Letter to My Racist Grandma

in Culture by

Hola viejita pestosa! Cómo está? Comiendo mierda como siempre?

No sé si vio pero hay este video going around en el Instagram con una viejita afro-dominicana que no quiere que su nieta juegue con una muñeca morena.

Veelo aquí:


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A post shared by Hector Luis Alamo (@hectorluisalamo)

Usted nunca me ha hecho sentir weird or bad about being Black como esa viejita en el video, not directly. Nunca me ha llamado “negrito” or anything like that. But I’ve heard you use the word “moreno” when you were talking about Black people and I could tell there was some racial stuff, algo feo, just under the surface. Something in your face cuando lo dijiste, how you frowned and looked down and away, as if it were bad luck, como no te conviene that Black people exist y tienes que vivir en el mundo con ellos.

You thought I didn’t catch it or didn’t mind it, because to you I’m not Black.

To you, I’m only a dark-skinned Latino with Indian blood, como tu hermano Salomón en Honduras, who you’ve always compared me to. Soy eso también—a Latino con sangre indígena—but I’m also a Black Latino, como mi papá. I mean, conocías el papá de mi papá, un viejo moreno boricua who looked like un M&M de chocolate con su white mustache stained amarillo with rum-and-Cokes.

I never realized he was Black, or that me and my dad are, because it was never talked about. No one mentioned it seriously, or plainly. I just thought “negrito” was a nickname and “moreno” meant any dark-skinned Latino. Ya sabes como no entiendo el español completamente bien.

I knew I wasn’t like the other Latino kids at school or in the neighborhood, especially when Mom moved us out to the Burbs where the only other Latinos were mostly mexicanos. I ran across another puertorriqueño or two out there but they were either noticeably lighter than me, se veían mas blanquito que yo, o eran güeros. Even then, de todos mis amigos latinos, yo andaba más con los Black kids que todos. It felt natural, era natural para mi, even if their culture wasn’t the one we had at your house.

I don’t think I knew what being a Black Latino was at the time, and if I did, no sabia mucho deso. I was still treating “Black” and “Latino”—o “hispano,” como lo decíamos en esos tiempos—as mutually exclusive labels, que quiere decir que uno no tiene nada que ver con el otro. You were either Black or Latino but not both, I thought como los demás around me.

I didn’t really know I was Black, didn’t realize it, didn’t wake up to it, till we were learning about afro-boricuas en el colegio. I remember seeing a picture of Roberto Clemente and thinking we had a lot of the same features. He looked like an older, más guapo, mas atlético version of me.

And then later I saw a picture of Bill Cosby cuando era joven—recuerdas dél? Que tenía un programa en las ochentas where era un médico y llevaba suéteres con muchos colores y hacía caras chistosas? Pues, vi una foto dél y for a split second I thought the picture era de mi papá.

That’s when it really hit me: I was Black—soy negro.

One time, in high school, I was hanging out with my Black friends—recuerdas mi amiga morena que se llamaba Tasia? Pues, we were in the Black part of the foyer at school, this loungy area con seats y como sofas donde todos hungaba en sus grupos. The Latinos estaban en una esquina—which everybody called “Taco Bell”—y los chinitos estaban en otra (“Panda Express”), los güeros en otra (“Cracker Barrel”), y los Black kids (“KFC”).

I usually got along con todos, hasta con los güeros porque como yo corrí en el cross-country y track y andaba con Adrian y los otros muchachos que jugaban deportes, el basket y eso. But this one time yo estaba con Tasia and them when this Black kid que yo conocía but who I wasn’t that close with came by and heard me saying “nigga”—una palabra que parece a otra que es malo para llamar a un moreno, pero los morenos la usan entre ellos mismos y es muy común en la música y cultura del hip hop. Es como los mexicanos usan “güey”—a veces feo y a veces amable.

Pues, el moreno que me escuchó usando esa palabra me dijo, “Hey man! You can’t say that word cuz you’re not Black. You’re Mexican.”

Nigga I’m Blacker than you,” le dije así. And I held up my arm next to his y el mío estaba mucho más darker than his.

No me dijo nada después. Sólo se quedo mirandome bien enojado.

Anyways… ahora que stás en el Facebook y puedes ver que stoy claiming mi afro-latinidad and I’m speaking out about Black Latinos and against el racismo en la comunidad latina, I remember when me mandaste un mensaje hace rato por el Face diciendo que I shouldn’t say I’m Black, that I’m not Black—“Papi, no digas que eres negro”—and other stuff that made it sound like saying I’m Black is a bad thing, like I was saying I’m less-than or something. Which is weird cuz I remember you liked Celia Cruz when I was little. You played her a lot, anyway, but now I’m wondering what you REALLY think of her.

I love you, but you know I think you have unos pensimientos muy fregados, not only towards Black people pero los mexicanos too. We’ve talked about the Mexican part, especially when mis amigos that I brought around were mostly Mexican, and ahora que me casé con una mexicana—one who was born in Mexico. Remember when I told you que era indocumentada también and como me dijiste que not to get with her porque iba dejarme con la nena y desaparecer con su baby daddy?

Ay, que loca eres viejita!

Y remember cuando I left Jenny, how sad you were? I don’t know if you liked her porque era koreana o porque su mamá era una white lady judía. But I remember you telling me that you didn’t care if I brought home una güera—“una rubia,” recuerdas?—even if she didn’t speak or understand a single word of Spanish. “Hablaremos con las manos,” you said. Remember?

Ay viejita, eres tremenda.

You’re 81 now, so I don’t expect you to change. I just thought you should know that things are changing. I know and appreciate the fact that I have African blood mixed in with the Indian and European, and I don’t have any bad feelings against anyone—Black, white, Mexican, Asian, árabe, indio, lo que sea.

I know that, deep down, you feel the same way I do towards los demás, especially como has viajado around the world como veinte veces, o MÁS even. You just have old ways of thinking and reacting, just like I have old ways of talking.

At least that’s what I like to tell myself about you, mi abuelita querida.

I love you… Te quiero mucho.

Cuídate viejita podrida.

— Su Nieto Favorito


Featured image: Hector Luis Alamo, c. 1985

Hector is the founder and editor of MANO as well as the host of the LATINISH podcast. A Chicagoan living in Las Vegas, he's also the senior editor of Latino Rebels, part of Futuro Media, as well as a former managing editor of Gozamos, an art-activism site based in his home town. He was a columnist at RedEye, a Tribune-owned daily geared toward millennials. His work has been mentioned by The New Yorker, Good Morning America, TIME, the Washington Post, and other outlets, and his writing was featured in 'Ricanstruction, 'a comic book anthology whose proceeds went toward recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. He studied history at the University of Illinois-Chicago where his concentration was on ethnic relations in the United States.

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