Perfectamente "Imperfect" | Perfectly "Imperfecto"
By Cedric Leiba, Jr.
I remember growing up in Puerto Rico and wishing I had blonde hair, blue eyes and wishing my skin were white. I hated my name. I wanted a more Anglo-friendly name like Michael, Paul, or Robert. I remember a very young Cedric telling my Afro-Latino father that I didn’t want him to be my dad because his black skin embarrassed me. I spent many nights crying that my curly, thick hair wasn’t straight like my cousin’s or that my nose was so much wider than the other kids at school. And to add to all of this self hatred, I was an extremely effeminate boy. My mocha skin and coarse hair combined with my tippy-toed walk and flamboyant hands brought daily bullying to my life and added to the already deep hatred of looking and feeling like God made a huge mistake when creating me.
Where did I learn this unfavorable sense of self? What unequivocally comes to mind was the fact that there was no one that looked like me in school books, on TV, in movies, commercials, and in print ads, both in the English and the Spanish media and consumer outlets. Everything that was told to me growing up, via the images forced upon me, was that beauty came in the form of milky white skin, straight hair, light eyes, small facial features and if you were a man, you HAD to be tall. From an early age, I was obsessed with the arts, Disney, MTV, Nickelodeon, and every once in a while, a telenovela (where the leads always look like Spanish conquistadors). I used those outlets as a way to define for me what it was to be beautiful and what it was to be a “desired man.”
My family did not neglect me from love and attention, but they, like many minorities, were part of a system that was taught that some people had “pelo bueno” (good hair) and “pelo malo” (bad hair), and that it was their duty to shamelessly, and perhaps unconsciously, point it out. And though many families were not outwardly racist, it was understood that the abuelas, abuelos, aunts, and uncles preferred it if you did not date or bring home a "negrito/a" (black man/black woman). This way of thinking was perpetuated every time we turned on the TV, read a magazine, or just looked at our elected officials and/or people in power. Especially in the black Latino culture and experience, many of our governments have tried to erase our history and have made it very clear that we are not desired both in beauty and in taking space.
With all of these different messages being fed to me, my childhood years were extremely rough and painful and I wanted nothing more than for God to end this confusion and self-loathing. The ONLY thing that got me through these challenging times was music. When I sang in my boy soprano alla Whitney and Mariah, it’s like people immediately stopped focusing on my outer appearance and their love for my talent in turn gave them love for my spirit; the lovable, kind, funny and gentle Ceddy who was unapologetically and unconsciously being his true self. Singing and performing truly healed my brokenness, and later in life when my family moved to Deltona, Florida, music would open many doors and lead me into a journey of worship music, choral singing, opera, and musical theater.
The moment I decided to pursue theater arts in high school and chose to share that information with one of my good friends, he didn't hesitate to say, “You are not gonna make it. People that look like you don’t work and aren’t successful.” I mean based on pure optics, he was right, but at that point in my life, I had sung a lot in church and had attended many vocal competitions. I knew that regardless of the fact that someone like me wasn’t represented, the validation I had received from my teachers, my church and my family, as well as this force that pushed me past my insecurities, would tell me to fight to be seen and fight for my dreams. It is this same force and drive that continues to fight to this day.
I am so grateful that my little body has had this Goliath size determination and tenacity. That my faith in my family, my culture and my God has gotten me through those very dark moments, the many “no’s”, and the years of self hate. I am so grateful that I have persevered through those very confusing and discouraging times even when the world did its very best to visually hide the "other", because now, I am a part of an industry that just gave an openly gay man (Billy Porter) and an Afro-Latino (Jharrel Jerome) their very first, historic Emmy. I now live in a world where an All Asian (Crazy Rich Asians) and an all Black cast (Black Panther) graced the silver screen and broke box office records. I am part of a new era where theater programs are not just teaching Hammerstein and Tchaikovsky, but they are obsessed with and fully embracing Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tarell McCraney. I'm in an industry that has given this short, Afro-Latino many wonderful opportunities from representing my story via a Guest Star role in HBO's HIGH MAINTENANCE to sharing my Afro-Boricua culture with the world as a member of both Bombazo Dance Company and the Pregones/Puerto Rican Traveling Theater Company. We are witnessing a moment where doors are being open to people of all shapes, sizes, religions and backgrounds. We can now turn on the TV and see ads with gay and lesbian couples, shows with Transgendered leads, fashion and runway models with vitiligo and Down syndrome, a Tony winner who sings her heart out while magically dancing in her wheelchair, and a little person whose impeccable diction and talent makes us fall in love with the Queen of Dragons. REPRESENTATION MATTERS. IT MATTERS. IT MATTERS. It is a way to empower and strengthen the "other" and make the simple gesture that "your life and your story matter.”
I can now sit with my Afro-Latino nephews and not only tell them how gorgeous they are, but I can easily point out their gorgeous doppelgängers in every form of media. Black is beautiful, all sizes are beautiful, all religions and ethnicities are beautiful. Accents are freaking beautiful! Though we still have so much work to do, we are moving in the right direction to extinguish the idea and notion of the "other."
I am still a work in progress as I continue on my path of self-love. But I have accepted that that’s what it is, a path. A journey to continue growing, evolving and continuing to fall in love with me, myself and I. I’m honored to be connected with Dev and with LIVE & IN COLOR who are constantly promoting and celebrating these absolutely gorgeous and necessary differences. Making a home and a platform for people who look like Cedric. We are all God’s and the universe's exquisite creations and ALL of our stories NEED to be told. I am so grateful and thankful that in 2019, I am here proudly celebrating and promoting my AfroLatino, Puerto Rican culture. I am here to represent my ancestors, my family, and all of those young "Ceddys" out there who WILL see themselves through my art and my storytelling. Thank you all so much for taking a moment to read this. May you continue on your journey of creation and self love!
Cedric was recently the Associate Choreographer for Dallas Theater Center’s AS YOU LIKE IT where he worked with a cast of over 100 community and professional actors. This summer he also filmed GETS GOOD LIGHT where he co-starred with ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK’s Jessica Pimental. Other film credits include MILLIE AND THE LORDS, ELLIOT LOVES and a cameo in the upcoming film BARRIO BOY. His TV credits include a recent Guest Star in Season 3 of HBO’s HIGH MAINTENANCE and a recurring role in Fashion One TV’s THE SWITCH. Cedric has toured the US with RENT, MISS SAIGON and GO DIEGO LIVE and performed at Paris’ Theatre du Chatelet in their production of CARMEN LA CUBANA. Regionally and in NY, Cedric has performed in several plays, musicals and workshops of new works. He has been featured in commercials, voice overs and print advertisements for New York City and New York State’s Health Departments. He is a member of Pregones/PRTT where he was featured in such shows as NEON BABY, THE MARCHERS and EL BOLERO WAS MY DOWNFALL. www.cedricleiba.com