Transgressing Borders: Puerto Rican and Latina Mestizaje

(James Madison University)
Judith Ortiz Cofer describes her semi-autobiographical heroine in Silent
Dancing
as a “cultural chameleon” (Silent Dancing 17). She was born in
Puerto Rico and spent her childhood traveling between the island and the
United States, switching language, behavior, and cultural context with
each move. Even within her Paterson, New Jersey community, she “cross-
ed a border of two countries” by leaving her Puerto Rican-style home and
going to her Italian- and Irish-dominated Catholic school (Silent Dancing
125-26). Her ability to translate herself in this way suggests that the narra-
tor, like a chameleon, has a fluid identity that varies with context. By
choosing the chameleon as her metaphor, Ortiz Cofer addresses culture in
terms of color: the chameleon adapts by changing the hue of its skin. Like
other Puerto Rican and Latinalo writers, she uses racial models to describe
cultural multiplicity.’

The paradigm most often used to describe this multichromatic dynamic
is mestizaje. This essay will analyze the work of Rosario Ferre, Ana Lydia
Vega, Aurora Levins Morales, and Ortiz Cofer-two writers from each
side of the U.S.-Puerto Rican divide-showing how mestizaje problema-
tizes conventions of race, nation, and gender, drawing attention to fluidity
within identity rather than singularity. 2 Mestizaje
is the Latin American term for the racial and cultural mixture that was produced
by the conquest of the so-called “New World,” in which European colonizers
mixed with the darker-skinned colonized subjects. Originally the term
was used to describe the mixture of Spanish and native heritage,
but mestizaje has incorporated additional racial elements.
Chicana/o theorists in the United States have drawn attention to the
Anglo-American additions to their racial and cultural mixture, but they often
elide the African lineage in mestizaje. Gloria Anzaldua, one of the
most well-known theorists of “mestiza consciousness,” does call for
Chicana/os to know not only their Indian ancestry but their “afro-mestizaje”
too (86). In this rhetoric, however, the African component is separable from
mestizaje, an additive, while I would argue that it is inseparable, always
present in mestizaje.

Certain usages efface the blackness within mestiza brownness because
mestizaje blurs black and white opposition and often obscures the distinc-
tion between racial categories. Carol Boyce Davies’s study of women’s
writing in the African diaspora, Black Women, Writing and Identity, bor-
rows formulations of mestiza consciousness for analyzing black women’s
identities. Yet Davies qualifies her relationship to the mestiza dynamic:

Still, I am conscious of the way in which “mestizo” or “mestiza” can be used
as oppressive separation in Latin American communities in order to distance
one from darker-skinned peoples and others who identify as “African,”
“Afro-,” or “Black.” The point is that all of these terms carry their internal
contradictions. (16)

Mestizaje is a paradigm for the “internal contradictions” within identity.
Mestiza theory highlights the fusion of differences and provides models
for analyzing transracial border-crossings. As an inclusive concept, mesti-
zaje
encompasses the multiple cultural, racial, and national elements that
meet within peoples of the Americas and highlights the mixtures, negotia-
tions, and frictions that define American history. The diverse color spec-
trum in Puerto Rico, which results from the Spanish colonization of Ara-
wak and Carib natives and the importation of African slaves, ranges from
black to white. While Mexican usage of mestizaje might elide the African-
ist presence, this presence is more difficult to forget in the Puerto Rican
“diaspora,” where African slavery existed on a larger scale. In this essay, I
use mestizaje to emphasize the shared complexities between island and
mainland identities because the term itself is a bridge, revealing the inti-
macy between seemingly unlike components.

Puerto Rican mixture is both mestiza and mulatto, pairing the mediat-
ing mixture of mestizaje with a black-to-white racial spectrum. The Puerto
Rican and Latina writers I analyze emphasize the “afro-” that is mixed
within every mestiza, and I use mestizaje in this inclusive sense. As
Rosario Morales says in her poem, “Africa,” “Though my roots reach into
the soils of two Americas 1 Africa waters my tree” (55). Her prose poem,
“The Other Heritage,” embraces the Africanist elements of her Puerto Ri-
can-American mestizaje: “the ebony sheen to my life,” “the sound of afri-
can in english” (56-57). In the middle of the poem, she abandons the anti-
black racism that she was taught in the past: the white aprons with which
she covered her black dresses, the scrubbing, polishing, “will I pass”
avoidance of “black smelly savage” (56-57). At this same moment, she
switches from English to Spanish: “mielda . . .” [bullshit, with a Puerto
Rican accent] (57). For her, speaking in Spanish affirms the multiracial
components of her identity: “I was just right just me just brown and pink
and full of drums inside beating rhythm for my feet” (58). She feels at
home when she hears “Black folk speak and the sounds of Spanish” to-
gether (56). Morales reminds us not only of the racial diversity within
Puerto Rican mestizaje-the brown, the pink, and the black-but of cul-
tural mixture, too. Mestizaje transcends racial categories to include a mix-
ture of languages, religions, gender types, and economics, with color.

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