Honestly, as time has gone on, its a question I realized I don’t care to answer. Life as a dark-skin Dominican hasn’t been easy on me psychologically. Its been kind of difficult and still is to an extent. Black folk criticize you when you say you’re Latino. Latino folks question you even being Latino. There’s really no winning in this situation.
Now, I don’t want you to think that I’m this guy that harps on race/color because Im really not. I’m conscious of it every day of my life, but I don’t engage in a conversation daily. I just want to continue to give you an inside peek to who I am and what has brought me to this point.
Growing up, I was the only kid in my grade each year in elementary school that was dark-skin along with my friend Albert and Marcos at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs on Arden and Dongan Street. Marcos was Dominican and came on late around 7th grade. But me and Albert were there from the beginning. Albert wasn’t Dominican and he didn’t speak Spanish. But he sure loved him some rice and beans. Boy, that kid and Goya products at my house, Angel’s, or Melissa’s were inseparable. A special shout-out to him out in the Black Mamba’s city schooling the youth.
Now, I’m not totally sure if Albert ever felt out of place or things were said to him that he’d consider derogatory going to OLQM. I would have to ask him. While in school, I would say the jokes began in sixth grade. I received some ‘black/dark-skin’ jokes I tried to quell but never could – even from some of my ‘closest’ friends to this day. Though they say it in a Dave Chappelle jest and its not malicious, it still bothers me because I’ve lived with hearing it for so long. So even though I won’t name ‘you or ya’ll’ by name, ‘ya’ll’ know who you are and just give it a rest.’
Continuing, one of the crazy parts about being 1 of 3 dark skin dudes, is that one of them, Marcos, would throw the same insults that others threw at me. If that’s shocking to you, it would be to anyone with minimal knowledge of Dominicans. But that’s something common that makes the whole Dominican identity issue even more complex. The darkest skinned folks will swear they have no Black ancestry. As many like to say, ‘its behind the ears.’
In relation to Marcos and other Latinos like myself, I have no problem with anyone that’s dark skin and identifies themselves as strictly Latino. That is fine by me. I used to do so myself and felt I was doing wrong. But looking back, there really was nothing wrong with it. What I consider myself is what I consider myself. My issue lies when you treat having Black ancestry as a plague of some sorts. That really messes with me. I can expect it (sorry) from the lighter ones, who although have black features, deny it. But the dark skin ones?
Man, I have some family friends who at functions would call me ‘un moreno fino,’ also known as a refined Black man. As if the opposite were to be a savage. When a fellow relative called me Black, one of my relatives said: ‘No, he’s white just like us.’ Look, I’m not Cornel West and I’m not Michael Eric Dyson. I’m not getting into a discussion about race with folks who are 50,60,70 and their beliefs are pretty much cemented. It’s really not worth it at this point.
Back to Elementary school, while there, Marcos threw the same color insults at me because he was a little lighter and had that Sosa Rookie Year Jerri Curl popping off staining his baby blue uniform shirt. But I forgot to mention that he also wasn’t a star elementary basketball player, made the CYO City All Star Game, is a local basketball legend (Jay-Z: Ask about me), dated a few notables, and won Best Athlete in our school either (tap on my back like the wrestler Barry Horowitz). As Barack would say: ‘I’m just speaking the truth.’
But in reality, the only reason these insults continued to come at me all the way through 8th grade and some High School years was because I allowed them. Guilty as charged. I didn’t fight them; I rejected them by saying I wasn’t black, an ‘N’ word, or whatever they chose to call me. You have to understand – I was a kid man; everyone in my neighborhood was Dominican and so was I. If Dominicans could make being Dominican a race, they would. There’s a lot of pride in our culture.
Growing up, Spanish was my only language until I was five. I had trouble with people trying to identify me as something else because it’d automatically make me an outsider. That’s the last thing I wanted to be. Throw in that seeing the negative images of African Americans on TV screens, having family members tell you to date ‘light’ women with ‘good’ hair, and hearing little racist remarks from some family members didn’t help causes either.
But everything changed one day – and this was later in life. I was about when I was 16 and my dad was in the kitchen talking about being Afro-Latino or something and I’m like:
Claudio: ‘Que?” Tu te considera negro?’ What? you consider yourself black.
Dad: ‘Si, yo me considero un Latino negro.’ Yes, I consider myself a Latino of African descent.
Me: ‘Porque?’ Why?
Dad: ‘Porque yo no soy el color que soy por accidente.’ Because I’m not the color I am by accident.
Me: ‘Entonces quien en la familia de nosotros es negro?’ So who then in our family is Black?
Dad: ‘Claudio…cada persona en este mundo tiene mucho negro o un chin de negro adrento. Nadie no tienes negro. Claudio…everyone in this world has a lot of Black or a pinch of it. No one has none.
That conversation changed everything, because if you know how proud my dad is, that level of pride instantly transferred over to me.
While I was in High School at Mount Saint Michael Academy with a bunch of morenos and latinos, I got along with everyone. It was my first real experience with non-Latinos. Black dudes would often ask me if I considered myself Black. I’d usually plead the fifth. Then they’d be like: ‘Nigga you Black – you just speak Spanish.’
At that point, I was still a kid and started noticing that the change I made to not classify myself was a healthy one. I didn’t want to say I wasn’t something to people that looked just like me. I didn’t want to say I was something to people who I grew up with and shared a second language with. So, throughout the years, its been Claudio the Latino guy first, Black guy second. The Black guy first, Latino guy second. The Afro-Latino. You decide what I am. Am I Underwood or Sosa? A mass of confusion.
But I won’t even front – there were times when I was younger that using one over the other helped. Where women finding out that I was Dominican from me or another source got them in my clutches to keep it clean. Women who were taken, who looked at me as ‘black,’ and found out an hour later I was ‘Dominican,’ were ready for me to Pendergrass that. If I wouldve been the ‘mom and dad don’t want me to date you’ Black dude in their eyes for the rest of the night, it would’ve never happened. But I was much younger – forgive me for that.
Despite all this, I still feel lost. Ill be honest; sometimes I go to clubs and make it known somehow to people that I’m Dominican. Most of the time its my friends who will say some silly shit like: ‘Guess what he is?’ Like they can’t even imagine me being Dominican which is even more surprising because I hang out with a fairly educated group. Sometimes ill just interject in a random Spanish conversation and get double takes. When I was younger, I went into the barbershop, and rap music immediately came on.
Everytime people find out I’m Dominican, they will go: ‘No you not, really? Speak in Spanish?’ Nothing boils my blood more than that line. Like I need to speak Spanish to prove I’m Dominican. No offense to my boricuas – but half of ya’ll can’t speak Spanish if your life depended on it and no one tests you. Oh, its because I’m supposed to look like Mario Lopez. The media driven Latino image.
So I proceed to tell these men or women when they ask me: ‘Damn aren’t the guys you idolize darker than me? Pedro Martinez, Big Papi, Vladimir, Hanley. Like, these are your idols. How can’t you see me being Dominican?’ Instead of engaging, they go: “OK you right.” But they still hit me with some: ‘Aight ill speak Spanish to you.’ Instead of just not responding, I’m diplomatic. I just respond to them: ‘Bueno yo nacir aqui pero mis padres son de La Capital y Santiago.’ Translation: ‘I was born here, but my parents are from Santiago y La Capital.’ There you go. I’ve proven it.
But that hurts man. It does. I mean to go through that all the time isn’t easy. I don’t want to sound like some sympathetic figure, but being questioned from 15 on is tiring. But I guess the question really is – Why do I make it known I’m Dominican? Is it because I want to still feel accepted by a community I feel I’m floating in between or because I want to show people that ‘I can be’ Dominican and they should not ‘be surprised’ when I say I’m Dominican? Its probably a combination of both and it sucks because how can I not be ‘Dominican’ when the country is infused with an 80 pct African ancestry rate? But that’s denied. Whether its in my mother’s salon, my dad’s barbershop, my own, or at some family gatherings.
Boy did the Spanish do a number on us. They really brainwashed the country. If you’re Dominican and light skin, you automatically want to say you have Spaniard ancestors without even knowing. The admiration for a country who would laugh at you even claiming Spaniard ancestry is hilarious to me. Just ask all the soccer players that look just like ‘you,’ from light to dark, about how much fun they’ve had there even being able to speak Spanish.
So I don’t think I’ll ever classify myself something. Me being named Claudio E. Cabrera should indicate something to anyone right off the jump. If it doesn’t, who cares. I grew up on Hip-Hop and Salsa. I grew up rocking Oscar De Leon knit sweaters and Coogi’s. Tight Jeans and Maurice Malone’s. Fancy sandals and David Robinson’s. Pedro Martinez and Michael Jordan. Juan Luis Guerra and Biggie. I’ve been immersed in both cultures since I was a teenager and embrace both. I don’t even feel right picking one.
In final, I just laugh about what some members may say on my wedding day if its with the woman I’m currently with. Jeannine is half haitian-half German. Grew up all her life in Germany, is fluent in German and speaks a bit of Creole. My extended family has really only met her mother who vacations here all the time and is blond, tall and white. Their picture of Jeannine is that of a white girl. Most of Jeannine’s Haitian family is in Chicago and if a wedding occurs, it’d just be interesting when they see the couple of people who make the travel over from Germany that are white, and the bunch of Haitian folk that are dark skin mostly representing her side. I wonder how they’ll look at Jeannine then.
I don’t think they acknowledge she’s Haitian because they’ve never seen her family and she also isn’t dark skin. Trust, I’m sure there were some people who held their breaths when they heard I was Dominican on her side, but for the most part, their good. I just know as much love that will be between us on that day, we will be laughing at how awkward it may be for some folks on both sides to interact. We look at it as a good way to imrpove Haitian Dominican relations even if its state-side.
Hey… you have to start somewhere right?
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