J.Lo is not Black nor does she claim that identity when she uses the term “negrita” on Maluma’s “Lonely” single. But Twitter isn’t having any of it and the controversy is obscuring a complicated discussion about race in the United States and the Spanish Caribbean (Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico).
For those of us who have grown up in Spanish Caribbean families, both in the United States or our island-homes, this isn’t an unfamiliar term of endearment. I hear its loving use when my very brown Puerto Rican and Dominican uncles call their very white Puerto Rican and Colombian partners: “mira negrita.” I hear its loving use among friends and families when reminiscing over moments of love and joy and sometimes sadness: “Ay negro, recuerdas cuando?” I hear its sexual power when men and women use it, sometimes unwanted, to signal their sexual interest in each other: “coño negrita, que bella eres.”
It is part of our cultural legacy and an emotionally powerful point of cultural identity for many of us. The use of “negrita/negrito” is so commonplace, so familiar, so devoid of social and political context in its everyday use that it is easy to erase the critical history behind it. And it is even easier to forget that the term has no cultural or linguistic translation in the United States.
The Caribbean was an important point of entry for slaveholding ships. Approximately 5 million enslaved Africans were processed on the islands before being forced to work on island plantations or being shipped as chattel elsewhere in the Americas. By comparison, African American Studies scholar Henry Louis Gates writes that approximately 388,800 Africans were shipped to North America.
My maternal great-great grandmother, Mama Goyá, was one of the enslaved Africans brought to Puerto Rico. She earned her freedom on March 22, 1873, ten-years after the U.S. emancipation. And while the violent laws of segregation in the United States were never the law of the land in Puerto Rico, social and economic racism against enslaved or mixed-race Puerto Ricans still resulted in violence and limited opportunities. To this day there are segregated communities of African Puerto Ricans on the island.
After the United States colonized Puerto Rico in 1898, the island’s first census in 1899 divided everyone into white and not-white and it was determined that more than 80% of Puerto Ricans were deemed not-white, “mulatto,” “colored.” Most like Mama Goya, partnered with European settlers or mixed-race others resulting in generations of Puerto Ricans with wildly fluid racial identities, identities that usually avoid claiming blackness and sometimes claim whiteness. Most Puerto Ricans have a Mama Goyá in their family story – possibly even J.Lo.
I have heard the word “negra” or “negro” used pejoratively by members of my ethnic communities. In 2013, shortly after legislators in the Dominican Republic Supreme voted to take birthright citizenship away from children born of Haitian immigrants, I witnessed a confrontation between a “white” Dominican woman and a “Black” Dominican door guard. He had denied her free entry to the country’s national museum because she lacked identification. The woman repeatedly used the word, references to his skin, and facial features as a racialized insult to challenge the man’s national identity. Both the constitutional amendment and that moment reminded me that the legacy of anti-blackness brought to the islands by European and U.S. colonizers, a legacy that values whiteness and devalues blackness, remains alive.
And it’s easy to interpret Lopez’s use of the word as an attempt to identify racially as Black. As plenty of Twitter users and I have pointed out in my work on Latinas in the Media, Lopez made her start as a fly-girl on Black entertainment television. She strutted that famous Versace green dress on the arms of her then boyfriend hip-hop artist Sean Combs. Born and raised in the Bronx in the city that holds the core of Afro-Latino culture, her music and fashion style have always echoed urban New York Black-Brown identities. So the belief by some that she would finally be claiming a Black identity is not illogical.
But that is not the identity that Jennifer Lopez in a Spanish-language song marketed to a Spanish-language music audience evokes when she describes herself as a “negrita” from the Bronx. She was speaking to all of us island transplants – Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans – who have grown up in the United States straddling a racial binary that takes us years to understand and in which we may never occupy a comfortable space. She was calling out to my Mama Goyá, the woman whose life ensures that I will always be different aqui and alla. She was asking all of us to claim and celebrate that racial ethnic difference as a source of pride.
Reflecting on the island’s historical context makes the use of “negrita” as a term of endearment complicated. It is homage to our African legacy, a reminder of our African ancestry regardless of the color of our skin, a shout out to our cultural difference. And in the United States its use within our ethnic communities is a conscious form of resistance to Western acculturation and more rigid categories of identity. It is a sign of our loving, intimitate, and complicated connection to each other, our islands, and our brutal pasts.
I use J.Lo’s disgrace to ask for some grace. I am not African-American and I don’t claim a right to occupy that racial trauma. But I am proudly Black and Puerto Rican/Dominican. And if you question my right to claim those identities, I invite you to take trip to Puerto Rico and visit Old San Juan’s Museo de Nuestra Raiz Africana (Museum of Our African Roots) where you can see for yourselves the shackles my ancestors wore on their forced voyage to the island and the branding irons used to mark them as less than human property. When I hear J.Lo call herself “negrita.” I hear my mother, and I thank Mama Goyá that she survived. And I am filled with gratitude, pride, and love.
Isabel Molina-Guzmán is a professor in Latina/Latino Studies, Media & Cinema Studies and a faculty affiliate of Gender & Women’s Studies and Latin American & Caribbean Studies at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. She is also a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.