Late last month, the news came out that the Nuestras Raices Little Miss Hispanic Delaware beauty pageant was dethroning its latest winner, Jakiyah McCoy, after she was unable to provide documentation of her “Hispanic heritage.” McCoy is black, and it appears that she was the only contestant required to prove her ethnicity, suggesting that Latin@s cannot look black.
Since then, the pageant has released a letter trying to clear up the mess. They claim that her skin color had nothing to do with the incident, and that from now on, all contestants will be required to prove their heritage. In fact, “the current Little Miss Hispanic, Meriana Ayala, has blonde hair and very fair skin. She is also required to provide documentation to confirm her Hispanic lineage.”
But, Nuestras Raices is still missing the point: ethnicity and Latinidad are not something so simple and static that they can be contained within one person’s appearance or birth certificate.
That a little black girl or a blonde and blue-eyed girl should have to prove her Latinidad (my feelings about “Latin@” over ”Hispanic” won’t fit within this post) shows that the organization still operates under the belief that to look Latin@, you can only be caramel colored, with perhaps a hint of indigeneity in your features. But we know that this is not the case (hello Afro-Latin@ populations all throughout Latin American–you too Mexico–and descendants of European immigrants in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, etc.). And Nuestras Raices should too.
But this was not Nuestras Raices’ biggest mistake. As an organization dedicated to “breaking popular stereotypes” and “uniting all [...] that work in favor of the Latin community in order to unify and maximize positive results” they are not very sensitive to the realities of their community. Suggesting that a Latin@ is not a “real” Latin@ because they do not have documents to prove it is pretty f*cking ironic don’t you think? We’ve got 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country being denied proof that they are “real” Americans and now Jakiyah can’t even be Latina without documents.
What the pageant also failed to acknowledge is the history of racial relations in the Dominican Republic, where Jakiyah’s grandmother was born. Many black Dominicans have roots or connections to Haiti, and the relationship between the two sides of this one island have been strained at best, violent at worst. In 1937, under the Trujillo dictatorship, Dominican forces massacred 20,000 ethnic Haitians in what is now known as the Parsley Massacre. Even after that, many Haitians continue to cross the border to live in the more developed Dominican Republic and escape devastating poverty in their country. Many come without documents and end up in Dominican bateyes, or sugar plantations, working in near slavery conditions and isolated from society. Because their parents never had documents, those working in the bateyes today do not have citizenship and therefore have no right – much less access – to basic services like school or healthcare. This means that there are people whose families have been in the Dominican Republic for generations and still are not citizens.
Oh, and it gets worse. Earlier this month, the Dominican Constitutional Court passed a ruling that “annulled the citizenship of anyone born in the country to noncitizens after 1929.” So basically, if your parents were immigrants, you are not a citizen, in spite of being born in the Dominican Republic. And needless to say, you are not a citizen of Haiti either. The Dominican Republic just rendered approximately 200,000 people stateless (not including those already living in the bateyes), and most of them were black, of Haitian descent.
What if Jakiyah’s grandmother had been Haitian? Would the pageant have disqualified her automatically for what could be a difference of a few miles?
The Dominican Republic is not the only place with people who were born in the country living without documents–”undocumented citizens” if you will. While I was living in Brazil, the government was launching a big campaign to get people to regulate their documents and that of their children. Many Brazilians living in isolated rural areas simply had not done so, having been born at home or in a rural clinic without the travel time, money or interest to start the long, bureaucratic process. I’m sure that similar barriers exist in other Latin American countries.
This is all compounded by the hierarchy of documentation here in the U.S., where poor people of color are often barred from accessing this metaphorical “ticket” to services, rights and opportunities.
After all this, it might seem understandable that Jakiyah’s family did not have documents to prove her grandmother’s Dominican citizenship. I do not see beauty pageants as an effective way to “improve the self esteem and vision of Latinos in our community,” and most definitely not pageants that discriminate just like any other hegemonic institution.
Juliana Britto Schwartz probably dresses up like Frida Kahlo a little too often.