like fine silk w/ sandra manzanares

 

// sandra manzanares is an Afro-Latina writer and director born in Boston, Massachusetts, to immigrants from Honduras. She is often asked, “Where are you from?” and "What are you?", which She has spent a great portion of her life explaining. 

her short film, Like Fine Silk, has completed its festival circuit and will be available online soon. we sat down with sandra to discuss her film as well as her feelings about being afro-latina in the u.s. our full discussion will be released via podcast. what follows is an exploration of some themes we touched upon in our conversation with sandra. //


Sandra.

Sandra.

in her own words, Like Fine Silk “centers on the point of view of a young afro-latina as she’s confronted with culture clashes in the intimate setting of a black beauty supply store. it illuminates experiences that are not widely familiar to the mainstream population and gives voice to often unspoken, uncomfortable misunderstandings in order to promote empathy and dialogue.”

depending on your level of exposure to latin american culture, you may not be aware that “latina” and “afro-latina” aren’t mutually exclusive terms.  for those more familiar with latin culture, it is generally understood that a latina can be black, brown, white or any shade in-between; rendering a racialized hyphenate unnecessary.  “latinX” is an ethnic, linguistic and cultural designation which crosses racial boundaries. one does not need to be of a specific race to be considered latinX.

however, there are many who believe that latinas do carry distinct physical traits, such as only having light skin and long flowing black hair.  for them, someone like penêlope cruz might be the stereotypical latina woman, whereas darker-skinned women like celia cruz or amara la negra might not be considered “latina enough”.  basically, many people generally do not know that many latin americans are of african descent. sandra explains:

“i’ve definitely been places where...people don’t expect that someone who has afro features would be speaking spanish as a native speaker...it’s always sort of like you’re an anomaly.  even though anyone who knows the history of latin america, knows that the majority of enslaved people went to latin america. and so, it makes sense that latin america would have this really diverse body of people and because the media doesn’t represent it that way...people sort of don’t ever make that assumption.”

if one’s complex latin identity is to line up with one’s lived experience (especially in the u.s.), then for some, ‘afro’ becomes a necessary addendum– especially if one’s experience includes the discrimination and systemic violence that comes with being black in the united states.  sandra shares a moment of dissonance with a fellow latina to help explain:

There was a reporter from Latin America interviewing me about my film. I thought, ‘I can tell you’re not Black’, because she had all these questions…’so what is it with...Black hair?’.  I feel like that was where the divide is because it’s like we could both be like ‘yes, proud Latinas’ but then she’s like ‘so...what’s the big deal with hair?’
 
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even though sandra and this woman are both ‘latinas’, there was a feeling of exclusion, or a gap in lived experience, specifically in regards to the topic of ‘hair’.  sandra and this woman could not entirely relate with one another despite both being latinas because the woman did not share the deeply painful history and experience that comes with having afro-textured hair in a western/colonized society that values straighter, flatter hairstyles.

on the flip-side, sandra adds: “i can talk to some black americans who have had generations of families based in the united states, but then the minute I’m like ‘oh yeah this is the immigration process that my parents went through to come here’, it’s hard for them to relate to that…”

similarly, there is a large disconnect between sandra’s afro-latina immigrant background and that of african americans who have established histories and a distinct culture in various regions of the united states: “as many times as you can be like ‘this is my experience’, someone is always going to be like, ‘yes - we’re both proud and something’ - but it’s going to be to a limitation because they’re not going to have the full context of where you’re coming at it from.”

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in short, for those with dark brown skin and afro-textured hair, the term “latina” is insufficient to describe the lived experience of also being black in a country where people of african descent have been disenfranchised for decades.  at the same time, simply calling oneself “black” and nothing more would negate an entire culture, language and sense of belonging in a country that is becoming more nationalist by the day.  in sum, “afro-latina” can be a semantic attempt to unify both racial and ethnic experiences into one unique perspective - via a hyphen, no less.

w.e.b. du bois once coined the term ‘double consciousness’ to describe a dichotomous experience that comes with being both black and american:

“it is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. one ever feels his two-ness,—an american, a negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” *


expanding on du bois’ concept - miriam jiménez román and juan flores coined a similar term to describe the experience of being afro-latino (ethnically latino, racially black and nationally american).  they called it a ‘triple consciousness’: three accommodating ways of being in a society which constantly encourages the competition between all three. this “triple consciousness” is a state of mind which sandra boldly illustrates in Like Fine Silk.  in addition to being latina and black, eva (the protagonist) has to contend with what it means to be an american as well.   


Eva navigating her way through a Black beauty supply store, from  Like Fine Silk.

Eva navigating her way through a Black beauty supply store, from Like Fine Silk.

A KOREAN, AN AFRICAN AMERICAN AND AN AFRO-LATINA WALK INTO A BEAUTY SUPPLY STORE...

Like Fine Silk takes place in a Black beauty supply store, a location begging for a truly diverse, multicultural cast – a perfect breeding ground for inter-cultural tension.  Sandra not only expands on how Afro-LatinX and other underrepresented, ethnic community narratives interact in the U.S., but how they do so without the presence of an overarching White narrative:

“The location came about because I was like “okay where does this stuff happen where there’s not necessarily White people present?  One of the first places I could think about was a beauty supply store because...generally speaking if you go to any sort of Black neighborhood and you go to a beauty supply store, the chances of seeing someone who is not Black or Brown in there are very slim. It was important to see how white supremacy and discrimination effect the way the characters see each other, even without that presence in the physical space.” 

How do two Afro-Latinas, one Korean man, one Korean woman and two African-American women negotiate culture, race, power, identity, generational gaps and in the process generate new and layered meanings of discrimination and “otherness” in an everyday situation?

“It was like okay, these people are there for a common purpose of this hair transaction, but then when you go deeper...the backdrop is also about Blackness and Black hair, and it’s about the diaspora that then connects the two characters into this greater body of what it means to be Black in America.  But also looking at the challenges and the politics within the industry...historically stores are owned by majority Korean-Americans, for example. There’s a reason why those communities have chosen industries that have been very successful for their families to thrive as immigrants in America. But then there’s [the issue of] representation because the patrons sometimes feel like they are not fully understood or that the money they’re giving to this industry isn’t always coming back to support their communities.  So it’s kind of this constant tension...between those communities. And then you have someone that’s new to both these narratives that has been going on for years. It’s also why there’s a lot of fragmentation between a lot of Afro-Latinos in America and the Black community in America. You’re basically taking someone who has very little historical context of what American race is like and the history and then they’re being assumed as Black American…”

 
...it seems to be an unfair burden that Eva is the only one in the room inhabiting multiple perspectives at once, while everyone else remains firmly planted in their own.
 

THE CHARACTERS - EVA AND HER MOTHER

Eva and her mother from  Like Fine Silk , played by Tiffany and Shirley Campbell .

Eva and her mother from Like Fine Silk, played by Tiffany and Shirley Campbell.

The two main characters in the film are Eva and her mother.  They are played by Tiffany and Shirley Campbell, an Afro-Latina mother-daughter acting duo, each with dark skin and loc’d hair.  According to Sandra, since the stereotype for Afro-Latinas is to have lighter skin and longer, free flowing hair, she made a conscious decision to challenge common perceptions of Afro-Latinas even further by casting these two women.  

“When we did get the cast that we got, it helped to play off the fact that both of them have locked hair naturally and it sort of changed the nature of even just how we see Afro-Latinas.  Because I think a lot of times the perception is that they don’t look like that specifically...but I think it was even more political...to take something that people might attribute to African Americans, or people from the continent of Africa...and say this is how it can look.”

The decision to cast two Spanish speaking actresses with prominent African heritage was a deeply intentional and political one, which Sandra hoped would visually disorient the viewer’s pre-established categories.

I think it makes... an extreme visual choice, that can be very confusing to people and I think it’s great because...I walk down the street and I assume anybody can be anything.  Because that’s...my upbringing...to understand that. But people would tell others, ‘oh I know exactly who you are’, just to have the person be like ‘no i’m not’, and then people would respond like, ‘Whhhaaatttt?!  Blew my mind!’.
Scene from  Like Fine Silk.

Scene from Like Fine Silk.

During the climax of the film, an intense encounter occurs between the Korean shop owner and Eva’s mother.  Eva’s mother is unable to speak English, which frustrates the Korean shopkeeper who is also an immigrant himself– not to mention the other store patrons waiting in line who are confused about who to blame for the holdup.  In order to clear up the growing miscommunication, Eva finds herself juggling various identities all at once: as a Latina (translating for her mother), a Black woman (interpreting how others perceive their physical traits), and an American (keeping the peace between the various cultures and histories swirling around her).  At one point, it seems to be an unfair burden that Eva is the only one in the room inhabiting multiple perspectives at once, while everyone else remains firmly planted in their own. And while the film is entirely fictional, one can see how Sandra drew her inspiration from personal experience:

“Maybe that was me translating a feeling of how I feel in terms of having to be a lot of things at the same time; having to keep a lot of perspectives in mind at the same time.  I think it’s made me more empathetic...to when I see people being misunderstood. But at the same time it can be frustrating to feel as though you’re constantly having to adapt when other people can kind of stay cemented in one perspective....So I think struggling with that has always been a thing for me in general, in terms of what do I call myself when people ask me what I am and how do I identify?”

Those of us with complex, non-singular identities are familiar with this struggle of having to inhabit multiple spaces at once, see from multiple perspectives and be empathetic to all.  Often it means holding our tongue, being patient (and strategic), to allow others to play out their all-too-familiar pre-scripted biases, before we come in to simultaneously complexify and clarify the situation at hand. By no means is this easy, nor are we perfect at it, but we have a lot of experience navigating these muddy waters.

There’s probably some sort of psychological process that happens...to people that always have to be explaining their identity as if it doesn’t already exist...it’s almost like you’re having to re-validate yourself constantly.
— sandra
Scene from  Like Fine Silk.

Scene from Like Fine Silk.

It’s existentially exhausting. And one’s empathy is often tested, for how much interpersonal identity colonization can one take before one’s had enough? Eventually, we learn to seek the simplest practices in order to avoid the unwanted attention.  From smoothing out one’s curly hair, to using a credit card instead of cash and coins, Sandra captures the existential exhaustion this creates in Eva from the opening shot:  Eva and her mother are sitting in the car about to enter the store; there is a pause, as if Eva knows what is about to go down and she wants to avoid it with all of her being.

“There’s an element of shame...She (Eva) doesn’t really want to be the focal point of attention which is the actual thing that she gets.  So at first it’s like ‘God couldn’t you just like bring your credit card...we’ll get in an out and no one will notice’ right? And really it’s like a symbol of...the thing that she doesn’t want people to notice is that they have this complex identity and that she doesn’t want to have to...explain herself, but that’s the thing that she ends up having to do.”


MOVING FORWARD

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Sandra doesn’t seek to be didactic as an artist.  Nor does she want the viewer to be left with a heavy pessimism, as if what they just saw was nothing but a mirror to the dark side of humanity.  There are definitely moments that make you laugh and this lightheartedness is what Sandra holds onto throughout the film.

Like Fine Silk ends on a suspended note.  The two women of a younger generation have both seen and experienced the culture clash between their family members, something they both have probably seen many times over.  There is an apology and an acknowledgement of the apology. An exchange all too brief, which leaves you wondering about the capacity for humans of disparate backgrounds to move beyond the mere acknowledgement of others. There remains the frustration that nothing has truly changed, that transformative discourse remains elusive.  

Sandra leaves us with a sense that many of us do not understand what “multiculturalism” really means, even in a place like New York City, where one can still manage to find pockets of coexisting, diverse cultural groups.  She does not offer us a definition, but instead reminds us that merely coexisting is not enough:

“What I’ve noticed here is that there’s an element of being able to walk by people and not know their stories...people walk by each other all the time and there’s a way to ignore it, and that has to do with race and class and all kinds of other things.  And I feel like unless people really push themselves to bridge out, you could live in New York City and be like, ‘yeah, I love it - it’s so diverse!’ but your world is actually not. And so just because...you’re taking the C to Bed-Stuy does not mean that you understand what it means to be x-number of things.  People think that just seeing it in passing is enough to give them a sense of empathy for another human being’s experience, but really the average person is just living in their same routine - so if they go spin after work and then they go home and they have cocktails at a nice gentrifying bar, that’s their reality and they don’t have to actually empathize with anyone else.”

Experiencing each other from afar and then retreating to our own cultural enclaves to share our experiences, whether in person or on social media, does not foster the exchange of ideas and thought necessary to transform and elevate how we relate to one another.  Whatever sense of ‘multiculturalism’ most of us assume exists is merely one that conflates the appearance of diversity for the wholesale acceptance of differences. It’s diversity– without bodies.

As Sandra alludes to, empathy plays an important part in moving beyond mere coexistence.  Too often, and unfortunately, what we feel as ‘empathy’ towards others is merely the fears we see for ourselves; this is empathy for the idea of one’s self as the other, but not that person him or herself. Actual empathy requires courage. It is a force that moves you towards another, not one that keeps you in self-isolation; not towards an idea, but someone real, material, and embodied. Like Eva, not many of us want to be the center of attention (and especially when it’s not profitable).  Maybe some of us want to avoid the shame that comes with having to qualify and explain ourselves constantly. But perhaps being thrust into a momentary spotlight where one has to stand up (or knee down) to shed light on the complexity of a situation is a bare minimum requirement for actual change to begin to take shape. It is this nebulous moment of tension-filled potential energy that Like Fine Silk captures so deftly.  

Trailer - Like Fine Silk