Afro-Latinas Can and Should Fully Embrace their Blackness and Latinidad

As a proud Afro-Latina and a proud Black woman, it's important for Afro-Latinas to know they are enough as they are

Afro Latinidad

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In my daily life, I am intentionally vulnerable and transparent when sharing my experiences as an Afro-Latina. I do this for three reasons: The first one is to create an opportunity for other Afro-Latinas to feel seen and heard; Second, is to support the positive identity development of little girls who will hopefully not struggle the way I did while growing up; Lastly, it’s because I want to call out the anti-Blackness which results in Afro-Latinas being marginalized, silenced, and ignored. When it comes to visibility and representation, I can acknowledge that things are slowly moving in the right direction. This is evidenced, for example, by the announcement of La Reina, Celia Cruz, being featured on a quarter, the first Afro-Latina to ever achieve this. The idea of seeing ¡AZÚCAR! inscribed on a coin brings me as much joy as hearing her say the iconic catchphrase for the first time. And while I love hearing about history-making Afro-Latinas who are the first to do something, the feeling is always accompanied by frustration.

These accomplishments warrant pride and praise, but they shouldn’t allow for an avoidance of accountability. It is 2024 and there remains a long list of “firsts” to be achieved. And just so we’re clear, this is due to a lack of acknowledgement, not a lack of ability. The first Afro-Latina promoted to a leadership position or to win an award is not the same thing as the first Afro-Latina to be qualified to do so. Our value isn’t determined by someone’s inability to see it. True change is when the inclusion of Afro-Latinas is as common as our exclusion is currently.

As a professor, I am just as open in the classroom as I am outside of it. Recently, I shared a poem with my students that describes how often I felt like I had to “perform” to be accepted within academia due to a lack of a sense of belonging. I refer to this as “academic shuckin’ and jivin’” where I felt compelled to behave in a way that was more palatable for white people. Clubs have coat check and it often felt like academia, which acts as its own exclusive club, required that I “check” parts of myself at the door. There was no place in the classroom for my hoop earrings, social justice t-shirts, or a Boricua accent that comes out when I’m really excited.

I also shared that being Afro-Latina causes me to feel like I don’t belong to my own communities. I struggle with feeling Black enough within the Black community and Latina enough in the Latinx community. After class, I was contacted by one of my students who asked if I would be willing to share more about my experiences. When we met, I realized that what she is currently grappling with is on par with where I was as a first-year college student. On the surface, she is struggling with her identity, which is common for all students since college is often the first time they are away from their families and are introduced to new identities and identity expressions. However, her struggle, like mine was at her age, isn’t addressed in the college student development books I read in grad school.

Born to a Puerto Rican father and a Jamaican mother, she is struggling with not feeling Black enough or Latina enough, feelings I know all too well. My mom is Puerto Rican, born on La Isla, and raised in Crown Heights, Brooklyn and my father is African American, born in Brooklyn, and raised in the projects in East New York. That reality of being an Afro-Latina never quite fitting in is one I know all too well. She also shared how isolating her experience is given not feeling like she belongs in either space. The Afro-Latina in me felt for her because I know exactly how she feels, and the educator in me worries about her because I know how important community is when navigating racially hostile environments such as predominantly white institutions. The fact that she is dealing with the same struggle 23 years after I did shows that we have not come as far as people would like to think.

Although people like to use things like Celia Cruz on a quarter or Barack Obama as president to argue that we live in a post-racial society where racism is no longer an issue, anti-Blackness continues to show up in many spaces. And although we can’t control what happens outside of our homes, we can definitely address what happens inside of them. This begins with honest self-reflection and a willingness to self-implicate when necessary. Ask yourself – “am I complicit in perpetuating anti-Black stereotypes or upholding whiteness as the standard?” And before your ego jumps to say “no” for you, let me tell you that we have ALL done it, whether consciously or not.

Even as an Afro-Latina who has dealt with the consequences of anti-Blackness, I have still been guilty of upholding whiteness. It’s almost impossible not to when we are socialized to believe that white is the standard. Take European beauty standards for example. How many of us were taught the difference between “pelo malo” and “pelo bueno” and told that straight hair was more beautiful? How many of us subconsciously took that mentality into adulthood and believed that straight hair was also more professional? Our complexion is another thing. How many of us were told not to stay in the sun for too long because “te vas a poner prieta”? I had to do a lot of unlearning to get to the woman I am now who proudly rocks her curls and lays out under the sun for as long as she wants.

Our community also has a lot of unlearning to do. I think about comments my Abuelita used to say to me when I was younger. Yes, they were anti-Black, but they were never said with malice or an ounce of understanding of how they would negatively affect my identity development. She made those same comments I mentioned earlier about my skin color and hair, but never because she thought less of me. She was just repeating what she was taught to believe and I didn’t have the education or language at the time to explain to her why it was harmful.

When white people want to be allies, we tell them that they have to be willing to check their own biases as well as check their racist coworkers or family members when they say something out of line. Are we showing up for each other in the same way? Are you checking your own biases? Are you checking your titi when she says something anti-Black during your morning cafecito? My cousin is a 16-yr-old Afro-Latina and I am incredibly protective of her in all ways but especially when it comes to the messaging she receives. I am quick to challenge anyone, family included, who tells her that she has to straighten her hair for it to be presentable. I am also intentional about having conversations with her about why that mindset is harmful. I constantly remind her that she is beautiful and worthy. This out of love, but also out of an abundance of caution because I know the negative impact anti-Blackness can have on her mental health.

Just like my student and I, my cousin is growing up in a proud Puerto Rican household full of pasteles and salsa music. However, while the environments are similar, her experience is different from ours because she is being taught now what it means to be proud of her Blackness as well as her Latinidad. She is being taught that she doesn’t have to choose between two worlds because she gets to unapologetically exist as her full self in any space she enters. Of course, she will still have to navigate the identity development process that all college students go through, but she will do so from a place of exploration, not expectation or exclusion.

I used to say that it took me a long time to embrace my Afro-Latina identity, but that’s not true. Embracing it was never the problem. My issue was trying to do the impossible – being Black “enough” and Latina ‘enough” to appease both of my communities. However, I have finally come to the realization that I am the only person that gets to define what being Afro-Latina means to me. I get to decide what it looks like and feels like. So when I am shunned by white Latinas in academia or told by someone that I don’t “look” Latina, I no longer get angry because their ignorance is not my baggage to carry. Instead, I unapologetically carry my Afro-Latina, Boricua pride with me in every space I enter.

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.  

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Afro-Latina Afro-Latinidad Dr. Angel Jones
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