I have always considered myself a proud Dominican woman. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had the opportunity to learn about the complex history of my people. Many Dominicans can trace their roots back to countries in West or Central Africa, Spain, and to the Tainos that lived on the island before Europeans colonized it. However, many Dominicans (including my family) have a hard time understanding the complexity of our history — especially the fact that many of us have African heritage.
As a young girl, I was given the nickname “negrita” and “prieta” (blackie) because of my darker skin and to this day, I am still called those nicknames. Growing up (especially between the ages 5-16) I hated those nicknames and my aunt would joke about the time my light-skinned cousin compared me to poop because of my dark complexion. I also have big curly hair that would often get knots and tangles that were hard to comb out.
When I was 12, my grandmother marched me into a Dominican hair salon to get a desrizado (relaxer) because she did not know how to properly care for my hair. She killed my curls, making my hair straight. Throughout my formative years, my family continued taking me to salons to straighten my hair, advised me to avoid the sun so I would not get any darker, and told me to watch what I ate so my butt wouldn’t get bigger. After a while, I internalized it and continued these same practices on my very own.
When I was 17, I had the opportunity to go out-of-state to college and became part of clubs and organizations where I learned about the history of Latin America and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Learning how many Dominican people, other Spanish speaking Caribbean people, and Latinx people had African heritage was shocking to me. Strangely enough, I’d never previously wondered why we had so much in common with the Black community, from our features to cultural identifiers like food & music.
Learning this history allowed me to make so many connections. But I also learned that taking pride in being Black could be socially and politically dangerous. My family experienced dictatorships, policies, and practices in the Dominican Republic that were tied to the erasure of black people and culture while attempting to whiten the population through practices like murdering Haitian folks who lived there. Asylum was provided to white Jews during the Holocaust in DR with a hidden agenda of interracial marriages and bearing lighter-skinned children also known as “mejorando la raza.” They would lighten the skin complexion of Black politicians in paintings, so historically they would not be remembered for having dark skin.
Over time I found more information, read books, attended trainings, and became part of other groups that discussed the ways that Dominicans have been taught to hate their Black roots and embrace their European roots. The information allowed me to see why my family and many other Dominicans did not want to embrace Blackness. I understood why they felt shame, and why they pushed me to embrace straight hair, lighter skin, and a thinner body — all European beauty standards. It also allowed me to see that we had racial trauma and desperately needed to heal.
My sophomore year of college I went to a salon and cut off a bunch of my hair that was damaged by the relaxers and straighteners. I embraced my natural curls again and went deeper into reclaiming my Blackness. After graduating college I got the opportunity to go back to my homeland of the Dominican Republic to work as an English language teacher for youth in a rural community. Initially, it was a struggle. My return to the Dominican Republic coincided with the passing of Resolution TC 0168/13, which stripped Dominican born people of Haitian descent of their citizenship and led to a rise in violent attacks against Haitians — which really meant anyone with darker skin.
I started as an English language teacher and then got the opportunity to teach social justice. As a teacher focused on social justice, the conversations I held with my students around race, class, and gender exposed the fact that my students, like me, had been surrounded by prejudicial comments about Haitians and darker skinned Dominicans from a very young age; Resolution TC only made things worse. I shifted our lessons to address anti-Haitian sentiment, government corruption in the DR, immigration to the United States, and the DR’s relationship with other countries. The more they learned about their connected history, the more the insults, bullying, and harassment shifted to loving appraisals, friendships, and solidarity. My students and I were just one the few examples of how my people have been affected by intentional misinformation about our own Black roots. This misinformation has us internalizing prejudices and reflecting an unjust society fueled by racism and capitalism.
After almost two years living in the Dominican Republic, I returned back to the U.S. I was invited by the organizer, Heidi Maria Lopez, to be part of a collective called La Sala, that created spaces for conversations around Blackness and healing of racial trauma in the Dominican community. Within that community, I was exposed to other Black people from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Panama, Colombia, and Honduras, who were also healing and doing similar work in their communities and families. I invited my family members to one of the events La Sala organized and while they are not shouting how proud they are to be Black these days, I suspect they are unlearning biases along the way.
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COMPLETION : my word and intention for 2019 👊🏾 learned this word from @_lasantera I am committed to finishing what I have started, put in the front burner what’s in the back burner, and having a healthy balance of discipline and compassion with myself ❤️ I share and declare to: 💫 graduate from @farmschool_nyc 💫 pay off all my consumer debt 💫 manifest the initial projects I wanted for @wokefoods (tomorrow is our two year in business! 🎈🎉) 📸 @thebernhardy | stylist: @joeypcrooks #shareanddeclare2019 #completion2019
While I hope for more Dominicans and Latin American people to explicitly and proudly claim their Blackness, I also understand the dangerous implications of existing in a Black body. Unfortunately, the history of many Black people in the Caribbean, Latin America, and the United States are rooted in enslavement, colonization, violence, and pain. Today, Black people from those same countries experience racism and violence in different ways. During the time of enslavement, our Black ancestors resisted by creating foods, music, spiritual practices, cooperation, and other cultural landmarks that we should feel proud of and continue to pass for generations. My wish is that Caribbean and Latinx people can reclaim their Black roots and also organize with other Black people globally to fight against the injustices we still face today.
At 28 years old, I am a proud Black Dominican woman that is reclaiming my roots through my food business Woke Foods, that focuses on embracing an ancestral diet, healing, reading, writing, community organizing, and sharing my complex herstory.
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The past few days at Woke Foods have been a beautiful reminder of why we do this work. We had our first cooking class of the year on Friday where we were able to share the African roots of Afro-Caribbean cuisine and be in community with those who are curious about a plant-based lifestyle – and our founder @ysanetbatista was featured in @forbes magazine, where she spread the gospel of Woke Foods' socially conscious goals as a worker co-op that's determined to contribute to a more ethical food system, from seed to plate. . Read more via the link in our bio! . . . #SundayRead #StartupSunday #wokefoods #afrocaribbean #forbes #wocentrepreneur #workercoop #vegan #vegetarian #plantbased #dominicanvegan #comidasconscientes #foodporn #workerowned #greenworkercoop #wocownedbusiness #nyc #cooperativa #comidasaludable #plantbased #weallgrowlatina
Video of Ysanet Batista “Finding My Roots” below: