By Guest Contributor Blanca E. Vega, cross-posted from Race-Work, Race-Love
Racially complete. When you are racially silenced, you begin the process of being incomplete. Silence can occur when you are told to stop talking about race. The process begins early for children – through a loss of heritage from the process of immigration, to being racially silenced in schools, to being told, “you’re crazy” from friends and family — the silence around race is deafening. To become racially complete, you have to go backwards, go back to these moments when you were silenced and try to understand what those moments were about. Your voice is the beginning.
I found my voice during Black History Month. I was a sophomore in college and was very unhappy. My experience with race and racism was overwhelming. A predominantly white institution, the college I attended still had a lot of work to do around these issues. Not knowing what race-work was at the time, I was one of the students who discussed racism on our campus with other students, in the corner of a cafeteria. Then, Revolution was only part of my vocabulary and something others did. Not something I could do.
Until one day, my friend Aira, co-coordinator of Black History Month at the time asked me to sit on a panel to discuss the experiences of Women of Color. “You should talk about what it means to be Latina here.”
Oh hell no I thought. I don’t even know what that means. Where would I even start?
The truth, my friend Rahsaan said. Start there.
The truth meant reviewing my experiences with race and the college experience. How my version of being Latina did not match what others at the college thought what a Latina should look like, sound like, act like. Being Latina at home meant I was light-skinned and could pass for white in a mostly Dominican neighborhood. In college, I was not light enough, not white enough, spoke like Rosie Perez, and was so very “New York”. Some didn’t even know what a Latina was – some thought I was half white, half Black, or half white, half Asian.
Latina? Wasn’t even in some students’ radars. This was the early nineties.
That is the voice of what was happening. What being Latina meant on a predominantly white campus. But what is the history? Where is my history?
Latino roots. African. Native. European.
How does a light-skinned Latina woman even begin to understand her African and Native roots? How do you explain the work that rises in you – the confusion you see in the mirror – when your skin color says one thing, but your facial features say another, and your spirit screams out yet another? Am I insulting some by identifying as Afro-Latina? Am I ignoring my Native roots? From that speech, I declared my identity and formally began my search for its meaning.
I tried to do this by first gathering information about Latin Americans who had a voice. People like Sor Juana Ines De La Cruz, Frida Kahlo, the Mirabal Sisters … and as much as I enjoyed learning about Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Ecuadorian history was often ignored in Latin American art, history and literature courses. I learned how to do research and from then on I hunted for my own racial history, and for me this would take me back to Ecuador.
When I found Maria Chiquinquira I couldn’t help but be excited. For one, my knowledge of Ecuadorian history was a constant self-education, a journey that came in spurts, but a desire that continues to burn. A search for my roots to help explain some of the confusion I felt for a long time about who I am and why I looked a certain way. I saw Maria’s picture hanging in the Museum Of Nahim Isaias and I see my lips. I see my nose. And I see that she is Black.
Maria Chiquinquira is an African woman who was enslaved in Guayaquil, Ecuador in the 1700’s and was the first slave in Ecuador to win her freedom. She was enslaved by Presbyter Afonso Cepeda de Arizcum Elizondo. According to Sherwin Keith Bryant, author of an unpublished dissertation called Slavery And The Context Of Ethnogenesis: Africans, Afro-Creoles, And The Realities Of Bondage In The Kingdom Of Quito, 1600-1800 (2005) Maria Chiquinquira “entered a legal battle” for her and her daughter’s freedom in May 1794 (p224).
Although she was a slave, she was aware of some of her rights and fought for her freedom based on that information. According to Bryant, Maria (along with other female slaves in Latin America) won her freedom by accusing their masters of “…dishonorable acts including: siring children with slave women, requiring work on Sundays, withholding time for mass, and failing to provide instruction in the faith.” (p.225).
Although she is an important symbol in Ecuador, like most of our African and Native history, she has been buried under the rubble of the European destruction and colonial civilization. Rendering us racially incomplete.
When I saw her picture hanging in the Museum Of Nahim Isaias in Guayaquil, she was still buried under the pictures and maps and other artifacts that signified the colonial period of Ecuador. Not much has changed in regard to our African and Native lineage.
Who is Maria Chiquinquira? When I google her, not much is mentioned. Dr. Bryant’s dissertation is the closest someone has written on her in English. There are some books in Spanish, old, some outdated texts – still nothing extensive.
The little I do know of her is that she was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador like my mother. She was intelligent and understood her rights and had a history of being mistreated by men. She was a Black woman in a time when Black meant slave. She changed the course of her history and for thousands of women in Ecuador – but who would know?
She is like me. Perhaps I inherited some of this trauma, some of this intelligence, some of this fight for freedom. For many years, I looked to Sor Juana, Joan of Arc, Toni Morrison, Angela Davis and here I had my own Ecuadorian hero – and I am beginning to feel somewhat, racially complete. Because in addition to recognizing similar eyes, nose, and lips which could have been passed down to me too – who knows? – I also wonder how I inherited the spirit of freedom that we all share – just been buried by our own modern day colonialism of bad reality TV and Eurocentric education.
I am happy I found Maria Chiquinquira.
But the journey to feeling racially complete, my race-work, my race-love, continues…