Dear Zoe Saldaña: I’m A Proud Dominican. I Also Want To See Us Address Anti-Blackness

Photo: Erika Santelices/AFP/Getty Images.
Like many readers of Somos, I was born in the US but have roots in the Caribbean: My parents were born in the Dominican Republic, and I grew up celebrating Dominican Independence Day. To commemorate the occasion this year, I wanted to do something different that was in the spirit of the work we all do at Somos: To interrogate our history, to practice real inclusivity, and to understand that we can’t celebrate the things that make us beautiful without working to heal the ugly parts of our identity, too.
I knew that speaking about how Dominican Independence Day and Dominican anti-Blackness are linked was a small but important thing to do. So, we published a social collaboration with community organisation Incultured Co. on Somos' Instagram page with an accompanying article. The post, which riffed on Frederick Douglass’ “What to the slave is 4th of July?” shared context on this day's history, addressing how it has nothing to do with Spanish colonisers, and instead marks the country's autonomy from Haiti in 1844. This context would be the footprint for the long, brutal history of anti-Haitian and anti-Black racism ingrained in Dominican culture — sentiments I was simultaneously disturbed to see play out within our comments and expected to see, too. 
"They are our neighbours, much to our disgrace." 
"An angry Black narrative." 
“HAITI ES UNA JUNGLA, siempre serán una Tribu de incivilizados que necesitan RD para brillar.” 
Many of the commenters were sent by actress Zoe Saldaña who is of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent and took umbrage with our post. "You owe all Dominicans — regardless if their [sic] Black, white, or Taino — an apology. On our independence day, we do not need to be schooled by others on what we “should’ know about ourselves," she wrote in one Instagram Story about myself, a Dominican, and our team of Latinx writers and editors whose work toward a more inclusive, more honest Latinidad means dismantling the anti-Blackness within our own communities. (Requests to Saldaña’s team for comment went unanswered.) “#CancelCultureIsStartingToSuckSometimes,” hashtagged Saldaña, whose herself experienced digital cancelling because of statements that many saw as anti-Black: She wore blackface in the widely panned Nina Simone biopic, which she’s later apologised for, but has since invoked retrograde ideas of “colorblindness” to explain how she’s grown.
Saldaña is a celebrity with over seven million followers. Her words have power. Because of her posts calling for my contrition, I’ve received death threats and ongoing harassment from her fans. We were forced to disable comments on our Instagram post in order to be mindful of the wellbeing of our followers, whose comments in support of our post opened them up to harassment as well. I’m reminded of the times in which writers have turned down Somos assignments about anti-Haitian discourse in the Dominican Republic, and cited the physical threats they received for past work on the subject. The same fear silences and endangers folks on the island. To see the same rhetoric being perpetuated by a celebrity with the kind of platform like Saldaña’s is dispiriting. "She's promoting the kinds of things that cause Black people on the island to die every day," says InCultured Co. founder France François in response to the reaction to the post.
To be clear: We did not cancel celebrating our independence. We did not say that we shouldn't be proud of our culture. We did not call for the island of Hispaniola to become one island. We did not say that either country has a pristine past. We're not ignoring Restoration Day that commemorates the start of the Dominican Restoration War in 1863, a war that would deliver the country’s freedom from Spain in 1865. We're also not disregarding the violence that has occurred and does occur between Dominicans and Haitians. We presented a true side of history that’s largely been erased from our curriculum — one that complicates the tidy story of independence that’s taught in schools, and mostly serves the white elite. The purpose of that post, like so much of our journalism, is to ask our Latinx audience to reflect on the injustices that are baked into our institutions.
On 27th February, Matías Ramón Mella fired el trabucazo at the Puerta de la Misericordia in Santo Domingo to mark the beginning of the revolution, the day Francisco del Rosario Sanchez raised our flag for the first time. Some say that 27th February is the day we first won sovereignty, but how meaningful is it when the country would later become recolonized? How do we reckon with mass deportation or laws that took away birthright citizenship from Haitians born in DR without mentioning anti-Blackness? This isn’t even in our deep history; these things happened just six years ago. I believe that all celebrations, traditions, or historical accounts should be constantly reevaluated, especially when they’re from the perspective of European settlers or the white elite.
Dismantling anti-Blackness is not cancel culture. It’s also certainly not exclusive to the Dominican experience. At Somos, we’ve addressed anti-Blackness across Latinidad from Panama to El Salvador to Colombia. We've noted that many enslaved people wouldn't be liberated until much later in all our social media acknowledgments of Latinx independence days. We've even asked our followers to reflect on 4th July and whether "justice and freedom for all" includes all Americans, even today. 
When you centre Blackness in discussing history, people get angry. It happens when we talk about taking down Confederate flags and honouring Confederate statues. It’s happening here, too.
"When Dominicans like Zoe Saldaña try to deny the history of Black struggle in the Dominican Republic, what they do is try to uphold white supremacy and silence the struggle of Blackness that has been continuous within Latinidad," François tells R29. That argument is common among Dominicans — that there is no "race" in our country, in the same way that Saldaña has characterised the home she grew up in as "colour-blind." Dominican nationalists argued in the comments that anti-Haitian sentiments are non-existent, ignoring all the research that says otherwise.
Saldaña called on us to apologize, but we will not apologise for working to dismantle the anti-Blackness that exists within Latinidad. Part of that is making it clear that we’re also not here to cancel Saldaña either in part because she’s shown a capacity to learn and grow. I have so much love and pride for my culture and my family’s country, and part of that is having enough love to want things to change for the better. Somos holds all of Latinidad to the same standard. Our work facilitates dialogue that sparks action and conversation, challenges the status quo, and fosters our readers’ abilities to learn about and inhabit different perspectives within and without Latinidad. I hope that those like Saldaña take a beat here to understand how hollow it is to celebrate something if you all refuse to see it for all it is. “The sun will always continue to shine on la bella quisqueya,” she wrote on Instagram Stories. But practicing real love means looking in the shadows, too.

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