About 6 years ago, I joined Art Rules Aruba for the summer writing course, destined for rap and poetry enthusiasts. There I was, a young teenage me excited about all things metaphors. One that kept saying “I am not a rapper” but would rap all the way to San Nicolas and back to Oranjestad like it was nothing.
But that’s not the main focus here, Art Rules Aruba came through around the same time I was completely obsessed with Jessie J and Adele. Ridiculously infatuated with their talents I couldn’t keep their names out of my mouth.
During the stretch of the course we had two black male teachers. One named MC Winne who came from Rotterdam and the other one named Ty Chijoke from the United Kingdom. And as I dragged on and on about all these women in the industry that I loved, it never occurred to me that all my idols at that point in my life seemed to have one thing in common. They were all white women.
Something I only realized when Ty asked me “Well, are they any black artist you like?”
Annoyed by the question and not realizing what Ty was trying to illustrate.
I wondered what the question had to do with anything. Why he couldn’t just shut up and enjoy the music. I laid that to rest and never thought about it again until it suddenly hit me
One day, out of the blue. Ty looked at me and saw a young black woman!
I know what you are wondering.
(So you mean I myself didn’t know I was black?)
Let’s put it this way. On the island conversations about race do not happen. I have light skin, my afro hair did not come in full force until I was about 16, I was raised by a white passing mother who never once told me I was black. Growing up, my mother always told me my nose ruined me and that it was ugly. But it never occurred to me that a round nose is a predominant black feature. My father, who I inherited the blackness from lives in another country.
I always knew I was a Latina. But no one, absolutely no one had ever come up to me and told me:
“Listen girl, you are black and you are Latina and that is a totally valid combination”.
In the Caribbean we’re all mixed and no one truly belongs to just one race but there is still a hierarchy and whiteness still comes out on top.
My Latin identity. blackness, womanhood and the way these things intersected and changed my experiences in life were all things I discovered by myself and for myself.
In my quest to find out the absolute truth.
I went back to that question Ty once asked me so many years ago “Any black artist you like?”. Not that there was anything wrong with me loving Adele and Jessie J, but these women had an advantage that I simply did not and that was whiteness.
Ty’s question stemmed from his knowing that my route to success (if I ever got there)
Was going to be measured by another standard. He was questioning whether I had any woman in my life, that looked like me, that was doing things I would love to do...And the hardcore truth was that I simply did not. Even my favorite teachers at school had always been white women. Ultimately, I have found the truth, and when I see young black kids cheering on white artist, I almost feel a responsibility to ask them the same question Ty asked me. “Any black artist you like?”.
Because representation matters. I actually think it is the most important thing in this world.
Because being aware of the current place blackness occupies in this world is crucial to way we operate as young artist. I remember when I came across Zahira Kelly, a Dominicana who is slaying the whole world with her presence. Yes! A woman who came from where I came and was doing great things. She exists and she is real. I remember what my heart felt when I found her. A certain sense of belonging nothing before her could live up to. Suddenly I understood why working with Adele and Jessie J suddenly seemed like an illusive dream. Suddenly I understood why it was wrong of me to model everything I wanted to be after women who were white.
It was just not going to happen.
After Zahira, the black women doing great things just kept rolling in.
One after the other, it was almost like magic. But here’s the catch.
Why didn’t I find any of them when I was 15, why did I have to go dig for
Afro-Latinas? Why was what we are capable off pushed into my face since I was a little girl? Because we are erased. Because our existence is something we are still fighting for the world to acknowledge. Because to be black and Latina in a world who thinks all Latinas look Sofia Vergara is a struggle.
But you know what? Even if when our whole lives seem to be a tunnel.
We still emerge like the light at the end. WE ARE HERE. WE ARE MAGIC.
..And to Ty, Thank you for that question. Thank you for opening my eyes.
It took me years to understand you, but I finally do and my heart is beaming with all this knowing.