Why this Dominican-American says he’s a black man first

Thousands of people recently came out to celebrate Dominican heritage in New York City’s annual Dominican Day Parade. With flags waving and music pumping, Dominicans of all shades and colors displayed their cultural pride.

But when you ask 38-year-old Dominican-American Jason Rosario where his roots come from, he’ll proudly tell you they go all the way back to Africa.

Rosario is just one influential voice in a growing community of Afro-Latinos who not only express pride in their countries of birth and/or family origin but also explicitly embrace their black roots in cultures which often espouse anti-black sentiments.

As part of his work, Rosario has founded The Lives of Men — a media platform dedicated to showing diverse stories of black masculinity. In between hosting special events, journaling about his experiences and creating compelling video content, he also makes time to give back.

This year, Rosario set out on a medical mission to the Dominican Republic with Waves of Health, a nonprofit medical outreach organization. In an interview with theGrio this summer, Jason reflected on the trip to his home country, what it means to identify as an Afro-Latino, and why he’s 100 percent okay with being seen as a black man first.

TG: Were you born in the Dominican Republic?

JR: I was born here. My family was born in DR, but I was born and raised in New York. So I’m a Dominican-American, but I consider myself a black man at the end of the day.

TG: Did you feel any sense of racism or prejudice at all when you visited DR prior?

JR: It was not just with me personally in terms of  being profiled and treated a certain way. It was also what was happening in the Dominican Republic and Haiti with respect to the immigration policies.

They enacted policies that essentially deemed first-generation Dominicans of Haitian descent illegal in the country. Obviously, I think that it was very racially motivated, and it’s definitely economically motivated. So that combined with my own experience was just really part of the major reason why I chose not to visit the island.

TG: What exactly did it teach you about racial identity and racism?

JR: It just confirmed what I already knew. We’re all of African descent, we’re all black folk and we’re all family. I think, when you look back at the diaspora, we just got off on different stops off the boat.

When you think about [the Dominican Republic] culturally, it’s had issues with colorism and race throughout its history. For me, it was just confirmation that was an issue, confirmation that my experiences were very real, not just on the island, but here as well.

TG: How do you feel the race experience differs between Latin American nations and the United States? For instance, in the U.S., typically an Afro-Latino/a would be considered black, but in their home country, some would sort of “deny” their blackness. Why do you think that is?

JR: I think in the U.S., it’s definitely a binary: you’re white or you’re black. Then in between there’s maybe Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, but even then, it’s pretty much a black and white thing.

In our respective home countries (and I can only speak to the Caribbean, because that’s what I’m most familiar with), you have this added layer of nationalism. I’m Dominican, or you might be Jamaican or Haitian.

That’s probably one of the main differences for people that either live in Jamaica or in the Caribbean countries and then come to the U.S. and then all of a sudden have this completely different experience and then say “Wow, I am black.” And then they’re forced to deal with that blackness and accept it, whereas maybe in their home countries, they don’t.

TG: For you, what does it mean to be an Afro-Latino man in America?

JR: I would further define that by saying I’m an Afro-Caribbean man. Because yes, Afro-Latino is the umbrella term, and it’s kinda like what’s known, but I will venture to say most of 95-96% of my lineage is of course African but also Caribbean descent. This is why I make that distinction. But what does it mean?

It means that I understand that my lineage or my heritage is a blend of a lot of different components. It’s the indigenous. It’s the African. It’s the European. But what it means to me personally, and I’ve been more vocal lately about defining that term, is that it is embracing the blackness.

When we hear about our heritage, I think we tend to glamorize, specifically in DR, we glamorize the Spanish or the indigenous, but never or not too much the black.

So I think it’s just honoring all three and really spending time bringing that to light. And I think Afro-Latino is very personal as well. It’s not just cultural; it’s very much a product of how you’re raised in your individual household.

TG: Lately, you been more vocal about it, but as a kid, did you always classify yourself as an Afro-Latino? What was your answer when people asked you, “What are you?”

JR: I would say Dominican. That’s what I used to say before, and I think moreso now, I am Afro-Latino or Afro-Caribbean or of Dominican descent.

I think it was tough when I was younger. At home with my friends, I looked just like them and I listened to hip-hop. They didn’t view me any different, but then I would speak Spanish, and they’ll be like, “Oh you’re not really — you’re a Hispanito.”

But on the flip side, when I was with my family, and my family is pretty much all within my shade and share my features, but to the extent that I was around other Dominicans that didn’t look like me, it was interesting.

Perfect example, I would go to the corner store — the bodega — and most of those are owned by light-skinned Dominicans. And I would go in, and I would speak Spanish very slow, very deliberately loud, so that they knew that I identified, and they would still respond in English.

TG: How do you feel when you hear some Hispanic people insist that they aren’t black?

JR: That bothers me for a lot of reasons because one, what is it about you and your experience that makes you deny that? Whether you’re a third or whatever the percentage is, or if you’re one drop of black, if you have some black in you, then you’re black.

What is it about you or what is it about blackness or what does blackness represent to you that you feel doesn’t represent you as an individual?

I think it’s a lack of education or wanting to educate yourself deeper than just what you’ve been taught, because when you look at the diaspora and you look at — slavery didn’t just occur in North America. It occurred primarily — actually, first, it occurred in the Caribbean, and then it occurred in Europe and in other places of the world.

So to say that we are not black in some respects just because your skin isn’t dark would be ignorant.

Let’s go a little deeper: let’s look at the foods you eat. You might be light-skinned, but you might like gumbo, and gumbo is African. You might be Dominican, but you might like sancocho, which is stew. Stew is the leftovers of what they gave the slaves.

So you are very much black in some respects. It just may not be your skin tone, but it may be cultural.

That’s why I think having these conversations is important, because blackness isn’t a matter of skin color; it’s a matter of culture as well.

TG: What is your message to other black people with Hispanic roots, when it comes to embracing their identity?

JR: I’m really inspired by young folks who are being more vocal about this and who are being unapologetically black. I mean that’s just in the last few years; it’s a beautiful thing. I don’t necessarily wanna call it a movement, because then it’ll diminish what it really truly represents, and that is stepping to a new level of consciousness not just with respect to identity but with respect to culture and all of those things.

Keep going. My message is: don’t be afraid to kind of step into yourself and reach out and do more research and put yourself in situations where you have to explore yourself more. I think it ultimately starts with yourself.

TG: What sort of outreach can be made by black people in the U.S. to black people in Latin countries?

JR: That’s where the challenge is, because I think that there are a lot of issues with that potentially because there still needs to be a better bridge between African-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans and Afro-Latinos or however you wanna define it.

We need to understand that in that we are one culturally as Afro descendants. That said, there are cultural nuances that make us different, whether it’s in language, in arts, or in music. But at the end of the day, understanding that there is a common denominator is the first step. From there, we can start to have healthy dialogue around how we can work together to bridge the gap.

Read more of Jason Rosario’s  journal entries on his website: thelivesofmen.com

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