by April Westmark
Identity is something that everyone strives to discover during their life, and can be influenced and formed by many factors. The theme of identity is very complicated, as individual people have different journeys to find their own; some can confidently say who they are from the beginning, while others cannot, even after searching for a long period of time. The theme of identity, and more importantly the factors that can shape it, is shown in the novel The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat and the story “Black and Latino” by Robert Santiago. Identity is explored in both texts as forms of family identity, cultural identity as a whole, and how these aspects shape the individual identities of the characters. Family, cultural, and individual identity are all present in both texts and are used to show how the identity of an individual is not only created through their personal experiences, but can be shaped by the family and cultural identity as well. The Dew Breaker explores how individual identities can be influenced heavily by their cultural and family identities, as well as the overall connection that these groups create for individuals. “Black and Latino,” in comparison, shows that an individual’s identity can be influenced in a negative way by their culture and family, as it can lead to them feeling lost if they don’t fit the stereotypes associated with their culture and family identities.
The themes family, culture, and individual identity are both separate forms of identity and are also intertwined. Family identity is how the identity of a person is often shaped by not only their family’s collective character, but also those of individual members of the family. Cultural identity is the form of identity that not only can shape the identity of an individual, but can also be the overall collective identity felt by members of the same cultural group, because they have often experienced many similar circumstances. This can also lead to some members of a culture feeling separated from the collective cultural identity if they have had a different experience or are lacking an experience in comparison to the majority of the cultural group.
In The Dew Breaker, Danticat uses her character’s individual experiences in relation to the violent dictatorship that disrupted the Haitian population to explore how the identities of Haitians individually have been lost and are in the process of recreation. Danticat also uses the structure of her novel to demonstrate the overall connection between the characters to show how Haitians are bonded together through these experiences, and that they have still been able to retain a collective identity despite the individual struggles they have experienced. “Black and Latino” explores a topic that many Puerto Ricans experience in America, and one that is not a main focus in The Dew Breaker, of how appearance can impact one’s identity and more importantly impact the way that people try and influence a person’s identity through their appearance. Although this is something that many Puerto Ricans have discussed, Santiago focuses on the individual, and his search for identity in relation to everyone around him and how they identify him, so that he can establish his own identity.
Family identity is a form of identity present in The Dew Breaker throughout, as many family connections are mentioned, but the most central family connection that Danticat uses to show how family can shape identity is Ka’s family. Ka is a young woman who grew up thinking that her father was a victim in the political and social issues that caused havoc across Haiti under the Duvalier dictators. In the first chapter of The Dew Breaker, Ka learns from her father that he was one of the torturers of the regime rather than a victim. This leads Ka to take a step back from her previously known notions, and view her father, and her thoughts on her family, as if she does not know who he is and how this impacts her perceptions of her own life. Ka’s father, the Dew Breaker, also is a very strong example of the importance for an individual to form their identity based on their family’s identity. The Dew Breaker desperately wants to move away from his past through creating this new identity not just of a barber, but as a pleasant old family man and great father.
The Dew Breaker cannot move away from his past self, even though he does not see himself as that person anymore, without acceptance and acknowledgement by Ka. In the conversation between Ka and her father, there is an important moment as the Dew Breaker is still tied to his true past identity, his false identity, and what he wants to be perceived as: a good person and a great father. This is shown in the conversation between Ka and her father when he tells her the truth about his identity from the past. While trying to tell Ka the truth about everything, the Dew Breaker distances himself from his past saying “I would never do these things now” and “Your father was the hunter” (Danticat 21). Her father says these things while simultaneously asserting that he is still, no matter what his past contains, her father in the present. Interestingly however, the Dew Breaker says these things confidently and with firm assertion, not because he fully believes them himself, but more because he is trying to convince Ka and himself that this news shouldn’t change her perception of him as a caring father. The conversation even begins with the Dew Breaker asking for Ka to “let” her father talk to her showing that in this case the Dew Breaker is not in full control of his own identity (Danticat 13). This new identity is dependent however on Ka’s acceptance or rejection of this new identity that is a blend of his real and false past that depicts the important role of family in individual identity.
“Black and Latino” explores family culture in a couple of ways, as it describes a seemingly ethnically blended family, despite having the same nationality. Santiago writes that he is “a blend of my mother’s rich, dark skin tone and my father’s white complexion” (93). This is the largest source of struggle for Santiago, but is also his strongest influence on his identity in relation to his family. Both of his parents are Puerto Rican, but with one being darker than the other, Santiago formed a complicated view of his identity from this, as did society around him who perceived him as one race or the other. His identity was often impacted because of his parent’s interracial marriage, as to Puerto Ricans it was not nearly as uncommon or discriminated against in comparison to the non-Puerto Rican whites and blacks. His Aunt Aurelia even tells him, “Nobody even considers these marriages interracial” (Santiago 94). Aunt Aurelia is also a strong example of how family members can help discover and develop a sense of family identity for a person that later helps them form their individual identity, with Santiago going as far to say she became his “source for answers” about racial, family and identity matters (Santiago 95). She goes on to say that he doesn’t think of his parents as being of different races because he wasn’t raised with the notion that blacks and whites couldn’t get married, showing him that he has known his family identity this entire time, but needed it to be pointed out to him (Santiago 94).
The Dew Breaker explores cultural identity as a collective Haitian identity by combining the different experiences of the citizens who lived through the traumatic events into the characters in the book as representations of all Haitians.. This is different from “Black and Latino” due to Danticat exploring the way in which the characters, who represent a group of people in Haiti in reality, is able to re-establish cultural roots and Haitian collective identity after the breakdown in Haitian society resulting from their troubled past. Dany experiences this the hardest, as when he comes back from America, he is treated like an outsider by his own village even being given the glass “reserved for strangers” (Danticat 88). This is something he finds very difficult to get through, and make better, because he didn’t realize he needed to reconnect with his village until after they treated him as an outsider, he assumed himself to still be part of them and like a large family (Danticat 88). This struggle was something many Haitians experienced if their roots were broken from the conflict and they moved away from their home. Danticat’s writing leaves Dany in a place that he has not become part of the culture again, but is not fully an outsider either, but he does know that he wants to become a full part of his community again.
In “Black and Latino” cultural identity is explored differently than in The Dew Breaker. Santiago uses cultural identity to show what it is like when a person is not a member of one cultural group due to their different appearance. Santiago writes that skin color is a factor that caused an internal divide due to his mixed appearance, and being able to be part of either Blacks or Latinos. By having two cultural groups to identify with, but not being able to identify with either one, it leads to a large amount of internal conflict and a more complicated search for a set identity. This struggle is mostly created from outside people, who tell Santiago who he is, “You’re not black” the lighter skinned Puerto Ricans told him, even though he clearly knew his appearance and never could or tried to deny his black heritage (Santiago 93). Santiago writes that he knows now that his “life has been shaped by his black and Hispanic heritages” not one, or the other, so he was always confused why he was being told he needed to choose one over the other based on other people’s assessment of him and not even his own (93).
One of the largest connections between Danticat and Santiago’s approaches to exploring identity is that acceptance is the key to an individual identity. Both authors show that with acceptance of themselves by other people, either family or members of their culture, leads to acceptance of one’s own identity. Without this outside acceptance however, both authors also show that individuals establish their own identity in full and be satisfied with it. People are often searching for not only their own identity, but their acceptance of their identity by others around them, either those in the culture they belong to, their family, or individuals important to their lives. Without this acceptance by at least one important individual the person cannot fully accept their own identity. This is shown in the search for identity in the Dew Breaker and in Black and Latino, where the Dew Breaker is looking for acceptance by his daughter so that he can forget his past and identify instead as a good father, Dany seeking acceptance by his former village and people, who despite his heritage treat him as a stranger. This search for acceptance is shown in Black and Latino, when Santiago is told by society is his one thing or the other, or not one thing, making him unable to identify with one group which leads to his individual identity not being able to develop since identities are shaped by one’s surroundings. He is finally able to confidently say who he is only once his Aunt tells him it does not matter what other people say, because he is the same identity as his family, and is “Black and Latino”, not Black or Latino.
In The Dew Breaker the search for identity is more focused on finding one’s identity through the family and cultural identity. The collective identity and experiences by Haitians allow for the individual to have a safety net to fall back on. Being part of the culture allows for one person to find their identity after being uprooted and lost. Danticat allows this by not only connecting her characters and their paths crossing, but because all of them have been impacted in some way by the past of Haiti. In comparison, “Black and Latino” show that the collective identity, and being assigned an identity through stereotypes leads to the individual being lost because of the perception of what their cultural and family identity should be. This leads Santiago’s character to become more confident in finding his own individual identity than being able to identifiable because of his cultural and familial identity. One big difference between the approach to identity in The Dew Breaker and “Black and Latino” is that the Dew Breaker and other characters are creating new identities, and the Dew Breaker himself is intent on losing his past. In comparison, in “Black and Latino” Santiago’s character is trying to determine himself for the first time, and not be only identified by the perceptions of the people surrounding him. This shows not only the different ways in which the authors interpret and represent individual identity, but the different ways in which people explore their way to establish their identity.
Danticat, Edwidge. The Dew Breaker. New York: First Vintage Contemporaries Edition, 2005. Print.
Santiago, Roberto. “Black and Latino.” Boricuas. Ed. Roberto Santiago. New York: One World, 1995. 93-95. Print.