The Organizing Roots of Rosa Clemente
Organizer, journalist and political commentator Rosa Clemente has spent her life’s work in social justice. Her activism began in college, but since then she has held many roles, including radio show host, vice presidential candidate and, most recently, video web series producer. But one thing has united all of her efforts–a focus on Black liberation.
Clemente’s identity and the labels she uses have evolved over the years. While in the past she described herself as an Afro-Latina, she now embraces her Blackness and identifies as a Black Puerto Rican instead.
“It goes against everything this country wants me to be, which is to run away from Blackness.” Clemente told Luz Collective in a phone interview. “To use [Latino] has no spiritual, geographical or familial link at all.”
The U.S. Census Bureau offers only five race categories: White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. In a separate question, you have the option of defining your ethnicity as Hispanic or Latino. Clemente doesn’t like these options.
As a Black Puerto Rican, she is not a descendent of Spain, therefore voiding Hispanic. Being that Puerto Rico is a United States territory and a Caribbean island she doesn’t see the country as Latin American, voiding Latino.
“It literally begins from the time you’re born,” Clemente says. “Other people are naming you, identifying you and usually those identities and those terms do not embrace who you truly are.”
After the birth of Clemente’s daughter, she saw beyond the offered ethnicity check boxes. Clemente’s husband is African-American, making their daughter “literally a Black Puerto Rican child,” she explains. When she received her daughter’s birth certificate Clemente was not happy to see the Hispanic checkbox marked. Not having the option of Black Puerto Rican she told the nurses, “I’m making it right now.”
Clemente doesn’t stand down from discussing these complicated identities and labels. Race, ethnicity, gender, class and more, she’s open to participating in and leading these conversations. And she doesn’t appreciate when groups are expected or pigeonholed into choosing one or the other. Latinx, a more recent term that has evolved to describe the community, still doesn’t sit right with her.
“The goal was to use [Latinx] for gender non-conforming people, trans or queer folks, not a catch all,” Clemente says. “A lot of people are finding ways to brand to or market to our people. So, Latinx is more a term of ‘how do we encompass these over 65 million people that in this country, especially under the one drop rule most of us, would be considered indigenous or African descent?’”
Furthermore, Clemente feels Latinx is a use of elitist academic language.
“If you go in the hood or the barrio there’s nobody using [these terms],” says Clemente. “Nobody in my family is Latinx. They weren’t Latino or Latina, they weren’t Hispanic. They’re Puerto Rican. Or for my other friends, Dominican, Panamanian, Cuban, Brazilian and all that.”
After graduating from Cornell in 1998, Clemente sought to figure out how her identities fit within the United States’ structure of Blackness. She joined the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, exposing herself to those who understood the politics of self-determination for those of African descent, pan-Africanism and Puerto Rican nationalism. However, one colleague from the movement challenged Clemente’s Blackness by telling her, “yeah you’re Black, but you’re not really, really Black.” This inspired Clemente’s 2001 article,Who is Black?
“How do we see racial identity not just as a phenotype?” Clemente says. “At that time, I was maybe one or two of the only people in all of these spaces who was referring to myself as Black. And now in the last, maybe, two years you see more and more Black-Latinx collectives–which is great–but even with all these identities you also have to have a politic of Blackness.”
To keep up with the agenda of Black liberation, Clemente hosts Disrupt the Chaos, an hour-long video series. This show is created to encourage organizers–specifically BIPOC women, transgender and gender non-conforming people. As a former radio show host, Clemente is working to break through the boundaries she’s seen in the mostly white, heteronormative media. Being a trained historian working on her dissertation in history and politics, Clemente ensures Disrupt the Chaos offers its viewers the time to process current events, while allowing a space to archive speakers’ narratives.
“I usually have one guest,” says Clemente. “We can really go in deep to how they became who they are, the vision they had, and in dealing with stuff in real time like COVID-19 and the nationwide protests happening around police violence and state violence.”
Police and state violence have always been the catalyst for Clemente’s activism. The Rodney King Verdict in 1992 spurred the Los Angeles Riots. During this time, Clemente was the committee chair of the Albany State University Black Alliance (ASUBA). She says the verdict showed how the justice system ensured the four officers involved would not face a sentence, conviction, or incarceration: causing the first major rebellion in her generation.
“We were here in New York, watching L.A. burn and that was a major point for me to then become more involved in ASUBA; which then lead me to…run for President,” Clemente says. “By my junior year and subsequently since then that’s when I would say I became an activist and then began to organize.”
For nearly 30 years, Clemente has been an organizer. In 1995, she started Know Thy Self Productions. In 2008, Clemente became the first Afro Latina to run for Vice President under the Green Party. In 2018 she created PR on the Map. Over the years, she has written for a variety of publications, appeared as a political commentator on mainstream news shows and co-founded other events embracing hip-hop and feminism. And with her boots on the ground all the while, Clemente sees organizing as her form of self-care.
“I think if you’re a true organizer this is who you are, regardless of the conditions,” says Clemente. “You wake up, you’re an organizer. You go to sleep, you’re an organizer. It’s not like a pin or a tweet or a nine to five kind of thing. I’ve dedicated my life to the freedom of Black people and what that means for all us as people of African descent and people of indigenous descent.”