I didn’t know I had Latinx roots until I was in my pre-teens. My older sister always told me that my biological father was Puerto Rican, but I thought she was making fun of me because I was light skinned. My sister is dark skinned and she always told me I was adopted because we looked different. And because I was a skeptical child, I never believed anything she said. It wasn’t until I was in my pre-teens that I figured out that she was serious. One day, I stopped being afraid of asking about my biological dad. I never wanted to make my mom and step-dad feel like they weren’t doing a good job at parenting. So, I asked about my father and I was told about his background, his race, his upbringing — everything my mom could remember.
I didn’t know much about my biological father before that and now I know so much more. He and my mother stopped dating by the time I was born. He was older and abusive and my mother was fed up. In December 1997, seven months after I was born, my mother got an order of protection against my father. Due to my biological father’s negligence and the overall toxicity of his and my mother’s relationship, I don’t have any connection to him. I know I look like him, but I couldn’t point him out in the crowd. Again, the only reason why I know that is because my mother told me. And because of this disconnect to him, there is a whole culture I am missing out on.
It’s weird because growing up in Long Island, New York meant that Latinx people were always around me, but, at the time, I considered myself a guest in their culture. Only recently am I understanding what it means to be included. I am more active in conversations about Latinidad and how that shows up for this generation and what it means to be Puerto Rican. I feel like that cousin that is always the last one invited to the party, who never knows what to bring.
Growing up, I was always interested in the culture. I wanted to learn how to speak Spanish, before it was ever required in school. I wanted to learn bachata, and salsa, the proper way to roll my “R”s. In a way, it feels like I was subconsciously chasing a part of my identity I didn’t know existed.
When I learned that I was Afro-Latina, I was proud, yet confused. I didn’t know what that meant for my Blackness. Being “regular” Black was all I’ve known. For people who aren’t Black, let me explain: Because African American people aren’t connected to our roots, besides being African American due to slavery and the erasure of our ancestry, “regular” Black is a term we use to mean, “All I know is that I am Black American. I don’t know much else about my ancestry.” What does this new label say about other parts of me? Was I still considered Black? How much of me was Latina? Was it even enough to claim? How will other Latinas respond?
Now, I know that I am very much a Black woman. I know that the world sees me as a Black woman and I was raised about Black folk. But, I don’t ever feel Latina. In college, my minor was almost Spanish. I say “almost” because I was missing one class. But, nevertheless, I am proficient in Spanish. Looking back, I think I took that many Spanish classes because I was over-compensating for my lack of Latinidad. I would explain my familial Caribbean (including Barbados) background, and I would get strange looks — as if me looking the way I look couldn’t be synonymous with “Puerto Rican.” So, I would pull out the Spanish. They didn’t have to know that I didn’t learn it from my biological dad. They didn’t have to know that I just learned proper conjugation last Thursday. The only thing that mattered was that I proved my Latinidad.
This is a reality for many Latinas. On one hand, many “look” the part, but aren’t respected because of their lack of knowledge. They either don’t know the language or the recipes or the dances. Later in life, they start to learn more about their home country because of the lack of education from their parent/guardian. This is especially true for first or second or even third-generation Latinas. On the other hand, there are many Afro-Latinas who were told their entire lives that they are too dark to be Latina — that they have “pelo malo.” And as adults, they are put in situations where they have to continuously prove that they are, in actuality, Latina.
I fit into another box. Yes, I am a Black woman with Latinx ancestry. No, I don’t know much about being a Boricua. But, it isn’t because I never asked. It is because I never knew until I was older. Is there a support group for “Latinas who never feel Latina because of a broken family”? Who am I supposed to turn to when I want to teach my kids about their heritage? Who do I ask? I am proud to have a family from such a culturally rich place, but I don’t know how to identify myself. Can I still say Afro-Latina if I don’t exactly know how much Puerto Rican my biological dad claimed to be? How much ethnicity and race is community? These are questions that I constantly ask myself when I am “outed” as Afro-Latina by a family member. My family and partner love to talk about how well I speak Spanish and how well I dance bachata whenever it comes up. And that conversation turns into someone asking, “Oh, what made her interested in the culture?” And now, I have to choose how I will answer it, considering my complicated history with knowing my lineage.
I don’t know if I will ever feel Latina enough. Maybe not feeling anything at all is part of the journey of true acceptance.