Over the years I have always been me, a Puerto Rican woman born and raised in New Haven Connecticut. I was raised to be proud of my heritage and to stand tall and honor my customs. I never really thought of colorism in or outside of Puerto Rico. My understanding was that we are Puerto Rican, no matter the color of our skin, or the regionalisms with which we speak. I was under the notion that the Puerto Rican was the perfect mix of Spanish, Taino, and African. Outwardly no one claimed that their Afro Latino heritage was more dominant than any other. That simple omission is what colorism stems from. Puerto Rico also prides itself on being Hispanic, just another way to negate or lessen the “blackness” of a nation. I was in for a rude awakening when I moved to Puerto Rico and my “color blindness” was not the norm nor was it a popular idea shared by many. During this time I began to experience being referenced by the color of my skin-“la blanquita”. I was also called “la Americana”. These labels were offensive and at first somewhat confusing. Re-enforcing my “whiteness” negates any family I may have that is predominately black. I thought all along that we were all just Puerto Rican and our history and life experiences were common and shared.
Through further studies and investigations, I realized that this rhetoric is part of Puerto Rican history because many people on the Island truly believe that by identifying as mestizo, they are acknowledging their history. It gets them off the hook about admitting that Puerto Rico has Black citizens as well as a history of racial inequality of its own. These experiences awakened my curiosity, and I began to wonder why we are such a diverse population and how did we come to inhabit this tiny island. I began to learn my real history. I began to learn that we had people from all over the world move to Puerto Rico and settle, starting and growing families. I also learned that these settlers brought with them strong foundations in racism and colorism that still exist today.
Through the seminar, I became painfully aware that societies were also formed based on the exploitation of Africans and creoles. These colonizing people, mostly European came onto the islands with money and power feeling superior. They took the liberty to equate power and status with skin color. The honest truth is that history can sometimes be ugly, but that history is ours and we have a responsibility to our students to teach them this history because it is part of who they are. When we are talking about the history of a people, what is most satisfying is when students are able to connect and realize that where they come from and who they become are tied to our ancestors.
Aside from my own experiences in Puerto Rico and Connecticut, I would like to explore and incorporate the aspect of colorism in the Dominican Republic. Our two countries are similar in some aspects, and many Puerto Ricans and Dominicans have united on many fronts. Through conversations with friends who are Dominican, I have found that colorism is just as much an issue for them as it is for Puerto Ricans. I have learned that Dominicans only want to acknowledge their Spanish and Indigenous roots because if they go as far as to acknowledge their Afro-Latino side, they are essentially admitting that they have ties to Haitians and to slavery in colonial Santo Domingo. Upon seeing it as a common issue, I would like explore if there are any differences and if Puerto Rico being a territory of the United States has any influence on colorism.
I currently teach at Roberto Clemente Leadership Academy for Global Awareness in the Hill section of New Haven, Connecticut. My students are sixth grade English Language Arts students. They come from modest income homes. We have a large population of students from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Afghanistan. The ELA curriculum devotes most of Unit One focusing on identity and self-esteem. The subtopic of colorism fits in well with the rest of the curriculum unit because a main character in one of the books we read suffers the effects of colorism. Many students are not familiar with the term colorism. Upon further discussion, I realized that although the term is unfamiliar, their experiences of suffering discrimination based on colorism are not. When students realize the words and phrases they choose reflect colorism they are shocked. These lessons impact all our students because colorism happens in all circles. Social Studies tends to lend itself to these topics but we as Language Art teachers can incorporate nonfiction readings that teach us where colorism stems from.
By working with my students this year, I am able to appreciate that they want to learn more about their history and where they come from. They have also demonstrated the need to understand that when we refer to Afro Latinos we are bridging cultures together through a history that unifies, not divides. By that same token, students can come to appreciate those cultural customs that make us different always taking into account that one culture is not better than the other. The students have become quite proficient in formulating higher level questions that guide them in research and reading. I can offer them this new learning by tapping in to nonfiction historical articles and current event pieces. It is also important to incorporate maps so the students can get a geographic sense of where we are located in relation to the rest of the world. Offering my students these multiple vehicles to learn a lesson in identity only helps to solidify theirs.
A unit on colorism will also enhance our unit on social justice issues. As I reflect on the topic of colorism and how it affects us in society today, I remember the words of Dr. Martin Luther King when he said that he dreamed of a Nation that would judge not by the color of one’s skin but by the content of one’s character. In this instance he was referring to racism and discrimination but it is a concept that also applies to colorism. Introducing colorism in the identity unit and bridging it into the social justice unit will help us examine and gain a deeper understanding of how colorism and social justice influence each other. . In unit one we are able to introduce the concept of colorism and see it one dimensional. In our social issues unit we can bridge the introduction to colorism and dive deeper in to how it affects us today. Students will be able to read and identify where they are seeing colorism demonstrated and how they intend on raising awareness in order put an end to the practice.
Presenting colorism, its origins and history opens the door to how we view societies getting along or not. We are able to appreciate that even within our own ethnicities we tend to discriminate because society has set a norm which clearly states that “white is alright”. Within my unit, I want to expose students to those “dichos” that perpetuate colorism and discrimination. Students should be able to understand how these sayings and phrases came about and how they stem from racism and European supremacy. Another important element for me is to bring art in as an effective tool to demonstrate that even artistic creativity over the centuries was influenced by colorism. Our students need the time and opportunity to observe, analyze and then verbalize without feeling pressure and worrying about whether they are right or wrong. This is a skill that through art they can develop and later on transfer to creating a self-identity free of colorism.
Slavery began very quickly after the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500s. While it had an uneven history in Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo, peaking at different times, neither territory achieved abolition until the 19th century (1873 and 1822, respectively). It is a moral obligation to explain to students why the slave trade existed and who garnered the most benefits from the situation. History cannot be manipulated to benefit one people, race ethnicity, or group. The facts are that sugar was the most important export at the height of the slave trade and Europeans (whites) owned plantations, sugar mills, and coffee farms. They were not going to do the job themselves, so they used more and more enslaved people to do the work they refused to do. The enslaved people did all the work but the Europeans (and resident elites) reaped all the benefits and continued to exploit people of color. Slaves were deemed as property.
Once sugar declined and slavery was abolished, blacks and European-descended people were left to try and co-exist. Very little changed and now blacks were “free” but most had no choice but to continue to work for the white man and be subjected to poor conditions and pay. Although slavery was abolished, the white man never lost their hold thus perpetuating inequality. I would like to use fictional and non-fictional pieces to demonstrate the lives people led on both sides. Pieces of literature that illustrate interactions between the Europeans and the slaves could help students understand relationships that have transpired over the years. Students will be able to appreciate that slavery touched much of the “new world” and our ancestors. I also want students to understand that slavery happened on our Islands, not just in America. Many of my students realize that cultures are different but then they equate these differences with being inferior because of the color of their skin or the language they speak. I think it is important for students to learn that many important people in history have been people of color who have been disregarded or forgotten because of the discrimination.
I want to be able to take full advantage of the seminar and learn about the history of the Islands, the people and their struggles. I want to use my personal experiences as a guide to my studies into the world of colorism and how it has touched our lives and influenced our relationships. Through this unit, I hope that I can distinguish European influence and ideas from Native and Afro Latino ideas. This in turn will allow students to establish a more authentic identity. I think it is important for students to realize that they have the power to decide their own future because generations before them fought to be free and to pass that legacy to them.