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Between Two Small Worlds

Today there was a great post on Racialicious about Blacks & Latinos, specifically, Afro-Latinos. Explored in the post (and ensuing discussion) were issues of self-identification, cultural pride, what “recognized” Hispanics/Latinos think of Afro-Latinos, etc.

I love these types of discussions because they remind us that race and identity aren’t clearly defined, especially when you are a subset of two minorities. As a black person who speaks fluent Spanish, I can identify with this and detailed a few of my experiences in my comments. Speaking Spanish (and my affinity for the language & its cultures) means that I have given myself a global view of my experiences as an African American, and for that I often feel like an anomaly. I live in Texas, which doesn’t help — people here, white or black, still call Mexicans “Spanish”.

Strangely enough, the only time I’ve ever felt comfortable in this cultural divide is when I traveled to Puerto Rico late last year. Being a Spanish speaker and a black person was no longer an anomaly (and neither was being a full-figured woman) and I believe it was the first time I ever felt completely accepted and included. It was a great feeling, and one of the main reasons I want to go back.

A Racialicious reader asked me about my experiences in Puerto Rico, and my answer to her got so long I decided to make a post out of it. Thanks for your question, Xey!

I’m also an African-American Spanish-speaker (studied Anthro and Foreign Languages), and coincidentally, I’m planning a trip to PR with one of my A-A female friends who also speaks Spanish. Small world. Got any pointers, tips for travelling in PR?

Hey, congrats on your upcoming trip!

Hmm, tips for traveling… well if you are speaking in terms of general travel advice (where to stay, etc.) then I don’t have a whole lot to offer; I stayed in San Juan the entire week I was there, but plan to visit the whole island the next time I go.

Socially, I noticed that I was treated more like a “local” the more relaxed I was. I spoke Spanish very freely (instead of the usual “I hope I’m not making a mistake” mode I’m often in) and got more comfortable with myself. It happened very organically, and my favorite moment was when a white tourist came up to me, speaking his very bad Spanish. I was very excited about that, as I haven’t ever traveled anywhere I was not seen as an “other.” In PR, I found it very liberating to be in a place where the standard of beauty included me (I say this as a woman who is also full-figured; this may not be an issue for you or your friend).

Also, I was in San Juan with my white fiancé. I wasn’t in a tourist area, but was staying in a rented apartment in a residential area that seemed quite upscale to me. The general perception was that I was a boriqua who had brought her boyfriend to the island. However, I was there for a full day before his plane arrived, and I did notice that I was treated differently as a single black woman than as a black woman with a white guy, although I was assumed to be a “native” in both cases. I’m not sure if this is because of the racial/color issues inherent in PR society, if it was because it’s more acceptable to be with a man–any man–than to be a single woman, or if it was a class thing and people were being nice because they thought we had money. I would love to explore this more, given the chance. But I also loved that we were freely spoken to by black Puertorriqueños, and I felt embraced by them in a way I don’t often feel from blacks in the US.

Racialicious also has some posts on Blacks in Brazil (another place I intend to visit) and I will respond to that another time.

Flying Fat

I hate the title of this post, but I guess I’m a sucker for alliteration. In fact, I try never to use the word “fat,” not because it’s not descriptive enough but because it’s most frequently used as an insult.

I’ve just returned from visiting loved ones over the past few weeks. Because of connecting flights and delays, in the past three weeks alone I’ve flown about 6,000 miles and spent 14 hours in the air, and another 14 hanging around airports.

I’m an overweight person and a frequent flier–this is not a good combination. Americans seem to feel it is their right and responsibility to ridicule the overweight and airline employees are certainly no exception. I remember the first time I was vilified for being a large person on a plane.

This was years ago, just after that whole Southwest incident, and the flight attendant kept glaring at me when she walked by. I couldn’t figure it out. I was sitting next to a talkative, smiling guy who was very nice to me and telling me about his job. But soon enough, she reached over me rudely, smiled at the man next to me and said, “Here, I found an extra seat for you so you won’t have to be so smashed and uncomfortable.” She looked at me when she said “smashed and uncomfortable.” But the man hadn’t even thought about it, hadn’t complained at all.

Ever since then, I get anxious when I have to fly. Even weight loss didn’t help. There’s nothing like the futility of losing 60 lbs. and still not fitting comfortably into the seat. I usually handle it by being terribly apologetic and sweet to the person next to me. I’d rather invoke sympathy than get kicked off the flight. When I am subject to such discrimination, my intense fear of losing my flight keeps me from saying anything .

This most recent trip, I was seated near a college basketball team. One guy was particularly tall, 7′ or so, and the flight attendant bent over backwards to find him an aisle seat. “He’s just so tall!” she said, eyes wide with awe, looking him up and down. But at that moment, my weight was just as unchangeable as the man’s height. I can’t even allow myself to think of the stares and laughter I’d be subject to if I’d requested a different seat. Of course, the stigma of being overweight isn’t like the adoration a tall athlete gets.

A tall man cannot make himself short. But how absurd for us to assume that a large person can change his/her size at will! Who would choose to be overweight in a society like this one?! It could take a while before my body matches the airplane seats, and it may never happen despite my best efforts. So if you are flying and forced to sit next to someone like me, please just be nice and try to smile. She’s most likely doing the best she can.

Survivor’s Guilt

I am traveling right now, visiting my family of origin out of state, far, far away from where I currently live.

My family is incredibly loving–love is something we have lots of and it can always be counted on. But the women in my family have a pervasive history of unhealthy relationships. My father was abusive to me & my mother until he died. My mother, to whom I’m extraordinarily close, has since remarried to a man who loves her, but is very controlling. The rest of my family is similarly dysfunctional and includes histories of emotional abuse, alcoholism, destructive patterns, risky behavior, women married to & victimized by horrible men.

When I was 17 I had an instinct to move far away from home, and I did so at the first opportunity, getting a scholarship to a college clear across the country. It was a difficult experience, but I now realize it was the first attempt to get away from patterns that I knew could destroy the life I wanted.

Many years later, I’ve made a home for myself, and it’s a place with friendships and relationships that are happy and healthy. My semi-annual family visits are jarring; it takes a great deal of effort not to sink back into patterns I’ve worked hard to undo.

My extended family views me as the “mysterious visiting daughter” and talks about me with a mixture of pride and resentment. In perhaps the last remnant of exposure to abuse, I feel guilty for getting away and making a life for myself, even as I know it was the best thing to do. Surely I can’t be the only person who feels this way. Maybe there’s a whole network of refugees from destructive family patterns.

Book Review: Eat, Pray, Love

Ms. Gilbert & OprahI picked up Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love several months ago after Amazon’s computers recommended it to me. Makes sense; insightful single woman, recovering from tragedy, travels alone and finds herself.

But a disturbing finding troubled me. I started looking around, and everyone seemed to be reading it. It was on nightstands, in planes, in beauty shops. People everywhere seemed to know about this book. Because guess what, it was on Oprah!

The book’s Oprah-ization meant only one thing: the book was either (a) trite and over-commercialized or (b) a rare moment when the public at large actually pays attention to an intellectual literary achievement. I was hopeful.

It’s a book I was supposed to like, but couldn’t. Elizabeth’s half-assed meandering through the first half of her life was painful to read about. Her first major tragedy in life is, by all accounts, a horribly painful divorce, which I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But it appears to have been the result of her own lack of decision-making, something only the most privileged and coddled have to worry about. Who gets to say, “I destroyed lives around me because no one taught me how to make decisions!” and then quit work to take an all-expense paid trip to “deal” with it? I had great difficulty being sympathetic. And when she makes the decision, in the darkest point of her life, not to take her meds, I thought, “From exactly what type of place is this woman coming from? How lucid can she be?” I put the book down.

And so it went, I’d pick up the book, get exasperated, and put it right back down. For three months. I certainly admire Ms. Gilbert in her humility, her healing, her deep appreciation for non-Western cultures. No doubt the journey was integral to who Ms. Gilbert is today, and I congratulate her for that. But the trite writing and the less-than-insightful insights disappointed me.

Sure, maybe I’m just too cynical, too jaded, jealous, even. But I believe that a truly insightful book will involve you, move you beyond your prejudices and really teach you something. This one simply didn’t live up to its considerable hype.

It’s hard for me to find credit in a book that so perfectly ties in to Oprah’s peculiar brand of McSpirituality. On Oprah’s website, Ms. Gilbert’s book has earned its own dedicated section, where you can “tag along on Liz’s quest for happiness and fulfillment that has sparked an inspirational movement!”

Me, I’ll go on my own original journey, thanks.

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Believe it or not, someone even more vapid than Liz read a press release describing the book, and decided to imitate the journey for herself. Unfortunately, she came away from it with more tragedies than epiphanies. In another of three blog entries dedicated to (as they call it) Eat, Pray, Loathe, they seem to agree with me about the absurdity of the plot.