Around this time a few years ago I was at a weekly meeting of a group of student leaders doing ministry together on campus. Columbus Day was approaching, and my angst – as always – was building. Somehow after the meeting was over and everyone was just having casual conversations, I found myself in a not so casual conversation with another student about Columbus Day. In the midst of the conversation I was asked, “Why are you so angry about this? This doesn’t even affect you. You’re not Native American.”
Now, there are million things wrong with that line of questioning. However, I leaned into a particular part of the question that cast an even more particular degree of Puerto Rican shade:
“Whatchu mean I’m not Native American?” (Insert side-eye)
Our ministry leader over heard this, and decided it was most definitely her place as a White woman to clarify to me, a Latino, my ethnic identity. In an oddly stern voice of superiority and paternalism she said, “Michael, you are absolutely not Native.”
Now before I go any further. Let me clarify for those of you who at this point might be a little confused or are having the same thoughts yourselves.
I am Puerto Rican. I am Panamanian. I am American. These are, for all intents and purposes, national identities. Let me flesh my identity out for you a little more …
I am a descendant of the Native North American tribe, the Taíno.
I am a descendant of the West African tribe, the Yoruba.
I am a descendant of a curious blend of European, mainly a Spanish tribe, the Andalucians.
If you want to get more complicated, I carry in my blood the drum beats and rhythms of Sub-Saharan Africa, the rich smell of spices and incense of North Africa, the song of the aboriginal Gauche; I am a blend of Castillian royalty and the labor of unnamed stolen bodies. I am the sweet and savory salsa of the Mestizo, the Mulatto, and the Criollo.
Let your boxes come undone for a minute. Allow your confusion to gain clarity.
Now back to our story. I tried to explain to my ministry leader and the other student that I was absolutely Native. I tried to explain to them that, 1. Puerto Rico and Panama are in North America (clearly the American education system needs to improve their geography curriculum), and 2. that, thus, my Taíno ancestry made me Native American. Therefore, besides the fact that Columbus Day is in all ways a disturbing thing to celebrate and should anger everyone, I had every reason to be angry about this insidious holiday.
But, in the midst of all of this, it makes absolute sense to me that they would respond in this way. Latinx people do not fit into any boxes. Our Afro-Latinidad doesn’t fit anyones boxes – we are not Black enough, and too often we want to deny our Blackness altogether. Our Nativeness doesn’t fit anyone’s boxes – we are not Native enough, and too often, even for us, to be indigenous is to be less than. Even our European ancestry confuses the world – we are not White enough, no matter how blue our eyes might shine from plantain colored skin or how our last names betray the white armor that hides the rich heritage of our blood.
Our skin too olive for some, too caramel for others, far too mocha for anyone, and at times too white for even ourselves. In the words of poet Elizabeth Acevedo, we are a people whose, “hair [is] too kinky for Spain, and too wavy for dreadlocks; so our palms tell the cuento of many tierras…” But instead of celebrating this richness, we are labeled exotic and the song that is our voices are ridiculed for the purposes of entertainment.
Our stories however, are forgotten – because to be Latinx is to be misunderstood, and to be misunderstood is to become invisible, and to be invisible to be silenced, and to be silenced is to be erased.
It is because of this haunting reality that in the middle of Hispanic Heritage month we also celebrate Columbus Day.
It is because of this that we, in the midst of the outcry surrounding police brutality, we ignore the fact that so far in 2016, 94 Latinx have been killed by police.
Its why we ignore the growing number of missing girls in the Bronx that have gone missing – most likely to prostitution rings and global sex trafficking.
Its why we ignore that Latinx women are the most underpaid people group in the U.S.
Its why the best that churches and ministries can muster is, “we should, like, maybe, care about, like, immigration, or something.”
It is why we colonize places like Puerto Rico, strip them of their enchanting glory, and let them sink into the very oceans whose waters betrayed them by bringing foreign ships to their shores, bringing with them stolen people, all in search of foreign gold.
It is why we as a nation chose to celebrate the rape, genocide, and erasing of my people, while we find ourselves try to celebrate our survival.
I could go on about the experience of Latinx people, but what is the point when most will choose to stay confused and uneducated? What is the point, if most will question our ethnic identity as if they know better? What is the point when most, if not all, will choose to remain silent?
So for Hispanic Heritage month, you can go about business as usual. Let our stories be forgotten. make us invisible, silence us so that we might be erased. Go celebrate our exotic food and exotic bodies as we were a new exhibit in the Bronx Zoo. Go celebrate the discovery of stolen land, while thanking America for the day off.
Happy Hispanic Heritage Month, y Feliz Día de Colón.