By Carol Amoruso, Hispanic American Village Editor
Editor’s Note: We follow up our discussion of troubled black-brown relations in Los Angeles with a continental drift eastward, giving a look at New York, where, to date, there have been no significant flare-ups. We’ve borrowed our title from Duke Ellington’s suite, Fantasy in Black and Tan, reasoning thus: Latinos come in all shades from black to tan, their skin having much to do with how they relate to each other and to African Americans. In addition, Ellington and his music, jazz, were a magnet for the city’s early Latino settlers. Together they bred Latin jazz, a lasting, superlative melding of affinities.
In the days before there was such a thing as a Latino in New York, “Latinos” were Puerto Rican. There was a smattering of Cubans, some stragglers from Mexico and the Dominican Republic, but their numbers were negligible compared to the 100,000 Puerto Ricans in the City at the time of the Second World War. A mass migration began at the end of the war, and by 1960, there were a million Puerto Ricans in New York.
Blacks and Puerto Ricans in New York found and fostered commonalities early on as they celebrated their African cultural and blood ties. Often they lived side-by-side, shunted into the more run-down service-deprived neighborhoods. Most whites fled when Puerto Ricans moved in, while in the black ghettoes, there was no place for them to go should they have wanted to get away.
At first, it seemed as if the population at large didn’t quite know what to make of these incoming folks, most somewhere between black and tan. Dexter Jeffries, professor of African American and other literature and writing at Borough of Manhattan Community College, tells us that his step grandfather, a “brown Cuban,” came to New York from Havana in the 30s, immediately found work, despite the hard economic times, and felt privileged and assimilated. But just 20 years later, Piri Thomas felt “hung between two sticks,” growing up on the mean streets of East Harlem. Thomas is shamed on the street when he doesn’t own up to his blackness yet shunned by his own brothers since they could “pass.” He spends a number of drug-addled years in el Barrio and in prison trying to sort it all out:
Accounts of those days may be somewhat romanticized yet truthful in revisiting shared interests–especially music–and poverty, marginalization from the mainstream society, a nascent politicization, negritude, all insuring an early black-brown brotherhood. Says Jeffries: ” …the coalition back then, it was spiritual. It was political. It was racial.” But Rigo Andino, PhD candidate at the University of Binghamton, New York, and a Nuyorican, offers a more nuanced take. By the 60s, he says, Puerto Ricans basically had to choose between three identities — nationalist Puerto Rican, Afro-Puerto Rican, and black:
Pushing the issue of identity was the Young Lords Party, which took many of its cues from the revolutionary Black Panthers. Although short-lived–internecine fighting and the toll taken by police infiltration and harassment led to their early dissolution–the YLP dedicated themselves to fostering Latino pride, activism–most notably against police brutality–and community service. (One of the Lords’ greatest achievements was the take-over of Lincoln Hospital, a South Bronx hell-hole, forcing the administration to establish a drug rehabilitation center.) The Young Lords and Panthers eventually made alliances with white street revolutionaries. The oppressor now was not the honkey, but the “system”; the focus became less one of Puerto Rican negritude than of class struggle.
Today, the city is the mosaic first imaged to by its first black mayor, David Dinkins, elected with massive Latino support. There are “Hispanics” and “Latinos” now, when once there were just Puerto Ricans, making the way browns relate to blacks a much thornier issue. Having been granted a pigeon-hole, all the City’s Latinos—German Argentines, Dominicans, black Ecuadorians, Peruvian indios—would, by definition, have to have much in common with African Americans, lending currency to Professor Jeffries’ definition of race:
In truth, the many groups under the Hispanic catchall relate differently to African Americans, and African Americans see the various Latino ethnicities in differing lights as well. Moreover, people as individuals see others under personalized lights, and views will change depending on many variables. The dynamic is thus more complex and fluid, and unpredictable.
In 1995, with a population of over 600,000, Dominicans surpassed Puerto Ricans as the city’s largest Latino group. They are finding the racial equation here different from the one they lived under in the Dominican Republic. Although 85% of all Dominicans have black blood, back home, because of murderous racism bolstered by the DR’s history of dictatorship, if they can’t pass for white, they do their best to be “indios.” As Afro-Dominicans are frequently identified here as black, and many youths are copping to African American youth culture, many self-identify as black. At the same time, a great number of Dominicans still reject their blackness. In an article I wrote for the Hispanic American Village in 2002, I interviewed Dominican aestheticians, specialists in hair relaxing, proud of their ability to make black seem white. Observed one, “…we do not say that we are black. We invent a lot of names for our skin, like indio claro, indio lava[d]o or indio canela, but never black. So, the idea is to make you look white if you are black. They teach us that in the Dominican Republic.”
Back on the mean streets, questions of race often give way to those of turf; there is rising street gang activity pitting Dominicans against African Americans in the Bronx.
The new Latinos come mostly from the Latin American mainland where the culture is more “indio” and European. Many are undocumented and fear informants and stigmatization, and they may see Americans less along color than nativist lines: who’s “American” and who’s foreign. Says Jeffries, after observing enclaves of various incoming Latino groups settling into his predominantly African American neighborhood, “They have their own world, even if it’s only half a block…It seems they don’t have intercourse with anyone. And I think to them a black person represents two things: an American–it’s no question of race, they’re just gringos. And another barrier would be the language.”
Mexicans at this point have assumed the highest profile of all Latinos in the city, with unofficial numbers soaring over the last ten years to over 300,000; they are the face of restaurants, convenience and greengrocer shops, and construction sites. Despite the racist implications of Mexican president Vicente Fox’s recent remark, one would have to concede that there is some truth in it: Mexicans, for whatever economic and social reasons, will take on jobs at least no, or few, naturalized Americans, black or white, will. And when one thinks of potential tensions between blacks and browns, referencing the incidents and tensions in LA and the mistrust that seems to be growing in the South as Mexican workers flood in, one wonders what’s in store for the New York area where, in addition to the numbers, they are beginning to spawn out into diverse neighborhoods, and have begun to organize, seeking decent wages (the average Mexican worker’s yearly in come is only $10,000), and working conditions. Also potentially explosive is the rapid rise of Mexican street gangs.
The question that seems most difficult to answer is whether tensions between black and brown, or between any two groups for that matter, result from the inability or unwillingness to bridge cultural differences, or the stress put upon them by their life situation, which itself is a product of forces from above and a system that encourages division.
“This is a period of exploration,” says Jeffries, referring to the way the new Latinos process their coming to know African Americans. His vantage point, teaching at a college with a black and brown student body, has allowed him over the years to monitor a whole range of attitudes and issues of young New Yorkers. “Right now, I can tell there’s still an innocence,” he says. “It’s still a period of ‘I am here. I’m still open. I haven’t shut down yet.’ But, I know what can happen in a few years. Or a few turns of events.” Jeffries’ fear is that the immigrants will be tainted by negative stereotypes of blacks proffered by the media, or by one bad experience, most notably the “black connection with ‘crime,” and this would give rise to major antagonisms. (Jeffries himself is half black, half white, with Latino cultural roots. His autobiography is Triple Exposure from Dafina Books, 2003.)
I also spoke with Tony Rosado, a Dominican American restaurant manager for 30 years, who prides himself on maintaining a very diversified kitchen. Mexicans can be compared to no other group, he volunteers, owing to their motivation, their “submissiveness,” and to how rapidly they learn kitchen skills. Rosado observes an overall resentment of Mexicans, with African Americans the most vocal. Mexicans, on the other hand, are loath to engage that resentment. Blacks resent the fact that Mexicans will “do a lot for less:” work longer hours and for lower pay, not complain, and either not stand up for or be unaware of their rights. In the ambit of the restaurant kitchen, adds Rosado, African Americans and Caribeños share “good vibes’ and have more in common, with Caribeños seen as homegrown citizens with kindred musical tastes and other commonalities, including (by now) language.
I recently interviewed a group of “new Latino” workers, mostly Mexicans (8 of 10, with one Peruvian and one Ecuadorian), seeking their input on the topic. All but two worked in construction, the others in restaurants. The men were in general agreement, expressing no open hostility towards blacks, offering no typically stereotypical remarks, although one got a rise from his colleagues when he referred to American blacks as “desmadres”—messed up; a few said they had African American friends, although none said they lived in heavily African American neighborhoods. All felt, however, that blacks remained aloof when sharing a job site, separating themselves from the other groups of workers. They talked about even the poorest African Americans’ willingness to pass up a grunt job, like the $8 per hour indignities the Mexicans were more than likely forced to take. Explained one worker with, yes, some resentment, while reaching into his own lowly status, “They [African Americans] feel more American. They feel they don’t have to do the work that immigrants should do.”
The Latinos didn’t feel there was much competition for jobs, because most blacks in construction come in at much higher pay rates, many of them being unionized. Professor Jeffries has a curious twist on why he agreed there was little job competition: Many black workers are so disaffected, after so many years of not getting ahead, they don’t even look for jobs, but depend on the underground economy to sustain themselves.
It is hard to predict, based on anecdotal accounts, observations, “vibes” and long-standing trends, that this city, a mosaic so precariously cemented together, will be spared deeply-affecting racial disharmony. Our Nuyorican observer, Rigo Andino, posits two ways to avoid confrontation. The first is in familiarity: in living side-by-side, by going to the same schools, the same clubs, by dating, by awareness of how similarly the overall culture treats both groups. “That starts breaking down walls,” he says. But, he also suggests that Latinos who have been here longer, the Caribeños, must come together with the “new Latinos,” “backing away some from their identification with, ‘Yo soy negro,’ to emphasize the culture they share with the “indios.” And their shared “hispanidad.”
* Down these Mean Streets, Piri Thomas; first pub. 1967 by Random House; Vintage Books Edition, 1997
Other Readings of Interest