Racial identity for a lot of U.S. born Latinos, is a very complex, multi-dimensional, and multi-faceted thing. As a Dominican-American woman born and raised in Queens, New York, I can attest to that. All I have to do is take a good look in the mirror to know that aside from being a Latina, I am also mixed race. I see it in my tan complexion, my light hazel eyes, my dark curly hair (that’s neither tight nor loose), my plump lips, my small nose, and my bottom-heavy figure I inherited from my Dominican mother. I am a beautiful blend of European and African ancestry and yet there still seems to be so much confusion around me identifying as Afro-Latina. Why is that?
The term Afro-Latino is a term some Latinos use as a way to identify their racial background but it’s one that still triggers a lot of confusion, pain, and shame for many. This is due in large to the complex and varied nature of racial identity in the Latino community.
According to a 2016 Pew Research study, one quarter of all U.S. Latinos self-identify as Afro-Latino, Afro-Caribbean or of African descent with roots in Latin America. Mind you, this is only taking into consideration the amount of Afro-Latinos who actually identify that way. The study shows that a lot of Afro-Latinos in the states don’t identify as Afro-Latino.
So much of our Latin American culture and history involves strong African influence. We see it in our varied skin tones, facial features, and hair textures and we experience it in our food and music. According to Pew Research, in Brazil, half of the population is of African descent (Black or mixed-race Black). In Cuba, Blacks and mixed-race Blacks make up more than a third of the country’s population. And according to the Central Intelligence Agency, 11 percent of the population in the Dominican Republic is Black while 73 percent of the population is mixed-race Black. That’s huge!
So why are there still so many Latinos out there hesitant to call themselves Afro-Latinos? Well for starters, not everyone understands the actual definition of Afro-Latino.
Growing up, I was always well aware of my racial background, at least when it came to my ancestry. Having brown skin and curly hair made me curious from day one. I remember being a kid and asking my mom, why I look more like Alicia Keys, Soledad O’Brien, or Aaliyah than Salma Hayek or any of the protagonist actresses in abuela’s favorite telenovelas. That’s when mami broke it down to me that I was more than just Latina and Dominican. I was of mixed-Black race.
It was in that very same conversation that mami explained to me how my dad’s abuelo from his mother’s side was a Black Dominican who was just as dark as Denzel Washington and how he married my abuela’s mother who was a Dominican-born woman who’s family migrated straight from Spain. She was as fair as Anne Hathaway with ginger-y brown hair.
I have to thank my mother for not only helping my siblings and I to recognize our African ancestry at a young age, but also helping us to proudly embrace it. But with that said, God forbid we walked around telling people we were Black or mixed race. That was something she also warned us, was still very much frowned upon in Latino communities.
Unfortunately, this is not a mindset that’s limited just to older generations. I meet millennial Latinas every day that still have a very hard time understanding and coming to terms with the fact that they are in fact, Afro-Latina, whether they want to admit it or not. I also have Latino friends who still don’t understand the concept of being Black and Latino.
So, what does Afro-Latina really mean? It’s simple really. It’s a Latina of mixed race with African ancestry. And yet the history behind it makes it so complex.
“In its simplest definition, Afro-Latina is an ethnic identifier that enables Latina women to articulate a political identification with their Afro-diasporic roots,” says Dr. Ana-Maurine Laura, an anthropology and Latino studies professor at the University of Oregon. “The term Afro-Latina makes our Afro-diasporic roots visible and central to our identities, like Chicana/Xicana makes our Mexican hermanas indigenous roots visible and central.”
Afro-Latina isn’t a term that makes you pick sides, since we’re not just African or solely of Spanish/European ancestry. It’s a term that was specifically created to recognize our complex identity, because the Black side of us was silenced and in many cases, even denied for centuries.
Dr. Lara explains that the term or even idea of “Afro-Latina” has only been circulating for less than 20 years.
“Our hermanas in Latin America have been struggling to make space for mujeres Afro-descendientes since the 1980s. So, Afro-Latinas – the idea, the concept, the language – it is new on the scene. Our experiences as Afro-descendent women is often underrepresented, invisible, or marginalized within the discussions of Latinidad and hispanidad,” she adds. “The term Afro-Latina allows us to locate our ethnic identities as Latinas within a broader African Diaspora. It also makes it possible for us to talk about how our experiences intersect with the experiences of both Black women and Latinas across the hemisphere.”
If the term Afro-Latina has been around for almost 20 years, why is it that only in the past few years we’ve started to really hear the term being used? The hashtag #AfroLatina has over 109,415 posts on Instagram, with many Latinas who identify that way including it in many of their selfie captions. Why now? Part of the reason is because the Afro-Latina experience is finally becoming more visible in mainstream media, with actresses and public figures like Zoe Saldaña, Soledad O’ Brien, Dascha Polanco, La La Anthony, Christina Milian, Dania Ramirez, Lauren Velez, and Joan Smalls becoming vocal about their racial and Latina identities.
“We tend to look for European roots and reject the indigenous and the African, and that’s disgusting,” Zoe Saldaña has said. “Being Latina is being a mix of everything. I want my people not to be insecure, and to adore what we are because it’s beautiful.”
There are quite a few millennial Latinas out there that are recognizing the importance behind the term. “I identify as an Afro-Latina because I’m proud of my African ancestry, says Stephanie Ferreira, a 27-year-old Dominican woman from NYC (and the author’s younger sister). “I think a lot of times we are raised to reject and be ashamed of it. I went on my own journey of self-acceptance first with my hair and overall, I see it as all these features that tell the story of where I come from and I think that is how it should be seen.”
“Having been born to Dominican parents, I’ve always grappled with identifying as Afro-Latina. My family and I have light olive skin, dark straight hair and our blood line is primarily Spanish and some Turkish,” says Shelika Baez, a 31-year-old Dominican woman from Orlando currently living in NYC. “However, we are all Afro-Latinos by way of culture and ancestry.”
Colorism seems to be another factor as to why so many Latinas are confused to identify that way. I personally have always identified as mixed race but when I was first introduced to the term Afro-Latina, it confused me. Mainly because the only Latinas I saw identifying themselves that way were Latinas with much darker complexions and kinky coily hair textures. In other words, Latinas who in their everyday lives were often confused for African Americans. I almost felt like I didn’t have the right to call myself an Afro-Latina because of it. But I soon learned that it doesn’t matter if you have lighter skin or even straight hair. Being Afro-Latina is not exclusive to looking Black, it’s specifically having African ancestry.
“I’ve noticed that there is still a lot of confusion around the term and a lot of Latinas who are hesitant to identify that way and I think colorism plays a big role in this,” says Cindy Diaz, a 29-year-old Dominican woman from Brooklyn and Associate Editor at Vivala.com.
“Sometimes it’s a denial of Blackness but sometimes Latinas feel like they’re simply not Black enough to identify as Afro-Latina because they have olive skin or their hair isn’t as textured. I identify as Afro-Latina because I know I have African ancestry. I see it my facial features, my mixed hair texture and in my family. I think it’s important for us to embrace this side of us because this is part of who we are. We need to see this as something beautiful, not something to be ashamed of.”
“It is important for us to recognize that light skinned and dark-skinned Afro-descent women often, have very different experiences in public spaces and in our families,” says Dr. Lara. “As a light-skinned woman, I am aware that my experience in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Brazil, and other countries in Latin America, for example, are vastly different than my darker-skinned sisters.”
Recognizing the privileged associated with having lighter skinned or less textured hair in the Latino community is important to understand, because that same privilege is in large part why many Afro-Latinas prefer to identify as white, in some cases even Taino, over Black or mixed race. Mind you, by 1519 a large portion of the Taino Indian community in the Caribbean died because of smallpox and other diseases the Spanish brought to the islands.
But one thing I will make clear, is that how you racially identify is your personal journey and your journey only. As a Latina who grew up with people trying to tell me what I am, I will never tell a fellow Latina how she should identify.
“Afro-Latina is an explicit political identity,” says Dr. Lara. “You don’t have to claim to be Afro-Latina to be proud of your Afro-diasporic roots. You can claim Afro-Latina for any number of reasons. For those of us who do choose Afro-Latina as a place of power, and collective political identity, we have often done or are in the process of doing a lot of work to undo all of the harmful messages and internalized racism we grow up with. We are beautiful and brilliant and powerful. You don’t need a label to be reminded of that. But, if it helps – it’s here for you.”
Sometimes labels are just labels, but oftentimes labels can be a lot more empowering than you’d think. And if identifying as Afro-Latina means I’m recognizing and embracing my African diaspora history and if it’s making it less painful for another fellow Afro-Latina to come to terms with her Blackness, then I’m all about it.