she is entirely what her father gave her as well. And because I am the mother of an Afro-Latinx child, I am not only more aware of how anti-blackness persists, I am always actively engaging in the work of shielding my child from it. I am not only navigating my way through my own womanhood, and my own cultural and political identity, I am also raising my child in a world that is constantly denying her humanity through the brutality, discrimination, pain and trauma of the many other bodies just like hers. This is where the intersection of my identification as a Latina and raising an Afro-Latinx child collide. I grew up with a father who constantly berated Black people, and who throughout my childhood, told both my sister and I he would disown us if we came home with a Black man. I have vivid memories of this. My grandmother is Colombian, and in her 90’s I recognize it isn’t an easy task to erase her anti-blackness, but it is certainly within my power to limit my child’s exposure to it. My mother, her daughter, is the only child she had with my Peruvian grandfather, and it is not lost upon me, that of her six children, my mother was the darkest child and the one with whom my grandmother is estranged. There are actual members of my family who support this fascist, racist and grotesque administration. I won’t let them around my child. I am careful about what images I expose her to through television, art and pop culture. It pains me when she gravitates towards cartoon characters that are mascots of white culture. And in those moments, I also recognize that I can’t control her, I can really only aim to shape her. So, when she wears a bathing suit with two white Disney characters on it (that naturally, I did not purchase but was gifted to her), I counteract that with taking her to a museum, or buying her a book that has characters of color in it and the music we listen to, among many other things. But this is my struggle, how to raise this Afro-Latinx child to love themselves without using whiteness as the tool she constructs her identity with. I know what it is to grow up around whiteness, and to never quite grasp your greatness or the multiplicity of your beauties. I am 36 years old and I still struggle with acknowledging and embracing my worthiness. Not that my mother didn’t try instilling this, but there were far more formidable forces outside of her that took hold of me. It took me decades to wrangle myself out of their grip. I want and hope that I am able to make that path towards understanding your worth and beauty much easier for Paloma. Perhaps because I have a background in education, and taught for so many years, I am always very keen to listen to the ways in which people speak to her. The ways in which they talk about her skin color, or her hair. When they say she is beautiful, I reply, “Yes, but she is also really intelligent and very funny.” I watch the way people to try to discipline her, and I see the harshness of their commands, and their impatience with her, that I know a light skinned child would not elicit. I listen carefully to the language used around her body, and I pay attention to how people look at me when I am with her. It is in protecting her spirit that I am preparing her from what lies ahead. I cannot shield her from everything, nor do I want to. What I can do, is equip her with the knowledge and character to defend herself and to trust her greatness.
Raising Paloma means many things, but of those, the first is that I raise my child to love herself. For me, what motherhood has released in me is a very strong commitment to knowing my child is loved and valued. This has really shaped the ways in which I interact with my family, my friends, peers and acquaintances–not to mention any lover or partner I choose. I have had to look very deeply at the people I allow into my home and into any space where Paloma is growing into her own being. I have been blessed to have a group of wonderful women, some I have known for decades, some new to my life, who bring both Paloma and I joy and a deep sense of community. Being a single mother, there is nothing more important to me than creating a community of vibrant, brilliant, kind and strong women for Paloma to belong to. These are women who I value tremendously, and who I feel deep sense of gratitude to for being in our lives. I am constantly in awe of my child. I watch her so closely and she is the only reminder I have that she is going to be just fine, not because of me, but because she has the blood of her ancestors ruining through her veins, and the infinite love of those invested in protecting her whom we have welcomed into our space.
I know we are going to be ok.