If You Aren’t Black, What Are You?
In this series of fictionalized classroom stories, a creative writer and educator examines the intersections of being Black and Latinx as well as the messages people send when they fail to acknowledge both identities.
Álida Reyes is Latina but also, she says, “my Blackness is undeniable.”
But it’s clear to Reyes that for many people, including her colleagues and students, she is either Latina or Black, but rarely both. There are similar problems with the concept of Latinidad, an umbrella term for the people and cultures of Latin America. Latinidad, “when considered as a homogenous racialized abstraction, dismisses the complexities of a multiracial, multiethnic, colonized people,” said Reyes (Greater Delta: Mississippi and Arkansas, ’16). “Essentially, it’s a mass erasure that is particularly heinous for ‘Latinos’ who are Black or Indigenous, paralleling Blackness and Latinidad on opposite ends of a spectrum.”
“When students encapsulate my identity within Latinidad, essentially what they are doing is separating me from my Blackness,” Reyes said.
The concept of Latinidad perpetuates “a falsehood that eventually just ends up harming my students and myself,” she said. They might internalize stereotypes about themselves or others, particularly when their ideal of someone who is Latinx is also someone who is white. There also tends to be a lack of representation of Black and Indigenous people who also are Latinx, as well as their cultures and dialects, in the curriculum.
In the following vignettes, Reyes captures her experience as an Afro-Latinx educator working at an adult literacy program in Jackson, Mississippi. She also depicts the experiences of two of her friends who also are Afro-descendants and Afro-Latinx educators: Gina Goico of Bronx, New York, and Lorraine Avila of Oakland, California.
The vignettes are fictionalized based on lived experiences—a compilation of classroom anecdotes from the educators where racial identity stirred conflict within the construct of Latinidad. Students’ names were changed to protect their identities. The stories contain some profanity, which reflects the actual conversations.
“When students encapsulate my identity within Latinidad, essentially what they are doing is separating me from my Blackness.”
An Unstated Comradery
Ser Álida, Adult Literacy Program in Jackson, Mississippi (2018)
“You heard about Memo, Ms. Reyes?” Lorena asks you.
She barely speaks in your GED class, but always sits in the front. Her lanky arms twig over the table, and she keeps her chin low, jotting down notes in a red five-part notebook. She comes to class before you.
Her twin brother, Lorenzo, drops her off every morning around 6. He needs a GED too, but works at the Nissan plant, and the program you teach for isn’t offering evening classes. They stopped doing that before you got hired. From what you know, the classroom you are in, the only one at the Salvation Army, is used for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in the afternoon. After 6 p.m., the west wing of the building serves as a homeless shelter, and the director doesn’t think it’s safe for students to be roaming the hallway then. You think it’s a shame. The Salvation Army location is the only one by the bus route and many of the people interested in the program have morning shifts and families to feed.
“Didn’t Memo start the welding program?” you ask back.
What little you know about Lorena you learn from your monthly student surveys. She’s a fast learner but struggles with reading big paragraphs. She’s 21. She wants to be a nurse but would be happy as a CNA. She went to school in El Salvador until ninth grade. She’s been enrolled in the program since 2016. She learned English while waitressing at Papito’s on State Street. She's seven months pregnant and wants to have her GED before the baby arrives. When you started working for the program four months ago, you didn’t notice her belly under the sweats and oversized tees. Now, it moons away from her body and bumps into the table. Memo is her baby daddy.
“He got shot,” she tells you.
Memo is Salvadorian too. There are only a handful in Jackson. Memo dropped out a few weeks after you started teaching. “It’s the tests, maestra,” he’d tell you. “I’m no good taking tests.”
You assured him those tests were a nightmare for everyone and that you could help him get past them, but he didn’t believe you, and neither did you. It was his second year in the program and although he’d made some knowledge gains, his pre-test scores were never passing. You were the fourth teacher to promise him a diploma, and though he wanted to believe you, he couldn’t risk it. The baby would be here any time, and he needed to move Lorena out of her mom’s living room. So he quit and started looking for work, saying he would enroll in Hinds’ welding program once he was making some money. You didn’t believe he’d do that either.
“Dicen que jue un negro,” Lorena tells you. They say it was a Black man.
“¿Un negro?” you ask, unsettled.
“That shot him,” she says. “They always so ready to shoot somebody, you know? And then protest when they get shot.”
Your unsettledness spreads over your body. You want to say something. You should say something. You are a Black woman, can’t she see that? You are a Black woman, but also a Latina, right? A Latina bound by an unstated comradery that Lorena believes exists between you two. So you’re Black, but not Black like them, right?
“You want to tell them being Dominican and Black and not knowing you’re Black is deadly.”
What Are You?
Gina Goico, career and technical education, graphic design, and ninth and 10th grade English as a second language, Bronx, New York (2019)
You are an artist. You interview for an art teacher position at the Department of Education, but when the human resources lady calls to make the offer, she says it’s a graphic design class.
“Nothing you can’t handle,” she says. “Most of the kids just got here. They’ll get something out of it as long as they sit in front of the computer.” You’re not mad. After years of freelancing and commissions, you need a stable job, and they offer you a good salary and benefits. As far as you know, you are winning; you get to teach art to Dominican kids and you get paid for it.
“Yeah, he cute, but I don’t date Black boys,” Mercedita tells Liliana as they walk into the computer lab.
“Girl, but you Black though,” Liliana says through a hesitant smile.
“I’m not. I’m Dominican.”
Although you are one out of five Latino-identified teachers in the building, your classes are 90% Dominican. The other 10% is split between the Puerto Ricans and Hondurans that arrived after last year’s hurricane season. They love you. They speak Spanish in your class and create memes on Photoshop. They think you are beautiful; your fair skin, your soft curls, your radical haircuts and black lipstick, your bamboo earrings, the funny pillow-shaped arms that you wrap around your neck and call art, the totes you carry around almost as heavy as your entire body, and your daily rants about testing and lack of funding. They tell you that you don’t look Dominican. You ask them, what does a Dominican look like?
“Missus, Missus!” Liliana calls for your attention. “Mercedita don’t think she Black.”
“I’m not,” Mercedita repeats as she walks past you.
Your classroom is the spot. Every student in the building, whether your student or not, ends up in your circle. They learn how to make flyers for the fall fest and the culture fair. You teach them about advertisements and algorithms, and when you go downtown to protest against the Dominican government, they help you design banners. Some even pull up to protest with you. The other Dominican teacher in the building, a white man, thinks you do too much. You never think you do enough.
“You’re not Black, Mercedita? So what are you?” you ask.
“I’m Dominican, Miss. Ute sabe,” she tells you. You know.
“Si, but some Dominicans are Black, too—”
“Like she is!” Liliana says about Mercedita, interrupting you.
Liliana is Garifuna—an African and Indigenous people—from Honduras. Her eyes are always bright with joy and her skin is rich with Blackness. The kind of Blackness that walks into the room before you do. Present, undeniable. She’s been in the country for about a year. Her tongue is still thick with open vowels and rolling R’s. Mercedita hasn’t been here long either, maybe a couple of months more than Liliana. They’re best friends. Whatever that means when you’re 15.
“OK, OK, let’s say I’m Black, but I’m not Black like she is,” Mercedita says as she stops and turns to Liliana.
“Let’s all sit down,” you say when you notice Liliana ready to fire back. The bell rings as the last couple of students run in.
“The block is hot,” Román says on the way to his desk.
“How many of you identify as Black?” you ask, and only a handful raise their hands.
You want to tell some of them that they are Black. You want to tell them that if they get stopped for loitering on the way home or if their apartment is mistakenly broken into with a warrant, being Dominican will not spare them. You want to tell them being Dominican and Black and not knowing you’re Black is deadly. They are Black. It was decided. You want to tell them, but you remember there was a time you didn’t know either and no one could convince you that you were. You want to tell them, but you know soon enough they’ll find out for themselves.
“So if the rest of you aren’t Black, what are you?” you ask them.
Lorraine Avila, seventh grade English language arts, Oakland, California (2016)
“This is Ms. Avila.” Ms. Decker, the office manager, walks in with a young woman behind her. “Ms. Avila, this is Ms. Romero, Michael Romero's mom.”
It’s the first parent-teacher night of the school year. You’ve been preparing all week. You wrote a note for each student highlighting their progress and strengths. You have a wall showcasing their work for visitors to see and “Welcome/Bienvenidos” written in cursive on the board. You picked your afro and wore your favorite dress, the one your students say looks like a muumuu, but you love it. You like how the yellow bounces off your golden summer skin and how you can wear tights under it so that your thighs don't rub together. A kind of secret armor that is especially useful during long parent-teacher nights. You review student data over your planning period and practice your rebuttal in case Jenny Perez’s guardian questions you about her failing grade.
“Hola Señora Romero.” You extend your hand forward to greet her and she looks at you for a moment, then grabs it hesitantly.
“¿Habla español?” she asks you.
“Si, claro,” you reply. Clearly. You wonder if she didn’t hear you say hello in your best Spanish a second ago. “Michael es un estudiante excelente, muy bueno,” you reply and hand her the note you wrote for him. She grabs it and looks at you confused, then turns to look at Ms. Decker who is still at the door.
Michael Romero is in your second period class. He’s generally a good student and keeps up with the work. He’s fresh out of the district's newcomer program for recent immigrants. He’s been in the country for a little over two years. Most of your students are from Mexico or Central America. You plan bilingual lessons, introduce them to writers who look like them, and when you leave voicemails for their guardians, you make sure to repeat your message in Spanish, too. They ask you where you learned Spanish every week. Every week you tell them you’re Dominican. Most of them, except for that one student in your fourth period class who asked if that’s why you sound like Cardi B, couldn’t tell you what a Dominican is.
“I don’t think she knows what you’re saying, Ms. Avila,” Ms. Decker tells you. “I’ll go grab Mrs. Olivas, maybe she can help us.”
Mrs. Olivas is the sixth grade math teacher. She grew up in Texas—Corpus Christi—but her family is from Matamoros, a small border town in Mexico. She has an accounting degree, but she joined Teach for America after college and has been teaching ever since. You know this because she told you on your first day while giving you a tour of the school. She’s the only other Latina in the building and although she never lived in Mexico, her speech is heavy with Spanish. It wasn’t uncommon for either of your classes to be interrupted by a call to the main office to help with a Spanish-speaking student or parent, but most of the time they call Mrs. Olivas first.
“You know they don’t understand your Spanish,” Mrs. Olivas tells you when she walks in. “It’s so fast and choppy. You should try being a little more proper.”
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Overwhelmed By Awareness
Ser Álida, Adult Literacy Program in Jackson, Mississippi (2018)
“He’s gon’ be OK, though. The bullets just scratched his right leg,” Lorena says as cousins Deonte and Montes Brown trickle in catching the last bits of the conversation.
“Sorry we late, Ms. Reyes. Montes had an interview at the chicken plant.”
“Good morning, Deonte.”
“Y’all talking about my boy Memo?” Deonte asks. “I told him to stay in school. Would’ve missed them bullets had that [n-word] been here with us—”
“Language!” You cut him off.
“My bad, Ms. Reyes.”
Deonte is a Black boy from West Jackson. He dropped out of high school in 11th grade. He was 19 and his guidance counselor told him getting a GED was his best bet. He and Memo know each other from the neighborhood. He had been in the program for a year before he brought Memo. He has passed all parts of the GED exam, except language arts.
“Them paragraphs too big, Ms. Reyes,” he tells you. “By the time I finish reading, I forget what I read.”
Deonte calls Memo the n-word with an intimacy that solidifies their camaraderie. When they use the word with each other in class, you never correct them, but today you feel guilty, overwhelmed by awareness.
“Did he get robbed or sum’?” Deonte asks. “Yo Lorena, y’all know who did it?”
She shrugs, but she doesn’t look back at him.
“Did you get the job, Montes?” you ask, hoping to change the subject.
“I don’t know,” Montes replies.
“He probably didn’t!” Deonte laughs. “It was packed with Mexicans up there. We can’t have shit.”