I can’t remember a time when people haven’t asked me what I identify as, and the answer to that question changes depending on who is asking and the circumstances.
To me identity is not static, but it says a lot about you. For most of my life I was a Dominican immigrant living in New York. I grew up in a community that was largely Black and Afro-Caribbean – they were my people, and I was one of them. But the genetics lottery awarded me light skin, straight hair, and looks that fit into the tanned-skinned, long hair, and Europeanized Latina stereotype that is so coveted in the United States and Latin America.
In school I was called “white girl” and while it never offended me, I never truly understood what that meant. Sure, my skin was paler in comparison to many of my friends, but I saw whiteness as a cultural identity. I felt very different from the white girls on TV shows, which left me wondering – what does it mean to be Dominican?
As most Dominican families my family members don’t all look the same. We display a variety of features, skin tones, hair types, and phenotypes that change from sibling to sibling, and so on. There was never any doubt in me that my ethnicity comprised of a large and varied mix of people, and to be honest I absolutely loved that. I couldn’t identify with Black or White as an identifier because these are binaries that don’t capture my identity accurately. But that also made it very difficult to identity while living in the United States. So I came to embrace being Latina and Brown, because they were the only words that I felt best described who I am. That is, until I read Aurora Levins Morales’ poem, and was forever profoundly transformed.
I am a child of the Americas,
a light-skinned mestiza of the Caribbean,
a child of many diaspora, born into this continent at a crossroads.
I am a U.S. Puerto Rican Jew,
a product of the ghettos of New York I have never known.
An immigrant and the daughter and granddaughter of immigrants.
I speak English with passion: it’s the tongue of my consciousness,
a flashing knife blade of crystal, my tool, my craft.
I am Caribeña, island grown. Spanish is my flesh,
Ripples from my tongue, lodges in my hips:
the language of garlic and mangoes,
the singing of poetry, the flying gestures of my hands.
I am of Latinoamerica, rooted in the history of my continent:
I speak from that body.
I am not African. Africa is in me, but I cannot return.
I am not taína. Taíno is in me, but there is no way back.
I am not European. Europe lives in me, but I have no home there.
I am new. History made me. My first language was spanglish.
I was born at the crossroads and I am whole.
Morales captures exactly how I feel – like a child of the Americas. And I am certain many of us feel the same. We call ourselves Latinas because it’s the best word we have to explain our identity, but the unique interweaving of our identities are varied and complicated.
For this reason I chose to be part of the #SecretLivesOfFeministas hashtag. I saw it as a way to connect to other women who identify with being Latina yet come from all walks of life. I live in New York City and have a large and diverse community of Latinos that I can communicate and connect with. And yet I still find it difficult to find other Latina feminists that share my commitment to social justice, anti-racism, and women’s rights, not because they don’t exist but because we are spread all over the world.
Using a hashtag we can all discuss important issues and have a nuanced conversation on Latinidad and how that translates to our lived experiences. Our communities become virtual, but also much larger. In turn, it allows us to share our stories with a wider audience and be understood as a diverse group of people with a shared history and culture.
Twitter activism, as demonstrated by #SecretLivesOfFeministas is what gave me a voice. Prior to joining Twitter I was just an opinionated woman without an audience. Sure, I would speak about anti-racism and sexism with my family and friends, but I soon exhausted their attention. I also felt that my experiences, while valid and important, were not experienced in a vacuum. I knew there were more Latinas out there that felt the way I did.
So I took to Twitter and started speaking up about issues that mattered to me, particularly the lack of women in STEM fields as I’m an engineer and often feel isolated at work. Soon I was blogging and interacting with other bloggers and writers, and shortly after I started speaking and participating in events. I candidly spoke about growing up in New York City and feeling simultaneously displaced and at home. I opened a window into my childhood and wrote about domestic violence, mental health, sexuality, and religion – topics that led a religious zealot to write about the shame I brought upon my Latino (and by default, Catholic) community and calling me a “Latina sin sabor.”
When you put your ideas out there you are exposed. People will read your words and many will want to make you feel inadequate and unimportant. You will be shamed, ridiculed, and insulted. But I still recommend that we all use social media to speak up! Without social media I would have never connected with other activists doing similar work. I was able to create a network of women warrior Latina feminists that call me out when I am wrong and build me up when I’m feeling down. They help me think through complicated problems and listen to me when I have to let my opinions flow to come to a conclusion.
I can proudly say that I am a Latina feminist and I don’t stand alone. We are many and we are becoming leaders in our communities by ensuring that we are supported in all our choices from careers to family planning.
I encourage other Latinas to share their opinions boldly and write their stories. Writing to me is therapeutic and necessary, because while our spoken words can drift away our written words are here to stay.
As Julia Alvarez said, “I write to find out what I’m thinking. I write to find out who I am. I write to understand things.”
*I originally wrote this post for the Brown Eyed Amazon Latina feminists series.