The N-Word Is Flourishing Among Generation Hip-Hop Latinos

Why should we care now?

Maybe, in a way, that's the statement Dania Ramirez intended to make when, as part of Nas's Grammy-night entourage earlier this year, the dark-brown Dominican actress sported a black T-shirt emblazoned with the n-word. Many folks in our parents' generation have rejected their blackness—I have older Latino neighbors who won't vote for Barack Obama simply because he's black—but those generations more informed by hip-hop are embracing their Afro-Latino identity and evolving past our own self-hatred. Perhaps. "One fallacy is that [the n-word is] blasé, like, 'Ah well, everyone can use it now that it has a different meaning,' because it's not completely meaningless," says Professor Flores. "The other extreme, though, is the absolutist who thinks no one can use it because it's taboo, under any circumstances. That's a problem, too, because every expression has the potential for ulterior meanings, depending on the circumstances of the person."

Crystal, a 13-year-old fair-skinned Dominican girl attending eighth grade in an Inwood public school, remembers first hearing the n-word in a song while hanging out with her aunt. "So then, we got on the computer and we looked it up, and it had the meaning and everything," she recalls. "I was like, 'Why would you say it in a song?' From there, you started hearing everybody on the street saying it, and then everybody started getting used to it." To be fair, parents aren't always able to interfere because they speak little to no English; those reared by hip-hop culture in the last two decades often use it themselves.

The similar term cocolo—most popularly used as an insult against Haitians by Dominicans, and by Puerto-Ricans against Dominican immigrants who look Haitian—is another word gradually being assigned a new meaning here among Latinos. Other words that translate to mean "black" among Caribbean Latinos are moreno/a and negrito/a, almost always used as terms of endearment. However, because none of these words have had the fraternal stamp of hip-hop approval, they have yet to receive their proverbial ghetto passes; speaking of which, Jennifer Lopez might've surrendered hers when she left the Bronx eons ago. While it's a fact that men in the hip-hop industry can get away with murder, women are held to impossibly high standards, and the question of authenticity played a role in how negatively the public reacted to J. Lo's use of the n-word on the remix for her 2001 single "I'm Real."

AZ (left) presents his thesis.
Jackie O
AZ (left) presents his thesis.

"I think with that, it was really based more upon class than anything else," Immortal Technique says. "Many people saw Fat Joe as technically black even though he was a light-skinned Puerto Rican, and he had affiliations with the streets that Jennifer Lopez probably lost on the way to Hollywood."

With few exceptions within our community—Raquel Rivera's 2003 book New York Ricans From the Hip Hop Zone devoted prime real estate to the discussion of Latino identity in hip-hop—this is a conversation we've failed to have, whatever our personal feelings. "It really don't matter if you're white, you're black, you're brown, or from the Boogie Down—it irks me to death," says Alain "KET" Maridueña, 37, an entrepreneur and artist. "Latinos in our neighborhood use it a lot—like every other word—and I'm trying to check people because I find that we're suffering, we're going through our thing, times are hard, there aren't enough opportunities out there, and I want us to rise up." But we won't rise up if we can't talk about the reasons why we haven't quite gotten there yet, and the words that've risen in prominence as a result.

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