Spanish play covers racial issues in childhood

The Spanish Action League hopes to shed light on social issues at the Community Folk Art Center.

Director Jose Miguel Hernandez Hurtado is holding two dolls in front of him: a four-foot long Black Raggedy Anne-type doll and a White doll, undisturbed in her original packaging. In the fluorescent-lit multipurpose room of LA LIGA’s, the Spanish Action League of Onondaga County, office, each child in the Latino Youth Troupe gives his or her reasons for liking the doll in Spanish.

"I would have to tell them that color is not the defining part of their life."
- De Vergara

Some like the White doll because she is smaller. Some like the Black doll because she looks more like them. One little girl, Black American Haile Pamaoja, does not add to the discussion of the tan children who sit in front of her. She does not know Spanish and has no lines in the play. Yet, she portrays the come-to-life role of the Black doll, Cuban writer Jose Marti imagined in his short story La Muneca Negra, or “The Black Doll.”

Hernandez Hurtado’s adaptation of Marti’s short story about a girl who stays loyal to her beloved Black doll, in spite of being presented with a new White doll on her eighth birthday, will be performed in Spanish at the Community Folk Art Center October 10-12 in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month.

The issue of color in the Latino community has been a topic of discussion, even before the start of Hispanic Heritage Month, which started on Sept. 15 and will conclude on Oct. 15. The Washington Post published a piece in September by Syracuse University professor Spencer Piston in which he states that lighter-skinned Latinos are more likely to support the Republican Party. Cesar Vargas, founder of the United People for Latinos in Film TV and Theater (UPLFTT), has published pieces for the Huffington Post and UPLFTT’s website in which he states that the experience of the Afro-Latino is very different from White Latinos.

In his critique on colorism in the Latino community, he cites that Latinos who identified as White are more likely to earn $5,000 more per year than those who identify as Black. Additionally, Latinos who identify themselves as Black or Afro-Latino are more likely to live in poorer neighborhoods, according to research by Mills College professor Dr. Margaret Hunter.

Latino children in Syracuse have already noticed the difference in their skin color, according to former Syracuse City School District social worker Martha Tamayo De Vergara. 

Tamayo De Vergara said she has seen the divide that skin color can play in grade-school Latinos she has served in the west side. 

“You can still hear a child say, ‘I am not moreno (brown); I am Puerto Rican,” she said.

She stated skin color would remain an issue among Latino children who try to define their race and separate themselves.

“A kid would say to me in the school, ‘You know, the dark ones.’ I would say they are the same color as you. I would have to tell them that color is not the defining part of their life,” De Vergara said.

Luz Encarnacion, youth coordinator and community liaison for La Casita, has observed how colorism has extended to other aspects of appearance and beauty in her music and dance classes held at the center.

Many of the girls in her Bomba class are from Loiza, a predominantly Black city in Puerto Rico. “They are so self-conscious of how ugly they feel because they don’t have straight hair or because they have wavy hair,” she said.  However, she has noticed that “her girls” have become more confident as a result of her class and from a Black American girl in the class teaching the other girls to appreciate their natural hair.

Hernandez Hurtado wants the children in his theater group to take away more lessons that have less to do about skin color from the play they’ll perform. 

“I cannot shame what Jose Marti wrote. I believe that he had this kind of moment when he wrote the story that yes; they discriminated against the doll because she’s Black. There’s no question about it,” he said. “But that is not my vision for this play. […] It’s not only about racism; it’s about value and the value of the family. It’s about quality, loyalty, and integrity.”

Although Hernandez Hurtado wants his young actors to appreciate family values, he might have a difficult time escaping the issue of color and race that is an essential undertone of Marti’s short story.

Dr. Silvio Torres-Saillant, an English professor at SU who has written extensively on identity and ethnicity in Latin America, said that Marti’s work is always aware of race and color.

“He will never not be aware of race. Marti is one of the most enlightened thinkers on the question of inclusion,” Torres-Saillant said. “He was the one person who said, ‘We are not just one color here.’”

Dr. Torres-Saillant stated that the issue of color in the Latino community is rooted in a history of European colonial ideals of superiority in society.

“Most Latin American countries did not decolonize in terms of social change. That’s why Marti is important,” he said. “Marti wanted to assert the equal eligibility of everyone in respect of color or origin.”

Marti’s message has not been lost upon Jossette Burgos, senior administrator for the Community Folk Art Center.

In an e-mail, she said, “As we celebrate Latino Heritage month and have collaborated with the Spanish Action League to showcase Latino plays, our involvement is solely to continue to promote diversity and inclusion within the community through the arts.  Productions such as these, La Muneca Negra, will teach children about diversity and inclusion.”

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