Does it Make Sense to Reclaim the Term Prieta?

I remember the cringing feeling I felt when I first came to understand what the term prieta meant

Yalitza Aparizio Prieta

Photo via Instagram/@rodarte

I remember the cringing feeling I felt when I first came to understand what the term prieta meant. It mainly came out of the mouths of Dominicans who wanted to have nothing to do with blackness — including their own. It was a word I often heard used to describe folks with darker skin but more often than not, it was a term used to insult, demean, and demonize Black folks.

“Simply put, prieta means dark. But the term is used in derogatory ways to mark blackness with negative attributions like dirt, ugly, and undesirable,” says Dr. Zaire Dinzey, professor of Sociology and Latino & Caribbean Studies at Rutgers University. Like many words, the term prieta/prieto is used differently throughout Latin America. And while it always refers to darker-skinned people, it’s not always necessarily used in a derogatory way. In certain countries like Mexico — even Puerto Rico —  it depends on the context in which it’s being used. Sometimes it’s meant as an insult, other times it’s used as a term of endearment. But in the Dominican Republic, which has a long history of anti-Haitianismo and anti-Blackness, the term prieta is almost always used to insult which is why I was initially taken aback when I learned that Roma actress Yalitza Aparicio has chosen to embrace and reclaim the term.

Since she shot to fame in Mexico, Aparicio has been very open about the racism and colorism she has continued to experience as an Indigenous Mexican woman. In May, she penned an op-ed for the NY Times titled “In Mexico, Roma Lit a Fire for Workers Rights,’ where she shares how her role in Alfonso Cuarón’s film helped her to establish a platform where she could provide a voice for the disenfranchised and highlight the discrimination in her home country of Mexico, where racism and discrimination towards Indigenous communities continue to be a problem.

In an effort to continue to address the racism that exists in the Latinx community, this week Aparicio shared a post from the Facebook page “Recuerdos De Mi Mexico” that touches on the reclamation and embrace of the word prieta.

“Me dicen Prieta y piensan que es un insulto,” the post starts off, which translates to “They call me Prieta and think it is an insult.”

Not only did Aparicio retweet it but she also responded and referred to herself as prieta.

“Asi es, soy prieta, prietita linda y con la frente en alto. Les comparto este texto para aquellos que usan esta palabra de forma ofensiva,” she tweeted.

And while I understand Aparicio’s decision to take a word that has been created and used by our colonizers in order to insult and degrade Indigenous and Black people, and turn it into something empowering, I’m not sure it actually does what she wants it to do — which is to uplift communities who have been demeaned and disenfranchised. 

“Prieta is not a word that should be reclaimed. It is a word that needs to die and never be said again,” says Afro-Dominican writer and poet Melania-Luisa Marte. “This word has been used and is currently still being used to continue the genocide and dehumanization of Black folks. And I have no space for reclaiming terms that colonizers have created. I am more interested in envisioning and finding words that hold us with care and love.”

“The term is often used as an attack of Black people in Latin America and the Caribbean; or in Mexico, it is deployed against Indigenous people to indicate that they don’t belong, they are “less” than,” Dr. Dinzey says. “In the Caribbean, in particular, it is sometimes used just as a descriptor and there is a misconception among some liberal sectors in those societies, who think themselves as not racist to use it liberally in the place of the term “negro.” But prieto is not a color. And when used as a noun (Ese prieto or La prieta) it is especially offensive. Context surely matters but in most cases prieto is used in negative ways.”

For those of us who come from Caribbean countries like Cuba, Dominican Republic, or Puerto Rico, hearing an Indigenous woman like Aparicio refer to herself as prieta could be confusing when we grew up hearing that term associated with Black people and not necessarily towards Indigenous people. But Dr. Dinzey explains that the term is actually used throughout various countries in Latin America towards anyone who is considered dark or non-white. 

“The term prieta has been used in Mexico to refer to Indigenous populations, white supremacy and racism, especially when deployed from the positions of whiteness in Latin America, often do not distinguish between racially subordinated populations. Fighting racism involves local and trans-local efforts and Yalitza, because of her fame is navigating different spheres, which complicates her efforts to neutralize the very targeted racism she’s experiencing through the use of the term prieta,” Dr. Dinzey says.

While it’s clear that what Aparicio is attempting to do with the term prieta is reclaim our names and narratives — we’ve seen that done with terms like mulatta — it would take a community of folks to get on board with that reclamation in order for the pain associated with it to lessen the sting. And even then, I’m still not convinced it does the healing and empowering she intends for it to do. 

“Yalitza seems to be turning the term on its head, resignifying the term with pride, and in the process taking away the power of those who use the insult against her,” Dr. Dinzey adds. “It is similar to what Victoria Santa Cruz does in her declamation “Me Gritaron Negra,” where she is called Negra and turns what is meant to be offensive and embarrassing into a source of pride: ‘Si, Negra soy.’ Yalitza’s strategy within that context is understandable, but it’s unclear if the strategy can be empowering beyond her own experience, without the support of a collective movement in that turn.”

My concern with the reclamation of the word prieta is that even with the support of a collective movement, there will still be a large majority of folks — older generations especially — that will still intentionally use this term to demonize brown and Black folks. My concern is that the reclamation will leave many folks wanting to play devil’s advocate the way white people do with the N-word. Their argument always being: “If they can say it, why can’t we?” I don’t feel confident that while some are reclaiming the word for their own empowerment that there still wouldn’t be many others who wouldn’t try to use the word against us. I can’t even say I’ll ever be comfortable hearing a lighter-skinned Latinx referring to a darker skin Latinx as prieto. I don’t trust that folks will genuinely try to understand or consider the ramifications that come with referring to a darker-skinned person that way.

While we could argue up and down that context is important, there is no denying the dark and deeply racist history behind this word. Why would I ever embrace a word that was intentionally created and used as a verbal weapon against Black and Indigenous people? Why would I ever use a word that takes us back to the early days of colonization when Black and Indigenous people were stolen, enslaved, raped, and killed? I have no desire to co-opt a word that has only been used against us — and not for us — for centuries. I refuse to dilute the cruelty that this term originates from. Instead, I vote for us to retire this word once and for all and use or come up with words that are not so deeply rooted in hate and racism. Who is with me?

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Anti-blackness Featured indigenous latinas Mexico Prieta racism Yalitza Aparicio
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