Story of the Week: Rubirosa

In 2019, actor and storyteller Christopher Rivas wrote an essay for the New York Times that went viral. It was called I Broke Up With Her Because She’s White.

I’d never broken up with anyone because they were white, but I knew what he was talking about. Like me, Rivas grew up in New York City. His parents are Dominican and Columbian but he’d never spent any time in the Dominican Republic, he didn’t speak Spanish, and he’d grown up thinking that, as he puts it in the first episode of his podcast Brown Enough, “white was right.”

Only as an adult, as the idea of being woke gained traction and issues of race and identity were being more openly discussed, did he begin to question his ideas. This questioning led to the Times essay, which led to his book Brown Enough (published by Row House, one of my favorite publishers) and then his podcast, also called Brown Enough, which launched in 2022.

This week, I’m listening to the podcast’s ten-episode series, Rubirosa, about Porfirio Rubirosa, the Dominican playboy and diplomat who may have been the real life inspiration for James Bond. As a child, Christopher Rivas had loved James Bond and aspired to be an assassin so when, as an adult, he found out about Bond’s real-life Dominican counterpart, he became obsessed.

The result of his obsession is an extravagant story full of movie stars, heiresses, private planes, and lots of nightclubs. But it’s also a dark history of colonialism, anti-blackness, and tyranny. Rubirosa wasn’t only a dashing jetsetter with a legendarily huge cock, he was also a black man who powdered his skin to look white and a global delegate for one of the 20th century’s most murderous dictators.

I often reflect that people whose ancestry is a mix of white and non-white, colonizer and colonized, enslaver and enslaved, inherently contradict the binaries of race. In a racialized society, these contradictions are hard for anyone to hold so, historically, it’s always been easier for the mixed folks who can choose a side to do so. And when those sides represent a divide between poverty and social mobility, powerlessness and power, that choice is not hard to make — even if it means colluding in the oppression of your own people.

Christopher Rivas is an artist driven to understand himself and our world through storytelling, and he knows the impact made by the stories we tell as well as the stories we hear. The stories he tells about his own life, interwoven with those about Rubirosa, weave a complex tapestry of identities forged by slavery, colonialism, revolution, dictatorship, and immigration.

These are the kinds of stories I want to hear: stories which embrace the complications of Latinx/e identity and which critically unpack the illusions of the American Dream.

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