She Represents Us: Jakiyah McCoy is Black, Latina and Beautiful

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by Dash Harris

The story of Jakiyah McCoy is not surprising.

It is sadly a story many AfroLatinos face every second of their lives. Erasure and invisibility.

On September 18th, a college friend of mine posted the link to the ‘El Tiempo Hispano’ story and commented that:

”[the pageant] required proof of only her ethnicity, not the other contestants. On top of that they take her title and crown away, because she can’t show proof of ethnicity because her undocumented grandmother who was from the Dominican Republic, which gives her the necessary 25% of Latino ancestry, is deceased.”

The decrowning wasn’t detailed in the El Tiempo write-up but she confirmed it was true. I posted the information on my docu-series page and on my Diaspora Dash tumblr page. The story was reblogged over 2,000 times within the next week. Almost two weeks later, major blogs and other websites replicated the information from my blog and there started the torrent of outrage. A disingenuous one in my opinion.

Since when has mainstream media ever cared about Latinos of African descent and how they are treated? This is the same media that publishes stories that label a Latino and an African-American couple as being “inter-racial,” the same media that exclaims “you would have never thought THIS person was Latino” and then displays a myriad of AfroLatinos. The same media that perpetuates the same harmful stereotypes they are now all of a sudden condemning. Besides the fact that “Latino” is an ethnicity and that one can be of any race and mix of races, including African, and be Latino, there are many people who look like African-Americans that are also Latino because 1) the two are not mutually exclusive and 2) Afrodescendants comprise a large portion of Latin America and the Caribbean. Jakiyah is of that diasporic fact.

Growing up in a Panamanian household that celebrated our African roots, ancestry and the great influence it has on Latin America was a source of pride and identity for me. For many others it isn’t. This prompted my project, NEGRO: A docu-series about Latino Identity. The series explores identity, colonization, racism and the African Diaspora in Latin America and the Caribbean and the color complex among Latin@s. The social manifestations and consequences of the deep-seated color and class complex is deconstructed. The 26+ video series discusses topics such as ‘pelo malo,’ media in Latin America, the white supremacists that were the political and intellectual influence in Latin America and the color caste system in place.

My life’s work and passion has been about uncovering these stories that marginalized and oppressed groups face and the manifestations of a colonial heritage that inform power dynamics in the region. The Spaniards that colonized, murdered and enslaved indigenous and Africans and subsequently barred access for social mobility from their descendants were always at the top of this social hierarchy, called “casta.” Spanish blood was believed to be pure and superior and ones status was degraded by non-Spaniard blood. These were the Hispanics. The people who were of Spain and “of reason” [gente de razon].

Indigenous blood could be “breeded out,” and the high status of whiteness could be claimed by procreating with Europeans; African blood was unredeemable. This is illustrated in the terminology we use today, mestizo, literally means half-caste. These were people “without reason.” [gente sin razon] This white supremacist model has been normalized in Latin America to the point where many can’t even identify it as such and see nothing wrong with it. It is strongly perpetuated locally and individually among friends and families. It is normal to hear “negro/a es feo/a.” [Black is ugly]. It is normal to see straight hair on people who are trying to literally escape their roots. It is normal to see a commercial selling a cream called “white beauty” to the masses. It is normal to have a black grandma in the closet. It is normal for Latin American women to dye their hair blonde aspiring to the beauty of their oppressors. It is normal for the first question upon a baby being born is not if it is healthy, but rather “como salio” is s/he dark or light? It is normal for a song to be entitled ‘El Africano’ and see Latin Americans of African ancestry miming gorilla moves as they dance. It is normal for Latin Americans to consume media for their whole lives and never see a face that resembles them unless it is in a witch or maid role serving rich white Latinos on their haciendas. It is normal to grow up in Latin America and only hear the history of colonizers and never of your own. It is normal for job advertisements to ask for applicants with “light skin.” It is normal for an Afrodescendant woman in Latin America to be asked for sex in exchange for a job. It is normal for a Garifuna doctor [yet another people who make up the diversity of Latin America] to be assumed to be the dancing entertainment after the doctor’s meeting. It is normal for AfroLatinos to not have a place to identify themselves on the U.S. census and in their respective countries. It is normal for families to be torn apart because an individual chose to marry someone who is darker than they are. It is normal for Afrodescendant women and children to be the poorest and most violated and abused in the region. It is normal that not only do these colonial manifestations pervade on a superficial level but fatally affect the livelihoods, access to job opportunities and luxuries such as running water, paved roads, fair housing, healthcare and education of AfroLatinos. It is normal for the only chances of upward mobility for Afrodescendants is through sport, music, leaving the country or coincidentally beauty pageants. Since when has there been any outrage about that from the euro-manufactured U.S. Latino crowd? This is deeper than a pageant and exemplary of the social ills that we have yet to openly and honestly address.

It struck me when I read:

"There was uproar when the winner was announced because, according to the public, she was not the best representative of a Latin beauty.” 
Not because it was thought, or said but because it was published as a stand-alone quote, with no further explanation, of the asinine attitudes that many Latin Americans hold. Why is it that Jakiyah isn’t representative of Latin beauty?

There are over 150 million Latinos that resemble her, over a third of Latin America, and many more who may share this same African ancestry in their lineage.

So the question isn’t whether she represents a large portion of Latinos, which she does, and a majorly underrepresented group at that; it is about the image that Latin Americans want to project and it has and continues to be a Eurocentric, white-washed one; an image that applies to a very small minority of Latin Americans.

If the winner had been one with pale skin, pale eyes and pale hair, the decision would have been lauded, definitely not challenged, because this is exactly what has been projected as the “Latin ideal” ever since the construction of the Americas.

My parents tell the same story, growing up in Panama, where “white is right,” my father was told to ‘mejorar la raza’ and marry a white woman to ‘improve the race.’ I asked him who said this, he chuckled sardonically “everyone, I heard it everyday, it was normal.” He said it wasn’t until he was 12 years old that he saw a face that looked like his on television. “It was on the American channel, Oprah came on and I was shocked, here was this black lady on tv, first time I’ve ever seen that.” He said he promptly dumped his “Hispanic” girlfriend because he wanted someone “that looked like my mother, that looked like my sisters.” Now I ask, do the majority of Latin Americans want that as well?

Dash Harris is the director of Negro: the docu-series about Latino identity

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