Today, there are roughly 55 million Latinxs living in the U.S. — each one of us with unique cultural experiences. In our new series #SomosLatinx, R29's Latinx staffers explore the parallels and contrasts that make our community so rich. Stay tuned as we celebrate our diversity during Latinx Heritage Month from September 15-October 15.
I don’t use the N-word, yet for most of my life in this country, hearing it has been a part of my American experience.
I was born in the Dominican Republic and arrived in New York City when I was three-years-old. Growing up in the Bronx, the N-word was something I heard every day, from both Black and Latinx kids and in the hip-hop culture that permeated our lives. We all listened to artists like Foxy Brown, Jay Z, Lil’ Kim and Ja Rule, and we were all poor, minorities, our lives and experiences intertwined in the pre-gentrification days of the Bronx. For many of us, it was just another colloquialism, one that was inherently ours.
Many Latinx individuals I know, family and friends, have used the word their whole lives, and still use it daily. For many of them, because they have grown up in New York City, they believe they are allowed to use it. In places like Harlem or the Bronx, Black and Latinx cultures are often indistinguishable from one another. Joel L. Daniels, a Black writer and author of A Book About Things I Will Tell My Daughter, born and raised in the Bronx, describes this mixing of culture. “We all grew up around hip-hop: Rap City, MTV Jams, Video Music Box, Hot 97, the music and culture were everywhere,” he says. “I think Black and brown folks identifying with our struggles, feeling the weight of a shared poverty and racial dynamics, we all felt one in the same.”
Daniels points out, however, that places like New York City add another layer of nuance to the discourse around who can or cannot say the N-word.
I ask my Latinx coworker, who was born in California and raised in Texas, about the N-word. Vivian Cabrera is Mexican-American. She tells me that growing up in Compton, her classmates were predominantly Black and did not use the term. She did, however, hear the term used by her family members, who would use it with their friends. “It was a term of endearment, like when you call a family member gordo or guero or chuy.”
I ask Cabrera if she says the N-word. “No, I have never used it.”
For most of my life, I have failed to discuss the African roots within my own culture.
As a 28-year-old woman, I have begun to think about my relationship to this word, thanks in large part to the social media discourse around who gets to use the term. It is also a question that has come up in my personal life. My fiancé, who is Ghanaian, has often asked me why, despite identifying as Afro-Latina, I refuse to use the N-word. I identify as Afro-Latina because my father is a Black man — to use any other term, for me, would be to refute his blackness, and by extension, my own. However, because of the lightness of my skin and my ability to “pass,” I do not feel comfortable using the term. For most of my life, I have not acknowledged my own blackness and I have not dealt with the oppression and racism that darker men and women — like my father, my fiancé — have dealt with.
Along with my own discomfort using the term, there is also valid criticism from the Black community when Latinx individuals use the term. In August of 2017, rapper Cardi B, a Dominican and Trinidadian rapper, was questioned about her usage of the N-word in her lyrics. She described the term as something normal and ingrained in her rhetoric, adding that Latinx individuals “are mixed with African, European,” and because of these roots, she concludes that socially, the Latinx and Black communities are viewed the same.
The rapper captures one of the reasons why the usage of the N-word is so complex within Dominican culture. Many of us, who are either immigrants or whose families have been here for years, do not know how to talk about our own blackness. For most of my life, I have failed to discuss the African roots within my own culture. Growing up, I white-washed myself and took pleasure in people commenting on how fair my skin was or how much more professional I looked when I relaxed my hair. “I have family in Spain,” I would repeat growing up, wearing my Spanish roots like a badge of honor.
For Dominicans, this whitewashing is due to the anti-blackness that has been an entrenched part of the country — and most countries in Latin America — since European colonizers brought slavery to the Americas. In 1492, Christopher Columbus arrived in Santo Domingo, and at the time, the country was made up of about one million Taino Indians — a number which, by 1548, dropped to less than one thousand. Taino men had been used as slave labor and Taino women were raped and tortured. As the population died off, in the early 16th century, the Spanish brought African slaves to the island to replace Taino slave labor, a process which was replicated all over Central and South America as well.
For Dominicans, our culture was born out of the African diaspora, and yet, simultaneously, throughout history, we have been a nation of rampant anti-blackness and racism, most evident in the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. From 1930 until 1961, Trujillo ruled the Dominican Republic, favoring white or lighter skinned citizens and ordering the deaths of thousands of Haitians during the Parsley Massacre of 1937. The effects of this massacre are still seen today in the Dominican Republic’s treatment of its citizens of Haitian descent.
I talk with José Luis Vilson, an educator and author of This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, about what it means for the Latinx community to embrace its blackness and whether or not this affects who can use the N-word. Vilson, who is Dominican, was born and raised in New York City and tells me he has embraced his blackness in recent years, and while he hears the N-word in his music and sometimes uses it with friends, he tries to avoid using the term when he can. He hypothesizes that certain Latinx communities, like Dominicans, use the term because in places like the Bronx, Harlem or the Lower East Side, where the author was born, Latinx and Black communities have had the same socioeconomic status.
While the rules are pretty clear regarding usage by white people, it becomes more complicated for others.
Vilson adds that the way some Latinx individuals are perceived also plays a role in who gets to say the N-word. Take rapper Big Pun and actress and singer Jennifer Lopez. Big Pun used the word throughout his rap career; and in 2001, in the remix to “I’m Real,” Lopez used the N-word and was subsequently criticized for it. “Though they both grew up in the Bronx, they both grew up around Black people,” Vilson says, “the way we perceive their artforms and the way we perceive the person who is embodying it determines whether or not people will get offended.”
I ask several of my Latinx friends about their relationship with the term. Many of them echoed Cardi’s sentiments, as opposed to my own: The term has been a part of their cultural upbringing and it has become a normal part of their everyday lives. One friend tells me that using the N-word has a lot to do with complexion, adding that Latinx individuals with lighter complexions, even if they identify as Afro-Latinx, should not be using the term.
Mariela Regalado is a College Access educator and a freelance writer. She was born in the Dominican Republic and arrived in New York City when she was six-years-old. Regalado tells me that growing up in the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn, the N-word was a part of her everyday vernacular. She would use the term with her siblings and friends, but this changed once she got to St. John’s University in Queens. “I got a real education on the history of systematic oppression and racial inequities in this country and that’s really the first time I started to completely eliminate the word from my vocabulary.”
Like Regalado, media strategist Marlene Peralta was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Brooklyn. She tells me that she refuses to use the N-word because she has always been aware of the term’s disparaging history. “If it was up to me, I would say it’s best if no one uses it,” Peralta tells me. “Racism is still alive and well and under those circumstances, it does more harm than good.”
I ask several of my Black friends about whether or not they believe Latinxs can use the term. Many state that it depends on how the individual identifies, i.e., if they are Afro-Latinx, then they get a pass; others stated that the same rules apply for Latinx as they do for white people: Do not ever use the N-word.
Tai Gooden is a Black freelance writer who was born and raised in North Carolina. She tells me that while the rules are pretty clear regarding usage by white people, it becomes more complicated for others. “It’s such a divisive word with so many complex emotions tied to it and people are going to continue to disagree about the qualifiers to use it, especially when it comes to other minorities,” she tells me. “Is this person ‘Black’ enough to use it? Who decides the ‘exceptions’ to these blurry guidelines? There’s always going to be a disagreement.”
Daniels adds that while there is no clear cut rule, he knows what he favors: “I know what I prefer, and that is only Black men and women using the word.”
The Latinx community’s relationship with the N-word will always be complex. Some Latinx will continue to use the term either because they identify in a way in which they believe gives them a pass or because they view the word as a term of endearment; some won’t ever use it because, for them, it is a slur that shouldn’t be used in such dangerous times in America.
For me, I will never feel comfortable using the N-word. And while it will always be a part of my life in America, from its prevalence in the hip-hop that I love to my Black and Latinx friends who use it, I will strive to find other ways to define my own Afro-Latinidad, my own blackness.