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'Who Invited Miami?': An LA Transplant On The Rules of Racial Division -- And How We Can Bend Them

Yoán Moreno with his younger sister, Mila, at Miami Beach in 2003. Yoán was born and raised in Miami but moved to Los Angeles four years ago. (Courtesy Yoán Moreno)
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My friends and I have been drinking at a party all night. At some point, over the sound of the music, the conversation turns a familiar corner to the question of how race affects me in Los Angeles.

I warn my friends, who are all native Angelenos, that I'm going to respond in Miamian. What I'm going to say to them will seem outlandish. But my intent isn't to confuse; it's to let them know that my view is informed by the place I was made, and to describe the peculiarity of that place. It's to let them know that there's something else out there -- a different planet, almost, of bendable rules -- where the perception of race works differently.

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As my friends can see, I have a tattoo on my index finger, "305," indicative of the area code for the place where I was born and raised. Someone at the party interrupts -- a need to place me before I even begin -- and I say, "No, I'm not from the Beach." To avoid slicing my city up and pinpointing my neighborhood, I do just the opposite, and tie it all together: "I'm from Miami, the whole thing."

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There's no point in naming the neighborhoods, because across Miami there is a uniting reality: You have to speak Spanish. At work, at school, at home or in the street -- you'll need it. Once, I tell them, a lone tourist, map in hand, asked me if I spoke any English before asking for the directions he needed. He may have mistaken me for the majority of the area's residents, who were born outside the U.S., but I'm one of those who're homegrown. And any of us knows the deal: Though to an outsider we may look like one thing, we are many, and we're prepared to respond either way.

Miami isn't like L.A., where you might need Spanish. People assume Miami and L.A. -- big Brown cities, lined with palm trees and nightclubs -- are the same. But, of course, they aren't. In Miami, our Brown people come from the sea, our trees are shorter and thicker, our clubs more unruly. They aren't the same. In Miami, you have to know Spanish, or you will simply hit dead ends, like that tourist.

Especially when you take a closer look, Miami definitely isn't like L.A. Miami is where I went to school with "Chinese" kids that had Jamaican accents. It's where I had a white-skinned friend who's Argentine and Cuban but was born in Mexico and raised in Miami. Someone at the party interrupts to ask if he's white passing, a question that begs this need to place him, despite what I've just explained: he cannot be placed. He's many things. But I appease the inquirer: in L.A., he would be "passing."

My friend's question is nonsense to someone from Miami, where there's no true "white" for which to pass. In fact, the closest thing are those lost tourists. And there is no way we'd confuse the two.


I know it sounds crazy, but there aren't really any white people to speak of back home.

Take Ms. Ruiz, my 11th grade English teacher. The first day of class, my "white" teacher, who had been in Miami long enough to know she should and could voice her situation, explained that her Spanish wasn't good because she was actually from Trinidad, and had gotten her last name through marriage to a Boricua, or Puerto Rican. There was nothing weird about that. My front neighbor back then was a Boricua married to a Bahamian woman. And the purportedly "white" Ms. Ruiz, the islander, assigned us to read "Native Son" and "One Hundred Years of Solitude." There was no chance Ms. Ruiz was white; maybe her ancestors had been, but that ship sailed a long time ago (all the way to Trinidad).

So, no, my white-skinned friend isn't "white." And he isn't white-passing either. He's Argentine -- like his mom -- but his dad is Cuban, and he was born in Mexico. He grew up in the 305. There's no simple answer over there, and we don't try to force one. You have to understand, I tell my friends, that your question surprises me because my point really has nothing to do with white people -- who can't be the axis, zero point or control group for every conversation about race.

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I'm trying to point out a certain fluidity. In Miami, an Asian face might lead to Jamaica (which is elsewhere synonymous with Black), and a white face might be undocumented (which is elsewhere synonymous with Brown). Miami is a planet where a white woman might say, "It's makin' hot!" to describe the heat.

So you see, the original question about how race affects me is less oppressive than it may seem, because where I come from, the way I'll be perceived isn't a given; neither is the way I'll perceive you. When the more adventurous visitors to my hometown dare to explore our local hangouts, they're baffled by how familiarly we interact with one another across racial and class lines. If it's an overreach to say that nuance is celebrated in Miami, it certainly isn't to say that it's both legible and commonly discussed. The native-born are the most at home with mixture.

A close-up of Yoán Moreno's "305" tattoo on his index finger. "305" is the area code for Miami. Moreno says a friend gave him the tattoo in June 2019, when he was 26. "I wanted something to visually render the city," he said. He said he wasn't sure what he wanted at first, but was adamant that it wouldn't be a palm tree. (Courtesy Yoán Moreno)

And this really -- and rightly -- makes racial stereotyping both difficult and pointless. No, she's not white. No, they aren't Chinese. You can't pretend to know anything about them from a distance. Doing so makes you look uniformed, uneducated, insensitive to the nuances. It means you aren't in the know, and that is cause for shame.

Where else in America do these things happen? I didn't see it in New York City, where I spent three years. And it seems to be hiding from me in L.A., where I've spent four, so far. Miami is so un-American in this respect; it's so Caribbean -- I mean racially, socially, linguistically, culturally mixed -- in that racial stereotypes are as useless as they are unreliable. I don't mean they're theoretically unreliable. I mean they're constantly proven unreliable in the practice of everyday living.

But I don't mean to say Miami is a "post-racial" slice of paradise, either. Even there, American racism rears its ugly head. When I was 19, I was pulled over late at night by the cops on Old Cutler Road, near Goulds. I knew right away the cop wasn't from there -- he was white, and the way he talked was "off." I got the impression he was from central or northern Florida or somewhere else in the South. This is the only white cop that's ever pulled me over. During our 15 minute-encounter, he threatened to beat me in the street until I bled, to teach me the difference between the colors yellow and red, since blood red, means "stop." He laughed about it.

Another time, I had a run-in with a snowbird, white northerners who move down south after retirement, when I was visiting the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. When the old man, who worked at the museum, learned I was born and bred in Miami, which was a rarity according to him, he told me that I should be in one of the display cases at the museum, and laughed about it.

It'd be naive to say there's no racism back home. But I take solace in the fact that when I hear these kinds of things, they rarely come from the mouth of someone born and raised there. It's usually someone who didn't grow up going to school and playing in the streets of such a heterogeneous world, switching dialects, switching languages, switching accents. We were constantly learning different words to describe the same thing, or learning that the same word meant totally different things to us. Communication became about developing an awareness of how your friends spoke -- an awareness of who they were -- so you would make sense to them. Is it any wonder we became open-minded adults?

I try one last time to recount the feeling of mixture and fluidity to my party friends. When I last visited home, I was at Chef Creole, a Haitian restaurant in a Haitian neighborhood, with my dad. It was almost Christmas and about 85 degrees. There was a Black waitress who took our orders in Spanish, though we'd been chatting in English. Miami: two Latino men (of different shades) speaking English are approached by a Black woman who takes their order of Haitian food in Spanish. Yes, absolutely: "Dame el pesca'o, por favor, y una cervecita también. Gracias."

My friends find this extraordinary, but it isn't. Why should she have spoken to us in English any more than she should have Spanish or Kreyòl? If it didn't work out, she simply would've switched languages. Or we would have. And who is to say that the waitress was even Haitian to begin with? Maybe she was from Senegal. Regardless, a Black face in a Haitian context spoke Spanish. What's the problem?

* * *

The problem, their expressions tell me, is that it frustrates the rules of Los Angeles. My friends, spread out now between the table and the couch, are suspicious of such fluidity. Never in L.A., they protest. "That would never happen here."

Can I blame an Angeleno? I mean those born and raised here, forced to speak English in school, continuously disparaged, displaced and erased by people who think the geographical center of Los Angeles is Hollywood, by people who think Downtown is the eastern limit of L.A. This last idea makes my friends laugh almost as much as it angers them. If that's where L.A. ends, then where the hell did I grow up?

Yoán Moreno (left to right) posing with his mom, Lena, dad, Gean, and sister, Mila, for a family photo at Christmastime in 2018. (Courtesy Yoán Moreno)

I don't blame them for being incredulous -- I figured they would be -- because I've listened to their stories before. And I remind them that I'm not trying to downplay any of that.I just want to tell them that there's something else out there. They did ask me, after all.

The thing is that my Angeleno friends are just that -- Angelenos. They were raised by L.A. So they aren't used to habitually managing and adjusting the rules of racial perception. To them, a group of white people in Chinatown is just that -- nothing more, nothing less. It's just what it seems to be, something too comfortably out of its place.

They explain to me, with rehearsed rigidity, the same aerial dissection I've been hearing for years. This is Los Angeles: The Westside is white; South Central is Black and Brown; East L.A. is Mexican; and the Valley is kind of a mix, but it doesn't count anyway. And, as a Miamian, I don't want to believe them, but I have to. They, too, have countless examples of how their city works, and I find myself nodding as I listen.

I do agree that Culver City is, in fact, "hella white," and that, on the other hand, there are no white people for days in Florence and that El Mercadito might as well be México, and that, if I thought about it, I'd have to admit that I never go to the Valley. They go on and on, strengthening their case. The formula they're describing is something like a self-fulfilling prophecy that they didn't author, and don't see the point in trying to rewrite, much less on a daily basis.

So I get their point: L.A. is rigid and segregated. There are rules. What kind of an Angeleno ever goes from Reseda to West Hollywood, then to Inglewood and Huntington Park or Boyle Heights? You go where your people are at, and that's that.

Yoán Moreno with his girlfriend, Sonya, pose for a photo near the "Urban Light" art installation at LACMA in fall 2019. (Courtesy Yoán Moreno)

And when it comes to choices, L.A. is a city of avoiding the other (read: expected discomfort) and seeking out your own kind (read: expected comfort). That's all part of the rules, and they know the drill.

This is why my Brown, Chicana girlfriend, Sonya, doesn't want to be leered at in a Marina Del Rey supermarket, and why she'd rather be in line buying bolillos and conchas on Cuatro y Soto. It's why it upsets her to see white people walking all over Highland Park and the four other neighborhoods she's been displaced from. Funny how it's not part of L.A. until it's the place to be, she says. I've seen the formula play out too.

I have to agree with them: L.A. is a rigid place. And yet -- this is Miami talking -- I think it can be bent, that its rules are flexible. It doesn't have to be like it is.

But to my friends, I'm really being too optimistic.

"Dude, fluidity? You want us to be open? Are they open when they look at us like that? I can't step out of my neighborhood without risking judgement, even though -- for some reason -- they come into my 'hood like it's all good. Like they belong. Like they've been there along. And now you're asking me to go out and hang out, even to talk to them when they come through uninvited?"

The answer is yes, but I hold my tongue, because I know they're up against people who don't even see them -- people who think L.A. is just the Westside until they "discover" something outside that perimeter, where the rest of Los Angeles lives -- like Crenshaw and Slauson, after Nipsey's murder.

Drinking with my native-born friends and my girl -- all of us poor, crammed into a studio apartment tonight -- and having heard them make their case, I can't disagree outright. How should I know, really, what it was like to grow up, to be formed, in such rigidity?

* * *

In fact, four years is enough time to start feeling the effects of that rigidity. For people to begin assuming you live in East L.A. because you're Latino. For people to begin assuming anything at all, out loud and to your face. All part of the drill.

I used to play in rumbas behind Leimert Park. But, if you could imagine a more drastic shift, one day the rumba was called in Venice. We met on the Rose Avenue Pier. Eight or so Brown and Black men, playing wooden instruments and singing. It took less than an hour for a woman to emerge from the camera-wielding tourists to proclaim her love for "Brazilian music."

Yoán Moreno playing drums with his band, Copán, at Floyd Miami nightclub on Aug. 9, 2018. The band, which formed in 2011, regularly performed at bars, clubs and festivals in the Miami area. Today, Copán consists of Moreno and his brother, Jordan, who now live in Los Angeles. (Courtesy Yoán Moreno)

When she said this, all of us were brought back down to Earth from a certain level of musical transcendence, and forced into a collective eye-roll. There go the rules again. Heads shook with smiling amazement at the combination of her pride and inaccuracy. What made her so sure -- her voice was so sure -- we were playing Brazilian music? What's worse: Had she really known anything about these rhythms, and recognized the languages we were singing in, she could have known with certainty that it wasn't Brazilian music.

So what was it that took her there? Was it the Brown people playing drums? Had she seen something similar on a trip to Brazil? Or on TV? Even so, why jump to that conclusion? Why not lead with a question? "Hey, is this Brazilian music?" Or even a hello?

When things like this happen to me -- they started happening back in New York -- I feel myself slipping away from Miami. I feel myself becoming American, in a sense, and I have to fight back. I stop nodding along with my friends.

Haven't y'all noticed the points of fluidity, even among all those concrete beliefs? Even despite this mass of experiences to the contrary? The points of fluidity that the freeways couldn't contain?

Perhaps wrongly emboldened by the alcohol and my alien DNA, I venture to say that L.A. could surprise even you guys, the lifers. These rules -- these interpretations about who goes where and what they are -- are bendable. I know they bend because they're always being bent back home. I know because I bend them all the time.

I mean, yeah, the Westside is white, but have you been to that Black Jamaican (note: these are not the same thing) restaurant on Venice and Robertson? When you go, make sure to look up. There's a picture of André 3000 standing right where you are. Yeah, South Central is definitely Black and Brown, but we just saw that white kid running barefoot up Crenshaw yesterday. And I know East L.A. is Mexican, but aren't some of the people at this party Guatemalan? Isn't your friend over there mixed? And the Valley might be lame, or far, or whatever, but I can take you to an awesome taco tent on Magnolia, and it resembles the ones on Alameda, the ones on Lincoln, the ones on César Chávez, and the ones over on Manchester.

They shake their heads. I'm not getting it. Exceptions to the rule, they tell me. And I don't want to argue with them, but I can't stop now: just because they're exceptions doesn't make them any less real.

Things that violate the racial rules in L.A., like everywhere else, are real. And you shouldn't fall into the trap of minimizing them because they're exceptions or simplifying them to satisfy the rules. You'll never really know the people and places that embody these exceptions if you dismiss them as flukes, or, worse, override them with concepts that destroy their multiplicity, like "white-passing," or even, "coconut," "oreo," and "banana." All of these terms are grounded in whiteness, and try to push people into whiteness.

These exceptions to the rules are worth your time precisely because they're not only real; they are the reality. This isn't the movies. There's no pure specimen that is defined by, and simultaneously defines, a set of unbendable rules. The rules have to be bendable because reality itself is bent.

So how does race affect me? I'll tell you how it doesn't. It doesn't stop me before I begin. It doesn't keep me from going anywhere. It doesn't keep me from saying hello and asking my questions. It doesn't keep me from going down an alley toward a polyrhythmic commotion of drums and people that could lead anywhere. How long will the songs last? Who else is going to show up? Who's going to drive by slowly? I let it play out.

But, immediately and for the last time, I get checked by my party companions. Yeah, they say, but you only go down that alley because you're Cuban. You hear the drums, know the environment, and so it obviously makes sense you'd go there.

There it is. The instinctive, inevitable L.A. sorting process. I'm caught off guard for a second. I thought I'd made some headway. I recognize that maybe I am trippin'. Maybe I am only seeking what's familiar to me, which is exactly what I am inadvertently criticizing in my friends.

But no, I'm not trippin'. Because there was a first time for me, too. A first time when I didn't know anyone. A first time up the alley, when I had to walk up to strangers, and ask if I could join. Luckily for me, I learn quickly. But that's the Miami in me, ready to adjust on the fly.

In the end, as dawn breaks into the apartment -- my brother, who came with me from Miami, has no curtains -- all I can say to my friends is thanks. Because, even though I ultimately disagree with them about how I think race could affect all our lives, I wouldn't have anything to say, or anyone to say it to without them. I wouldn't have the bird's eye view, nor the street-level history of L.A. I wouldn't know the map, the rules, or how, even, to talk about the city in a remotely intelligible way without them. Everyone I've met has revealed to me their perspective on the rules, rules I can't just dismiss because I live here, too. Rules that shout at me, too. But I hope some of what I'm saying rubs off on them.

You have to be willing to go places you haven't and interact, to learn from the exceptions. Or simply to learn the depths of those less exceptional. You have to do this because while we're all waiting an eternity for the people who drew the lines to become less rigid in their design, we might as well loosen ourselves up in our obedience to them. We might as well open ourselves up to our own cities, and enter them here, there, and everywhere -- come what may.


Yoán Moreno was born in Miami. He's a musician and founding member of the band Copán. He's the teacher and translator behind CU4TRO M4NOS, an online Spanish language learning program Before the pandemic, he was also a lecturer in rhetorical arts at Loyola Marymount University, where he earned his M.A. in Literature. He currently resides in Los Angeles.