Not a lot of folks know that supermodel Joan Smalls is Latina. That’s because mainstream media doesn’t do the best job at acknowledging that Latinos aren’t exclusive to one race. But the truth is, Smalls is Afro-Latina, 100 percent Puerto Rican, and 1000 percent proud of her heritage and her roots. In fact, in the first episode of Vogue’s Supermodel Roots with Vogue International, Smalls touches on how growing up on the island grounded her, how Hurricane Maria impacted her, and the struggle she’s experienced with folks not understanding that you can be both Black and Latina.
In 2011, Joans was named the first Latina face of Estee Lauder’s global marketing campaign which was especially a big deal considering she’s Afro-Latina, as we rarely get recognition. In 2015, she placed sixth on Forbes list of the world’s highest paid supermodels and has worked with top designers including Givenchy, Chanel, and Tom Ford.
“I didn’t know that the message was so much greater than me booking a job after a job. That what I was doing was creating a way for others becoming the first African Latina model to represent Estee Lauder,” Smalls says. “I didn’t know that that existed but I did it and I was like oh my god, I have a double whammy. You know, I’m not just Black and I’m not just Latina. The household I lived in is multicultural and then coming to America saying, ‘You are the light-skinned Black girl and I’m like yea but I’m Spanish too. And people are like huh?'”
Growing up in Puerto Rico humbles Smalls until this day. She never forgets where she comes from or what her parents had to go through for her to be where she’s at today.
“I know how much my parents sacrificed. We were living in a one bedroom apartment with two beds,” she says choking up tears. “And I remember mami and daddy they were sleeping on the floor and all of us in one room. For me, that’s always my push, like they had it worse. That’s one thing I always keep to myself and now all of you guys know.”
Moving to NYC was the move that put Smalls on the map, but she emphasizes in the episode that she wasn’t just scouted on the street one day. Smalls had to put herself out there and hustled her way to finally be represented by an agency.
“I moved to New York, I started modeling and I started booking commercial work. But it isn’t high-fashion so you’re seen in a different light. So I was blessed to have had that opportunity but I wanted more going to NYC,” she says. “I basically got an exclusive for Couture with Ricardo Tisci, when he was a designer with Givenchy. He bleached my eyebrows. I looked more androgynous, people saw me in a different light. I knew that was it. I felt it in my soul and in my being and I remember they told me you got confirmed, don’t go anywhere else! I just got chills all over my body because I knew that was the moment.”
Hurricane Maria was one of the hardest periods of Smalls life, especially since the majority of her family was still living and still currently live on the island.
“The funny thing is growing up in Puerto Rico you’re accustomed to hurricanes, right? You have hurricane season. It’s just you never know what year it’s going to be that’s going to take it to that place, you know? I remember I was working in Milan during show season,” she says. “I’m a pretty strong person and I can control my emotions. But I remember just being in a hotel room, just breaking down seeing those images, like I really can’t be here. I can not do this right now. I can not go backstage and someone ask me have you heard about your family. And it’s like to hear somebody complain about their shoe that doesn’t fit, like I’m dealing with my family stuck on an island with no communication, don’t know if they’re okay, people don’t have light, don’t have water, don’t have homes, like that’s the last thing I want to hear about. Somebody’s shoe not fitting, I left and I canceled the show. When you can’t communicate with your family for more than 10 days, trust me — you know pain.”
Representation is so important and Smalls recognizes that she’s paved the way for so many Latinas — models and non-models — who look just like her. Here’s to the day Afro-Latinas won’t have to break down their identity to anyone.