My Journey as a Black Latina (And What That Represents in the New America)

I left Colombia in search of internal peace. In a way I was fleeing from the violence around me, but especially the violence nobody called by name, racism. American TV depicted black actors in charge of their lives, respected by the community, and even holding important jobs and raising beautiful educated children. Contrary to what our national TV showed. The few black actors were relegated to roles of servitude, always submissive without being able to look at their masters in the eye. America represented the dream, the equality, respect, safety, and a dignified life.

Nuevolution Pic

NUEVOlution exhibit at the Levine Museum of the New South

At the beginning of my journey I felt safe and respected, and I definitely made a better living for myself as a teacher even being able to help my family financially. However, things changed, my salary doesn’t allow me the liberties I had a little more than a decade ago, and I started to notice more and more that people wanted to define me by my race.

I am a black Latina, which seems to trouble many Americans, from the youngest, unschooled, and oblivious, to the eldest, wisest, most knowledgeable. To give you an example, the first time I faced a classroom full of African American students (thinking that I fitted in perfectly), the first questions that came out of their lips were, “What are you?” “Are you black?” Perceiving my complexion as dark as many of theirs I thought of these inquiries as some kind of American humor I didn’t understand; but they were serious, even though they could see me, the questioning didn’t stop, and their conclusion fell over me like a heavy book thrown to the table by a college student after he’s received an overflow of information: I wasn’t black because I came from a Latin American country. (?)

To my amazement, when I applied for the green card, they marked race: white. The explanation, “You come from South America, therefore you are Latina, the boxes say ‘Latino/White, or ‘Black/African American’, and you are not American.” It may sound funny but after a long discussion in which I argued that I couldn’t go back to my country and tell my parents that I was white, the officer conceded, and I went back to being black. Unfortunately, it happened again years later when I applied for the citizenship. In this case, my lawyer was the one who interceded and told the government official, “My client would like to be referred as black.” Then she corrected that information in my citizenship documents.

But what does that imply now in the mist of the country’s turmoil even though many Americans don’t think of me as black? If I don’t open my mouth nobody would know I am from South America, but if I do, would a police officer think I’m not black and spare my life because they’re only targeting African Americans?

In order to protect my life I have stopped listening to loud music in the car, and I check constantly that the lights of my vehicle are working correctly, and if I’m having car trouble I try to make sure by all means to get to the nearest gas station, as opposed to waiting for a tow truck. The bare thought of having to interact with a police officer terrifies me.

In Colombia my brother and I were laughed at, mocked, and bullied because of our darkness, but in the United States, the land of opportunity, our color might mean the reason for us to lose our lives, especially my brother because of his gender.

It is like the KKK all over again. They are only finding more sophisticated ways to exterminate us. The Black Holocaust, I call it. It is the year 2016, after centuries of slavery, lynchings, and Civil Rights, and we still have to prove that we are equal, that we are human beings too! Why the necessity to create a movement called #blacklivesmatter, to make other people aware that if they cut us we bleed, and if they shoot us we die? Of course blacks lives matter! As fetuses lives matter! As ALL lives matter!

This is not the America I came to. We had a black president, a black president, being the president of the most powerful nation in the world means he is one of the most powerful people in the world! Because of him the American dream was elevated to a whole new level, not only certain things are possible for a black child, everything is possible for a black child! But, the dream only belongs to one? Only one extraordinary black individual reaches the summit, while the rest of us are left in the valley to die? We are in a Venn diagram where our aspirations and our reality overlap.

Hands to the Heavens, no man, no weapon
Formed against, yes glory is destined
Every day women and men become legends
Sins that go against our skin become blessings… (John Legend)

A few months ago I was commissioned by the Gannt Center for African American studies to write a poem for their BIG Jazzy Holiday Gala. It seems appropriate to share it during the present circumstances. The Spanish words negrito and negrita mean little nigger. Negros translates niggers.

Black. Innocent. Girl

By Kurma Murrain

I heard the woman’s words of love and fear telepathically

I felt her fear… so strong I had invisible seizures before birth

I still have them. Invisible.

I used to be called names about what I already knew I was

By pointing out the obvious they made me want to shed my skin

Like a snake… to bite them as hard as their remarks did

Sometimes I pretended I was a boy because my afro never hung down to my shoulders

That was better than being black, woman, and poor…

At least for a while I wouldn’t be those three but only two

My brother and I. Nameless. The “negrito” and “negrita” at school

The “negrito” and “negrita” in the basketball court

And the “negros [insert swearword]…” when we committed the innocent crime of being

Skin. Family. Neighbors. City. Identity…?

In my country they measure your value like they do with diamonds

Your worthiness depends on the clarity of your complexion

They convinced me that darkness meant dirt, theft, deceit, ineptitude…

All the same my books pulled me to an opposed path

I hung like a fruit in Alex Hailey’s family tree

Crying and twitching with every lashing on Kizzy’s bare back

I marched next to Reverend King in his fight for Civil Rights

Denied my last name like Malcom X

Sewed with my mother the “Sister’s Choice” quilt and with every stitch

We covered our mutual hurt and the friendship we put off until it was almost too late

I wandered in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Hundred Years of Solitude

And became my own woman by penning down In the Prism of Your Soul

God planted me in a house pot and I grew as a bougainvillea on the fence-line of Gaia

People and politicians continue with their remarks loud as the bombs in Paris

Although I am unable to find refuge in the muffled sounds of my mother’s womb

My late Maya and I know exactly Why the Caged Bird Sings

I didn’t lose my voice, I saved it to exhale this fire into your reveries.