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"Yo, my nigga, that nigga's crazy," declares a young Dominican guy in his late teens, early twenties. "Yeah, my nigga, that nigga was buggin' last night, my nigga," responds another hermano. Chatter like this floated in the air like the whiff of days-old garbage smoldering in the heat while I took my frequent summer jaunts along Vermilyea Avenue way uptown in Inwood, with my 11-year-old daughter in tow.
Initially, you'd find mostly Caribbean Latinos dropping n-bombs into rap lyrics—"Pigs," off Cypress Hill's classic self-titled 1991 debut, is just one example—but nearly two decades later, the profusion of the word into the New York City Latino vocabulary is reaching an almost caricaturist quality. In Spanish Harlem, el Bronx, and the Lower East Side, it's enthusiastically deployed in an almost faddish manner, as if it's going out of style literally tomorrow. With Nas threatening to name his latest album Nigga (he relented, eventually, but most fans still call it that anyway) a few months ago, and iconic Latino artists from the authentic urban native Fat Joe to one of my favorite internationalists, Immortal Technique, still flinging it about freely, the word, its meaning, and our sense of who can and cannot use it still dominates public conversation. The palpable racial tension that's been rearing its head this historic presidential election, the subject of race and who is truly considered black or white in this black-and-white race, is something Latinos need to pay attention to. For many of us, especially those of Caribbean descent who make up a sizable chunk of New York Latinos, race should matter, and so should that one particular word.
Personal feelings, premonitions, and politics aside, I took the two young boys' exchange as an interesting opportunity, an exercise in thinking about Afro-Latino identity in an unlikely way: through a hip-hop lens. Aside from the fact that we're in the thick of a predominantly Dominican enclave (for now) in our beloved Uptown Manhattan, and the first guy I'd overheard wore an oversized white T-shirt emblazoned with our motherland's flag, homeboy could've passed for an African-American man on any other stretch of blocks stateside. By comparison, his comrade looked more like Fat Joe's skinnier brother, with light eyes and pale skin. Was it OK, or more OK, for the darker-skinned kid to use the term?
As many times as I've heard it yelled across the streets and in playgrounds lately, it doesn't take away the sting. But it's naive to think Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Cuban kids in New York City aren't calling each other and themselves the n-word, especially in 2008. (It's a global phenomenon, too: In West African cities like Freetown and Accra, heads that find out you're from the States and part of the hip-hop community will find creative ways to work the word into a conversation.) For us, the word usually surfaces in the same context that arises among young African-Americans: as a term of inclusion and solidarity. "It's just a code of communication to us, a 'hood word people throw around frequently," says half-African-American, half-Dominican rapper AZ, who released his "rap thesis" on the subject, titled N.4.L. (Niggaz 4 Life), last month. "I guess people want to use it now for press and all that; I don't understand what's all the big fuss about."
Somehow, the n-word has found its way back into hip-hop's critical zeitgeist: I'm interested in exploring, as a Dominican New Yorker, how we as a community have propagated it. Recently, due to the mounting criticism of Boricua rapper Fat Joe's use of the term eight albums deep into his career (including his latest, The Elephant in the Room), Latinos are being challenged to introspect. But I can see why an impulse to laser-focus on the issue now would bewilder a veteran rapper like Joe; he's used the word consistently since emerging in 1993, as have the Beatnuts, Hurricane G, and his late Puerto Rican cohort Big Pun, to name a few. In an interview with Chicago-based WGCI radio personality Leon Rogers, Joe said that while he didn't know exactly when Latinos started using the n-word, he felt that "somehow it became a way to embrace each other." He added: "Crazy shit is, my man Reverend Al Sharpton, whenever I see him, he'll be like, 'Wassup Joe, my nigga,' and he's the dude that protests 'my nigga.' He's my friend, so he says it to me as a term of endearment."
"It draws the racial differentiations into the Latino community, which I agree with," says New York University Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis, Juan Flores, who regularly teaches courses on Afro-Latino identity here and abroad. "It's just an opportunity to check the power that Black Latinos reflect off each other and the Latino population." In other words, Latino artists use the n-word as a reminder that they too have been oppressed and are products of the transatlantic slave trade.
There may be a reason for the lack of attention: Many Caribbean Latinos are, to Americans at least, ethnically ambiguous products of miscegenation. Regardless of what we've learned in grade school, our history extends past Columbus and our Spanish conquistadores. "The European Spaniards have left a legacy of self-hatred and racism among the Latino population; without acknowledging that, we will not evolve past our own inequity," says Immortal Technique, an Afro-Peruvian hip-hop artist who also uses the n-word. "Racism in America, as horrible and ugly as it may be, still isn't as bad as what it is in Latin America, and the sad part is that we are being racist against ourselves."
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."
"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.