Saraciea J. Fennell remembers how normal it seemed for her, her siblings and cousins, to use bleaching cream on their elbows and knees every day growing up. As dark-skinned Latinos, that’s what they had been taught to do.
“Once I got older, I realized it was an anti-Black practice because I was not being allowed to love the skin that I’m in,” said Fennell, a Black Honduran writer based in New York City and editor of a new collection of essays and poems titled, “Wild Tongues Can’t Be Tamed.”
The anthology, published Tuesday, explores topics that Latinos don’t normally talk about — anti-Blackness, colorism, the intersection of Latinidad and Blackness, and numerous stereotypes, myths, and taboos in Latin American cultures.
The Latino community is complex and multifaceted, so Fennell was surprised that seven of the 15 pieces in the collection explored colorism and anti-Blackness.
“I thought that I would probably be one of the only (book) contributors who experienced this, but when the essays started to come in, the experiences that they (authors) shared validated everything that I went through,” she said. “It’s our reality.”
Fennell spoke with CNN recently about the book, her journey navigating her identity, and the stories she feels still need to be told. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Who is this book for?
This book is for teens and adults, folks in the Latinx diaspora who are desperately wanting to be seen. It is also for those outside of our community to provide (them) a window into our lives, into our culture, a reminder to let them know we are so much more than stereotypes and myths.
What are anti-Blackness and colorism doing to the Latinx community?
Anti-Blackness and colorism are something that has divided the Latinx communities for so long. Though we are having more and more open conversations about these pain points in our community, there are those who still tend to put Whiteness in the spotlight. We’ve seen media, beauty brands, and book publishing do this, claiming that a character or person is Afro Latinx, but then only highlighting those on the lightest spectrum of the color wheel. It’s time these things change, there’s room for darker skin and coily hair and we deserve to be in the spotlight too.
Last year, people around the country saw many Black Latinos joining the Black Lives Matters protests. This summer, the producers of “In The Heights” were called out for not casting dark-skinned Afro Latinos in the movie’s leading roles. It seems that Latinos are talking about race more openly than before. What do you think?
Over the last decade, people have just been so vocal. In the early 2010s, Afro Latino was very big and empowered lots of Black Latinx people to identify that way and to be seen. It was huge for the media to start using that terminology but then it started becoming “othering” because when you see the actual representation, whether it’s the images or the people on certain lists, they all look a certain way. You’re telling me that in order for me to identify as Afro Latinx, I need to look like this person: softer curl texture if they’re wearing their natural hair and lighter skin.
Older generations of Latinos don’t seem to be open to talking about topics that are remotely controversial or sensitive, which some even consider as family secrets. How do you think younger generations should address this?
I have an 11-year-old son and lots of topics about race and gender come up a lot. He’s at that age where he’s on the playground at school and people are asking where are you from, what are your family traditions. I think it’s extremely important to talk to young people and to have honest conversations. I think adults, the elders in our community, grew up in a way where it was deemed disrespectful to talk about certain things. I can’t even fault them for not wanting to because it’s how they were raised. But now, with the next generation, we have an opportunity to raise them differently, to raise them to have these thoughtful, honest conversations.
That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy, it is 1,000% going to be challenging. I want people to know it’s going to be hard and not everyone is going to be receptive to the feedback. Sometimes you have to come to terms with the fact that a person who was an elder in your family is never going to change and you still want to have a relationship with them. If that’s the case, then let me set barriers to protect myself because protecting yourself is also equally important.
Identity is undeniably at the core of this anthology and some of the authors don’t sugarcoat the fact that they might have at times felt they weren’t Latinx enough. Why do you think that feeling is shared by many in the Latinx community?
“I think that not feeling Latinx enough has to do with what society and Western ideals deem acceptable when it comes to Latinx experiences. Because we don’t tend to see stories publicly shared by those from the diaspora, it makes it seem as though we don’t exist. As if our particular Latinx lived experience isn’t normal if we don’t fit into the box that society has created for us. That’s why this collection is so important. “Wild Tongues Can’t Be Tamed” shows the diversity of our community and I’m so happy readers will finally see their experiences reflected because there really are so many things offered in this collection.
Lastly, what do you want readers to know about the issues that “Wild Tongues Can’t be Tamed” addresses?
Wild Tongues touches on so many pain points in our community — colorism, anti-Blackness, homophobia, mental health — I want readers to use this book as a gateway to speak their truth among family and friends, as it is hard to have these conversations with our loved ones.
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