Thursday, November 10, 2005

Aqui to Be Called Negrito Means to Be Called Love

This title of this post is the last line of one of the most famous poems of Pedro Pietri, one of "Nuyorico's" most celebrated artist called Puerto Rican Obituary.
The poem came to mind because a good friend -- an African American woman who is improving her ability to speak Spanish (hell, I already think she speaks it great. Way much better than I do) -- sent me an email today about Shakira's song and video La Tortura. If you've seen the video, you know that Shakira gyrates her oil-slicked body while featured artist Alejandro Sanz coos, "Oye, negrita, mira, no te rajes. . . Oye, mi negra, no me castigues más." So my friend wanted to know what was up with this cat calling her negrita while she slithers around in black oil.
Fair question. It just goes to show how careful we must be with our language and images, especially when we combine them and present them to an audience that may not be familiar with our cultural nuances. Regardless of race, ethnicity or culture, we often do or say things with little knowledge or understanding of the historical context that gave rise to them, taking for granted that our true meaning and intentions will be understood. Then when it isn't. . .
So it took both honesty and courage for my friend to voice her suspicions. I also appreciate that she was not invested in being offended Had she been right, I would have had no problem admitting, "Yeah, girl, that was some racist shit." (Just like I had no problem saying that I could've done without seeing Shakira dancing in petrol.)
But it actually wasn't some racist shit. As I responded to my friend, I thought I should also explain this to people who read my books, especially African American readers who may not have much interactions with Latinos. Having read Explicit Content and Picture Me Rollin', you might have gathered that Latinos often use the negro or negra as a term of endearment. Often times the person being called this may actually be a Black person. . . but not necessarily so.
See, what you may not realize unless you grew up with Latinos (especially those of Caribbean descent) is that the term has little to do with color. Regardless of your skin color, when we're feelin' you, you may be lovingly called negro, negra, negrito or negrita. You may have skin the color of the midnight sky, have a heavy dose of leche in your cafe, or even sport the bluest eyes. Chances are that if we've determined that we want to be your friend, relative or lover, you will hear, "Call me soon, negrita, so we can hang out."
And this is NOT in the same vein that some African Americans say, "What's up, n*****?" You have to keep in mind that the way race is conceptualized in Latin America is quite different than in the United States. That's another post for another time, but in the mean time you can learn more by reading an article I wrote for called Black Como Yo: Latinos Embrace Their African Roots and Fight for Racial Equality. For now I will say that the use of negro or negra as terms of endearment in the Latino community does not have a parallel to the use of the word n***a and its variations becuase they do not carry the same historical (namely racist) legacy.
Am I saying that there's no racism within the Latino community? I wouldn't dare! I know better than that. Unfortunately, despite our own history of enslavement, colonization and genocide (and maybe actually because of it), Latinos are not immune to that ugly disease, and the Spanish language does contain specific racial slurs for those of us ignorant enough to want to use them.
But the word negro is not one of them. Sure, some idiot might say, "Esa negra. . ." in a tone of voice that is offensive and worthy of rebuke, but that can be said of any race in any language. The overwhelming majority of the time, when Latinos uses the Spanish word for black, it means one of two things. We may be referring literally to something that is black in color.
Or in the words of poet Pedro Pietri, here to be called black is to be called love.