First-gen Afro-Latina Dr. Angel Jones is an educator, activist, and critical race scholar whose research explores the impact of racism on the mental health of Black students with a focus on racial microaggressions, Racial Battle Fatigue, and gendered-racism.
My manita (an endearing way to say hermana), Yaribel Mercedes, always tells me to remember “who I am and whose I am.” ¿Quién soy, y de quién soy? As I write this article, I can say definitively that I know the answer to both questions. I am a proud Boricua, with rich African ancestry, who belongs to a family, both born into and chosen, that holds me down while simultaneously lifting me up. However, the cultural confidence that I walk in today, although my birthright, was not something I was born with. We have both grown, and been tested, immensely over the last 30 years.
My vieja (aka my mom) is Puerto Rican, born on La Isla, and raised in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. My father is African American, born in Brooklyn, and raised in the projects in East New York. So, when I was growing up, and people asked the infamous question — “what are you?”, I always said that I was Puerto Rican and Black. And although I wasn’t technically wrong, because I am both Puerto Rican and Black, my identity is a lot more nuanced and beautifully complex than I realized at the time. I had no idea that the Blackness I claimed hadn’t just been given to me by my African American father, but by my Puerto Rican mother as well. Which seems so odd to me now given the fact that my maternal grandfather is a dark-skinned man. Or maybe not odd at all since so many Latinx/e people will talk about skin color with ease yet freeze when it comes to race. It is common to hear statements about how light or dark someone is, but less common to hear discussions about the racial implications of those differences.
I grew up with the Puerto Rican side of my family and couldn’t have been prouder to be Boricua. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of me watching Sábado Gigante with my abuelita, dancing salsa with my mom at family parties, and eating my titi Julia’s orange pork chops seasoned with just the right amount of Sazón. I loved all of it and I was proud of all of it. But no amount of love nor pride could change the way the world saw me or their desire to define my existence. When in public with my family, I often felt like an outsider because of the way people stared at me. Their faces always looked like they were trying to figure out how this little Black girl fit into the picture. The questioning of my identity, and place within the Latinx/e community, became even more apparent when I got to college.
I went to Syracuse University, a predominantly white institution in New York, with my Ecuadorian best friend I’d known since elementary school. When we went to events on campus hosted by Latinx/e student organizations, it was immediately clear that I was not wanted in those spaces based on the way they welcomed my friend with open arms but barely opened their mouths to say hello to me. I may have grown up in a Latinx/e household, but the Latinx/e “community” on campus was far from my home. The ostracization hurt but it helped me find community, and myself, in the process. I began to meet other Latinx/es that looked like me and it was during that time that I first heard the term “Afro-Latino.” It was as if everything finally clicked for me and I no longer felt like an “other.” There was a healing power in being able to finally name and claim my identity.
I learned over time that, unfortunately, my story was not unique because a lot of Afro-Latinx/es struggle with a sense of belonging. I am currently working on a research study that explores the impact of intragroup racial microaggressions on the identity development of Afro-Latinas. Although there are conversations about the microaggressions experienced by our community, we rarely talk about the microaggressions experienced within our community. Unsurprisingly, almost all of the women in the study shared that they experience anti-Black racial microaggressions, particularly as it relates to their physical appearance, from other Latinx/es. For example, several of the women, myself included, shared instances in which we were told to stay out of the sun to prevent our skin from getting any darker – “te vas a poner prieta.” The women also shared microaggressions they experienced from family members about their hair. One woman said that the first time she got braids, her mom said, “ahora sí te pareces a una morena’ (now you really look like a Black girl). I received similar comments (and looks) from people when I first cut off my hair and went natural. The underlying tone was always, “being Black is bad enough, do you have to go out of your way to look Black too?”
One of the questions I ask every woman in the study is, “what does being Afro-Latina mean to you?”, so it’s only right that I answer it myself. Being Afro-Latina is having so much rich, beautiful history that it defies definition. It is listening to drums that beat their way from Africa to Puerto Rico, to the salsa clubs in Spanish Harlem. It is the tumbao that Celia Cruz talked about, and the phenomenal women described by Maya Angelou. It is jollof rice and plantains on the same table as arroz con gandules y tostones. It is the feeling of finally being seen as I walked through the Museo de Nuesta Raiz Africana in Old San Juan.
And it’s the unwavering knowledge of who I am and whose I am. Our stories may not always be pretty, but they will always be beautiful.