“We got a little bit of black in us!” is what the Puerto Ricans that I grew up around in the South Bronx used to joke. The idea that blackness was something beyond skin color never made much sense back then. But the older I got, the more I realized how prevalent those African roots were in my own Dominican heritage. “It’s a brown thing, baby,” an aunt once told me. “And black is beautiful.”
Being Latino is complex enough. With all the cultures, religions, traditions, geographical compositions and mosaic of hues encompassed, it can be hard for Latinos to define themselves, and damn near impossible for someone on the outside to fully absorb the multiplicity of Latino culture. Now add Afro or black into the mix, and the questions about cultural makeup and identity are endless. But the reality is that these two identities are far from mutually exclusive, and have been speaking to each other for eons.
VIBE VIVA solicited a number of responses to the question: “What does it mean to be both black and Latino?” The narratives we collected were each told from the perspective of a woman; they share what it really means for them to grow up black and Latino. Because as Christy Martinez points out, it can be incredibly complicated, and especially conflicting if it meant “denying our blackness after generations of exposure to political and societal anti-blackness.”
Christy Martinez, 23, Bronx, New York
Being raised in a typical Dominican household meant many things. It meant listening to lots of merengue and bachata (especially as you cleaned the house). It meant being raised Catholic despite the fact that everyone contradicted all its doctrines. It meant having pride in our deep roots of revolution. But it also often meant denying our blackness after generations of exposure to political and societal anti-blackness.
I was taught since childhood to only acknowledge conventional beauty. To flaunt my light eyes and fair skin. To only be attracted to someone who would “advance my blood line,” and to ultimately hate who I really was; a Latina of AFRICAN descent.
Once I started learning about my African roots, it felt as though I discovered a couple chapters of my life’s story that had been hidden. Interestingly, a lot of what I discovered showed me just how much Latinos have in common with Africans and the multitude of ways our cultures crossover into one another. So much of our foods, music, dance, dialect and lifestyle have been influenced by Africa. It’s a shame there’s not more acknowledgement of it, because our similarities hold the key to our unity.
Being an Afro-Latina means not having to apologize for my blackness anymore. I’ve found pride in the not-so-convenient features I was told to hide, like my kinky curly hair, round lips, thick hips and wide nose. It means using my powerful voice to talk about the plight of Afro-Latinos in the world through the lens of a woman, because we are a silent majority who matter too. Ultimately, this new-found identity is an opportunity to continue to find myself and inspire others to stop accepting the labels of society and do the same. Being an Afro-Latina has changed me life, I will never be the same… and I’m thankful for that.
Diomara Delvalle, 26, Brooklyn, New York
Growing up as a black Latina was actually very confusing for me. When people would ask “what are you?” and I would reply “Panamanian.” The answer would almost always be: “Wait, so you’re Latina? I thought you were black?” This was always a very exhausting question to answer and explain.
My family knows they are black people (people of African descent), so this was never something we had to discuss. Because I went to school in Panama for a short period of time, I saw all the various races and colors Latinx people can come in. Having interactions with lighter Latinx people and non-Latinx people as a child left me questioning myself.
Was I black? Was I Latina?
It was not until I researched the history of Panama did I have a firm understanding of my background. It was not until I Googled the definitions of race and ethnicity did I realize you can FULLY be both.
Afro-Latinx was not a term I used growing up. However, I’m glad it was created because there is growing visibility of Latinx people of African Descent. This term also sparks conversation that either enlightens people or exposes them for their ignorance and/or anti-blackness. Needless to say, being Afro-Latina is amazing. So much culture.
Shyane Dejesus, 27, Astoria, Queens
My Afro Latina-ism is different from yours or any one else’s. Yeah, some may argue that we are one, but in retrospect, we’re not. I personally don’t identify with Colombian culture [for example] just as much as I don’t identify with white culture. And that’s because I’m the product of a mother who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, who later came to Brooklyn and met my daddy, who was born and raised in Brownsville—Brooklyn to be exact.
It wasn’t until recently that I found out my dad’s dad is actually from Trinidad. Let me also point out I don’t relate to Trinidadian culture either. So you might ask: “Well who the hell do you relate to?” My answer is ME.
My Afro Latina consists of permed hair (trying to go natural), black cousins, growing up laughing obliviously to racist jokes, playing double dutch, being the only nine-year-old that could braid hair, do my own hair, and yep, I was that chunky girl who ate too much beef patties with coco bread.
It wasn’t until my late 20s that I learnedAfro-Latina was even a term. I just always said that I was black and Puerto Rican, and let me tell y’all I said it with pride. I was never ashamed to be from either side. It’s when I became older that I chose to identify with being ONLY black (due to ignorance). I don’t speak Spanish, my mom only speaks Spanish to her mom, and to be honest, a majority of my friends are black because I grew up in predominantly black neighborhoods. I speak “black slang,” I have “black” hair, my brothers are black, my boyfriend is black and let’s not forget my daddy is black. I also grew up with a family who was and still is unapologetically black.
It’s actually quite simple: I’m a black girl who identifies with Puerto Rican culture, and yeah I’m obsessed with arroz con pollo just as much as I’m obsessed with macaroni and collard greens.
Kayla Zapata Fory, 24, Accra, Ghana
On my identity as an Afro-Colombiana: Being black and Latina is not mutually exclusive, I am proud to identify as both. Learning to accept mi afro-latinidad has been a winding journey, exploring the mosaic of my cultural identity. I look in the mirror and am reminded that the roots of mi pelo afro extend to Africa, just as my favorite sancocho. I am humbled by the resilience of my people and derive strength from ancestors that have come before me.
Jasmyn Santiago, 25, Jacksonville, Florida
Identity crisis! For as long as I can remember, my race and ethnicity has always been questioned. I am pretty certain many Afro-Latinas have struggled to figure out where they “fit in.” Too light skinned to be black and hair too kinky to really be “Hispanic.”
Growing up, I never knew “what I was.” Many times I would be asked was one of my parent’s white because I “have” to be mixed with something. Being asked “So do you speak Puerto Rican” and feeling shamed when you let them know you don’t speak Spanish. Sitting through standardized tests or job applications trying to figure out which box to check: “black, non-Hispanic” or “Hispanic” (with no option to be black and Latina).
Truth is, Hispanic is my ethnicity, Black is my race, and American is my nationality. I am a black Hispanic-American. When will [people] ever get that right? An ex-employer has even asked me “So, you’re black today,” as if I could choose when to switch off any portions of who I am at any given time.
Having to explain yourself to everyone posing the question, “What are you,” is exhausting. Who am I? It was not until I became an adult that this became clear. I am the best of both worlds. My heritage runs deep. My Hispanic roots and my African roots intermingle. My ancestors can all be traced back to the same place…. Mother Africa. I love being Latina. The Hispanic culture is rich in all we do. My PR flag is raised high. We are proud and not quiet about it.
And I love being black—descendant of the most resilient people. Spreading my #blackgirlmagic everywhere I go and I don’t care who it bothers. Ultimately, I had to learn that being Afro-Latina was truly something unique and beautiful. It gave me the outlet to educate others about my culture. It definitely has its challenges, but I love it. When I became comfortable with who I am, I realized I don’t have to choose sides… I just am! I’m both and so proud of it! To choose one side over the other is deny parts of what makes me who I am. I am all-inclusive! I do not have to validate my blackness or my Hispanic roots to anyone. If me being Afro-Latina confuses you, I’m sorry—not sorry.
Damary Caraballo, 32, Bronx, New York
I didn’t embrace my full Afro Latina-ness until my late ’20s. As I reflect now, I think it was because my light skinned, green eyed abuela treated her brown skinned grandkids differently as opposed to the ones who had a more fair skin tone. [I also encountered] black women who disliked me for dating “their men.”
Growing up, I felt like Latinas and African American girls were always divided—even after Big Pun and Fat Joe had us screaming “Boricua, morena.” But I’ve always yelled out both with full pride!
My abuela’s apparent disdain for the darker side of the family and blatant favoritism for the lighter probably did the most damage to my self esteem growing up. She made me feel like black was ugly, being black was a joke, from calling my cousin from the “lighter side” whose father was African a “monkey” to reminding us “no dañe la raza” [don’t ruin our race] because we came out like her, attracted to the chocolate skin and she felt like 5 kids later she had made a mistake by marrying my grandfather.
As an adult, I understand that her failed relationship with my grandfather, who was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico—he looked like he was straight from the motherland—was what drove my abuela’s hate. It was that hate that fueled my pride. I realized what got to her, what got under her skin, and I flaunted my blackness even more. It was on my grandmother’s death bed when she asked me and my [black] boyfriend when we planned on having babies. I knew that was her way of apologizing and I accepted it.
What did being black and Latina mean to me back then? Not being black enough and “wanting to be down” in the eyes of black women. It meant feeling like a disgrace in the eyes of a light skinned Latina. What does it mean to me now? Strength, Goddess, Magic, the best of both worlds. Power that no one can take away, not through shame nor ignorance.