Una cubana negra en labana. A Black woman in Cuba.
I was born in Havana on a mildly chilly morning. From what I know, the typical Cuban breeze was mostly idle. My mom was 25 and my father 27 — young for today’s standards. But they were married and I was their second offspring, 9 years apart.
We emigrated out of the destitute isla in pursuit of freedom. We lived in Miami at the height of the influx of Cubans arriving by rafts and other risky and wildly unfathomable means of transport: a makeshift raft designed with tractor trailer wheels, a motorcycle motor, and wood planks comes to mind. At the time, the coveted American city was replete with pride and accelerated anxiety to make a new life; to leave behind the horror Castro had falsely established on the platform on which he successfully ran. By all counts, Miami was the free Havana where cubanos could enjoy their culture, speak their language, go to the grocery store and shop in abundance, have running water (and toilet paper), and not wonder when the next apagon would happen.
We left Miami for DC to enjoy a more “American” culture when I was barely 6, having just learned how to speak English the previous year. I was young. A child. Until then I was just that — a child my parents loved and exposed my 3 siblings to this life vastly different from what they knew.
And just that quickly, I was more than just a child. I was a brown child that looked and spoke differently from the other children. We were the only non-White kids in a 3-block radius. In contrast to our diverse community in Miami, we stood out. My father is darkest in the family, having had really kinky hair at one point. My mother has strong Chinese genes and so is fair-skinned with dark black hair. My nose is far from a European or even Central or South American aesthetic.
Dad, Mami, Sis, and eldest Brother, circa 1983/84 in Miami
Within a year of settling into this new all-American life, a white boy, whom I considered my friend, called me “brownie girl”. Though we played almost daily, he felt incredibly comfortable referring to me by other than my name. What stands out still is that his tone was not a jestful one in attempt to parallel me to a perfectly warm kids’ treat. I was 7 at the time. His connotation was intentionally bigoted.
My fluency in Spanish wasn’t considered cool or “sexy.” It was a simple reminder that I was different. I ended up in a high school that boasted at the time a graduating class made up of 52 nationalities. You’d think our exposure to so many cultures in one building fostered open-mindedness and an understood blindness to color, but in truth, turned out to be a fostering tool to further develop those stereotypes. A Black female friend told me once in 10th grade if her kids ever dated a Hispanic, she’d disown them. She now has a 12 and 14 year old. I wonder how her feelings have changed. She remains to be one of my closest friends.
While I spoke Spanish at home, ate and cooked our native food (a combination of African and Spanish) and watched all the dramatic novelas with Mami, my experiences at school were different. I personally identified with the Black crowd. We dressed differently. We had different jokes. We had different hairstyles. We had different slang. I was friends with and only attracted to the Black boys. Truthfully, the White boys weren’t ever interested. I was too Black for the Latinos. But that affinity and identification to Black people led to ostracization by the Black girls. My light skin didn’t render me Black enough and so I was a “wannabe” to them.
Admittedly, I suffered through an identification crisis sometime during those 4 years. Ironically, most of my white friends, barring the kid down the street, didn’t seem to care what my ethnicity represented. I was just a tall, lanky girl. My Latin friends and I didn’t have anything in common other than our language. Those were my high school years.
While I happily came to terms with being a Black cubana, culturally rooted in Jamaican and Afro-centric traditions – our song and dance, our soulful food, etc… — it’s not been so easily accepted by my peers today. The wonder of my ethnicity and race is even more mystifying to an even larger group of people. White people have minimally weighed in and wonderfully don’t seem to care; at least not blatantly. Though an incident I personally encountered at UVA loosely represented the separatist culture on campus. However, and quite disturbing, has been the dissenting opinion I’ve received from some Latinos, namely Mexicans. Questioning my Blackness and my identification as such, no matter my late Jamaican paternal grandfather, has caused real riffs. I don’t have an accent. I wasn’t raised in Cuba. How Latina am I then? But the most baffling sentiments and questions have come from Black people. I was once asked to leave an event in Atlanta which was created by and hosted exclusively for Black independent business owners. Yes, this really happened. It was a prejudice moment where my Blackness wasn’t immediately noticeable and therefore didn’t qualify me as a befitting attendee. I wasn’t wearing Kente prints as many of the other event-goers were and my hair was tucked underneath a hat. I considered the environment and realized the limited mentality was more toxic to them than they could even see.
But even some of my closest friends have alluded to me not being a “real black person,” referencing my “good hair” or light(er) skin. A boyfriend’s mother disapproved of me because our “relationship mirrored that of Jennifer Lopez and Sean Combs” at the time. She went on to imply I’d not be a proper support system to his two young boys because I was culturally unaware. That same guy (lighter than I with green eyes) once suggested I would be a typical Latina stereotype. The unapologetic jokes continue and I gracefully laugh my way into beneficial situations where my ethnicity and bilingualism is celebrated.
But in all of my sympathetic glory of being a solid Black woman who happens to articulately speak Spanish, the lines drawn in attempt to pigeon-hole me into one class or another is simply ignorant. The African ancestry in my native island is just as strong if not more closely tied to the origins of Blackness than here in the US. However, my own Cuban people are arguably the first to call out Black people. The lighter you are in that nation, the more attractive you’re considered. A darker Black Cuban is treated with less dignity, I’ve eye-witnessed. There’s a present but unspoken deniability about our own.
Ultimately, the irony all lies in the aesthetics of a Black person. By first impressions, my facial features are more “Blackish” than a lot of my Black American friends, namely my nose. My natural curly hair is thick and full, more than most of my Latina-ish sisters. But we — Black, White, Latino, etc… — overlook that. There is no true reconciliation with my look and my race. At that same event in Atlanta, I note a very light skinned woman with much narrower features and similar textured hair, was allowed in without incident. The dangerous error made in our society today is to typify any one person or ethnic group.
Black is an American construct. The classification makes it facile for society to use a catchall word to describe anyone of the African Diaspora. Ideally, yes, our country of origin wouldn’t necessarily preclude us from acknowledging and loving our racial culture. Alas, we’re in a society where being Black is still equated with subpar existence.
Black is a culture. It’s a thought process. It’s a sensitive connection to disparity. Sometimes it’s not just black or white. My Cubanism doesn’t make me any less Black than my fellow Cuban actor, Laz Alonzo, whom to my knowledge is roundly considered a Black man. And I’m sure we both love our respective Rumba, Celia Cruz, and platano frito as much as we love our Marvin Gaye or the Electric Slide.
My family celebrated our 30-something anniversary of arriving in the US just last week. I’m as American as it gets. I’m as Cuban as they come. I’m as Black as I want to be. It’s my hope people see me for a thick curly-headed educated woman with strong convictions and heartful giving who speaks several languages.
Next, I’ll discuss the issues associated with our curly hair for both Black and Latin women.