My Afro-Latina Identity Is a Gift... But I Didn't Always Feel This Way

Sadly, I do not live in a world where Afro-Latinos are very visible. My world reinforces what I learned as a child: that having white skin is "better."
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The first time I was called a "nigger," it was by white Latinos. I was 8 years old.

The memory is really painful and defining. Back in the 1970s there wasn't a name for what I was. I was a kid whose mom was a light-skinned Dominican and whose dad was a darker-skinned Jamaican.

I was darker than both of them.

I did not understand my identity. I had no Southern roots, no soul food and no connection to the civil-rights movement. Instead I had my Caribbean family, led pretty much by my daring, immigrant mom, who cooked Dominican food, spoke to us in broken English and Spanish, taught me and my sister to dance the merengue and painted the walls of our New York City tenement in pinks, blues, greens and yellows, as though she were still living in Santo Domingo.

So there I was, on the border of Harlem, in an elementary school that was 95-percent Latino. During recess a group of light-skinned Latino boys made it very clear to me that dark skin was bad. According to them, I was not Latina and never could be, even though my mother was Latina. In fact, I was told, I was ugly because dark-skinned people are ugly. They told me that I was adopted because my sister had light skin and so did my mother.

The few African-American kids in my class were quick to chime in that I was not black either, despite my brown skin. My features, my sister's light skin, and my accent (which, at that time, mirrored my mom's) did not match their perception of being black.

I cried for days in my room, too ashamed to tell my parents or my sister. I was different. I was dark-skinned, and it seemed like all everyone wanted to be was white. In my Latino community, living on the brink of poverty in a rundown New York City neighborhood, those with lighter skin felt superior.

The bullying blew over, but those feelings of not fitting in stayed with me throughout my childhood and most of my adult life. It was reinforced throughout by many other incidents and questions people asked me about my race and ethnicity.

Sometimes I just wanted to say I was African-American. It would have been so easy, but how could I ever deny that I am the daughter of a Dominican immigrant who struggled so much for me? How could I deny who I am, especially because it was her sacrifices and her belief in me that fueled so much of my success?

A few years ago I was invited to sit on a panel about media and Latino identity for a group called afrolatin@forum. When I looked out at the large audience of people who were mostly dark-skinned Latinos, it was an incredible feeling. Although the focus was media, it became very personal, because the conversation kept returning to our common struggles around identity. Afterwards we could not stop talking about our shared experiences.

Sadly, I do not live in a world where Afro-Latinos are very visible. My world reinforces what I learned as a child: that having white skin is "better."

In my world most Latino journalists are light-skinned, most Latinos in corporate America are light-skinned, and most Latinos in media are light-skinned. Afro-Latinos are the ones being left out when a New York Times article states that Latinos are checking the "white" box on the census.

In May Telemundo and MSNBC anchor José Díaz-Balart was on an MSNBC segment to discuss the controversial New York Times article and was asked if there is a race problem within the Latino community. He said there is not, which reinforced just how invisible we are. And to top it off, the segment did not have one Afro-Latino guest. Speaking on our behalf were African Americans.

But having a name for my identity, "Afro-Latina," has been a gift to me. I am fiercely proud of my African and Latino roots. I am a woman who knows what it is like to be called a "nigger" and the challenges of being black in America. I also understand the challenges of Latino immigrants, because I was raised by one. From my experience, the racism that exists within the Latino community is painful, but I am sharing my story to a give a face to the struggles of Afro-Latinos and give voice to who we are.