I Am a Proud Afro-Latina But I Didn’t Grow Up Understanding Afro-Latinidad

The thing is most of us did not have the vocabulary to define or even articulate our racial makeup


Courtesy of Shayne Rodriguez Thompson

Being Afro-Latina is who I am. It always has been, whether I knew it or not. Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, no one talked about it or had a label for it, so it wasn’t something I gave much thought to, but like most Puerto Ricans, I had been taught that we were a mix of European, African and Taíno. Still, what that meant about my identity never felt like something concrete. I genuinely just felt like I just was who I was — a Puerto Rican girl with an American first name, born in New Jersey, who didn’t speak much Spanish, but always felt deeply engrossed in her culture.

The thing is, back then, most of us did not have the vocabulary to define or even articulate our racial makeup, and it was — and remains — all the more complicated for those of us who are mixed race. No one around me knew how to speak on race theory or explain that Puerto Rican is not a actually a race, or explain what race specifically refers to, and in the ’90s and even later, the only people who really did speak on those things with any confidence were academics, and academics were not a part of my world growing up.

I grew up in a household that was always on the brink of poverty, in a city and neighborhood that was largely made up of working class African Americans and Puerto Ricans. In a way, we were all just in it together, trying to survive and make what we could of our circumstances. Everybody knew the “Spanish” kids from the Black kids, and there were so few white kids, that if I’m being honest, not much thought was given to where they belonged. If someone asked me “what are you?” — thanks to the diversity here, in my home state of New Jersey, it’s a common and completely non-offensive question — my answer was always “Puerto Rican.” That answer was never met with confusion or the follow-up question, “But, are you Black or are you white?” My guess would be because where I’m from, identifying as Puerto Rican was enough and often still is.

Even though we knew weren’t exactly the same, Puerto Rican kids and Black kids were in some way aware that we had shared ancestry, and there wasn’t a ton of differentiation made socially. We shared fashion, and music, and social groups, and it was pretty seamless. I’m sure there were tensions, but I was fairly sheltered and not super-aware of them. But, if I asked my older brother, who was born in the ’70s, he’d have a few different stories to tell.

I also think things were a bit different for me because I along with most of my living family by that time, was been born in the states. English was my first language, I didn’t have an accent, my clothes weren’t different, and my family was known in the neighborhood. I was largely allowed to simply exist in the space that I was born into without being questioned or challenged about my identity. I guess you could say that was a privilege.

If anything, the only thing I felt keenly aware of was the fact that my complexion was a bit darker than a lot of the other Puerto Ricans I knew. My parents, both of whom were born in Puerto Rico, were two different colors and my extended family has people of every shade, so it wasn’t something that I gave a ton of thought to.

Fast forward to college, and I often did feel like I was the only person of color in the room. Having grown up in the community that I did, it was strange and sometimes glaring. Sometimes, I was the only brown person in the room, but more often than not, I was simply the only Latina in the room. But there were also times I was the only Latina in the room. Interestingly, the university I graduated from is located in the very same city I was raised in, and I never once met someone in class that was also from that city. I suppose a seed of questioning was planted then, but it wasn’t until years later, when I became a mother, that I started to think more about my racial identity.

In the couple of years before I had my first child, some questions were starting to arise in entertainment media about which celebrities had the right to claim Latin heritage, and now thinking back, it was something of a pivotal moment. Celebs like Jessica Alba and Christina Aguilera were being questioned and doubted about their cultural identities, and as an intern at Latina magazine, I saw a lot of hate being thrown at them by the public. It did make me wonder, although perhaps briefly, what someone actually had to do to be accepted as Latina. Was it a complexion thing? Was it cultural connection? Was it immigration status? Was a person’s family’s country or origin not enough? I wasn’t sure, but still … it didn’t make me question my own identity. I was still just a Puerto Rican girl from Jersey.

Not long after, I had my first child — a little boy with wavy hair and skin darker than either mine or my husband’s (he’s biracial and non-Latino). It was 2012, and I quickly realized that I wasn’t just raising a Puerto Rican baby, I was raising a Black child – and specifically Black boy – in America. He was born shortly after Trayvon Martin was killed and in the months and years following, racial tensions in America heightened, peaking in 2020 with the death of George Floyd. It was not an easy time to bring a Black boy into the word. Then in 2015, I gave birth to my second child, a little girl who was even darker than my first. I think ultimately, that is what prompted me to dig deeper into my own identity as an Afro-Latina, and by then, Afro-Latino and Afro-Latinx, were terms that were being used more and more frequently.

I knew that my children’s beautiful, rich complexions were not just a product of my husband’s side of the family, and that my African roots were shining bright through them. But I also knew that I’d need to dig deeper in order to raise them the way they would need me to. While people may look at me and wonder which label they should put on me, it’s a lot easier for them to label my children based on appearances alone, and I have to make sure I’m informed and educated enough to walk them through that gracefully. Not only that, but it’s important to me that I fully embrace all aspects of my racial identity so that I can teach them to love and accept themselves for exactly who they are. I knew I’d need to start to understand that racial identity a little more fully if I was going to be able to do that.

Now, over the past dozen years or so, I’ve continued to work in Latinx media and have had a number of opportunities to learn more. To hear more Latinx and Afro-Latinx stories and perspectives, to read more, to research more, and to start to wrap my head around the complexities of my racial identity. Like many, I’ve since learned that being Puerto Rican is my ethnicity, it represents my cultural origins, but it is not a race. And while some may not understand that it took me well into my adult life to come to this understanding, I know that many people with backgrounds similar to mine — Caribbean Latinxs born and/or raised in the Northeast United States — can relate. I’ve met them, I’ve featured them in my work, I’ve connected with them, and I’ve lived side-by-side with them and had the heartfelt conversations that let me know that I’m not alone.

Today, I proudly identify as an Afro-Latina of mixed race. Genetically — and yes, I’ve tested — I’m 50 percent European, 30 percent African and 20 percent Indigenous Puerto Rican, so that feels pretty accurate to me. But, it’s still complicated. The labels are murky. I’m not sure they could ever fully encompass what my racial, ethnic, and cultural identities mean to me and my family. But, my perspective, my knowledge, my ideas about Afro-Latinidad … they’re always growing and evolving. And you know what? I like that I can’t be put into one single box and that no one will ever have that power over me or my children. I suppose, it’s just one of the many gifts my Puerto Rican heritage has given me.

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Afro-Boricua Afro-Latina Afro-Latinidad cultural identity culture race
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