I recently spoke with, Dash Harris, a Panamanian-American filmmaker whose project “Negro: A Docu-Series about Latino Identity,” seeks to open a dialogue about the perception of beauty, and its relation to skin pigmentation; the stigmas one faces within the perception of race, and the resulting effect on one’s identity.
What does a Latino look/sound like? There’s no simple answer. We are over 24 different countries that have been labeled many differing terms, but as a whole, Latino/Hispanic, by modern civilization. Still, the world judges everyone primarily by outward appearance.
Dash shares, “Everyone speaks differently, not every [Latina speaks] like Rosie Perez… You have so many documentaries, books and series on Black American History, which is great, but what about descendants from Latin America, what’s our history?” We agreed. Accurately detailed Latin American History is not a reality in the school curriculum because of its Eurocentric favor. When the topic is brought up, focus is primarily on Mayan and Incan civilizations. The subject of African influence is often just chalked-up to slavery, and not looked at as people who banded with, and influenced another indigenous culture, due to a common oppressor. That resulting untold truth can have such a profound impact on the disenfranchised youth.
“I used to tutor a Dominican kid, [whose little brother] was learning about Africa, thought it was boring, [until I explained how] Africa had such an influence on Dominican culture; how runaway slaves hiding in the villages, were taken in and exchanged tools with tribes. They both sat there eyes wide like ‘Really?’ their minds were blown, in that ten minutes [we spoke]. They had no idea, smiled, thought it was so cool and wanted to learn more about it. Had I not been there, maybe their parents would tell them eventually, but who knows?”
Continuing we discussed the reality of racism not being something immigrants are faced with until they leave their country; that the concept of being Latino or Hispanic is learned when arriving in the U.S., “My host family in DR, said ‘We don’t know that term Latino, we have to learn that when we go to the U.S., nobody says that, you say you’re Dominican, that’s what you are.’”
Talking for over an hour, we agreed on quite a bit, above all, the necessity to celebrate our culture and undo the stereotypes giving it a bad name.
“Like the term, Pelo Malo, I never knew, because my family never said it, [their mindset was], ‘This is what we are, and we celebrate it, you have a big nose, big lips, big eyes, and that’s beautiful,’ but other people didn’t think that, their family may have said [the opposite]… I had to learn that others didn’t embrace it as readily as my family did. Which was really upsetting – because you go home and that should be the place you’re most comfortable and feel most part of a community; and for some people that’s not the case. Could you imagine if we didn’t have these notions of this is pretty and this is not, where we would be at this point? My father used to say ‘Somos gente primero’ our blood is still red, we are one human race.”
As a close to our discussion, and as we do with everyone we meet, I posed the question: What does it mean to #BeLatino/a?
“I ask that question to everybody, and either it’s easy or hard for them. For me it was pretty easy because my parents were very aware. They knew where they were from and what was what – so to me being Latina is everything I know. When I woke up and went to school – that was America; when I came home and entered my parents’ house – that was Panama. Any American references, they had to learn from me. Even today my mother says to ‘You’re the Bomba!’ ‘You mean the bomb Mami? Who taught you that?’ To me, it was what I knew, I had to learn to be American and these pop culture references from my friends, because [that wasn’t present] in my house. So when you talk about culture and identity, I identify as an American Latina, and that’s another identity crisis – straddling those two worlds. To me it’s inherent; it’s just what you are.”
“Aside from the implications of colonialism and Europeans imposing the word on us, Latino/Hispanic – we did develop our own culture from what we had. From our colonizers, indigenous people, and African slaves; we made something out of that. I think that’s what to be proud of, you have both sides of the argument, you shouldn’t label ourselves as this, but that’s the culture – that culture that developed from what we made due with; and I think that’s the fact that needs to be celebrated.”
Latino, Hispanic, Indigenous, Afro-Latino, Spanish, Caribbean, South American, African, European, Asian, or American, we are a product of this world. Our ancestors – no matter which country they were from, evolved, and developed their own rich culture; then were influenced by colonizers, war, slavery and religion.
Through progression, modernization, and technological advancement we’ve maintained a core set of traditions, mannerisms, and community that bond us all through social interaction. No matter which way you cut it, that is the human experience and maybe if there were less argument over what divides us, we’d be able to focus on what brings us together.