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From Chicago to New York: Two Afro-Boricuas With Sazón and Hope

 

Growing up in Puerto Rico, I learned from a very young age that my roots go back to the Taínos who lived on the island, the Spaniards that came later and the Africans they as slaves. I never doubted that. I look in the mirror and see all three; I also saw it back then. I am a mix: this skin the color of café con leche, my wavy hair, the wide nose, my lips, my hips… they all tell the story. A story of mestizaje I am very proud to tell and share with my children, who are half Mexican, and half all that!

The acknowledgement and acceptance of my own identity has been a process. First, my own romantic sensibility during childhood inspired me to accept and love my heritage for its folkloric and cultural values. Later, the decision to immerse myself in the cultural diversity of the Brooklyn neighborhoods I have called home opened up my mind to the similitudes with the Black community and awoke a sense of fraternity. And finally, becoming a mom while living in these same communities pushed me even further to solidify that definition in the hopes of educating my children.

I am not African American and I am not white. Being “Hispanic” as in “check one on the application to whatever” does not define me. I am part of the African diaspora scattered through the world, and I am Taína, and I have some European blood. Thankfully, we are blessed to live in a time where we can celebrate our differences and enjoy the richness of all of our roots, especially our African roots.

And in the vein of celebrating these roots, we are highlighting two Afro-Boricuas that make us proud. They are rocking our neighborhoods with sazón and hope: Raquel Dailey Parham infuses flavor on the Chicago restaurant scene and Torrey Maldonado brings hope to New York City public school kids. I spoke with them about identity, family, growing up and the inspiration to become fine examples of proud Afro-Boricuas today.

 


Raquel Dailey Parham is a former Chicago Public School teacher and an entrepreneur who launched the blog BoriquaChicks.com with her sister Rebecca to share topics from an Afro-Latina perspective. She opened Maracas Restaurant last summer in Chicago’s historic Bronzeville community, to fulfill her desire to share her mom’s home cooking.

Marixsa Rodriguez: What does it mean for you to be an Afro-Boricua?

Raquel Dailey Parham: Personally, it means being a part of a beautiful culture that is rich with Taíno, Spanish and proud African roots. I have an African-American father who was born in Chicago and a Puerto Rican mother whose birthplace was Loíza, Puerto Rico. If you look at my family in Puerto Rico, the skin colors range from dark to light. One can readily see the Taíno, Spanish and African influence in my Puerto Rican family.

MR: Were your Afro-Boricua roots present during your childhood, were they accepted and embraced?

RDP: During my childhood [in Chicago], my African and Puerto Rican roots were always present in my household. I could always identify with both sides, particularly when it came to music and food. Outside the house, while growing up in an African-American community, there weren’t many Latinos. Unless I talked about being Puerto Rican, it was assumed that I was African-American only. However, when we traveled to Puerto Rico the story was completely different. Because Puerto Ricans come in all shades, there was never a discussion of me not being Boricua. To this day, in Chicago a lot of people still don't believe that Latinos come in different shades, so this is why there are mixed reactions when I discuss my heritage. I thought it was unique to have parents with two different backgrounds. I wanted to embrace my Puerto Rican roots because I desired to share my experiences as I grew up in a household where two cultures were present. I have so many people that have patronized my restaurant who are in their adult years and are just now sharing publicly that they have Puerto Rican roots. Unfortunately, many people felt it was not necessary to share this part of their heritage when they were growing up because it was not always received well. Through the blog and restaurant I am fortunate to connect with people that share a common bond like myself and identify as Afro-Latino. Moreover, I am privileged to create these opportunities where people can discuss, embrace, and celebrate who they are.

MR: How important are your Afro-Boricua roots and what influence did they have on what you are and what you do today?

RDP: My Afro-Boricua roots are very important because it has shaped who I am today. I never thought 10 years ago that my passion for entertainment news would later lead to my sister Rebecca and I creating our blog BoriquaChicks.com, which offers “A fresh, urban Afro-Latina perspective.” Additionally, I never would have imagined in 2014 that I would have a restaurant dedicated to my Puerto Rican roots. When I have people of color visit my restaurant that are of Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican and Mexican descent who say they are excited to see me embracing my roots, I am overwhelmed with happiness. They confirm and validate my business, Maracas Restaurant.

MR: Name people and ideas that inspired you on the discovery of your Afro-Boricua identity.

RDP: My mother has been the most influential person in the search and discovery of my identity. When I was a child my Puerto Rican mother would always say she was Black. My response was always “no, you are not because Puerto Ricans are not Black.” It was not until I became older and understood about race, culture, and identity that I realized that she truly had African roots. Even then she acknowledged it, although many people still today don’t acknowledge their African roots. Whenever I see entertainers or meet people who are proud to be Black and Latino, they inspire me. When I see people such as actor Laz Alonso, who always represents his Latino roots and gladly says it, I am proud to be his Afro-Latina sister.


Torrey Maldonado is a New York City Public School teacher turned Middle Grade and Young Adult novelist, recently honored as a top teacher by the city’s Schools Chancellor. He was born and raised in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Before teaching, he trained schools to implement conflict resolution programs through the U.S.'s largest victim-services agency. His novel, Secret Saturdays, made states’ reading lists and is assigned in anti-bullying initiatives. 

Marixsa Rodriguez: What does it mean for you to be an Afro-Boricua?

Torrey Maldonado: A Puerto Rican is three races combined. So, how are you going to split a Puerto Rican apart? Since my birth, my life has been a beautiful swirl of Black-Latino-ness and my mother taught me to love myself so I became an expression of my duality. My first haircut through now has been in African-American barbershops because I have African hair. In schools, Black females who initially didn’t know my ethnicity treated me like I was a sellout for flirting with euro or indio Latinas. I remember asking one Black woman “did I do something to you, we just spoke this morning and now you act like don’t know me?” And she told me “as a Black guy, you should stick with your own—Black women.”  Being Afro-Boricua means accepting how society perceives me, my experiences, my features, and the plethora of tangibles that come with being an obvious fruit from mixed roots, including my African roots.

MR: Were your Afro-Boricua roots present during your childhood, were they accepted and embraced?

TM: The Red Hook projects are Black with Latinos in the minority. From one end of Red Hook to the other, I was loved, mainly because I was my mother’s son and she was a living legend. Life for me and for many relatives and friends was a unified Black-Latino-ness so we lived that duality. I went through Midwood High School and Vassar College as the only person I knew who identified as Afro-Latino. That ruffled some kids’ feathers because they didn’t come from upbringings where Blacks and Latinos meshed. At times, people tried boxing me in like the scene in my book, Secret Saturdays, when someone tells the main character, “I heard you black and Puerto Rican. What’re you? Puerto Rican today? Tomorrow you Black?” Now, I see we’re in a new racial landscape where lots of people identify as Afro-Latino. Also, more high-profile Afro-Latinos exist and there is greater acceptance for us.

MR: How important are your Afro-Boricua roots and what influence did they have on what you are and what you do today?

TM: Being Afro-Boricua inspires my teaching and my writing. For the twenty years that I have taught in public schools, I have seen a lack of diversity in two areas: in teachers and in books. How are schools telling kids “you can be anything” if schools have an under-representation of Black and Latino teachers? So, I teach and my existence tells non-white students “you can do what I do because I’m your mirror-reflection and I’m doing it.”  Also, how are schools telling kids “you are important” if schools disproportionately buy books where Blacks and Latinos don’t exist or are unimportant? I try to be the change I want to see.  A recent New York Times article exposed something many knew for generations. The article shows the longstanding nationwide practice of schools assigning books to Latino and Black students that either A) have no Latinos or Blacks, B) have stereotypical images of Latinos and Blacks, or C) reduce Latinos and Blacks to side-characters or props where we are not central to the story. I wanted to change that, so, I wrote Secret Saturdays. Then the Times did something very cool. It listed my book as one of the recommended books by and about Latinos. Why? Secret Saturdays shows Latinos and Blacks as heroes, central to a story, and not as stereotypes, side-characters or props. Who I am drives me to positively spotlight diverse youth through my teaching and my writing.

MR: Name people and ideas that inspired you on the discovery of your Afro-Boricua identity.

TM: If I were a visual artist, I would create a mosaic of Afro-Latino heroes who inspire me. Picture it: in the middle is my face, on the left side are past Afro-Latinos who inspired my Afro-Latino-ness, and on the right side are current ones who inspire my Afro-Latino-ness. The left side of the mosaic would show Arturo Schomburg, Roberto Clemente, Antonia Pantoja, Piri Tomas, Celia Cruz, Pablo Guzman, and more. On the left side would be Junot Diaz, Maxwell, Soledad O’ Brien, Pedro Noguera, and, as will.i.am says, the list “goes on and on and on and on . . .” 


Find Raquel Dailey-Parham at Maracas, and with her sister Rebecca at BoriquaChicks. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Find Torrey Maldonado at TorreyMaldonado and connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

Share with us the pride for our Afro-Boricua heritage through social media using the hashtag #CentroVoices.


© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 4 February 2015.