Standing Proud in My Afro-Panamanian Identity – Tiffanie Perea

My name is Tiffanie Samone Perea. I was born and raised in Staten Island, New York. I always knew my father was from Panama. I’m really not sure how to explain how I could be surrounded by family but the sounds from our mouths weren’t the same. They loved me and kissed me and spoke to me in my language but when they spoke to each other the sounds and words would change and I couldn’t understand their music. My mother’s family spoke my language, and we ate your typical “black people” food, fried chicken, collard greens, potato salad and it better be good or it will be left right in the pan it was brought in amongst pans that have been virtually scraped clean. 

My father’s family would attend birthday events for me and it was all love between them and my mother’s family but when they sat together they shared a love that I wish I understood. They spoke to each other in words and sounds that no one else understood and they laughed in beautiful sounds and spoke with accents that decorated their words so beautifully. Yes! I carry the last name Perea, but growing up I was more fried chicken than Arroz con gandules. My mom did learn some recipes so I know about empanadas, tostones, and rice and beans but my belly still wasn’t full. 

Something more than the food was missing. As I got older I became angry and resistant, dance bachata or salsa, hell no was my reply “ I ain’t tryna catch someone’s elbow to my face on the fly.” “I don’t even know what the hell they are saying anyways.” I guess I am black and Panamanian but I couldn’t really tell you much about that. Only that my father came here as a child and when I go to his relatives’ house I am an outsider that they love to hug and kiss a lot. I feel saddened that that is all I have to say about a part of me. How could I ever be whole and there is a whole story about me still untold, I don’t even really know where to begin to ask the questions. 

When I became a sophomore in college I became more open to learning, moving my hips to foreign words and music, and learning the song of my father’s family. At my college, a lot of first-generation Dominicans came that year, and with some of them, I became friends. I tried to fit in only to be reminded by some that I still very much stand out. I can’t sing their songs and my skin is dark and hair is nappy when it’s out. I don’t understand. But I continued my searching, when I became a teacher in the Bronx the children were more gentle as they taught “miss perea” how to sing with them. 

I laughed sharing some of the words with my grandmother because she already knew some of those notes were not apart of her song but similar. The children are so wonderful and inviting. I am so grateful they helped me, but when you’re still in an environment where no one sings that song how do you keep it alive. Even with my love I try, because his song matches my father’s family but we get comfortable speaking mine, and I’m still just his “black girlfriend.” Who will help me learn this song? To not only speak the words, but feel the vibrations of it through my body and I can dance and sing with my father’s family, and when I meet my loves family they can show me theirs.

Although they are similar to theirs, they are different due to where they are from but I would still be able to get on a beat with them. I can’t deny it sometimes I am shy trying to sing the songs of my father’s family because I feel I probably sound bad and I get a bit embarrassed when I say a word wrong or my notes are incorrect. Yet, I am grateful for finding a community of women just like me who sings this song. My heart is desperate to learn and they are so happy to share and learn it with me. So I can finally be all of me. Woman. Black. Panamanian. Whole. Complete.

My name is Tiffanie Perea. I’m Afro -Panamanian. I was born and raised in Staten Island, New York. I am an army combat medic, street photographer, health enthusiast, and mom of an 8 years old son. 

@thegoldenchile

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