Natasha S. Alford’s Debut Memoir Explores Afro-Latinidad and Belonging

Afro-Latina journalist Natasha S

Natasha S. Alford American Negra

 Credit: Natasha S. Alford / HarperCollins | Courtesy

Natasha S. Alford is an award-winning Black journalist of Puerto Rican descent who has fought for the rights and visibility of the Afro-Latinx community, as well as the larger African diaspora, around the world. The New Yorker released her debut memoir American Negra this month, documenting her life growing up as the daughter of a Puerto Rican mother and African American father. The book covers different areas and eras of her life between Puerto Rico where she is the darkest person in her family to Syracuse, New York where African American hair salons note her “good” hair to Harvard University where she’s surrounded by privilege. Throughout she is forced to contend with imposter syndrome, a shocking medical diagnosis, and a desire for belonging and identity. It’s only when she takes a study abroad trip to the Dominican Republic that her perspective on Afro-Latinidad transforms, setting her on a journey to understand her Latin roots and ultimately become a journalist.

With vulnerability and honesty, she seamlessly blends together her personal narratives with larger meditations on how we as a society think about race, culture, gender, class, and multiethnic identities.

“The title popped into my head as clear as day. It just made sense,” Alford tells HipLatina. “I was trying to figure out how I would describe myself in a way that was specific enough. Although I am a Black woman, Afro-Latina didn’t feel specific enough and Black wasn’t specific enough. So I tried to think of how I would describe what it was like to grow up as me at this intersection. I’d always been called ‘negra’ or ‘morena’ in the Latino community but I realized that there was also something about my Americanness that was essential to my experience too. So American Negra was always my first choice.”

Like many writers, Alford’s love for reading started young. Growing up in Syracuse, New York as an only child, books were her way of escape and going to new worlds, not to mention her connection to her “overprotective” Puerto Rican mother who didn’t want her to go out on her own. Instead, they spent time at home, reading together every night or going to the library on the weekends. Through her mother, a love of reading was instilled in her and subsequently, her love of writing. At the same time, it was hard for her to often relate to the characters or the situations they were going through because of how much her identity, life, and experiences felt so different than what she was reading about.

“When you’re young, you’re often looking to books to better understand yourself but I never found a book that perfectly captured the intersection that I sat at being Puerto Rican, being African American. There was no protagonist that looked like me,” she says. “That planted the seed pretty early on to answer questions about myself, my origin, my family’s origins, and ultimately, larger questions about the Afro-Latino community and Puerto Rican history.”

But the road to becoming a writer and journalist wasn’t the clean, straightforward line Alford perhaps thought it would be. As the early chapters of her memoir explore, her parents, as well-meaning as they were, taught her that creative careers didn’t make money and that her priority above all else was providing for herself. Instead, she tried on many different hats and “experimented with herself,” working everything from an employee at an investment management firm, to a middle school English teacher, to an employee at a publication education policy nonprofit. Soon, she would feel like she didn’t fit into these environments or in other cases, didn’t love what she was doing. She questioned herself, her abilities, and her skillset, wondering what she was missing or what was wrong with her. Though she did love her time teaching, it was discovering a love and passion for journalism—not to mention instinctive talent—that completely transformed her life.

“I desired the variety that comes with being a journalist in terms of format and platform and the way that we tell stories. I also care deeply about people, and I felt an incredible sense of satisfaction when I bring a person’s story to light and a perspective to a story that wouldn’t otherwise be seen,” she explains. “Journalists are like artists because we paint a picture that bridges gaps in understanding and help others stop and say, ‘Look at this person. Look at this lived experience. Look at what’s happening in the world.’ I love the power in that.”

While Alford sometimes regrets that she “didn’t pursue it sooner,” trying different careers gave her a wide array of life experiences and important life lessons she carries with her today. She’s also had opportunities to practice and polish important career skills, like advocating for herself in the workplace, fighting to write stories focused on identity, culture, and community, and convincing her superiors that these were newsworthy stories. Ultimately, she believes that her life up to this point has made her the award-winning journalist she is today.

In this way, she wanted to use her personal and professional experiences to inspire others who were facing similar struggles of belonging, not just in the workplace but also in their identity, especially if they came from a multiethnic background like her. In 2016 when she was in her twenties, she took the leap and moved to New York City to start taking memoir writing classes and reading other memoirs for inspiration, kickstarting the project that would later become American Negra. But she soon realized that it wouldn’t be so simple. While she had a general idea for the memoir, she still didn’t know how she would approach it, nor did she feel like she had lived enough life to write authentically.

“Writing a memoir so early in life, I felt a bit audacious,” she explains. “But at the time, there was a case for me highlighting the younger season of life because there’s wisdom that needs to be learned in those early twenties and those early thirties, and not enough of us share the wisdom. We don’t share the mistakes. We’re too happy to have progressed to the next level. We only show the best and most polished versions of ourselves. And i wanted to take the mask off and say, ‘This is what it looks like. This is the messy twenties. This is how you fully step into your own. It’s going to take mistakes. It’s going to take striving.’ Because I was so close to the time period, I thought it was great to write it while it was still fresh.”

Instead, Alford found comfort in taking her time, a decision that brought clarity and ideal timing when the pandemic hit in 2020. In the span of three years, she was able to write between fulfilling her responsibilities as a new mother to a young son, connect with professionals in the publishing industry, and even find an agent for her manuscript.

At the same time, the actual writing of the memoir was an uphill battle. Though she was already several steps ahead with years of honing her writing and storytelling skills, she faced challenges writing about people she actually knew, places she had really been, and memories that she had kept close for so long, not to mention writing about herself in a completely vulnerable and intimate way. And this was something she constantly experienced, having to relive moments of pain and joy and write them down on the page. Throughout the book, these moments include people asking her why she spoke Spanish so well, how she learned to reclaim the word “negra” for herself, how she struggled to fit in at school even among other Black students, and floundering years later as a journalist in an industry that didn’t always quite know what to do with her. But she was determined to tell her truth, even when it was difficult.

“I threw away so many chapters. I went to my editor so many times wanting to start over. It was so hard because writing about other people is very different from writing about yourself and the way that you see your life in your head. It may be as clear as a movie, but putting that down on a page and making it a compelling enough narrative arc that people can follow and be invested in from beginning to end is a challenge. That’s why it took longer than expected,” she says, referring to the fact that she thought she would publish the memoir last year. Instead, “I developed a new appreciation for patience and letting go of perfectionism and realizing when good was good enough. ”

Another interesting aspect of the memoir was that Alford was telling stories that involved other people, some now strangers, others as close as the day the stories themselves happened. During the writing process, she embarked on a fact-finding mission, making phone calls to people she hadn’t spoken to in years, asking for permission to write and include stories that featured them, and, in many cases, reconnecting and finding closure and forgiveness. Her mother, for one, was the “ultimate fact checker,” adding or correcting details, and providing context and reasons for why things happened the way they did.

This was especially true when she was writing scenes from her childhood, like in the chapter where a young Alford won her school’s oratory competition and her mother’s mantra in response was to “just stay humble,” rather than allowing her daughter to take pride in her gifts. Or later, when she was accepted into Harvard University and her mother wanted her to go to Syracuse instead in order to be close to the family, instead of being selfish and moving far away. Having those conversations with her family to look back, unpack, and forgive was helpful not only for Alford’s writing process but also for her personal healing and understanding overall, which shaped her perspective of why she was writing the memoir in the first place.

“It’s a joy to realize how far you’ve come. When you’re writing a memoir, you’re clearing out some emotional cobwebs and the things that linger in the back of your mind because you haven’t wrestled with them. You’re forced to face them,” she says. “So through the memoir, I was able to see the past in a new light. Sometimes when you are a person who has strong memories, memory can feel like a curse. But when you write, you make meaning of that memory and realize how much it is a blessing to remember even the hard things.”

On a larger scale, she finds that this approach to memory applies to the larger Latinx community across the world, which often ignores or overlooks the legacy of slavery in Latin America and stories of Afro-Latinx experiences despite how deeply engrained they are in the fabric of Latinx history and culture. How rarely Afro-Latines get the credit they deserve for the contributions they offer to the world in music and fashion which she explores constantly throughout the book. In this way, she hopes her memoir and subsequent projects become part of the community’s lineage and lead to more opportunities to tell stories and share the truth, or even chances to adapt them to a new medium like TV.

The power in telling her own stories, she’s found, is that it doesn’t matter if some readers will undermine or not believe her experiences; what matters is that it’s a documentation of the life she’s led, the pain and joy and hurt she’s felt, and that she shared it with the world. She notes:

“I truly believe that we don’t heal or move forward if we can’t talk about the things that hurt us. Across the world, there’s a push and pull between those who want to remember, reconcile, and want to right the wrongs of the past, and those who want to move past it without doing the work. We have to unpack history because it’s shaping our present. It’s that simple. The problem is people who take the present out of context, and they blame people and communities who have been victimized and systematically excluded. This commitment to colorblindness and racial democracy, the belief if we don’t talk about color, we’re less divisive, it silences, erases, pushes people to the margins, and makes them feel like they can’t be honest about what they’ve experienced. But it’s also important that people understand that Afro-Latino experiences are not just centered around pain and trauma. There are stories about celebration, contribution, and hidden history that everybody should be able to take pride in.”

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Afro-Diaspora Afro-Latina Afro-Latina authors Afro-Latina writer Black latina Featured Latina writer Memoir Natasha S. Alford puerto rican puerto rico
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