by Ysanet Batista Vargas

As a college student, my pride in identifying as a Latina and Dominican woman drove me to seek leadership opportunities as a means to success. However, I later realized that my desire to “beat the odds” and avoid being stereotyped was driven by an attempt to be accepted by my White classmates and collegiate institution.

I held positions such as president of my Latina sorority, treasurer of the Dominican Student Association, and a national office for the National Society of Minorities in Hospitality, where I curated professional and personal development events for minorities and women. In the summer of 2010, I invited Alicia Anabel Santos to come to my campus to perform her feminist one-woman show about being an Afro-Latina Lesbian woman and show clips from her documentary “Afro Latinos – La Historia Que Nunca Nos Contaron”. Soon after that experience, I began to identify as an Afro-Latina myself (an identity that would shift a few times over the years so keep reading!)

After college, I worked for various educational institutions and nonprofits in New York City and the Dominican Republic that helped at-risk Black youth until my mid-20s. During this period, the Black Lives Matter movement took off globally and nationally, and witnessing this organizing further expanded my consciousness. I was surrounded by Black women who helped me discover new questions, books, texts, training, and grassroots organizations to address structural, institutional, and interpersonal racism in youth work, gender studies, Latin America, and more. As I learned more, I grew angrier, sadder, and more embarrassed about the actions of my people, as well as ashamed of my hyperfocus on ensuring that “Latina women” and “minorities” climbed the ladder of success and broke glass ceilings.

Although there’s nothing wrong with wanting my people to succeed in life, I began to realize that my purpose and aspirations for success were rooted in a few internal beliefs and ideas:

  • We have to assimilate or try to fit ourselves into the dominant society to survive
  • We have to work a little harder, stop spending money on material things, and stop making excuses to succeed
  • A formal academic education, credentials, and sharpening leadership and professional skills are needed to earn respect

Behind my enthusiasm for the “empowerment and advancement of young Hispanic people and minorities”, as well as my “orgullo Latino”, was a young Black girl who grew up with trauma from assimilation and anti-Blackness. During my formative teenage years (between 12 – 17 years of age) my mother moved us from Harlem, NY to Miami, FL and I went from a Black and spanish-speaking Caribbean neighborhood to predominantly white American neighborhoods. I was a Black Dominican girl with curly hair, tall and wide physical features, and a Dominican spanish dialect. My classmates were white Americans and predominantly lighter-skinned Cubans and people from Central America who constantly made it known to me that I was different because of my physical features. At home I would also receive messages about my body and skin like I should avoid the sun to not allow my skin to become darker, I should wear my hair straight because curly hair looked unkempt, and that I shouldn’t wear tight clothing to not send the “wrong message”. In an attempt to appease my family and not give my fellow classmates reason to critique my looks I morphed and assimilated by any means necessary. I stopped speaking Spanish (and enunciated if I did), I straightened my hair, wore looser clothing, and participated in various activities and sports to boost my worthiness to them.

Today, I now understand all I wanted was for the anti-Black treatment to stop and to gain acceptance from the white and light-skinned people in power. By the time I arrived at college I also yearned to connect to my culture and heritage but not so much that could pull me back to being other’d. Coming to this understanding and language would arrive after college but my work to heal from the conditioning would take much longer.

After graduating college I moved to my homeland of the Dominican Republic to volunteer for an educational nonprofit in the north coast of the island. I had high hopes and wanted to share all my knowledge with my people so they could, too “progresar”. I arrived in Fall 2014, exactly one year after the Dominican government passed Sentencia 168-13, a policy that would denationalize the majority Dominican people of Haitian descent unconstitutionally (this September 23rd marked 10 years of Dominicans of Haitian Descent fighting for their constitutional rights). Witnessing my Dominican Haitian neighbors and colleagues be forcibly removed from their homes or workplace by military units made up of young Black Dominican men was disheartening. Meanwhile, the nonprofit organization I was volunteering with was doing the bare minimum to organize towards the issue which disappointed me. I returned to the U.S. a year later to organize with Dominican women around anti-Blackness, anti-haitian sentiment, and misinformation about the history of our people. We called ourselves La Sala and collectively we created a space to confront the anti-blackness that plagued our community and to have the conversations that we needed to have to decolonize ourselves and our families. Alongside these Dominican women I began to do my own internal work of unearthing my biases as well as learn the distinction between ethnicity, race, and nationality. It had become apparent that in order to combat anti-Blackness, Native erasure, and racism, we – people who identified as Latinos/x/e and/or Hispanic – had to let go of our umbrella identity and address the harm, erasure, and denial it caused. It was necessary to have an open conversation about race, which we had long avoided.

Though it required internal and external work, engaging in community organizing with people from my homeland proved to be one of the most significant healing and transformative experiences of my life. The pursuit of liberation from toxic programming like Latinidad, ending racism, and decolonizing our world was well worth it for me and my people.

In her personal essay series, “Healing from Toxic ‘Latinidad,'” Ysanet Batista Vargas, Communications and Research Coordinator @ LREP, shares her journey, practices, and resources in healing from toxic programming, anti-Blackness, and other racialized biases and trauma.