Poet Elizabeth Acevedo On Why #BlackLivesMatter Should Matter To Latinos
The cry for “Black Lives Matter” continues to echo throughout the nation in the wake of the fatal shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, but Afro-Dominican poet Elizabeth “Liz” Acevedo couldn’t help but realize that the voices of her community have been disproportionately silent.
The award-winning performer took to Instagram to sound off on a sensitive topic in the Latino community as she often does within her poetry, but this time there were no metaphors or similes infused in her no chaser message.
“One time for those of us who don’t think we are complicit through our silence,” she wrote. “One time for those of us who pass in this society and don’t think these issues affect us because we live under the guise of: Latino, Hispanic, light-skinned, Trigueño, Indio, mestizo, or any other term that doesn’t mean sh*t because they will come for us too.”
The epidemic of “another day, another hashtag” doesn’t end with Sterling and Castile as the list of slain black people—including Latinos—grows at an alarming rate. According to Maria Teresa Kumar, Voto Latino CEO and president, police violence against Latinos fails to make headlines although it mirrors the abuse against the black community. “Since Eric Garner, we had had five young Latinos that had been killed by police officers in the same manner that had not been covered at all in the media,” Kumar said, revealing that Latinos aren’t as isolated from the Black Lives Matter movement as many would opt to believe.
Though she admits it’s not always easy, Acevedo isn’t one to undermine her duty to speak up in the face of injustice or to cancel out any parts of her heritage that she’s been taught to devalue. Her Dominican bloodline coupled with her New York City upbringing pulses through her words when she takes the mic on national and international stages. She checks off National Slam Champion, Beltway Grand Slam Champion and the 2016 Women of the World Slam Representative for Washington, D.C., where she resides, off her list of accomplishments.
Now the proud Afro-Latina lends her voice to VIBE VIVA in a phone interview where she criticizes anti-blackness within her community, stresses the importance of reclaiming our stories and issues a much-needed call for solidarity.
VIBE VIVA: The back-to-back police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile tested the breaking point of the black community this month. How did you immediately react to the news?
Elizabeth Acevedo: I mean when Alton Sterling happened it was that moment of like oh snap, here’s another story, but with Philando Castile happening that evening, I think that was where it was really like this just can’t be possible anymore. How is it that every week we are hearing about somebody else and now it’s happening twice in one day? And the numbers are staggering. There are lives being killed every day but for it to hit the media and to just feel that moment of despair of is this really how it’s going to keep going down? Like how many people are they going to kill in one day before something changes? It was just—despair was really the word that I kept going back to.
All Def Poetry shared your poem “Beloved or If You Are Murdered Tomorrow” on YouTube at the end of June. Does it trip you out that the cycle of police brutality has taken a turn for the worst since then?
I think as a poet, it’s that moment where you realize this piece you wrote last year that then got shared in June is not only relevant but is still timely in July. It’s sad because I almost don’t want that poem to be relevant. I don’t want that poem to be used as a way to cope because I don’t want to have to be coping with this anymore. I’m just so tired of the many people I know, all of us poets, writing about black deaths and just how exhausting it is to feel like this poetry is our only outlet.
As an Afro-Latina, you pointed out that many Latinxs have chosen to remain mum in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. Why is their silence problematic?
I think that the lack of solidarity [is the problem]. There’s a lot of Latinos who don’t consider themselves Afro-Latinos, but they still don’t see how this struggle and being in solidarity and just seeing the humanity of Black Lives Matter is going to affect them. A lot of the privileges that are had in this country are due to a lot of the struggles that black Americans took on before a lot of us immigrated here so to not see the one-to-one correlation of how our struggles work together when we consider how the Latino community is treated [is a problem].
But also on a humanity aspect, just on a brotherhood aspect, how can you live in a country where you know that people are being killed every day and remain silent because they don’t look like you or because they don’t share your first language or because so often they’re stereotypically depicted as folks you should be afraid of? And I think that the Latino community sometimes wants to other itself and not pick a side, but in doing that, it’s picking a side. I think about a lot of the conversations I’ve had with my family, that I’ve had with my community, and how sometimes we can be activists in English, but when it comes to coming home and having those conversations, it’s harder because we’re fighting against cultural norms. We’re fighting against how do you say this in Spanish. It just feels different, but that is a conversation that still needs to be had. It has to start at home.
One time for those of us who don’t think we are complicit through our silence. One time for those of us who pass in this society and don’t think these issues affect us because we live under the guise of: Latino, Hispanic, light-skinned, Trigueño, Indio, mestizo, or any other term that doesn’t mean shit because they will come for us too. One time for those of us in the back who love black music, love saying the N-word and feeling included in black culture until moments like this one. Who remain fucking silent as black brethren die. Just because you’re hiding in the middle of the room when it’s time to speak doesn’t mean you haven’t picked a side. Just because anti-blackness is ingrained in our community doesn’t mean you’re not at fault for allowing it to keep you silent.
Taking a moment to look abroad, silence also appears to be custom when it comes to the deep-seated discrimination against Haitians in the Dominican Republic. Growing up as a Dominican in New York, has there ever been a serious discussion between you and your family about that strained relationship or was it a norm that went unchallenged?
I first noticed it when I visited the Dominican Republic and a lot of the workers in the houses I would visit or who worked the yards or who worked the neighborhood, a lot of the menial jobs, were often of Haitian descent, and I just remember asking why is it that it’s structured this way. I just didn’t know. I was eight and just hadn’t ever seen such a clear distinction. I think my family has always been pretty cognizant of the way in which power structures are at play and because my father is black, his approach is always very different in regards to how he would answer the question, but you do hear discriminatory ideas. You do have these stereotypical things that come through like ‘they’re trying to take over the country’–not necessarily [from] my family, but sometimes the community says things so it’s hard for me always being aware of the island and thinking about how do we talk about Black Lives Matter there too. Like when we talk about the lynchings of Haitians on the Santo Domingo side of the island, where is the outrage for that and for those bodies and for that kind of power dynamic that is taking place? And that’s not even talking about the border and the kind of horrors that you face if you are of Haitian descent.
You delve into the “tragic mixture” of Latinos in your poem “Afro-Latina.” Aside from anti-blackness, what else is at play in preventing the community from celebrating, rather than de-emphasizing, its multi-faceted identity?
In this country it’s interesting because people who come from Latin America often have a very one-sided opinion of what blackness means in the US, and there’s a stereotype of [blacks] have their pants below their butt, they come from this kind of community, they fail, they kill one another, they’re angry. These are the depictions people grow up with based off of how the media portrays black Americans. And so when you come here and you want to celebrate blackness, there’s an automatic relation between blackness and the stereotyped ideology of black Americans. So for me growing up saying I’m black, my parents would be like ‘you’re not’ because they only understood black as African American, and they were like whatever we think that is, we don’t want you to be that.
There was a fear based off of negative portrayals of black Americans, but on the other hand, I think that in Latin America there’s just this huge—especially in the Dominican Republic—need for affinity with whiteness and Europeanness and with power. The blue-eyed, blonde, like that is what’s considered beautiful and so you always try to align with that. You see it in the hair straightening. You see it in the whitening creams. I grew up being told to put clothespins on my nose so it looks thinner, and these are all Eurocentric ideals so I think that’s so ingrained that it’s almost impossible to escape. You can only face it and run it over, but you’re not going to leave it unscathed.
Do you remember the first step you took in moving from ashamed to unapologetic in embracing the full depth of your heritage?
I remember being in high school and joining a nonprofit organization called the Brotherhood/Sister Sol in Harlem, and they would do a lot of Pan-Africanism and Pan-Latinidad work and just talked about the history we have, and all of a sudden reading more about black heritage, about Latin America, about slavery, about colonialism, about what it meant to be a women in these structures, completely changed my outlook on myself. So for me, it was starting to read. It was like turning to information and seeing depictions of myself, and the information answers all of a sudden as to why things are the way they are and why we think the way we think about one another, which was so empowering to realize it was all concepts I could change. I could change how I thought until I could change what I believed about myself and from that moment forward, I think the way that I walked through the world, the way that I wore my hair, the way that I celebrated my ancestry changed because I realized there’s so much to celebrate. It’s not just the running and escaping from these places that we call home or came from. It’s also returning to so many of the traditions we’ve forgotten.
Whether you’re criticizing the assault on black lives or challenging the stigma attached to curly hair within the Latino community, you don’t shy away from the tough topics. Where do you draw your strength when it’s time to write?
I think about what scares me to say, and I realize that oftentimes that’s what needs to be said most. Like what is it that I think is going to cause a ripple that I don’t want the world to really hear, that I know might be controversial, and do I really want to take this on? And oftentimes the answer is no, I don’t want to take it on, but that’s exactly why. That’s the reason why it needs to be discussed and why I need to write about it because that means that a lot of folks probably aren’t discussing this, and that’s why it’s still controversial and why it’s still scary to say. I wrote a poem about abortion rights, and when I wrote this poem about black bodies looking for abortion, I was really scared about what the repercussions could be, about how people would respond. There’s so many violent actions taken against people who are pro-choice, and so I knew that was why the poem was necessary because you have to be pushing back against this fear. We have to resist giving into fear.
You have a chapbook slated for a September 2016 release entitled Blessed Fruit & Other Origin Myths. What will we find inside?
It’s a reclamation of the mythology of what it means to be a black Latina in the US and what it means to be black in the Dominican Republic and what it means to reclaim stories of Tainos and the different African groups that were brought to the Dominican Republic. It’s all about the mythologies we ignore so it’s almost a clapback to Greek myth in some ways in saying that we have our stories, so you’ll find a lot of poems about being a girl, about growing into a woman in New York City, about the Dominican Republic, trying to tell all the stories we’re often told are not important enough
What do you hope the Latino community ultimately takes away from your art as you continue to use your voice as an award-winning poet?
That there’s so many stories for us to tell and that they’re worthy of being told, and I think that hopefully they’ll take away seeing themselves on the page. For me, that was life changing when I would read stories like The House on Mango Street. When I read Junot Díaz for the first time I yes’d. When I saw In the Heights by Lin-Manuel Miranda, I sobbed to the first song because I think [it’s] seeing yourself and all of a sudden realizing yes, this is our story, not just the negative portrayals, but this complicated story. That we are still human beings that are worthy of being written about and written for, I hope that is what they take.