Recently, I’ve had the privilege of talking to a variety of high school, community college, and university students from two regions in the United States. Most, but not all, of the students were women and many were of Latino/Hispanic descent. The majority of the folks I met had expressed an intense desire to lead and heal their communities in the future as teachers, mental health professionals, activists, politicians, and through the arts.
During most of my conversations with these students (and a couple of faculty members), I noticed a theme crystallize I found problematic: the use of descriptors like “Spanish,” “nappy,” “bad hair,” and other loaded identifiers with negative connotations. While I hear those same heavy words and phrases on the train, from my neighbors, friends, acquaintances, and activists/politicos, I felt the sting with these students because my community and our society’s future depends on younger generations to succeed, that is, as grounded individuals. One shouldn’t think of leading anyone else before they confront their own internal schisms.
I’ll share one example: I was Skyping with a diverse group of students from a leadership class last week about my book, hip-hop, gentrification, leadership, and negotiating our respective hyphenated identities on a national and global context. A young woman, trying to illustrate how diverse the phenotypes are within her own family and, subsequently, how the difference create borders, described her kin as having “you know, nappy hair, big thick lips, like African features, while I look like this…”
I decided to challenge her. I don’t believe in admonishing people but meeting them where they’re at. We all make mistakes and should take the time to think and rethink how we describe people and ourselves, and, more importantly, why we use certain descriptors. Our characters are like pewter: we must take the time, periodically, to polish the surface and bring out its shine. And while we’re refining our characters we may want to think about where these words, or code words, come from?
I asked the young lady to stop think about why she chose those words and if she felt that they contributed to the borders she felt were obstructing her relationships. I could see a glint in her eye through my computer screen. She said, “Yes, yes. I didn’t think about it like that before.” Words have energy, I said, overtones, and can be both liberating and equally oppressive: or something like that.
And then there’s that most vexing descriptor of all, aside from the pervasive n-word: Spanish. As a Latina-American, I don’t care if you use Latino/Hispanic/your country of origin—I identify as a dominiyorkian—but it irks me when people in and outside of our demographic call themselves and/or us “Spanish.” While we descend from territories that were once colonized by Spain, we as Spanish as Angolans are Portuguese and Haitians are French. Don’t get me wrong: Spain is a magical place to visit. Andalusia almost felt sacred to me as I walked through her winding streets. I feel strongly connected to the region, but it doesn’t change the fact that I am not Spanish. I won’t carry the weight of imperialism, colonialism, and all the ‘isms that are borne out of our history, on my shoulders. It’s challenging enough to reconcile who we are, on a personal, political and societal plane, to burden ourselves any further with heavy words.
There’s no time like the present to emancipate ourselves.