Three years ago I tattooed my left arm with a fragment of the shortest, short story written in Spanish by Luis Felipe Lomelí, a Mexican writer. Since then, the italicized fragment “ojalá” has acquired a myriad of meanings as I have moved through countless airports, going back and forth between my motherland and my new home. The ink on my arm has served as a reminder to myself that where I have to go back to is never a physical place, but somewhere within myself, a place where many people go with me, live like me: continuously moving.
Prior to leaving Puerto Rico for grad school, I never had an in-depth discussion or consideration of race and racism that wasn’t brought into a situation from an “other”, in the most generic sense. As an anthropologist, racial reflections and the study of contemporary racism were fascinating but rather distant and foreign to my own – and what I later realized was privileged- reality. Little did I know that those “light” conversations and poignant jokes within my family about my “good” hair and my café-con-leche skin color were going to come back to haunt me as I developed my research in graduate school and opened my eyes to the multiple privileges that colorism and racial structures in the US granted me. Moving to the US meant shifting my consciousness from being a Puerto Rican vying for the independence of the country, to placing me in a category I hadn’t previously considered: a woman of color. The concept of WOC remains somewhat nebulous and I sometimes still don’t know what it really means.
As a result of growing up in a middle class family, being heavily influenced by white popular culture and primarily exposed to European thought in my political formation and volunteering, I not only had difficulty identifying with Puerto Ricans I met from New York and Philly, but I also felt a disconnect between the many other “latinx” groups for which my new colleagues and peers assumed that I belonged. Although I shared a common language with these communities- and even so, Spanglish would sometimes throw me off- there were significant cultural differences. Not to my surprise, the public: English-private: Spanish dyad was ingrained deeper into my consciousness than I had thought. Music and Black and latinx popular culture became tools to connect with some of the latinx and Black culture I was now expected to identify with. Those tools also helped me to somehow understand that the struggles, the oppression, and the discrimination denounced in lyrics, through art, in protests, were the main connecting points between them and me. Moving from being “just” Puerto Rican to being Puerto Rican in the US, forced me to explore the dimensions of being latinx, of being Black, of being non-white, of being Caribbean beyond my colonized country, and forming and assuming an alternative and a more complex Puerto Rican-ness I hadn’t previously imagined for myself. Continuing to speak with my Puerto Rican accent became a political badge to mark my identity in the mostly-white spaces in which I moved.
Starting a research project in the Caribbean brought a new set of questions and considerations about the Caribbean-ness I confidently assumed in the United States. My work in the Dominican Republic with Dominican youth of Haitian descent has added a new layer of complexities and questions to my own identity as a Caribbean woman and a regional scholar. In Puerto Rico, I am part of the majority, café-con-leche, trigueñitas; In the US, I identify as latinx, Black, and Caribbean – or more ambiguously, as a woman of color- and in the Dominican Republic, I am perceived and referred to as “la gringa”. Despite having a different accent, significantly lighter skin, and “softer” hair than most of the people I worked with, these differences were almost never discussed during my first field season in the Dominican Republic. It was not until the very end of my second field season, after one of my friends laughed as I told her that it still shocked me that people referred to me as “la muchacha blanquita” (the white girl), she condescendingly pointed out that it didn’t matter how hard I tried, I was white, “from your hair, to your passport” (desde tu cabello, hasta tu pasaporte). Jokes about my citizenship and my hair had been the topic of casual jests, like pointing out that I didn’t have a problem getting my hair wet when it rained, or how whenever I walked into an office someone quickly asked how they could help me, while ignoring the people I walked in with. While these situations made me hyperaware of my privilege, the depth of how people read and understood my presence in their country (“la muchacha blanquita”) never truly hit me until my friend bluntly pointed it out.
Maybe rather naively, I had been finding and talking about the similarities between my culture and the Dominican culture in which I currently moved- our foods, our music, our dances, our beers. None of these perceived similarities, however, make me a native or change the privileges I receive despite that from my institution’s perspective, I am a “native anthropologist”. In the field, I am not perceived as so; I am “la muchacha blanquita”. Or I am in an equally liminal position of not being the typical white, Western, male anthropologist coming with a colonial legacy and accented Spanish, which I found was sometimes the lens through which my presence was initially read when I was introduced as “an anthropologist from the US”.
It was moving through the borders of the Caribbean, between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, within the US, and through the many conversations I had with other Caribbean and Black scholars that I realized that I was many things simultaneously, even when sometimes those things were contradictory. Back home, I am an ally to the Afro-Boricuas who do antiracism work on the island, and I am also pro-independence of my country, which adds another very concrete political dimension to my identity. In the US, I am a hyper sexualized latinx; I politically identify as Black; I am Puerto Rican and I am Caribbean. In the Dominican Republic, I am a Puerto Rican with a sexualized accent, perceived as white, and “liberal”—which I believe has to do with my body modifications—over which I have very little control.
While all of these identities are not exclusive to the geographical spaces in which I move, they influence and nuance the discussions and the implications of my work within academia in the US and in the Caribbean. Amidst the many race discussions that are conducted at my college, intersectionality and the complexities of Caribbean racial definitions are rarely brought to the table. In the Dominican Republic, which defines its population as mainly “indio” or Indian, the fact I, la gringa, cry and grieve the deaths of African Americans, a population I feel connected to for a number of reasons, including how my own marked brown body can be -and is- terrorized by police violence, is rather disorienting to many of the people I work with who see me primarily as a person of privilege. Shifting and alternating between the privileges and positions of all these identities reflects as much privilege, as it demands a state of constant reflection over my responsibilities and expectations. While in the US, asserting my identity and speaking up for who I am is a form of survival; in my field site, I silently challenge notions and perceptions of “gringxs” or “white people” as assistance-providers and position myself as an ally rather than a solution-provider. And at home, I am –again- privileged to be able to reflect on my positionalities, as I move back and forth, but not taking my mom’s jokes about my hair and café-con-leche skin so lightly anymore.