was too black for my Latino friends, and too Latino for my black friends – that’s how I described the dynamics of my identity at 15 years old. The teenage angst, coupled with confusion, fueled a lack of understanding who I was becoming. I sought out to answer two questions in my college senior thesis: 1) who am I and 2) why. In a society that rejects racial ambiguity and forces people into imagined boxes, racial constructs in the United States are undoubtedly unique.
I am Dominican and I am black. I am a black Dominican.
Many Dominicans today find themselves in this space – caught in the crossfire of identification with an often tense but profound reaction to their own blackness. Dominicans on the island have long toiled with their own ancestry, a dynamic that spans from the days of Hispaniola to the charged political climate with Haiti, to immigration to the U.S. and generations of U.S.-born children rejecting seemingly foundational beliefs to embrace this duality. Here emerges the black Dominican, or afro-Latino – in not so many words: me.
Contextualizing the Colony
First, a quick recap of the last six centuries: Spain colonized the continent of Hispaniola (present day Dominican Republic and Haiti) in the fifteenth century. African slaves eventually displaced the indigenous Tainos who worked the lands for the Spaniards. This economic shift changed the racial landscape of Hispaniola. Haiti will go on to win its independence to become the first free black nation, and later abolished slavery – a move that threatened neighboring Santo Domingo, home to a major slave port into the New World.
Identity in the Dominican Republic straddled between blackness and whiteness. Here, whiteness did not solely stem from skin color but from socioeconomic status, as David Howard suggests: “higher social classes aspired to be blanco/a or to protect the ‘gift’ of whiteness where it existed”. This colonization fueled pro-European policies, like easing migration restrictions from Europe in an effort to whiten the population, and was integral in how many identified.
Racial indicators like mulatto and Indio describe people caught racially between black and white. While both share a similar meaning, indio historically validated indigenous roots over African ancestry and was – and still is – popularly accepted throughout Dominican communities. This tense reaction was advanced by Dominican Republic’s strained relationship with Haiti. Jorge Duany describes:
Haiti [was] the antithesis of the Dominican Republic. If Dominicans were supposed to be white, Haitians were black; if Dominicans were Hispanic, Haitians were African.
But the dynamic between Haiti and the Dominican Republic transcended geographic borders. The cultural identities intermingled often and became reflective in the artistic and musical expressions throughout Hispaniola, as noted in merengue.
Merengue, a style of Dominican music and dance, draws strong inspiration from Haitian (and African) roots. Paul Austerlitz’s Merengue: Dominican Music and Dominican Identity compares the histories of Dominican merengue with its Haitian counterpart – mereng – to illustrate that both are “inevitably intertwined”. Merengue and mereng are best described as “transnational”, since the two foundationally share similar rhythms and reflect qualities of Dominican Republic – and Haiti. Yet the disruption rooted in the rhythms of merengue illustrate a larger cultural exchange between the two islands.
Blackness in the Dominican Republic and among Dominican Immigrants
I confronted negative attitudes of blackness firsthand when relatives muttered derogatory racial epithets in Spanish towards my African-American friends. At 10 years old, this confused me since I clearly saw no distinction between them and myself. It’s here where these perceptions of blackness are rejected, anything in close proximity to blackness – like Haitians and African-Americans – become alienated and deemed inferior. This is especially telling of the role acculturation plays when new immigrant groups begin integrating into the mainstream.
Julia Alvarez’s How the García Girls Lost Their Accents demonstrates the challenges an immigrant family confronts when journeying from one community into another. The cultural struggle here paints a stark picture of assimilation, as the new community forces outsiders to conform to social and cultural norms, and adopt an identity that is often different from their own. As a result, when people migrate from the island to the U.S. – as my family did, as well as the García family – they confront harsh but profound questions of identity.
On the island, we, along with other Dominicans, belonged to the dominant group. In the U.S., however, we are pushed to the periphery to share the same marginalized space as other underrepresented groups, including black Americans. David Lamb’s play Do Platanos Go Wit’ Collard Greens? explores this self-discovery when two lovers – one Dominican, the other black – confront their attitudes about each other’s identity. While ethnic enclaves help maintain some of these beliefs and attitudes, it’s in this space where cultural and ethnic exchanges push Dominican immigrants and their children towards self-discovery – and coming to terms with their long-rejected blackness – as I, and the central characters in Lamb’s novel, have and continue to.
History shows us the past: blackness is not warmly embraced by Dominicans on the island and still faces resistance in the U.S. History also shows us the present: Dominican (and generally Latino) attitudes towards blackness are evolving and growing ties between black-brown communities reveal a strengthening dynamic.
It is here that we find our future, and my story.
Like many other black Latinos, we are woven intricately into the American fabric. We lived with this complexity: struggled with checking off demographic boxes, and describing to a perplexed many how we are black … and Latino … at the same time. Their puzzled looks reflect an America of the past: a desire to fully and clearly piece together and describe definitively what it is that we do and who it is that we are.
But we confront a diverse future, and those of us who have long contemplated our identities and place within society will help chart the course for the millions of others who will eventually meet us where we’ve already lived: in between.
*Photos of 2010 Dominican Republic festival courtesy of Carolina Contreras. (Filters applied)