For years, I found myself hesitant to identify as Afro-Latina. I’ve never been one for labels and I felt this new terminology was nothing but a trend that would fade as quickly as “on fleek.” I know, I sound pretty damn ignorant, like Caucasian Baby Boomers that grunt, “things were different back then,” while surveilling their new Mexican neighbors from the porch. But before I’m blasted for being anti-black and denying my blackness, or accused of any self-hatred, there’s more to this story.
Naturally, I reject change that is imposed upon me. A free spirit, I struggle with conventionalism and rather go against the grain, especially if said grain challenges my perspective and comfort level. For over a decade, I said that I was Hispanic. Then I attended a Poetry Slam at UMass Amherst where I watched a Nuyorican poet spit rhymes about America-ca-ca and how Hispanic is His Panic and, well, I panicked. And so I welcomed the term Latina.
Although it had a less traumatic etymology, “Latina” took some getting used to. Again, I hate change, but society screamed from rooftops that “Latina” was the term to embrace for all proud Caribbean and Latin American women. Magazines, websites, social media profiles, conferences, hashtags, and mainstream media told me I was Latina. Who was I to question it when many took on the word like a badge of honor? Society took me for another loop with Latinx and, yes, Afro-Latina. I admit that I refused to use Latinx for similar reasons: I’m one stubborn Dominican, y’all. I’m also a very candid person. So, in all transparency, I know that I dismissed “Afro-Latina” initially because I felt uncomfortable with the “Afro.” As someone who accepts and celebrates other cultures, I didn’t quite understand my discomfort then. I also didn’t want to dig deeper into my psyche to analyze why our of fear of change.
Today, I can boldly state that I rejected the term “Afro-Latina” due to the negative messages I heard growing up about my ancestry and culture. I remember hearing terms like “pelo malo” (bad hair) referring to curly hair and and “pelo bueno” (good hair) referring to straight hair. I remember mami pulling at my greñas and wishing I had hair as straight and manageable as my sisters. I remember feeling ugly when my tio called me “Amanda Miguel” because of said greñas and hated my dry, curly tresses because of it. Amanda Miguel is an Argentine-born Mexican singer who was known back in the day for proudly wearing her wild, frizzy curls on stage. I remember wishing my nose had a long bridge like that of my youngest cousin. I also remember relatives discussing abuela’s Taina lineage and how my paternal great grandmother was from Spain. “That’s why abuelo has blue eyes,” I’d share with my younger cousins. It was cataracts, y’all.
Celebrating European roots and teasing any feature that traced to mother Africa was a prevalent practice in my family. My family never mentioned our African ancestry. I accepted it. I didn’t ask questions despite the myriad of dark tones that tint our skin. I put it away until last year when HipLatina’s Deputy Editor, Johanna Ferreira, reached out via email to ask about my experiences as an Afro-Latina for a story. I wanted to shut down the conversation. I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t want to confront my feelings. So, as she continued to ask questions, I bluntly stated, “I don’t relate to the term Afro-Latina.”
After our conversation, I felt ashamed of myself and spiritually misaligned. An internal shift needed to occur, I knew that much. When this happens in my life God often brings forth people and situations that call for me to pivot and grow. Johanna was the catalyst. Then in summer 2019, I relocated 45 miles away from Washington Heights, the neighborhood where I was born and bred, to eastern Long Island. I felt I had lost a part of my identity. I didn’t need my white neighbors to clutch their pearls to confirm that I had to learn about my ancestry. Living at a great distance from the food, the music, the language, and the jovial demeanor of my Dominican community hit a nerve. I had to bring forth my culture into my new suburban reality or it would be adios tradiciones y orgullo for myself and my son.
But, who am I culturally…racially? All I know is the history of the Dominican Republic, the country that my parents call home. I’ve even struggled with finding a church in Long Island because I now feel an innate need to explore other spiritual practices. I want to dig deeper. I want to understand myself better. I’ve always struggled with loving myself fully and maybe part of it is because I am not culturally rooted.
This is where I am today: at the start of my ancestral and spiritual journey, which technically began last week with a quick spit in a vile for Ancestry DNA. After years of not embracing my blackness (Latin America’s complicated history of colonialism has conditioned generations of people to deny, ignore, and not embrace their African and Indigenous roots while instead celebrating whiteness) I am excited to discover the African lands that my ancestors were stripped away from. I am eager to read texts about their cultural traditions and the spiritual practices they embedded into their lives that may or may not be deemed anti-Christian (I imagine my Catholic mom clutching her pearls when she spots a deck of tarot cards in my dresser). I also understand now that although I’ve never blatantly denied my blackness, I also don’t embrace it. That statement is not an easy one to share but I am choosing to share it because I know many Afro-Latinas can and will relate. I also know that as much as I’ve ignored my blackness it lays within uncelebrated until a merengue ripao plays and my hips sway to the guirra and the tambora. And so I can no longer ignore my Afro-Latindad. From the width of my nose to the curls on my head, to the color of my skin, to the Afro-infused music that jolts my body from slumber, it envelops me inch by inch.