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  • Writer's pictureLeslie Vargas

My Septum

I do not claim to speak for my ancestors. They speak through me.

Afro-Indigeneity is not monolithic. There is no right or wrong way to be. Growing up, those around me had strong opinions surrounding my identity. I never felt I had a right to it. I never felt it was mine. I struggle with labels.

Phenotypically, I present as Black in America. I have Black parents who were born in the Dominican Republic. Even that statement is constantly up for debate depending on the room I am in:

“Well, your parents look more mixed,” strangers would say. This phrase in particular is a tool used to strip away parts of my identity. My parents are not mixed the way Americans perceive mixed-race people. We are part white not through choice, not through love, but through slavery.

“You guys aren’t really Black,” I’ve been told. However, we are mostly Congolese. Less than 25% European, part Spaniard, part Portuguese, we are 75% Black. All black. BLACK.

“Stop claiming a culture that isn't yours.”

Accepting your Afro-Indigeneity is also difficult when your family comes from a very anti-black country. Historically, the Dominican Republic has had leaders that have implemented anti-black policies. I had to truly understand that my family's views on race were learned through a system of oppression. At times I feel many Americans lack that global understanding of race. I was never outwardly told I was Black. I was always told I was part European as if that was some sort of accomplishment. When I would ask my mom “What are we?” she would always have a different answer. Sometimes it was Black. The difference is I grew up in this small pocket of acceptance within my immediate family. It was not at all full acceptance but it was a place where we could ask questions. The reality is my parents were just as confused about their identity as I was.

What does it mean to be intergenerationally mixed race? When I say I am mixed in America, people assume I am half and half — one quarter this or one quarter that. When really, I am talking about an African man having a child with a Taína indigenous woman. Then that child having a baby with a white man. Then that child marries a black man. And on and on for six hundred years.

I would learn things in class about the indigenous peoples of America. In school they always tried to split us up as if the Americas were not one big piece of land. As if Mayan, Aztec, Taíno, Native Hawaiian, Inuit, Navahoe, Samoans, Filipino, and Cherokee, do not share a common ancestor. We are all from different regions of the American continent but all equally indigenous. My parents talk about Taínos in the past tense. American history books talk about us in the past tense. We are gone. Erased. Wiped out. Eradicated. I had the impression that I could never be a part of something that died long ago. I always felt out of place, one step behind. I would absorb the world's opinions. They would become my opinions.

Erasure is the practice of eradicating a group's culture and system of beliefs. During Spanish imperial rule in the Dominican Republic, anything that was not Catholic was labeled witchcraft, our spiritual practices included. People practiced and spoke Arawak, the Taíno language, in secret. For hundreds of years, we kept the names of our warriors alive. Hidden. Silenced, but never truly erased. To speak our words was a death sentence. We could not pray or sing our songs. We had been assimilated.

My parents are from the town of Bonao, which is the name of a chief that ruled in that area. I adorn my body with their imbued gemstones. I adore my people. I love my culture. Black Caribbean culture. The beat of our music is African drums, our eyes hooded like Taíno spiritual leaders. I am the embodiment of power. I speak for the living and the dead. When I die, I will be an ancestor that watches over the world.

I got my septum pierced as a way of breaking out of the oppressive cycle of erasure that consumes the people I love. Why are piercings demonized in America? Especially nose piercings. They remind us of the oppressed people that celebrate them. Indigenous people. African people. Indian people. Piercings, to white America, equate to gang violence, crime, and drugs. I see white girls with their septum piercings and they are safe. For them, it is a game, a costume they can take off and fit right back into their privileged lives with their experience on the wild side. The black side. The poor side. The real side. It makes them feel secondhand oppression. They get high off of it. It fuels them and makes them feel part of the secret society of indigenous people.

For me, the septum is not a costume. I can never scrub away these Black hands. These small, hooded indigenous eyes. My face is dangerous and rebellious in white eyes. That is why we are encouraged to conform — perm our coils and hide our roundness. My afro is rebellion. My body is rebellious. My septum means full-blown-out war. Too much. Too “other.” Unapproachable. Scary. My piercing breaks the illusion. I am difficult to look at because reality is a bitch to face.

I understand why my family conforms to Eurocentric standards. It's safe. It kept them alive on the street. Girls like me, rebels like me, get murdered. They would rather taint our souls than have us buried in the ground, the sacred ground on which we stand. I have always understood that their fear is valid and born through violence and poverty. I refuse to follow them, to drown in my delusions. Breaking generational curses is extremely painful. It would be easy for me to give up. Fall back and follow their worn-out path of safe travel. It would not be me, it would not be my truth. My septum connects me to my ancestors both West African and Indigenous. They both, although they had no connection until colonization, believed it connected them to the spiritual world.

I feel them. I know they feel me, too.

Edited by: Ava Emilione

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