By Juceliz Batista —I’m Dominican. A Dominican from Washington Heights with brown skin and curly puffy hair. I am also a Black woman. When I was 10, my mom put a desrizado in my hair because I had too much hair to manage. Ten years later, just like every other girl who wants to free herself from the constraints and standards of European beauty, I transitioned into my natural hair. I became aware of my African ancestry at a very young age. In high school, I learned about internalized racism and self-hate. In college, I continued my learning and joined a women’s organization filled with women that recognized their Afro- Latino heritage. I love all aspects of me and have found opportunities to use my heritage to spark teachable moments, especially in my classroom.
Every morning I parade the hallways of my school while on the phone with mother for our usual morning mother-daughter talk time. These conversations are filled with endless complaints, jokes, and of course, bochinche. I tell her that I miss her and that I wish I’d woken up to her platano con salami that morning. I’m rushing down the hall with my head leaned on my shoulder with my phone in between, hands occupied with a stack of copies, when I notice my coworkers giving me puzzled looks. I’m wondering if I’d worn my clothes inside out, or if I had dried up drool on my face. Nevertheless, I walk past them and continue my persistent attempt to get my mother off the phone. One thing about mothers is that they always have one more thing to tell you that prolongs the conversation to fifteen more minutes. We finally end our conversation and in the distance, I hear a coworker shout, “Aye, what you over there speaking?” I was confused because I’d never been asked that question before.
I grew up among Dominicans, who all knew I was Dominican by just looking at me. Even from a plane 50,000 feet up, a person looking down could spot me and say, “Yup, she’s Dominican.” It always annoyed me when I was younger because I wanted to be different from everyone else. I grew up in Washington Heights in New York City where in a class of 32 students, 31 were Dominican. If you were anything but Dominican, you were an outcast. We’d think, “How did you end up here? Are you lost?” It didn’t help that I had an accent that screamed, “Yo Soy Dominicana”. I couldn’t escape it, if I wanted to. I grew up with being known as Latina by others, so I haven’t quite gotten used to others not immediately recognizing my Domincanness when I’m outside of New York City.
Eventually I answered my coworker and said, “Spanish.” “Oh, you’re Mexican?”, he replies. That three-worded response helped me put everything into perspective. My school is diverse. 75% of my students were African-American. 14% were Latino and the rest were White, Asian or Native American. Many of my Latino students were Mexican. Some were from Central American countries such as El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras.
When my students heard me speak Spanish for the first time, their reaction mirrored the reaction of my coworkers, except my Latino students were able to tell them the language I was speaking. “She speaking Spanish, bruh! You Mexican, Ms.?” To hear this question again for the second time frustrated me because the only association my students had to the Spanish language was Mexico, when there’s this huge, diverse Latino world. “I’m Dominican!” I pronounce with enthusiastic pride. Overcome with confusion, they ask “Where is that?”. I rush to the globe in the class and point to my relatively tiny island. “But you look Black. Why do you speak Spanish?”, they press, and in the quickest way possible, I gave my students a history lesson on the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism, and the Afro-Latino connection.
Although I gave students a history lesson, it was still unfathomable for them that I shared similarities to the Latino students in the classroom. Aside from the fact that they associated every child that spoke Spanish to Mexican descent, they just couldn’t believe that someone who has features that they attribute to Blackness, speaks fluent Spanish. As a matter of fact, even my Latino students had a difficult time accepting me being Latina. Sometimes they would ask me things like, “Where did you learn Spanish? Did they teach you Spanish in college?” or they would say things like “Wow, you’re really good at Spanish,” and still have a “HOW, SWAY?” look on their face when I told them that Spanish was my first language. They would brush me off and continue doing what they were doing.
My students often say, “This is the first time I met a Dominican,” or “I didn’t know you could speak Spanish and not be Mexican.” As their teacher, I know better than to judge them for their ignorance. When my students say things like that I get excited about the opportunity to inform my students about a world that is unfamiliar to them. It gives me satisfaction and joy to tell students about my culture and speak about how closely connected we are because of our history. Any opportunity I have available to teach my students about African ancestry in the Caribbean, particularly in Dominican Republic, brings me joy. I showed my students videos of Celia Cruz and had them create a banner of prominent Latinos during Latino Heritage Month. I paused ELA class and taught my students how to do a basic step in salsa. I’m always excited to do this because I’m exposing my students to things they’ll never find in textbooks. Perhaps through their one interaction with their Afro – Latina teacher, they’ll realize that there’s a huge world out there for them to discover.
Most southerners aren’t exposed to Latinos outside of Mexicans and, on to a lesser extent,Central Americans. Even in my two-and-a-half years living here, I’ve always been the only Latina at my workplace and I seldom find others – particularly Afro-Latinos – in social settings. I search through the crevices of the city to find things related to my culture, but I hardly ever do.
To be honest, I haven’t gotten used to the south. I miss the salad bowl of diversity in New York City and I miss being surrounded by my culture. I miss stopping by the bodegas and buying un peso de platanos from primo. I always ask myself what my purpose in the South is and why the universe brought me here. I’ve started to accept that perhaps my purpose is to be a disseminator of history for my students. Through my identity and my existence, I am providing my students a depth of knowledge they may have never been exposed to had we never crossed paths. It’s important to me that my students know that to be Black extends to more than what they know and that they yearn to learn more about their history and the world outside of their neighborhoods.