Afro-Latinx Identities in Orange is the New Black: Dayanara Diaz and Dascha Polanco
Updated: Jun 25, 2019
By Ruth Kramer
Orange is the New Black premiered on Netflix in 2013. After six seasons and numerous plot twists, the show will stream its last season sometime in the summer of 2019. Centered on the lives of inmates in a women’s prison known as Litchfield, the series follows each woman, giving their backstory while also indulging in their current life drama. Orange is the New Black has one of the most diverse casts for a drama television show, but in the show itself, this diversity is contained. The inmates are divided up by race and ethnicity, with all of the black inmates staying together in what is called “the ghetto,” all of the white inmates staying together in “the suburbs,” and all of the Latina women staying together in “Spanish Harlem.” These self-separated groups call themselves “tribes” and mainly only associate with other people within their racial group. This creates clear tensions, especially when there is a large influx of new inmates, many of which identify as Dominican. The prison acts as a microcosm for the outside world. Just because a lot of the inmates are women of color does not mean they are instantly united against the oppressive, male-dominated, white prison system. For example, in the show, African Americans hold just as many biases and negative opinions about Latinxs as Latinxs hold about African Americans. Anti-blackness along the Latina inmates is often times so overwhelming that is leads to large groups of Afro-Latinas denying their blackness.Oftentimes, society assumes that all people of one race or “color” share the same interests and goals, especially in the case of Latinx persons, despite the fact that prejudices held in different Latinx communities can be very poignant. Mexicans might not share the same goals as Dominicans, Puerto Ricans might not share the same interests as Cubans. To assume their complete and unquestioning unity is to erase aspects of their Latinidad and national specificities (Láo-Montes 2010). Throughout this post I will discuss Dascha Polanco, an Afro-Latina actress in Orange is the New Black; the character she portrays, Dayanara Diaz, and how her portrayal of this Puerto Rican woman interacts with her actual identity; while also discussing how her character functions in a racist microcosm of the real world: prison.
Out of the “tribe” of Latina women emerges Dayanara Diaz, who is new to Litchfield in season one. She’s soft-spoken and seemingly shy; it seems as if she’s out of place, that she doesn’t have the coldness or the bitterness to be in prison. One of the prison guards, Officer John Bennett, takes an immediate liking to Dayanara and the two begin a sexual relationship. Dayanara eventually becomes pregnant and trouble begins to haunt the two lovebirds. The trouble never ends, and eventually Bennett decides he can’t be a part of her life, and leaves his job, his home, and, ultimately, Dayanara. Dayanara is devastated. She eventually gives birth and her child is almost immediately put into Child Protective Services. A new group of Latina inmates come in, and they quickly begin to overthrow the “order” the inmates have created, luring Dayanara into their group as they are younger, bolder, and willing to give her more of a voice than the other, older Latina inmates. Eventually, this group hits a breaking point when a prison riot occurs after the death of another inmate. Dayanara becomes one of the leaders of the riot, and eventually gets tired of its responsibilities and complexities, leading her to distance herself from the riot. Dayanara eventually turns herself in for her part, and is sent to the maximum-security prison, in which she becomes addicted to drugs which she receives from Domiga “Daddy” Duarte, a woman who Dayanara starts sleeping with (for more on Dayanara, see the Orange is the New Black Wiki). Dayanara’s character is complex and evolving, due to the various amounts of trauma she deals with both outside and inside the prison. She’s complicated and soft-spoken, yet ever-evolving to the tough prison world in which she now lives. In the upcoming and final season, I and many viewers hope to see her return to her more compassionate nature, as that’s who she truly seems to be.
While Dayanara is an incredible character, the actress who portrays her, Dascha Polanco is just as interesting. An Afro-Latina woman originally from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and raised in the United States, Polanco’s interest in acting began at a young age. She is an incredible advocate for what she calls “self-lovery” and is proudly Afro-Latina, never shying away from questions about her racial identity. In an interview with “The Breakfast Club,” Polanco states that she considers herself Afro-Latina, and that more Dominicans should consider themselves black, as she does, because “based on what [Polanco] sees, that’s what [Dominicans] are.” One of the radio hosts then asks why she doesn’t just consider herself Dominican, to which Polanco says that the conversation is what “where you’re from” as well as “race and ethnicity.” The radio host then asks if Polanco’s blackness, and by association, Dominicans’ blackness, is based on “how society perceives you” and Polanco responds that “as far as [the] United States does” she’s black. In the Dominican Republic she’s “Dominican” and “on [her] passport, [she’s] Dominican” (this part of the interview can be found at the 7:25 mark). Polanco’s definitions of what constitutes Afro-Latinx identity shift based on where she is in the world. According to Peter Wade (2010), “the term ‘black’ has no simple referent, even in the Americas: its meaning varies according to context” (pg. 13), and “racial identities are now seen in somewhat the same way as ethnic identities: they are contextual, situational, multivocal” (pg. 18). This validates and provides support for Polanco’s position; her blackness is not static. In the Dominican Republic, more people buy into the idea that “everyone is Dominican,” regardless of skin color and phenotype, whereas in the United States, people are quickly divided up into groups based on their skin color and the stereotypes that accompany that, without any effort put into “hiding” these divisions. However, Polanco also brings up a big issue in the Dominican Republic, an issue also echoed in Orange is the New Black: Dominicans often deny their blackness in an effort to conform to the idea that everyone is Dominican, regardless of skin color. In the Dominican Republic today, 90% of the population is black or mulatto, yet many still deny their blackness (for an overview of blackness in DR, see Silvio Torres-Saillant’s Introduction to Dominican Blackness). Polanco’s declaration of her blackness and her Latinidad is crucial in this context because of this common trend of denying this piece of one’s identity. In the Dominican Republic, the rhetoric around race is difficult to pin down as it mainly surrounds around the idea that everyone is defined by their nation, and there is no reason to notice, let alone act on, racial differences. Polanco rejects this, and does so specifically in a U.S. context, because the two nations deal with and address race differently. Polanco’s decision to outwardly express her identity as an Afro-Latina is her personal choice, just as it is also a personal choice for other Afro-Latinxs throughout Latin America.
However, while Polanco is proudly Afro-Latina, Orange is the New Black is very intent on keeping Polanco’s character ambiguously Latina. It seems like it would be difficult to adequately articulate a particular form of Latinidad in such a limiting space as the prison, however, the writers of Orange is the New Black have worked in pieces of Afro-Latinidad before in the form of religion. One of the Latina women, Gloria, practices Santería, an Afro-Cuban religion which developed during slavery in Cuba. Santería was created in Cuba because indigenous and African peoples were not allowed to practice any religions other than Christianity, so through a combination of Catholicism and the worship of their traditional African divinities, Santería was created. The men and women of Santería that communicate with the divinities are given specific labels in either Spanish or Yoruba, a language native to West Africa. Santería is not an isolated religion, it is not uncommon across Cuba, and persons in different parts of the country practice the religion regularly. Santería, at its core, is African and Latinx. These two links are crucial to its creation and distinguish it from strict Catholicism, or traditional African religions (Bascom 1950). In Orange is the New Black, Santería is brought up repeatedly in the show, meaning that the writers and creators of the show are capable of putting in pieces and aspects of Afro-Latinx identity and culture into the scripts. Polanco’s character sees none of this effort. Polanco, an Afro-Latina from the Dominican Republic, plays a Puerto Rican character, is not portrayed as black in the show, and, as stated earlier, expresses serious biases against Dominicans and their blackness. Dayanara is deliberately left of out of an accessible Afro-Latina identity, along with a broader Dominican identity as well. When the inmates begin arguing over race, Dascha Polanco’s real and personal views on race are hidden behind Dayanara’s identity as a Puerto Rican who holds prejudices against Dominicans. The writers of Orange is the New Black seem very intent on making her “Latina” only in appearance and association, with many characters even saying that Dayanara isn’t even a full Latina because she can’t speak Spanish and is a “coconut,” a negative descriptor of one that has brown skin, but is white on the inside.
Race relations in Orange is the New Black are just as complicated in prison as they are in the outside world. There is bias, prejudice, and outright racism present throughout the show. The first indication of this is when Piper, the main character of the show, who is white, is told to stick with her “tribe” of white people in the prison, and when Dayanara is called “another fucking coconut” for not being able to speak Spanish (Season 1, Episode 1, 31:48-31:53). Piper even laments over the fact that the only people she’s talked to in the prison are white. However, along the Latinas at the prison, the seemingly peaceful and unbiased relationships the women have created are heavily challenged in Season Four. The Latina lens on blackness become very important, as the Dominican inmates begin to butt heads with the other Latina inmates.
The season opens with a large influx of new inmates, many of which are Latinas, and many of which are Dominican. In a conversation between two white inmates, one says that “there’s so many Mexicans now” to which the other retorts “Dominicans. If you’re gonna be racist, you gotta be accurate” (Season 4, Episode 2, 7:31-7:37). This interaction alone is foreshadowing the dialogue around race and ethnicity that will begin among the inmates. The significance of one of the inmates saying that the new Latina inmates are Dominican, not Mexican, can mean many things, including the inmate’s possible bias that Dominicans are black, or have darker skin, which many of the new Latina inmates do. Less than twenty seconds later, the inmate confirms viewers’ suspicions by explaining to her friend that Dominicans “talk a lot and play baseball and are always like ‘I’m super not black’ even though Haiti is the exact same island.” This analysis of Dominicans and the stereotypes surrounding how many Dominicans view race sheds light on the myth of racial inclusivity in Latin America and how many claim racism no longer exists in these places--while anti-blackness and denial of one’s blackness persists throughout these nations. At one point, while watching a soccer game between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, one fair-skinned Latina inmate says “these cocolos all over the ball like it’s a free sandwich” to which another Latina inmate, who also happens to be Dominican, expresses her disgust at the use of the offensive word “cocolo” and says that she believes the other inmate has “cousins darker than they are.” The fair-skinned inmate then says that her cousins “ain’t black-black. They indigenous,” confirming her anti-blackness by covering it in the more socially acceptable safety of indigenousness (17:14-17:24).
Throughout the first three seasons, the Puerto Rican inmates and the Dominican inmates have gotten along and have hardly, if at all, discussed their ethnic differences. However, Dayanara eventually exposes her own views on Dominicans, calling them “fucking plantain-eating Dominican bitches,” with her mother backing her up saying that, because they are Puerto Rican, “they’re supposed to give [Dominicans] shit.” The frustrations of living in an overcrowded prison causes some of the tension, with Dayanara aggressively accusing the Dominican inmates of clogging the drain in the bathroom “with all that kinky hair,” to which her mother calls them the “Dumb-inicans” (31:50-32:12). Race relations between the prison’s Latina community rapidly turn from calm and amicable to aggressive and prejudiced, leading to more intense and violent events occurring across the whole prison.
Dayanara Diaz is a complicated character in Orange is the New Black, as she represents someone that Dascha Polanco works in real life to educate about identity, race, and ethnicity with her very existence. Orange is the New Black is a different world, one of almost complete segregation and little education, leading characters to be more overtly racist and prejudiced against one another, even if they identify as the same race or ethnicity. Dascha Polanco compounds this with her own identity, using her role on Orange is the New Black to campaign for more visibility and representation for Latina, especially Afro-Latina, women in Hollywood. Orange is the New Black has one of, if not the most, diverse casts on Netflix and it is women like Dascha Polanco and characters like Dayanara Diaz that bring the show and Netflix itself the support and praise it deserves, while also campaigning for more roles about women like themselves.
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