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Midland Reporter Telegram
Black Hispanics Struggle For Their Racial Identity
By Bruno Diaz
13 February 2005
The pause and the silence at the other end of the line were eloquent: "Black é Hispanics?"
Yes, black Hispanics.
"Well, the NAACP works for the benefit of all minorities, regardless of race" dutifully stated Yolanda Smith, executive director for the Houston branch of the decades-old civil rights association.
Her befuddlement is one many Americans share, whenever confronted with a reality that defies Hollywood-style stereotypes: Hispanics come in all colors and shapes. There are Asian Hispanics, white Hispanics, black Hispanics and even Latino Hispanics, as roughly 20 million people defined themselves, puzzled by the "race question" in the 2000 U.S. census.
But for the roughly 1 million black Hispanics who live in America, the question of their racial identity is one that pops up continuously along their lives, and not only once every 10 years during censuses.
"When people realized that my accent didn't match my face, they asked me where I was from. And when I told them that I was from the Dominican Republic, and that I spoke Spanish -- therefore my accent -- I always got this 'wow!-that-is-weird!' kind of look" recalled Eddy Bello, an electrical engineer who is now the manager of his wife's pediatric clinic in Odessa.
Back in the Dominican Republic, Bello's African heritage was a cultural undertone rather than a racial profile. It surfaced here and there, in the beat of merengue -- a very popular Caribbean genre -- in the spices of the country's most typical foods, in its literature, and, yes, in the white-on-black smiles of friends and relatives.
Having been born in New York to a Puerto Rican family, Ronald Flecha is, at the same time, Hispanic and black. Since the African heritage is especially strong in the Caribbean, Flecha thought that his genes and his ancestry would save him from being discriminated by other blacks. But he was wrong.
"When I was in the Army's basic training, back in 1968, I got caught in the middle of two discriminatory feelings. I was chastised by both ends of the spectrum: the African Americans were not agreeable with me, and the anglo Americans weren't either. There was a kind of two-way racism in there."
For both men, and for many black Hispanics in America, a mixed heritage often becomes a statement with an unexpected offshoot: blackness weighs more.
"Whether Hispanics choose to identify their race as white, Hispanic or black is not a matter of purely personal preference -- it reflects the social position of group members" John Logan concluded in a 2003 study by the Lewis Mumford Center at Albany University. "This is most evident in the case of the smallest group, black Hispanics, whose individual characteristics such as income and unemployment make them in many ways more similar to non-Hispanic blacks than to other Hispanic groups," concluded the study.
As blacks, black Hispanics tend to suffer higher poverty rates than other Hispanic subgroups. Put in perspective, their struggle resembles closely that of blacks.
It also illustrates how difficult it is to escape from racial predeterminations, even for those individuals for whom the race factor was never part of their identity.
But both Bello and Flecha shrug off the racial classifications and all its implications with one big smile. "Hispanics are not a race but members of a group with a common cultural background. To put all of us in the same bag is just ridiculous."
Rita Cuevas, a nun at Lady Guadalupe Catholic Church in Midland, and another Hispanic stereotype shredder, agrees with them.
As most Philippines, Sister Rita looks Asian but has a heavy Hispanic heritage, an inescapable byproduct of 350 years of Spaniards' colonialism.
"Spaniards left us many things that are now part of our identity: we are Catholics, we cook our seafood Mediterranean-style, our language is full of Spanish words and we are very 'family people,'" she said. But Philippines also owe vast areas of their identity pool to the Chinese influence, which puts them in the same place as black Hispanics: somewhere in the middle of two heritages.
Or perhaps beyond them.