DID YOU KNOW THAT NABIL WAS BLACK? (Dominicans_and their African Heritage)

by nabil on June 11, 2014

The Viñas Family

I Am Dominican
In the 1970’s, my parents both individually immigrated to the United States from a town called Moca in the Dominican Republic. They would meet and start a family here in NYC where I was born. Specifically the Washington Heights neighborhood on the northeast end of Manhattan.

The picture on the right here is of my family in New York before I was born. The kids are my older brother and sister. The woman in the middle is my father’s mother Bertha, who was visiting from DR at the time. She would spend some summers with us and passed away just a few years ago. It’s possible nobody in this photo speaks English at the time it was taken. I spoke only Spanish and didn’t learn English until age 5 when I started school.

Do I Look Dominican?
When I meet someone for the first time, it’s almost guaranteed to be a surprise when they learn I’m Dominican. I’m often asked repeatedly if I’m mixed with something else, usually some kind of white. I get this from people who have known me for years. And even from Dominicans themselves.
(Fact: I am 100% Dominican.)

Ancestry of Dominicans
The first people who lived in what is now called the Dominican Republic were the aboriginal indigenous peoples – mostly Taínos and a few Caribes. Columbus and Spanish colonization arrived, and by 1519 the Taínos and Caribes were all but wiped out. Then came the sugar mills and the importing of enslaved Africans. By 1546, there were 12,000 Africans in DR compared to the white population of less than 5,000. Those numbers would grow. These are the three pillars of Dominican ancestry: Indigenous, Spanish and…AFRICAN.

Why am I digging into a history lesson right now? Because ‘Dominican looks’ vary. And they vary because of this history. Knowing these facts of Dominican ancestry, shouldn’t it make complete sense to us how these beautiful and very different faces could all be totally Dominican?

top: Franklin w his daughter, Karina Ortiz, Ariel Pacheco, Tania & Adriano
mid: Diomargy Nuñez, Oliver w his grandma, Nabil & Junot Díaz, Yahaira w her daughter
bottom: Chris w his brother & dad, Nabil’s granddad, Nabil & his dad, Jessica w her sister Nathalie 

My grandmother and I

Skin Colors
With this blend of Spanish, Indigenous and African peoples, our skin colors range greatly even within our own families. My friend Chris and his brother (bottom left corner of gallery) have very different skin colors. They have the same two parents.

With me in the photo here on the left is my grandmother Zunilda de la Cruz. My mother’s mother. We’re blood. My light skin does not erase my African heritage and her dark skin does not erase her Spanish heritage. All of us Dominicans (and really all Latinos) are a beautiful blend of peoples and our various skin colors are a wondrous and natural gift.

So Am I Black?
Race is a social construct. It was invented by us not all too long ago. And it’s been used so far almost exclusively as a means to separate and exploit groups of people. Specifically those with dark skin. Because of racism, it’s become all too easy and popular to dismiss, forget and even erase our African heritage as Dominicans. And there is some serious racism within the Dominican community. It’s something that grew wildly strong out of the strained relationship with Haiti and the “newer” African slaves that were brought to the other side of the island.

This specific topic is explored in detail by Henry Louis Gates in his short documentary Haiti & the Dominican Republic: An Island Divided. Part of his PBS series “Black in Latin America”.

henry louis gatesBlack in Latin America (PBS)

It’s an oppresive and brutally racist attitude that has kept us divided from each other, and has allowed many of us to remain in denial of our African roots for a long time. It helps no one. As a light skinned Dominican, I have had more doors open for me and have had a much different experience in this country than my darker cousins, uncles and friends. I’m not any smarter or cooler than they are. I just get to dodge a chunk of the racism with which our society currently operates with.

The deep truth, and this was learned from experience, is that I am only a fraction of my true self when I am separated from my brothers and sisters. So it’s standing together with them in my mind that I share this brief history with you and identify myself as black in the title of this post. We have the same ancestors and the same culture. When you look at me, you should see my grandmother. You should see my uncles, cousins and friends. And when you see a Dominican with dark skin, I hope you can remember and see me in them too.

Moya Pons, Frank. The Dominican Republic: A National History. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1998. Print.

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