Claudia De La Cruz’s two-month-old son nuzzled his face into her neck as she addressed a crowd of about 50 people at the “Black and Brown Alianza (alliance)” event on Thursday afternoon.
Being a black Dominican or Afro-Latina, she said it’s difficult to have her identity “affirmed” within her community.
“To talk about being Afro-descendant in the Latino community is very difficult because there are levels to racism,” said De La Cruz, who lives in the Bronx and traveled to Ferguson during the initial protests.
“It’s something that we learned from being colonized, and it’s something we can learn to deconstruct.”
Organized by the activist groups Hands Up United and Latinos en Axion, the gathering intended to build solidarity between the African-American and Latino communities in the Ferguson movement – both locally and nationally.
The event was held at Cuetopia billards on West Florissant Avenue.
Several people shared their experiences of race – from people who grew up in Mexico to those raised in the impoverished neighborhoods of Ferguson.
They spoke about being taunted as children because of their accents or hair types, which triggered bouts of low self-esteems and unhealthy views of their cultures.
Daniel Ismael Aguilar, from Chicago, said his teachers constantly reprimanded him for speaking Spanish.
“I hated my Spanish accent, and I was embarrassed to be Mexican,” he said.
Then he saw the movie “Scarface” and decided he would get more respect from the streets. He became addicted to drugs and went to jail. That’s where he realized he was a tool of his own oppression, he said. He decided if he could “go through hell” for his heroine high, he could certainly fight deeply ingrained systemic racism, he said.
Grassroots organizer Rosa Clemente from Los Angeles spoke about her experience as a black Puerto Rican. She was born and raised in South Bronx, New York.
“Being Latino is not a cultural identity but rather a political one,” she said, reading from an article she wrote in 2008 called “What is Black?”
“Being Puerto Rican is not a racial identity, but rather a cultural and national one. Being black is my racial identity…My Blackness is one of the greatest powers I have. We live in a society that devalues Blackness all the time.”
Clemente is a hip-hop activist, speaker and freelance journalist, who ran for Green Party vice president in the 2008 U.S. election. In August, she and several other out-of-town supporters – including Talib Kweli and Philip Agnew of the Dream Defenders – were peacefully protesting in Ferguson when they were “chased like animals by the cops.” They stared a rifle in the face.
“All I could think about is my daughter hugging me telling me ‘Be careful, Mommy. The police hurt women too,’” she wrote after the incident.
Also from the Bronx, the hip-hop duo Rebel Diaz presented videos that they produced, which documented the protests after unarmed teenager Michael Brown Jr. was shot by a Ferguson police officer on Aug. 9.
The Chilean brothers Rodrigo Venegas (known as RodStarz) and Gonzalo Venegas (known as G1) captured the cries and anger of several local people who were fighting on West Florissant Avenue in the face of tear gas and rubber bullets.
Rodrigo told the story about when they arrived at the Ferguson protests.
He said an “old G” told two 19-year-old men to act as their “security” in order to protect De La Cruz, who is Rodrigo’s wife. She was pregnant.
“Until three in the morning, they did not leave our side,” Rodrigo said.
“When you talk about organic organizing and structure, they were straight up solider status.”
His story was in response to the question he posed to the group – what’s next for the movement? To him, he believes the heart of the movement came from the people “from the hood” and their responses.
“I think that we could sit here as organizers all day and preach to each other and isms this and that,” he said. “But if we aren’t building with the sector that set it off, which is the whole reason we’re here, then we’re playing ourselves.”
He also said the word “hood” can’t be romanticism – and growing up in Chicago’s North Side, he understands that. People who want to be part of a movement can’t walk around with a “moral movement umbrella,” which he said he doesn’t fit under. And they can’t get nervous if people “speak loud,” like he does.
“We’ve got to figure out how to meet people where they’re at politically,”
he said. “These are some of the conversations that we’ve got to have, that are the non-romantic parts of building social movements.”
Tanisha Joyce, a seventh grade teacher at Gateway Middle School, raised her hand and said, “May I make a suggestion?”
She explained that Hands Up United’s Tory Russell spoke at her class recently. Before he came, she showed the class a video of an interview with him. They told her, “He looks like a criminal.”
“We had a conversation about, ‘Why do you feel that way?’” she said. “I told them you don’t have to dress up in a suit to be smart. They understand.”
His visit was powerful, she said. Teachers can’t do it by themselves, she said, and they need more people to come in and speak to the students.
“Our kids need to see that you don’t have to fit the stereotype to be successful,” she said, “and people need to learn from our kids.”