Say something in Spanish: Code switching for an Afro-Cubana in a mixed Millennial era

10 mins read

In the historically contentious racial atmosphere of the US and Latin America, the dichotomy of being an Afro-Insert-Here while navigating the new generational terrain creates anxiety, confusion, and social erasure.

Sharp opinions on the coated tongues of backward neck jerks always inquire, “You spanish?!,” when learning of our “difference”. Everyone immediately follows up with the challenge, “Then say something in spanish!”

Ignoring the obvious contradiction in semantics (Spanish is a language and denotes a citizen of Spain), one passes the litmus test, only to be deemed real by a non-Latino. The Spanish tongue is the Black Latina’s ethnic membership card.

Melanin is a non-qualifier in a Latin based identity. However, language is everything. That is why paranoia sets in for the Black Latino who experiences any Spanish language loss, for every word not practiced is an erasure of a very proud identity: Your mami, and upbringing; your bandera (flag); your Congri, not moros (classic black beans and rice dish); your claim to the lineage of Afro-Cuban Queen, Celia Cruz; your entire Latinidad is questioned.

I belong to Blackness, especially in a world infatuated with other. Ancestry inquires and DNA tests are internationally trending because many strive to be something, or someone, else.

Iconic, truly

Hafrocentric comic strip. Creator Juliana “Jewels” Smith, mentioned here.

Negra, ni-Negra, eres Cubana porque tu mama es Cubana. Para ja.” About a decade ago, this was my mother, “[Mocking the use of the Black classification], you are Cuban because your mother is Cuban. Stop it already.” Her anti-Blackness and internalized self-abasement only fostered confusion in my hunger for cultural belonging.

Though Cubans do not see race (hard side-eye), my mother prepared me so “they would have nothing to say.” They being whites.  Historically in Cuba, with an estimated third of the population being enslaved Africans by 1570, European conquistadors positioned white ethnocentricity as the pinnacle of the social hierarchy in their colonies.

With the advancement of Western Imperialism by way of globalization (and super-power global dynamics), the international consensus of social acceptability is that white is right. Hence, the social hierarchy of many regions mirror the color spectrum; a gradient from the lighter, at the top, descending towards the dark, at the lowest level.

In my mother’s homeland, like much of Latin America, the government hypnotizes their constituency with well-crafted, homogenized rose-colored frames in hopes to undermine, and subsequently eradicate, individualism and the problems selfishness brings.

Therefore, necessary individual dialogue about the realities of being a Black woman in the world were ravished by nativism and selflessness. The idea was to unite under one identity, in what Cuban revolutionary, luminary poet and national hero, Jose Marti, would call la cubanidad.

In his 1893 essay My Race, he explains, “To insist on racial divisions, on radical differences… is a sin against humanity…which can only be obtained by bringing people together as a nation…[with] the pride of everyone who honors the land in which we were born, black and white alike.”

Marti’s philosophy is one that many Cuban citizens, especially those who are white and highly positioned, drive into the national psyche. They seemingly erase overt racial divisions, to control the country’s narrative by manipulating any tangible efforts against unification.

According to the 2012 Cuban Census, out of approximately eleven million Cubans, 64.1% self identified as white (blanco), 9.3% as Black (Negro), and 26.6% as mixed (mulatto/mestizo).

But according to a leaked July 2009 CIA report via Wikileaks, “In spite of official statistics to the contrary, African descendant Cubans probably constitute a majority of the population. However, they occupy few leading positions in government, state owned industries and academia. They live in the poorest and most marginal neighborhoods.”

The they my mother refers to, white strawmen, were commonplace in structural life lessons and rites of passages in our home. This meant I had to speak more eloquently, be better behaved, get better grades, etc. Essentially, play the part of the assimilated (white) American better than the other first-gen kids in the enclave. Sound familiar?

Hence, in my adolescence, my millennial safe space existed in the hood.

Back in the day

In truth, life for the Black person whose ancestors were enslaved in Spanish colonies has been plagued with Herculean trials of renewable Latin American authenticity.

As far back as I can remember, my racial auditions were normal. After again having to prove myself to my urban Black American comrades, my colloquialisms, penchant for sentence enhancers (a la Spongebob), and racial legitimacy were no longer demeaned or demeaning. I was enough, to an extent.

Like my lonely, neglected peers outwardly seeking validation and acceptance, I sought out Blackness. As there were no willing teachers in my Caribbean Spanish enclave, I was too morena (term for Black) for the Latinos and eventually, too blanca (white) for the Blacks.

Afro-Cuban orthopedic specialist, Dr. ‘Eddy ’ Leyva expresses to the Havana Times, “I [do not] feel discriminated against all the time, but it happens in very precise instances. Especially when they call me ‘my negrito,’ or ask if I’m a ‘negro blanco’ [a “white black,” meaning uppity], or ask if I feel blanco por dentro [white inside]. It’s something that makes my hair stand on end, but I have to look the other way. I have no other remedy than to every day make myself stronger and better.

Consequently, suppressed racial tensions create wells of anxiety for many Latinos who feel the discrimination, but cannot express it. Often, they are shamed for even thinking such disparates, or nonsense. This makes it much less likely for them to seek help, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

The older I got, the more I had to code switch for my sanity. Code switching is the deliberate immersion into and out of distinct ways of being. Depending on your environment, it results from a lived shared, socio-cultural experience. I carried this attitude throughout my expeditions outside the parameters of my pueblo, into academia and the entry level job market.

There was nothing like the fiery vigor that left your tongue as you conversed with the homies about things your mama did not approve of. This quickly became the norm in el barrio, or the ‘hood. For me, African American vernacular English (AAVE) is the proverbial line in the generational and ethno-racial sand.

The elders from both sides, could give no life guidance because no one in the enclave had charted this course: young, Black, Latina, urban and American.

The hunger, the thirst

Arguably, Black communities are at the bottom of the social, economic and ergo, political totem pole in the US and around the world. Reportedly, with an expected median income of $0 by 2053 according to the Institute for policy studies, we must learn how to speak the dominant hegemonic language, or rely on our own.

In a world where our culture, art, even group resilience and trauma, are up for mass consumption, AAVE provides a safe haven. The National Center for Biotechnology information (NCBI) divulges that dialect allows Afro Americans to comfortably live and communicate in solidarity, without intrusion. The report states: “To the extent that the association between AAVE use and income represents a causal effect of AAVE use, our illustrative calculations suggest that neighborhood effects on speech could increase lifetime earnings by approximately $18,000 (3–4% of lifetime income).”

Unfortunately, our defense mechanisms are constantly used against us. Within a white ethnocentric, patriarchal, capitalist nation-state, Blacks of all kind are shamed into changing their inflections and altering their diction because of our proximity (or lack thereof) to whiteness.

AAVE does not emulate proper English as close as the status quo would like. If Anglo-American is the brand standard, then anything straying too far from it is seen as morally bad. The same goes for the Real Academia Espanola, or the Royal Spanish Academy, and their 22 recognized hispanophone countries whose “main mission is to ensure that the changes experienced by the Spanish language in its constant adaptation…do not break the essential unity that it maintains throughout the Hispanic sphere.”

Now, the Latino folks that I know, including myself, are not Hispanic. I do not know a thing about Spain. Essentially, these colonizers want to preserve control over Latin America. They assume their perception of real, formal Spanish as the benchmark throughout their former colonies. Thus, attempting to normalize the discouragement of dialects, and change–born of socio-political amalgamation and defiance to the “crown”– ranging from the Caribbean to South America.

Accordingly, Black culture and dialect, much like phenotypic appearance, is negatively connotated and criminalized, leading to discriminatory practices based on our cultural identifiers.

The NCBI explains, “Rising U.S. residential economic segregation may be contributing to growing differences within the population in AAVE use, which has benefits to in-group solidarity and identity but is associated with discrimination in schools and workplaces and so may exacerbate the disadvantages of youth growing up in high-poverty areas.

Now, the N word is trivialized from the boardroom, to the stage, and even the classroom. Blacks must accept everyone’s entitlement to their culture, while continuously left outside the club, so to speak.

Afro-insert-here‘s grow up alongside non-Black millennials, who are handed the keys to success in navigating a system created for them. Just as they learn to play nice after they’re caught (diversity initiatives, affirmative action), we must play nice if we want to eat. After all, these are the next leaders of the free world.

Nonetheless, we are the leaders of the new school. Our rhythmic nature, peppered tongues, and overall cool have been imitated –quite badly–by whites far and wide. Yes, this includes whites who are not ethnically Susan or Brad, but are Camila y Mateo.

In the world of wypipo, existence as a beautifully melanated, well-read and relatable young Queen is not enough to shield one from a melanin-deficient liberal professor targeting the only Black person to involuntarily explain a centuries-old, indigenous phenomenon originating in continental Africa, to a pale sea of inquiring minds (harder side eye).

All I need from you is…understanding

London, UK. July 9, 2016. A woman holds a sign ‘Black Lives Matter’ witten with the names of some of those murdered by police in the USA at the rally in Brixtonin Memory of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and to show solidarity with those murdered by police brutality, both in the US and here in the UK.  Photo credit: Peter Marsh

What everyone needs to understand is that in the mystical world of Latinidad, there exists a popularized monster consuming all egos and ideologies causing institutionalized division and generational trauma: race.

Exactly like the experience of descendents of the enslaved in America, Black Latinos face the same implicit and explicit socio-political, institutionalized, targeted victimization by the ruling white supremacy.

To avoid a ol’ good American L (loss), people erase their social fingerprints, unique identifiers–even if temporarily–assimilating to power. Symptoms of larger social ills that harbor and aggravate mental health issues such as anxiety, suicide and depression, which are among the largest plagues to our generation according to findings in a study by Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill.

The work force is particularly awkward to navigate being an other. As a young, well oiled perfectionist robot, you are educationally and professionally engrained (because those lessons are learned) with reassurances of your acceptance on generational grounds.

Still, you split the sea of jipato-faced Brooks Brothers suits and Brown skinned passing papis, attempting their best impressions of social assimilation.

You cannot understand why you are the only Black person in the room. The token. Shit. Now, the entire Black race is on your shoulders, and you cannot let Michelle Obama down. So, you overcompensate. You smile after playfully swatting away curious reaches toward your mane. Sounds about white. No biggie.

You allow the micro-aggressive “home girl” to roll off f your back from the other brown person. POC solidarity, right? Cool. Everyone knows who Kendrick Lamar is. So, you must be trippin’. Throughout the session,his question manifests itself a few ways for Brown and Black.

Exacerbation without representation

Naomi Wadler speaking at a March for our lives rally

People of color internalize their plight, the mental trauma caused by external forces, especially after decades of forced, suppressed, cultural deletion, as supported by a report on the NCBI website.

As a defense mechanism, they attempt to desensitize the racial ostracization they face to succeed in the larger world. There is no coincidence that populations of darker hues makeup the majority of the impoverished in most nations, even those that are majorly constituted with people of color.

Coupled with the mass immigration of approximately 59 million coming to the US since the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, Black and Brown folks are desperately doing whatever is necessary to survive. Brown millennials are making their fathers’ white American dreams a reality by actively restructuring power dynamics and racial definitions in their journey in becoming the new white.

I’m Black and I’m proud

Cuban vice president, Inés María Chapman.

With the elections of Afro Cuban vice presidents Ines Chapman Waugh and Beatriz Johnson Urrutia, Afro Latinas join the other scores of Black women around the world who are unprecedentedly filling respected positions such as Barbadian prime minister Mia Mottley,

All over the world, Afro Latinas  collectively carve out a space of our own.

Recently, there has been a prominence and newly deserved respect in the media for the woes of Afro Cubanas like Gina Torres and Juliet “Juju” Castaneda,or Afro Latinas like Yaya DaCostaAmara la Negra, La La Vasquez, Rosario Dawson, Tatyana Ali, and Reagan Gomez-Preston.


Hearing my venn-diagrammatic experience conveyed by Afro-Latinas like panelists Jamila Aisha Brown, Arlene Pitterson, Juliana Pache and Janel Martinez in spaces like an Essence roundtable, makes me proud. Thei discussion brought about troupes I thought only existed in my experience. I thought I was the only one who used the, “Y tu abuela, que es?“, “and your grandmother, what is she?” Intended as a snarky retort to tired micro-aggressive shock by ignorant Latinos,  the response serves to remind them that their proximity to Black Latinidad is closer than the are letting on. In other words, I know that you know, so please stop. 

Yet,  with the rise of Black featurism in mainstream pop culture, being Black adjacent is in. Resulting in a skepticism of being used as a tool for commodification and pandering.

When you add traditionally trigueña, or mixed looking Afro Latinas such as rapper Nitty Scott or actress Dascha Polanco, an inadvertent lightening (erasure) of the face of Afro Latinidad may occur. She does not look like me and the women in my family. I am dark skinned and my skin brings disadvantages to my daily life. Those hardships need to be seen. Thus, I need more realistic representations on the world stage. Everybody wants to be Black until it’s time to be Black and I am not here for it.

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Yolanda Aguilera focuses on culture, policy, and Afro-Latinidad.

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