Traveling While Black: Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Brazil

So in the fourth installment of this race and travel mini series I discuss my experiences in warm Spanish (and Portuguese) speaking cities. I lump them together because my experiences were very similar.
Let’s begin with San Juan and Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. I’ve actually been here twice. Great food (and drink), nice weather, definitely a fun destination. But this is about race so I will narrow down my recap to my experiences there as a brown girl. Now Puerto Rican’s come in all shades so as a brown girl I didn’t stick out. However, like any countries that host the African diaspora, there are issues with color discrimination. My first time going there was during law school for a conference. I was feeling myself so I rented a car to get around. When I drove back to my hotel resort from the car rental place I asked the lady at the gate to direct me where to park. She pointed me to where the employees park. I had to explain to her that I was actually a guest and she looked at me with disbelief. Now again, I won’t say that she made an assumption based on my skin tone (and hair, it was in my natural curl) but it was off putting. San Juan area does not host a lot of brown people (most of what I saw were fair skinned like JLO). But that was the only “off” experience I had there. I mean, I went back a few years later. I can’t throw any shade on PR, it’s a good and welcoming place.
Then I went to Rio de Janiero, Brazil. Now this is a multi-racial town. Brown of all shades. Mixes of everything (black, white, indian). The people are beautiful. Before I went, I made sure I was in shape. Visions of a bunch of Gisele Bundchens stepping over me like Heidi did Carrie in Sex and the City entered my head.

But when I got there I blended right in. Color wise and body type. In fact I saw few Giseles! Perhaps they don’t reside in Rio! I was stopped several times by people with questions because they thought I was a local. At one point while a friend and I were playing in the water some tourist from Columbia asked to take pictures with us because they thought we were locals. (Okay we were in our twenties so that was flattering). And when some guys from the States met us they were disappointed when they heard us talk and found out we were not locals. Oh, and I found many black hair salons so again, you know that’s a mark of acceptance to me!

We came for carnival and I just loved seeing people who looked like me, curls and all in another setting. And the people LOVE them some carnival. The only negative race/color wise was that there was prostitution and a lot of those prostitutes looked like me (brown girls). So there were a few times when I had to signal to the male tourist (usually older white males) that I was not a prostitute (didn’t help that my friend and I booked a hotel in the “red light” type district. It was affordable and on Copacabana, what’d we know?) Based on my understanding of the culture, if anything there is more of a history of color discrimination and class issues (the middle class is hard to find).

Finally, a few years ago I went to the Dominican Republic. I once had some friends who are originally from DR mention that when they went back and stayed at a resort chilling by the pool they were treated/spoken to as if they were really the maids and weren’t suppose to be there. They are darker toned ladies. I can’t recall what part of DR they were in. I went to Cabarete (known for kite surfing) and had no negative experiences with race or color. Many of the people are mid to dark brown and in fact the men often told my friend who is of a light complexion that she needed some sun. I got many declarations of affection while there.  So my description of this town is brief with respect to race. It was just like visiting a Caribbean town.  I felt comfortable. If anything some of the men were too “fresh”, to use my old lady term, so I’d say watch out for that and don’t wander around alone. But this was my first time that not only my race was of interest in a positive way but my color. Check mark for this place.

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6 comments

  1. Enjoyed reading your article. I’m in San Juan, PR now and I can definitely pick up on the subtle assumptions made based on my dark skin.

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  2. I did experience the assumption in DR I’m a datkskin woman which I did receive many compliments on my skin tone,but I also experienced negative attitudes from Dominican women that worked at the resort, I was very pissed of from the vibes we were given when we asked other locals we were told they don’t like dark people because they associate the skin tone with hatians who are having a very hard time in DR . Also multiple Russian people there which also gave us dirty looks if it wasn’t for the beauty and the men treating u like royalty definitely would leave this off my list. Next trip will be AFRICA

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