(A version of this piece was originally published on The Lives of Men)
We’re going to talk about Sammy Sosa. But first, a little background.
A few years ago, I was on a panel discussion for TheGrio on being Afro-Latino and the challenges we face growing up in a world that deems your darker complexion to be less than beautiful. A world, let’s not ignore, where even family members judge you for your complexion, the way you wear your hair and who you date.
In that video, the topic of Sosa came up. I simply said: “I understand and feel sorry for Sammy Sosa.”
When Dominicans and social media think of Sammy Sosa, responses are typically pure comedy. If it’s not that he looks like Pepto Bismol, it’s that he looks like Neapolitan Ice Cream. It’s what the internet does; it takes a person and automatically makes them a meme. It’s funny, yes, but it also isn’t. The internet gets excited to tear you down but it doesn’t feel the same when it comes to building you back up. That takes more work. And while Sammy may be past saving, I don’t see half as many memes about the core of the issue than I do about what his face now looks like. There is no advancement of the conversation.
If you’re Spanish speaking it’s “Pero Sammy ta loco [Sammy is crazy]” or “Ete maldito prieto quiere ser blanco ahora [this ******* Black guy wants to be white now]. If you’re a white American or Black American, it’s automatically “Dominicans are such self haters” or “Dominicans are so racist.” Neither of those advances the dialogue. Neither provides a solution. All they do is leave everything in the same place: nowhere.
When you look at Sosa, you are looking at a lot, and it’s important that one think about how it came to the point where a man in his late 30s at the time decided to start bleaching his skin.
It all starts at childhood because, quite frankly, I was Sammy Sosa at one point.
Let me explain, and run you through the list.
My hair isn’t William Levy’s hair. You can’t run your fingers through it. I don’t even have hair anymore. I’m bald. But when I did, it was hair I didn’t like. Actually, I hated it. So what did I do? I got the same curls Sosa and Pedro Martinez had. I wanted to have the look of someone who had “good hair.” I permed my hair in the same way many young Dominican women do. I went through my childhood being told I didn’t look Dominican, or wasn’t really Dominican, so I did everything in my power to chase that title. I would tell people “I’m not Black” because they used it as an insult. At one point in my life, I thought being called Black was a negative. It was an insult to me.
I tried getting green color contacts. I remember my dad [who is a super woke Dominican] asking me if I wanted to be white because he was furious with me over it. I was 16 years old. I was so mad at him for talking to me like that. But while I denied understanding his viewpoint, I did, and just didn’t want to verbalize it. As a teenager, I just wanted another way to get attention because I felt my skin color was preventing me from getting any.
I’ve had two major relationships in my adult life. Both with light-skinned women. In elementary school and high school, all my girlfriends were light-skinned. Do you think that was by accident? Again, a lot of these woke Dominican dudes on the internet who are dark-skinned have the same record as I do when it comes to girlfriends. I’m not criticizing them. I’m just showing you how real it is and why it’s no joking manner.
Since becoming single a few years ago, I’ve been dating and have dated every shade of woman on earth. This would have never happened 5, 10 or 20 years ago. I’ve had dinners with women as light as milk and dark as me. The same men that criticize Kanye and Kim are the same men that want a Kim on their arm because they are just as brainwashed as I was.
Why? I can tell you because I once was that person.
- I want to have a North West looking kid.
- I like how it looks to have a light-skinned woman contrast with my dark skin. It makes me feel like I stand out.
- There was a feeling of accomplishment when you got a light-skinned woman as a dark-skinned man. Why? Because you didn’t believe you were good looking on your own because of how society treated you; and you sure as hell never thought your looks would get you a light-skinned woman.
- What’s the next big catch for a dark-skinned man other than a white woman? A light-skinned woman of the same race.
Those are all real thoughts dark-skinned Latino dudes go through because of all the BS they hear growing up. I’m not saying the thoughts are right, because they 100 percent aren’t, but they are thoughts I once held. In reality, it dove me deep into thinking about my thoughts of women and if I looked at them as women or a trophy that can help me shine more than I did at the time.
So when you consider the aforementioned, it’s pretty arguable that Sammy Sosa didn’t just wake up one day and say: “You know what, I want to be white. I want to bleach my skin.”
Money couldn’t even save this brother, and seeing the physical effects of his struggles with colorism shows us just how deep the wounds were in his life. The insults. The poverty. The wealth that you only see light-skinned people obtain in your country. All that stuff from his childhood stuck with him despite at one point being one of the most beloved baseball players; and not just in the Dominican Republic, but around the world.
He just couldn’t grow past it.
It’s easy to pick on Dominicans but skin bleaching happens even in the non-Spanish speaking Caribbean in countries like Jamaica and Haiti. Additionally, if you’ve been anywhere else in the Caribbean or Latin America like Brazil or Colombia or even parts of Africa, India and Asia, you’ll see that people of that complexion have the same issues. They have the same issues of self-hate. But they are growing up in a place that makes poverty in America look like a joke. They don’t even have real-life examples of Black success, nor on TV or on billboards like we do. They have nothing.
So how is something like Sammy Sosa funny when you know there’s a Sammy Sosa that’s 5 years old right now (both male and female) developing the same complex in Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela … and the list goes on. Kids who have to hustle to eat on a daily basis. Who have to wear the same clothes while understanding at a very young age that in their countries Black means poor, and white means rich, or something close to it. Kids who look at their surroundings and not only develop this thinking but have parents who reinforce that there’s no escaping it.
So if we as men are going through these bouts of self hate, imagine those same kids or men going through it in a place where the window to opportunity is not only slightly cracked, but nearly impossible for air to seep through.
Claudio Cabrera is a contributor for The Lives of Men, and the Senior Digital Strategist at The New York Times.