Several years ago, at the height of New York’s stop-and-frisk policing policy, two officers stopped me at West 125th Street and Broadway and insisted that I was carrying a knife. I was walking from Columbia University’s campus, where I’ve taught seminars on Latinx identity since 2010, after picking up a couple books at the library. Because I wasn’t teaching that day, I was wearing a backward baseball cap, worn-out jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt, attire that apparently made me look like a criminal suspect.
The officers were Latinx with complexions similar to mine, but in that moment, they made a racialized judgment about how I represented a culture of criminality often associated with black and Latinx people. They stared at me with insistent eyes, demanding that I hand over a weapon that I didn’t have. They had been signaled by my unkempt appearance and the furtive movement of my hand toward a keychain holder protruding from my right front pocket, a plastic Puerto Rican flag in the shape of an island. They were operating in the context of 125th Street, a dividing line between the largely white collegiate neighborhood of Morningside Heights and the predominantly black gentrifying neighborhood of Harlem.
The officers looked blankly at my university ID and reluctantly questioned me for several agonizing minutes, then decided I was not who they were looking for. But the experience reminded me that I can never escape my racial identity: In a society ruled by a binary perception of race, my complexion classifies me as “other,” but at any point in time, what I’m wearing, where I’m standing and how the sunlight hits my skin will color how I’m judged.
Puerto Ricans — the racially mixed descendants of Native Americans, European colonizers and African slaves — defy the binary racial categorization embedded in U.S. society. For most, defining themselves by race is a daunting task that often ends in defiantly choosing “neither,” “other” or “mixed.” Some embrace the labels Hispanic, Latinx, or “brown” as their racial identity, even though those labels do not constitute a defined race, according to the prevailing rules.
I am from a working-class background, cannot be considered a white Latinx by mere appearance, and at times have actively chosen to identify as black. I came of age in the 1970s, when New York-born Puerto Ricans like me reconnected with our African roots often obscured by the island’s official culture. The blackness of being Puerto Rican was part of my New York experience. Bugalú, a Latin music fusion genre, praised ham-hocks-and-corn-grits soul food and foreshadowed the Caribbean influences in the creation of hip-hop.
In many ways, Puerto Ricans in New York became part of a “collective black,” a concept developed by sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva to highlight the common racial and social class interests of African Americans and other racialized groups. Even though they were not culturally, ethnically or physically the same, they are seen and treated similarly by the dominant culture.
But within my own family, the concept of race was an enigma, an idea we never discussed.
Since I was a child, my mother has often referred to me as “mi negro,” translated as “my dear.” It’s a common term of endearment for Puerto Ricans and appears at the very end of Pedro Pietri’s poem “The Puerto Rican Obituary”:
Aquí to be called negrito
means to be called LOVE
When my mother called me “mi negro,” my conception of the word did not include blackness. It simply implied closeness, caring, pronounced “neh-gro” and not “nee-gro,” a word that was in the process of becoming obsolete in the lacunae between the civil rights and the black nationalist movements. But my father, who was significantly lighter-skinned than my mother and had a better command of English, never called me “negro.”
The differences between my parents in terms of language use and complexion — and the contrast between my father’s mostly lighter-skinned family and my mother’s mixed, somewhat darker clan — were not discussed in my childhood home. But they were always clear and colored my view of myself.
Yet in my childhood, I didn’t usually make connections to race with regard to my appearance. If someone told me “You sure look like your father,” I assumed they meant it as a comment on my relative handsomeness. In retrospect, those comments might have been designed to encourage me to identify as fully as possible with the lighter-skinned side of my family, so that the off-white privileges that my father enjoyed would not be interrupted.
The best way I can describe my racial self-identification as a child is ambivalence, a vague awareness that there were racial differences and that I carried one. I sensed veiled moments when race was hinted at, usually in a glimmer of recognition between me and my peers — a smile from a young girl with curls and a slightly broader nose than others — that connoted group identification. I could imagine myself as “ethnic” or “black” only through identifying with my schoolmates and neighbors.
As a mixed child of a Latin American couple, I could be seen as socially undetermined — part of a mestizo/mulato muddle, yet embraced as part of a Puerto Rican national identity. But in the United States, my fate has been to be inexorably drawn to the identity of my darker parent. Like Pedro Pietri penning the obituary of the passive Puerto Rican, I accept and cherish that embrace, but hope to end the silence of the dear negro in me. It’s time to let go, and embrace the blackness at the core of my being that I’ve always known.
This essay is an adapted excerpt from the book “Latinx: The New Force in American Politics and Culture,” on Verso Books.