What It Means To Be a Black Latina in Higher Education


I have been asserting my blackness since I can remember.

Growing up in the mountains of Puerto Rico, my curls —“pelo malo,”as friends called it—betrayed my family’s attempts to claim whiteness by invoking our Spanish great grandfather. Why would my grandmother, who loved me deeply, say that my hair “does not come from our side of the family”?

As we experience university responses to the Black Lives Matter Movement, Black Latinxs relive the everyday violence I faced during my childhood. Black Latinas are made invisible by intellectual and pedagogical initiatives. Data rarely documents Afro-Latino experiences in education, housing and employment, though they are similar to African American ones; AfroLatinx activists and Afro-Latinx Studies scholars seek that recognition.

As Ileana Rodríguez Silva, Zaire Z. Dinzey Flores, and Isar Godreau have documented, I grew up in an island that claims its mixed heritage: Taíno Indian, Spanish, and African, but still struggles to fully embrace what being Indian, being Black, means.

Growing up in the eighties, Saturdays were spent with cousins content with their straight or lightly wavy hair, while I tried the latest relaxer treatment. They were hours-long sessions of pulling on my hair to transform it. “Pain is beauty” but  it never worked. All those treatments left me puzzled.

And then something changed. My fourth-grade teacher Mrs. Santiago assigned Langston Hughes’ poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and a story about Harriet Tubman. I suddenly made sense in the world. I was Black like them, the stories of slavery and racism they lived were mine too, from somewhere else but somehow so familiar. Like them I was beautiful, strong, and Black.

That moment led me to the Fresh Prince of Bel Air in high school. I let my curls grow natural. I did not know what I was doing, but there’s nothing to lose when you are already a weird, nerdy, kid.

And then I became a Black Studies scholar. At first, I was trying to understand myself, reading African literatures alongside Plato, reading Black Caribbean women writers and Cervantes, writing about Conde’s I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem and Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Then I decided to tell those stories we were not taught.

I got a PhD. I learned about Black writers in the Americas; I wrote a book about race and migration in the Caribbean; and my dream comes true every time I get to teach about Black politics in the Caribbean and the U.S. And yet, I have to assert my blackness everyday. This is the life of Black Latinxs. 

We are questioned. Why not just claim to be Latinos? Why not claim whiteness when racial ambiguity leaves people wondering? Doctors mark the white category for us on their data charts because they think it will please us; at the same time treating us in racist ways, asking us: “Racism is not that bad here, right?” while doing a Pap smear.

At universities, we are questioned. But, you are Black? Not just Latina? And you teach Black Studies?

There is so much at stake in claiming our blackness. We face both anti-black racism within Latinx spaces and anti-black and anti-Latino racism everywhere else. We are called the N word on the streets. We are told to go back “home.” Puerto Rican students in Oregon after Hurricane Maria have learned what anti-black and anti-Latino racism means in the U.S. while being harassed walking through downtown.

For these students, this reflection is crucial. They claim blackness to describe their African ancestry and cultural heritage, but also as a way to explain what they live everyday. They join “one-quarter of all U.S. Latinos” who according to a 2014 Pew Research Center Survey “self-identify as Afro-Latino, Afro-Caribbean or of African descent with roots in Latin America.”

In the Pacific Northwest, Afro-Latinxs and Afro-Latinx Studies fall through the cracks in university initiatives to support Black Studies. We do not fit easily into policies meant to  make us feel as if our institutions are truly engaging Black Studies scholarship. Universities want numbers, but not real engagement with the field as a diverse space of intellectual inquiry.

It is not rare for students in my Intro to African American Studies to question why  someone with a Spanish last-name is teaching it. I turn the confusion into a productive discussion about the possibility for everyone to be trained in the field of Black Studies and about the social construction of race.

It is not rare for students active in Black organizations to share in my class that they are mixed race, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Latin American, children of migrants. Today a student spoke about having been told she is not Black because she is Haitian. In this class she gets to read about histories of blackness like the digital archive First Blacks, documenting the 1500s arrival of Africans to the island of Hispaniola-unknown to her until now.

We must continue to highlight the U.S. experience within Black Studies, and the fact that as a field it has to constantly assert its existence. But I suggest that Black Studies does not lose anything by engaging Afro-Latinx Studies; to the contrary, those conversations allow us to incorporate questions in the field that deepen our intellectual projects and engage the diverse histories of Black students and faculty.

What about the hip hop group Cypress Hill? Fat Joe? And the Black Latinx activists of Black Lives Matter? How can we account for their contributions to Black history and culture if we do not engage their Latinidad? Are we willing to stymie our research and teaching by ignoring the cross-cultural exchanges that shape Black thought and culture?

The answer is no. We keep alive the memory of all those who remembered our blackness in its beautiful particularity so we could not forget: Aida Cartagena Porlatatín, Ramón Emeterio Betances, Julia de Burgos, Antonio Maceo, Gregorio Luperón, Sonia Pierre.

And once in a while I blow dry my hair, for fun, as I claim with others that we are Black Latinxs and proud Black Studies scholars.

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