By Aimee Thorne-Thomsen
I’m a little brown gurl from New York. I’ve always been comfortable in that identity; it fits me like a skin. Part of that comfort comes from knowing who I am. And part of that comfort comes from knowing that other people know me, too. I don’t mean that other people know me well, or even deeply. What I mean is that when I walk down the streets of Washington Heights or Kingsbridge or Greenwich Village, people recognize me. They see a brown gurl, probably Puerto Rican or Dominican, maybe mixed…but definitely Latina, a woman of color. To be seen for who and what I am–and have that reflected back to me–was critical in shaping my identity as a Latin@.
I didn’t realize the power in that until college when I first encountered the policing of identity, specifically Latin@ identity.
As a freshman I got a firsthand taste of the “I’m more Latin@ than you” competitions that seemed to plague our small community. Some classmates held rigid ideas of what made someone Latin@. Were you born here or [insert name of Latin American country]? Do you speak Spanish? Fluently? Or broken down Spanglish? Do you know how to dance salsa, merengue, cumbia? What about the food? Do you eat arroz, frijoles, tortillas, pupusas, or plátanos? Or better yet, do you know how to cook those dishes? When was the last time you were [insert Latin American country]? My classmates had lots of ways to check people’s Latin@ credentials, and they weren’t afraid to let them know whether they measured up.
I escaped this policing for the most part. I’m brown. I’ve got brown-black super-curly hair. I speak Spanish. I dance salsa, merengue, bachata, and reggaeton. I spent a lot of time in Puerto Rico, learning my family history, my island history, learning the sounds and smells of life in Borinquen. I was born and raised in NYC to parents born and raised in Puerto Rico. For some that made me less authentically Puerto Rican. Despite others’ understanding of what it means to be puertorriqueña, I stuck to who I was, to who my family raised me to be. I was one kind of Puerto Rican; they were another. And that was okay, because who was anyone to define what it means to be Puerto Rican for all of us? Surely, Puerto Rican culture and identity isn’t so fragile that the slightest deviation from these narrow definitions would threaten its very existence, right?
I hadn’t really thought about those days much until recently, as I witnessed more Latin@ friends, family, and colleagues fend off charges that they aren’t Latin@ enough. It really came to a head for me earlier this year when a fellow activist was the subject of what I thought was over-the-top policing. I had never considered that the marks of my cultural identity would be a source of privilege, but in that moment they were. I felt like I needed to vouch for her, and as someone who is recognized as a Latin@, I felt like I had to back up her Latin@ identity–and this isn’t the first time I’ve had to do that. I have had to push back on Latin@s who assume their experience of Latin@ identity is the only one that exists. Therefore, anyone whose experience is different isn’t recognized as one of us. I’ve also fought with non-Latin@s whose own ideas of race and ethnicity mean that lighter-skinned and/or darker-skinned Latin@s aren’t acknowledged members of the community.
What does this identity policing get us? Does it build more power for our community? Does it elevate our issues so that they are taken seriously? Does it advance a collective Latin@ agenda and lead our people forward? No, it does not. Policing is based in fear and insecurity, not love and community. And it reinforces the multiple systems of oppression that we as Latin@s already live with, including colonialism, white patriarchy, sexism, and colorism, just to name a few. Applying some kind of litmus test to determine who has the right to claim a Latin@ identity goes against everything I believe in. I won’t participate in it. And I won’t stand by as some try to enforce a narrow vision of who Latin@s are as a people. We are more than language and food and dancing. We are powerful. We have histories. And we are resilient. Let’s open up our eyes to see all Latin@ people and reflect back the beauty of all of our Latin@ identities.