“You’re Latina? I thought you were Black!”
Race: each of the major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics.
Ethnicity: the fact or state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition.
The first time I ever saw an Afro-Latina on television was way back in 2001. I was sitting in my grandmother’s living room watching the premiere of Celia Cruz’s La Negra Tiene Tumbao music video (the edited version, of course). Celia would pop up on screen with her colorful outfits and energetic gestures. And a dark skinned, modelesque woman (who I now know as Guatemalan model, Deborah David) walked down the street, turning heads and loving life. I don’t know why it resonated with me so much, but I think it was because Celia Cruz reminded me a lot of my own grandmother.
Granted, when I was seven, I didn’t know that I was Latina. Despite being surrounded by Latino culture my entire life, I didn’t see it that way. I merely viewed my grandmother’s cooking as just food, her salsa and bachata as just music, her accent as just an accent. I knew that I was black…and that was as far as my own awareness of identity went. I didn’t know that I was Latina until middle school, and this new found information made forming my own identity even more difficult than it was before.
As stated in my previous post, The Oreo Experience, I had trouble fitting in with other black students because they considered me to be “too white” to hang out with them. When I learned that I was Latina, I wanted to find other Latinas to hang out with and get to know. But I realized then and there that there was a large division between those who weren’t Afro-Latino and those who were. Even though I considered myself a kind person, I always felt that the other Latinas that I knew didn’t really want to get to know me. In retrospect, I understand it (to an extent). When we enter a new environment, we tend to cling to people we are most familiar with. Colombian and Mexican students hung out with other Colombian and Mexican students, West Indian students latched onto other West Indian Students…it’s natural.
But I felt stuck.
I couldn’t fit in with black kids or Latino kids. So I just decided to float around until I latched onto something substantial.
I realize, as an adult, that I don’t have an obligation to fit into any specific box. But that doesn’t mean I don’t feel that sting of confusion sometimes. Because I don’t speak Spanish, nor do I have a strong connection to my Latin American family, I feel like it’s a farce. I feel like I’m not actually Latina, because I don’t identify with that culture as much as I could. Even though there are various things in my life that are still important parts of Latino culture, I still feel distant. At the same time, I feel that I can’t only identify with Black American culture because there are some aspects of it that I’ve never truly experienced. My family mixes Latino and Black American culture together, which isn’t all that strange because Black American culture and Latin American culture have so many similarities due to their shared roots. But they’re still viewed as completely different entities independent of one another.
Whenever I have to take a survey or fill out a profile, and I can only pick one option for Race/Ethnicity, it’s frustrating. While I do identify as a Black woman, I feel like choosing African American/Black American means distancing myself from my ethnic background. If I choose Hispanic/Latino, I feel like I’m distancing myself from my race–I’m also not Hispanic, so that’d also be untrue. And if I choose Mixed/Other, that also feels like a farce because I’m mono-racial.
So many people don’t realize that Latinas can be black. If you’ve ever seen a telenovela filmed in Mexico or Colombia, all Latinas look like Sophia Vegara and Jennifer Lopez. They all have long, straightened hair and light skin, with straight noses and/or light eyes.
I shouldn’t feel like an illegitimate Latina just because I don’t fit the stereotypical or accepted ideal for Latin American identity.
I am proud of my family and where we come from, and I’m glad that I get to experience the best of both Black and Latino culture. But shouldn’t have to prove that I’m Latina, simply because my skin is dark brown and I don’t speak Spanish. Nor should I ever have to feel like I have to choose between my race and ethnicity. Things would just be easier if people understood that race and ethnicity are not synonymous, and that Latinos can be White AS WELL AS Black.
So if I wanna check off two boxes the next time I take a survey, I’ll do just that.