I understood from a very
young age that race was a lie.
The heartbreak began right
before dinner at my aunt’s house. The first time I learned that I was seen as
different happened on a bitterly cold winter evening in Rochester, New York. My
cousin started cracking jokes about the snow as we walked through the front
yard. I stared at the sky and asked out loud about Puerto Ricans on the North
“Did we have any up there?”
We laughed and kicked snow around the edge of the driveway, taking our time.
Dinner wouldn’t be ready for at leas another half hour. Cartoon music began
blaring from the living room and I started to wonder if it was a new episode of
Danger Mouse when I felt my cousin’s
hand tug on my arm.
“Whoa.”Her mouth was wide
open, her face an odd mixture of fear and anger. I immediately got scared. I’d
never seen my amazingly cool, older cousin, who allowed me to hang out with her
whenever I felt like it, look scared in my entire life.
She turned to look at me,
asking if I was okay---was someone calling their dog?
“Hey! Yeah! YOU. HEY!”
It was the New Lady from
across the calle and two casas over. She lived in the only
apartment on the block. None of the neighborhood kids knew anything about her,
except that she was mean to everyone. Mean, every day mean, the kind of mean
that can get away with things when your parents’ backs are turned. Casual. We
only played with her daughter when she was at the store buying cigarettes
because she tried to spit at us once near the neighborhood bakery. When she got
caught by another adult she said she had ‘violent phlegm.’
After several attempts at
finding a medical definition for this new ailment I’d never heard of, I had to
ask several adults if it was real. ‘Violent phlegm?’ We all knew she hated us,
she just never told us why until she started yelling at us, louder now, from
across the street.
Now I started to feel sick to
my stomach. I kept ignoring her and started to panic, reaching for my cousin’s
hand. She took a few steps forward into the street and turned to my cousin.
“You tell that little nigger to stop playing with my daughter.
You hear me?” she asked and lowered
her voice, turning now toward me.
I was eight years old.
“I don’t want my daughter
playing with any niggers.”
She made a move to spit again,
her mouth kept moving but my ears filled themselves up with Johnny Cash songs,
‘I keep a close watch on this heart of
mine. I keep my eyes wide open all the time,’ I remembered learning the
year before at Girl Scout camp. Somehow we had started to walk up the driveway
toward the house, my cousin pulling me because I couldn’t move. I couldn’t stop
staring back at the lady’s face. It was still a person somehow, over there, screaming
at me...wasn’t it?
I kept trying to understand.
I kept not understanding.
It didn’t happen every day,
but I was used to being called names as a kid, especially when I was speaking in
Spanish. She didn’t call me spic, which
is what I typically heard. I knew that we are equal citizens under the law
[because] we’d just started on the three branches of Government at school. This
made no sense, why was she so angry? Didn’t we all have the same rights?
Her hatred broke my
eight-year-old heart, hatred that churned in my guts. This lady really thinks I
am nothing. She called me an ugly,
terrible word because she thinks she’s better than me, a kid! Did she want me
to die? I knew I had done nothing wrong, and that it didn’t really matter
because I’d seen it before. I just didn’t know what it was until that winter night
My cousin kept walking me
back, saying comforting things that at first I couldn’t hear. She told me later
I was crying so hard my swollen eyes looked like I’d lost a fight. Finally I could
laugh a little, asking over and over again, “Why does she hate me?” when my
cousin looked me straight in the eye.
“Because she’s racist, and
racist people are dumbasses,” [she said]. Before I could ask what a racist was,
she sighed, “Acting racist is when a white person hates anyone else that
doesn’t look exactly like them, anyone that isn’t exactly like them. Slavery, in
America, it started with that. They just took
people.” When I asked about all of the people in our family who have white skin,
she sighed again and sat in silence for a while.
She knew more than I did, being
a teenage woman of the world who flew to California once for an entire summer.
Afterward, we talked about how the girls out there couldn’t really dance, but
they got to live right near the beach. We couldn’t really be jealous. The world
was changing even though some people refused to accept it, like the lady across
We sat on the back porch and I
started to cry again. Now my skin was seen as different, and that meant that I
had a real reason to be afraid. Finally she tried to explain the rage from
across the street. “That’s why some people in America get confused by Puerto
Ricans. We’re Americans, we have everybody, every color in our family, and it’s
not a big deal. Everybody else thinks it is, but they’re dumb like that lady.”
I started to shake from the
cold as we walked through the kitchen door. Arroz
con pollo never smelled so good. I began plotting ways to never see that terrifying
lady ever again.
That expression of blind rage
is something I will never forget. It is the same blind rage violently erupting
over and over again throughout the United States today, a rage born of a system
of thought that normalizes race as logical, white supremacy. This same rage claimed
the life of Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati, Ohio, and countless others targeted by
the color of their skin.
This rage continues to prove
that we refuse to acknowledge the truth: race as an idea, as a practice, has failed spectacularly in the United States. It is
time for culture, rather than skin color, to be evidence of our equality.
Can we live as a nation free
of the idea of race?
The answer is yes, because it
is already a reality.
Puerto Ricans are a people
and a culture that have lived beyond race in this nation for over 100 years. For
the past 16 years I've been cross-crossing the U.S. documenting Puerto Rican
culture in every state for my first book, American
Boricua. This work serves to eradicate the concept of race through the power
of visual evidence.
The BCRI Odessa Woolfolk
Gallery will be home to American
Boricua’s next exhibition in October 2015. I invite you to explore this new
vision of culture in the United States.
Wanda Benvenutti is a New Orleans-based
freelance Photojournalist and Photo Editor. She received a B. A. from Oberlin
College, and an M. S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of
Journalism. Her work has been recognized by the Society of Professional
Journalists, The National Press Photographers Association, and The National
Hispanic Journalists Association. Wanda's photographs are also featured in the
book, “100 New York Photographers” by Cynthia Maris Dantzic and www.americanboricua.com