Suerte Negrito

It becomes hard to look up when all that is around you is a sea of anti-Blackness.  Racist incidents just become a part of your daily life, something that you expect to happen and are more surprised when it doesn’t.  Whether it’s malicious, disgusted stares, your coworkers grabbing your hair and telling you how interesting it is, your host cousin telling you that Black people deserve to get paid less, or a plethora of other examples, the sting of racism becomes something that you have to endure every day.  Sure-you might learn the context, the history, why things are the way that they are yet none of that helps to change how you feel. The racism makes you crazy. It starts to make you question whether they are right, whether you really are less than, because it is all that you are surrounded by.

The experience is suffocating and exhausting. You don’t know how to address it or even where to start, so instead it just sits with you every waking moment, keeping you up at night wishing that you could just stop the horrible treatment that you receive everywhere you go. There is a profound loneliness that comes from knowing that everyone around you is almost certainly racist towards you, as you pass down the street knowing that so many of those people hate you because of the color of your skin. You’re never in a state of calm or relaxation–just actively facing racism or letting it eat away at you silently. 

Photo of two bags of charcoal with branding of a black and red monkey or blackface and the brand name Negrito

Sold on nearly every street corner in Tiquipaya, this kind of charcoal depicts a highly offensive stylization of blackface as a form of branding. Photo taken by the author in Tiquipaya, Bolivia.

Of course, this is yet to account for the most painful encounter of all. The ever-present pinch. Here in Bolivia, it is a tradition for kids to come up to a Black person, pinch them, and say “suerte negrito.”  Literally meaning  “Lucky Black Person,” the story goes that they are essentially harvesting luck from a Black person. To that child, we are no more than objects that can grant them good luck like rubbing a lamp with the hope that a genie will pop out. It’s absolutely gutting having to go through your days shaking in fear walking by each passing child, wondering if they will pinch you or if you are going to luck out that day. It’s a type of pain that can’t be expressed in written words; it reaches the deepest part of your soul and sits there feeling like a fresh stab wound and slowly expanding burn at the same time. 

Despite all of this, I don’t regret participating in this program. I look back at myself while I was about to embark on this journey. I knew that I wanted to grow as a person–I suppose through facing the challenges of having to live in a new place and communicate in a different language, not being able to see my family, and navigating life on my own for the first time. Facing this immense amount of racism, however, has made me grow in a way none of these other challenges have come close to.

When I first started at my worksite my coworkers would almost daily touch my hair, make comments about it, make fun of me for my hair being different, and fill many of our conversations asking questions about my hair that I had no desire to answer. I figured that it would die off after two weeks, but then I was at the two-month mark and my hair was still a consistent source of tension.  The Andre who started this program would have just sat passively and continued to endure these actions that made me uncomfortable. Maybe to convenience others, not create a conflict, or just from a lack of sufficient self-confidence.  But after being here, I think I finally realized that sometimes others need to be inconvenienced and face the reality that what they are doing is not okay.  After coming back from Christmas break, I talked with my boss and for the first time vocalized that I wasn’t okay with the way people in my office were talking about my hair. During my entire program, this has been the most liberating moment, where I took some power back for myself that I had ceded to the hands of society.

The unfortunate truth of my time here in Bolivia is that it has been largely tainted by a profoundly racist society. That is something that I cannot change; but after that moment I realized that there are also many parts of my life where I have the agency to take back my power and demand respect. I don’t want to say that after that it became easy to deal with the racism that I was facing because in reality it didn’t.  There have still been so many times when I was left speechless, incapable of even knowing where to begin to respond to things people have said to me. Still, I feel like I’ve gained a scrap of my humanity back, that I don’t have to accept the way I’m being treated as the way that things are.

The reality of the world is that most of it is hostile to Black people in one way or another. I am immensely grateful, however, that this experience has helped me begin to find my strength to combat that anti-Blackness both internally and externally.  I think it’s truly a shame that I couldn’t have gotten the experience of living in a culture that would widely accept and welcome me, but I still have hope that in the remaining part of this program, I’ll continue to grow and find my voice.

Andre Penn