In my Puerto Rican household in Brooklyn, New York I was called ‘la prieta’ (dark one). Then I met my prim-hermano (first cousin-male) Mark and realized the range of color within my own family clan.
My prima-hermana (first cousin-female) Norma Acuri is super blanca with freckles and red hair, like the main character in Annie; and Mark Gungor like Sammy Davis Jr., especially when he let his hair go afro. I was in the middle of the color scheme more like a canela (caramel) or a café (light brown) but prieta nevertheless. My tia (aunt) Mark’s mother, Lilly (Justa) Robles-Gungor was very fair of color. She was racist and forbade our bringing Black people into her home.
In the late 60’s my cousin Mark was the only Black kid in a rural town of 2000 residents. When I moved in with them at age fifteen I was mistaken for Native Indian. My tia came from el fangito (mud) en Puerto Rico, a neighborhood where planks crossed over the area where human waste flowed into the river.
Her husband’s family had escaped Nazi Germany to Istanbul, Turkey where he was born. He came to the US as a medical intern at a hospital in New York where he met my tia. They married, had six children and relocated to Neillsville, Wisconsin. Dr. Bahri O. Gungor was the town doctor for over forty years.
This group of cousins, whom I call Turkey-Ricans, fill the color scheme from darkest to lightest as do my island cousins. There’s no escaping our African roots.
My tia’s mother, my abuela (grandmother) was dark skinned. Early on I was told she was Taino Indian, but as I dig into my family history I’ve come to realize she was Afro-Latina. The phrase ‘quien es tu abuela?’ (Who is your grandmother?) has taken a new meaning and is now my mantra. Francisca Marrero Cabrera de Robles was my paternal grandmother.
My memories are vague. Abuela was always in the kitchen, stirring a pot, ironing a shirt, sweeping a floor, making a bed, washing by hand and hanging clothes on the line coming out the fifth story window which connected to the other building across the alley.
She smoked cigarettes and wore the robe typical of the homemakers, with her slip hanging past the hem and her feet always with socks, filling her chanclas (mule sandals) which double as her weapon of fear for us kids.
In this new century I am surprised on how shades of color still feed into the racism of the times and into our own Latino insecurities and struggle in understanding how we fit into these two different worlds. As director of a Latino based youth organization, Jovenes de Salud, I often meet young people who are struggling with this very issue. Struggling between the three worlds of the Afro-Latino (African, Latino and main stream Anglo) colliding at the same time their adolescent identity is being formed.
My Puerto Rican, Dominican and Cuban friends who are mistaken for African-Americans and not Latino are often offended. Not because they are Black but because they are not recognized as Latino.
Afro-Latino roots are deeply anchored in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explored the African Diaspora in Latin America in his 2011 PBS series ‘Black in Latin America.’ His research showed that the slave trade brought more individuals to Latin America than the U.S. “There were 11.2 million Africans who came to the New World in the slave trade and of that 11.2 million, only 450,000 came to the United States,” Gates said. “These Africans were instrumental in the development of traditions and customs — of culture — across Latin America and the Caribbean, which in turn have made their way into the U.S. through successive waves of immigration from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Colombia and Peru, from the Dominican Republic, Brazil, and Central America as well.”
It is said the only difference between the African-American and Afro-Latino is the Spanish language.
It is my hope through this opportunity to pen a column here at Insight News we can give a bilingual voice to our Afro-Latino audience.
Follow my story as I wait for my DNA results from 23&Me. I’m anxious to know where my roots originate. I especially look forward to sharing this important information with my cousins and family members as well as building an ancestry legacy for my descendants.ons)