I mentioned before that I was ‘concerned’ about how I would be received in the Dominican Republic 🇩🇴. The first gentleman I engaged with when I got off of the plane referred to me as la morena over and over again. His name is Victor and he was very helpful to me when I first touched down in Santiago.
I had spent as long as I could in the terminal trying to sort out my phone situation until airport personnel came over and asked for my tourist pass and started easing me toward the immigration stand… en espanol. I was the only one left except a woman I had traveled with from Chicago O’hare. She had been trying to manage her little boy and several large suitcases. We each grabbed one of the free carts for our luggage and finally headed out.
I was greeted by some stares, which I also get at home because of the way I dress. But it did seem a little different to me. Almost all of the people I saw looked like those I would refer to as Black people or people of African descent if I was in the U.S. At home, they may be described as ‘light skinned’ or even a medium brown. Most would pass the “paper bag test.” (I explained what that was to my housemates one day last week.) They all looked like some variation of my husband and some folks on his side of the family. Whether it was the complexion, the hair texture, or the facial features, there was generally something that pointed toward a connection to The Continent. Even with the variations in physical appearance, I still noticed the commonalities.
I pushed my packed luggage full of donations over to a place where I could think about my next actions. I had just realized that my portable charger was not working, my phone was almost dead and WhatsApp would not work with the airport WiFi. So I could not contact the driver that had been arranged to pick me up when I arrived. Not only did I have issues with WiFi, I also did not know what the driver looked like.
I moved through a crowd of people and found a spot. I must have looked like I was in distress, which I was but trying to hide. I was looking at my phone trying to remedy my situation and watching my bags and trying to think Think THINK about my next move and a solution all at the same time.
I did not notice Victor walk up, but heard a voice address me… en espanol. I looked up. I am sure I had my typical ‘deer in headlights’ look I always get when I have practiced a language only to hear someone speak and it sounds totally different. And they drop beginning and ending sounds here… And they speak so fast even the Latina women who are apart of our group have to ask them to repeat themselves sometimes.
Victor worked at the airport, so I was not totally terrified about allowing this stranger assist me. I stumbled for my words and finally decided to say said, ” No hablo espanol…” He laughed and started to speak more slowly with gestures. I could understand him better when he used single words or small phases. Somehow I was able to communicate that I was having trouble with my WiFi, needed an outlet and could not reach my driver. Then he laughed again. I wondered why he would be laughing when I was trying SO HARD to communicate with him. Then he started speaking to me in English. Actually, I laughed, too. I said, “Oh my God! I can’t believe you just made me struggle like that!”
Victor told me I could follow him and he could help me with WiFi. He took me to his work station, which was one of the bag wrapping stations. Do you know what those are? When you travel from some countries, you can pay to have your suitcases and bags wrapped in plastic so that people are less likely to go into them once you check them and they are being routed to your destination.
Victor was VERY kind to me. He allowed me to charge my phone at his work station and, after he saw that he also could not get my phone to connect to the airport WiFi, he connected me to his hotspot, so I could contact the driver.
While I waited, Victor and I had a chance to talk. He showed me his children and I showed him my sons… and my husband. He looked shocked and asked how old I was. I asked him how old he thought I was and he said 35, like him……… Bless his heart. He said he thought it was the cold weather in Chicago that was responsible for me looking so young… I’m not sure about that.
(True story: On our 21st anniversary, I got carded while out at dinner with Eugene. A gentleman at the adjacent table seemed amazed and asked if my husband had married a child bride………. I was SO CLOSE to be flattered, but ummm… NO!)
I told Victor that I was told that Dominican people don’t like dark people. He totally resisted that and said that those were ignorant people saying that. As people (others who worked there) passed by, I noticed he referred to me as la morena. He even referred to me that way when he left an audio message on WhatsApp for my driver en Espanol, so I asked him why he continued to refer to me as MORENA. He said it was a term of endearment and nothing bad. He did mention something about Black people too, but he was talking too much Spanglish too fast for me to understand.
(I later looked it up. The primary definition of morena(o) is “brunette” or a person with brown hair or eyes. Other definitions acknowledge the use of morena to reference a woman (moreno for men) with dark skin and its etymology to be linked to words used by Italians, Portuguese and Spaniards to describe Moors from Africa.) Last night while in a taxi, however, I noticed that the driver referred to Guy (a Haitian medical student we met at the hospital) as Moreno whenever he spoke to him. In the same way you would say Señora or Madame for women.
I talked to Nicole and asked her thoughts about it. She said that she did not see it as a bad thing to be referred to as la morena. I do not either, but I do acknowledge that there is something to be said about the fact that there is no term used for “light skinned person.” And that is probably because it as more of the norm here to be lighter. But why is morena(o) used as if it is describing an other?
Victor helped me understand more about his perspective when he said, “My parents are both white, but I came out this color. Do you know why?” I was shocked by the statement and the question that followed, but I surely wanted to know. He said, “Because my grandfather looked like you. I am the only one who came out with these features.” He did not seem to have an issue with it. He told me that his grandfather was Haitian and he still remembered the language.
While I was shocked to hear him refer to his parents as white I understood, because I know that many Hispanic/Latino people (regardless of identifying features) identify as white when given the five options for race on the U.S. Census – White/Caucasian, Black/Negro/African American, Asian, Native Mexican & Pacific Islander. To me, his parents look like people with European influenced features who are very light complexioned.
While in the DR, in the hospital and while out and about, I have had people walk up to me and begin speaking both Spanish and Haitian Creole. Once they realize that I am not native then they ask if I am Africana. Then I watch them process when I say I am from Los Estados Unidos and they say, “Oh… African Americana.” One Dominican guy said, “Right, but where are you from? What is your ethnicity?” I knew he expected me to respond with some African country or people group. Wouldn’t it be great if that lineage was never lost, stolen, or replaced?
All in all, my experience has been similar to what I experience at home. People are people, and people are different. And each person’s unique experiences helps shape their perception of the people in the world around them. To my surprise, I have been told that I muy bonita here more than I ever am at home in the same amount of time. I found I was noticed in a different way when I traveled to South Africa as well. Somehow, while the differences are acknowledged, color in the U.S. carries its own special historical context and baggage.
I have been approached by several men and learned to say: “He estado casado con mi esposo por 23 años. No nos compartimos con los demás. Él es el mejor para mi.” Gene laughs and says, “I nicknamed you and have been calling you Beautiful for over 23 years… I know what I have…” I think I might need him to upgrade and start calling me La Morena… I like it!❤️