Dash Harris Machado is the co-founder of AfroLatino Travel, an organization that facilitates trips focused on centering Latin America’s African roots, and co-host of the Radio Caña Negra podcast. A lifelong activist, she regularly hosts workshops designed to dismantle anti-Blackness, and in 2010, she produced NEGRO, a docu-series about the Latinx Identity and its deep-seated race, color, and class complex. In this personal essay, she challenges the concept of Latinidad and why she chooses to honor her Blackness instead.
“How do you honor your Latinidad?”
“I don’t!” My girlfriends, two fellow Black Central Americans, and I screamed in unison as we dissolved into our usual cackles. Janvieve Williams Comrie, a human rights strategist, shared this question with Evelyn Alvarez and I after it was presented during a workshop she attended on the first day of Latinx Heritage Month. She recalls rightfully informing the facilitator how triggering and violent this seemingly innocent query was. How do we honor something that doesn’t honor us? How do we honor our rapists, murderers, thieves, and wardens? How do we honor genocide? How do we honor lies?
I am here because of my Negritud, my Blackness, and in spite of Latinidad. Latinidad, Hispanidad, “La Raza Cosmica” (The Cosmic Race), “La Raza” (the race) — are all manifestations of hegemonic, white European domination and subjugation — and it continues to be. Ironically, for all the theatrics of this “cosmic Latin” race, Latinx — merely, a geographical identifier — has never been a race nor an ethnicity. How could over 20 countries share a singular ethnicity?
I am a Black Panamanian with Antillean and colonial Panamanian roots. Afro-Panamanians may be descendants of Africans, free and enslaved, during the colonial period as well as descendants of Afro-Caribbeans from Anglo and Francophone Caribbean countries whose labor built major agriculture and infrastructure projects of the country. While the nation was built by Africans and Afro-descendants trafficked to Panama and migrated for labor, dominant white culture simultaneously rejected and exploited our existence.
My “ethnicity” and “Latin” commonalities with a rabiblanco (white Panamanian) or an indigenous Panamanian starts and ends at citizenship. A citizenship that Panama’s eugenicist, U.S.-educated, Hitler-idolizing thrice-president Arnulfo Arias revoked from Black Caribbean Panamanians, who he referred to as “parasitic races.” In 1941, he recommended sterilization to stop the degeneration of the country and “improve the race.” This is language that many people in Panama still use to describe specific classes of Black people to this day. What “race” exactly did Arias mean to “improve”? Not mine and not the millions who look like me. I am exploited and buried for Latinidad to flourish. My body trampled to mantle New Spain’s blood-soaked banner knitted with the bones of my ancestors.
Arias was one of the many whites and their heirs, whether criollo (Latin Americans who are of sole or of mostly Spanish descent) or immigrants, pushing for blanqueamiento (whitening) campaigns throughout Latin America — calling for European immigration while banning immigration of Asian and African-descended people. Heirs to the 500-year legacy of white wealth, quarter-truths, and total whitewashing; white terrorism knows no borders. We’ve seen manifestos, books, essays, and extermination campaigns with the goals to “breed out” African and indigenous ancestry with common sayings like “mejorar la raza” (improve the race) still prevalent today. It has even gone as far as encouraging inbreeding to preserve and “advance” whiteness in every country in the Americas. Black identity is collateral damage in white Latin American nation-building and I make the daily decision to divest from that pathology.
Our Black bodies and personhood are affronts — irrefutable defiance of white domination, targeted to be snuffed out and erased — and yet, it’s exactly what I arm myself with. I was born in Brooklyn, New York to Black Panamanians who are rooted and clear on their Blackness and how the world engages with it. Under the stewardship of my first hero, my mother, my home established a foundation built on not only the celebration, but the normativity of Blackness and the wholeness of it. The Africanity placed at the bottom of Latin America’s casta system, what the pigmentocracy that classified it as “unredeemable” is exactly what I was raised to honor. European colonizers were the pinnacle, and the mixed ancestry offspring of their abuse and imposition comprised the stratified categories that reified one’s social, political, and economic life trajectory. These real and imagined benefits by proxy to whiteness still rule in our present-day Eurocentric “good appearance” social and psychological norms. I reject them. The legacy that resists and ensures my survival and ascension is my ever-defiant, ever-redemptive, ever-inexplicable Blackness.
I cannot relate to the ongoing broken record of Afro-Latinx people who are still too scared to fully claim their Blackness and who willfully ignore that “Afro” means “Black.” I cannot identify with those who still center the Black Latin American experience on 3A hair, or the non-Black and non-indigenous Latinx people terrified to go beyond colorism into their racism because that would mean admitting that their skin isn’t “light” — it is actually white as they are descendants of colonizers and European immigrants of blanqueamiento (whitening). As the proverb of rapper Bone Crusher says: “I ain’t never scared.”
It is precisely this courage and unrelenting commitment that is required to move the needle beyond the symptoms and to address the actual sickness of the white supremacist pathology — one built specifically on systemic anti-Blackness that codifies norms of violence, anti-Black stereotypes and stigmas, blocked access to fair housing, healthcare, employment, education, and safety as a matter of national policy for the over 150 million Afro-descendants in the region and in communities of its Diasporans globally. Black Latin American women have a lifespan of seven years less than their non-Black counterparts. Black birthing people, as well as their children, face higher rates of mortality and are not treated humanely in public health centers throughout the region. And in the midst of a pandemic, data has shown how COVID-19 has disproportionately affected and killed Black Americans and Afro-Latinx communities in countries like Colombia at disturbingly high rates.
Our Black lives, our Vidas Negras, are at stake. This is our Latin American reverb of centuries of ongoing vindication and affirmation of Black liberation. Our calls for justice, the right to sleep in peace and for our children to be free to play without threat of death, is the shared Black struggle in self-actualization. This is the self that gets lost in favor of the bizarre Latinx kumbaya, mestizaje (mono-cultural mixing of indigenous and European ancestries) myth that peddles racial harmony. Millions of us who fall outside of that non-descript “of color” beige bubble never believed in it, nor did we have the luxury to fool ourselves to do so. Our racialized lived experiences as Black Latin Americans means being routinely gaslit, silenced, spoken over, and weaponized by the descendants of the castas who never had the integrity to interrogate the methodology of sexual abuse that produced the region’s so-called ‘mixture.’ These mixtures were not unique, novel, special nor unlike any colonial legacy of mixing anywhere else on the planet. I am a negra, Black, wherever I go. My mixture doesn’t matter in a racial hierarchy. Those Latin Americans who spew their privilege of not having to “think about their race in their country” are those violently making sure I never forgot my position as a negra.
A reporter from the largest Spanish-language media outlet asked me about the “awakening” taking place amid the global solidarity in Black Lives. I asked her, Who is waking up? We haven’t slept in 500 years. Latinidad lulls its victims into a subordinate sleepwalk. Many of us can’t afford the repose. Latinx Heritage month is among the most extreme cases of Stockholm syndrome known to humankind. These crimes were historically guided by papal bulls straight from the Vatican. The directive was to “acculturate” and “civilize” subjects who were “not of reason” by converting them to European religious and social sensibilities as the self-appointed arbiters “of reason,” who are capable of honor and respectability. It was as impossible a task then, as it is now. To mold and break your essence to fit into a model that is oppositional to your very being and to reach a goal prescribed by invaders — I say no. I decide when and where I enter.
In this pursuit to grow a European empire and to settle a 700-year vendetta, the Iberian Peninsulars violently scrubbed the “stain” of Islam, rinsed it off in transatlantic watery graves, and hung it to dry in the sails transporting over 12 million of my ancestors. Their mother tongues pulled out, bodies branded and baptized, spirituality beaten out, and ancestral knowledge burned at the stake. They replaced our names with a tilde, enye (ñ), and a bendición from white figures with claims of salvation while creating hell on earth.
Popular media would rather have us forget these truths in favor of a vapid and false “Latinx unity.” That unity never existed. And its insidious reminders are quotidian. In yet another painfully reality-revisionist white Latinx program, the Cuban characters in One Day At A Time fought over the family mantilla, a Spanish lace veil that is traditionally passed on from bride to bride in the family. My Black Cuban husband does not have a family mantilla. Black people were prohibited from wearing the Spanish veil per the casta laws of colonial Latin America. That program continuously fights every season to avoid the cancellation I believe it deserves. I however have done just that with my relationship to Latinidad.
I denounce Latinidad. I denounce the invisibility of my personhood. I affirm myself. I step over the margins Latinidad relegates me to and continue to forge in the fullness of my Blackness. That is where my pride lies.
Latinidad is ever-evolving. It cannot be defined by a blanket term or monolithic idea. That’s why it’s important to look at its future with respect to its past and present — and that’s our mission. In a series of essays, reported articles, and stories for Refinery29 Somos and Latinx Heritage Month, we’ll explore the unique conversations and challenges that affect these communities.
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