"What a wonder life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner." Colette

Mar 6, 2016

The Dark Ones

Three Wise Women III
Bomba y Plena
A new movie portraying singer Nina Simone will star beautiful Zoe Saldana, who makes a terrific Lt. Uhura in this decade’s incarnations of Star Trek. She’s been getting a lot of flak from members of the African-American community who balk at her casting. Critics are unhappy she’s wearing a prosthetic nose and appears to be ‘black-faced’  for the role.  I stopped fixing my coffee to turn up the radio.

They went on to report that while Zoe is from Puerto Rico and of mixed heritage, she identifies herself as Black.

Really?  Maybe when she's in Hollywood but doubtful in Puerto Rico.  Here’s a story from my early days after arriving aboard Ruff Life in 1998 (island-time photos here):

Czar's morning ferry ride
I’d been walking Czar and was heading back to the dinghy dock when a gentleman struck up a conversation; about Czar, naturally, who was gorgeous. On an island full of neglected Satos, Czar stood out from the pack at 95 pounds.

The man spoke English beautifully, and proudly explained that he had four sons:  one was a doctor; another a lawyer; the third was attending graduate school in America.

“What about the fourth?”

“Oh, he’s the dark one,” was his only remark.

Three Wise Women I
higuera (gourd) art
Surprised me, too.  Locals in the tiny fishing village-turned-vacation town were curious about the Gringa with the big dog and I was befriended by Puerto Ricans of all social strata; therefore, I had a pretty good opportunity to view their world as the proverbial Spanish Fly on the wall.

Puerto Rico has been occupied by various nations throughout history and her population is (primarily) a blend of African, Spanish and indigenous Taino ancestry.  Therefore, Puerto Ricans come in all shades, just like every other race.   Zoe is undoubtedly a role model on the island, but there’s no denying that light-skinned Puerto Ricans such as she have a leg up when it comes to opportunities. Unfortunately most kids on the island don’t get to college, let alone the United States, and their aspirations focus on becoming a beauty queen, boxing champ or baseball player in order to escape poverty, bigotry or both.

I gave private painting lessons to children and adults from affluent families, whom some of my artesan friends referred to as patrons (with a sneer).  Marisol’s Mother was really more interested in improving her daughter’s English than art but that didn’t matter to me.  For years I enjoyed watching Marisol and her pal, Amalia (not their names) grow into confident young ladies while teaching them nuances of our language, plus how to paint.  We talked about all sorts of things so I learned from them in turn, and at their age there was no hint of bigotry.

They laughed whenever I called myself a Gringa (a term they already knew), but perhaps I wanted them to keep me in mind if they heard the term used derogatorily. (I'm not sure that came out right, but anyway...) It’s one thing to call yourself a name, it’s another to be called that by another, in a tone.  My mid-life adventure on Ruff Life thrust me not only into Paradise but (reverse-) discrimination, and trust me, it’s not a pretty thing.

The Dark Ones, a noxious identifier I heard frequently over the years, have skin tones and features more prominent amongst Tainos and Africans and which, just like any other parts of our DNA, pop up in even the best of families. It was interesting yet disturbing to observe educated people treating members of their own family as the black sheep so openly.  I hate to write these things because, due to their kindness, I now consider myself boricua; but these perceptions of mine are written with both love and remorse, if that’s possible.

“Which one (of her two daughters) is Chi-Chi?” I asked co-worker Inez.

“The dark one.”  Not the older; not the younger; not the one who constantly does handstands.   Inez was inadvertently teaching me bigotry, but I bit my tongue from saying,

“I’m sorry, but you all look dark(er) to me.”

Another family in town was thrilled at their fair-skinned-ness, and often mentioned their people were Continentals.  What…Americans?  No, Spanish.  I gave painting lessons in that household, too; and as was frequently the case, I was more just the art teacher.  I was the Gringa-confidant who couldn’t possibly spill the frijoles to the neighbors.

“What’s going to become of her?  What kind of a life can she have?!”

Magaly  was weeping uncontrollably as she explained her granddaughter had shown signs of Vitiligo, the loss of skin color in patches (that's all I'm reporting); relatively rare but also strikes indiscriminately throughout families.  I knew what she meant; my childhood friend Janet (Juanita) had the same light splotches on her ankles, but (we) never thought any more about it than we did our class V.P., whose pretty face was half covered by a red birthmark.

Tres Culturas I
gourd art by author
But my years on the island had taught me that this was equivalent to the appearance of Ruth’s blemish before the altar of Chemosh.  I wanted to cry, too, as Magaly described the various creams, medications and doctor’s visits the poor girl, now forced to remain indoors, was enduring in order to keep her… what?  I can’t put it into words; her skin tone was everything.  Rather than teach the 8 year old to embrace her uniqueness, she was learning shame from her own family.  In my opinion.

In conclusion, I tend to side with the againsts over the fors for Zoe’s casting, but maybe not for the same reasons.  Surely there must be at least ONE other talented Black actress around to offer a more identifiable character performance of Nina Simone.  This is a wonderful opportunity for another positive self-image role model; not just for Black women but women of all shades.

I’m sure Zoe wouldn’t mind.  She’ll have plenty of other choices in between Star Trek movies.

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