As an Afro-Latina, I constantly feel stuck in between two different and convergent identities: Being Black while being Latina and being Latina while being Black.
I remember watching these beautiful alabaster-skinned Latinas with hourglass figures and light green eyes, long layered silken hair, their smiles flickering in the soft glow of the television light. They were the beauty queens of Latin America: the women you wanted to look like and the women that men wanted to have.
I also remember seeing Celia Cruz in all of her flamboyant and regal costumes. She adorned her Blackness with glimmering rhinestones and shimmering fabrics. She was a living, singing altar to the brilliance of being an Afro-Latina. She single-handedly disrupted what I thought being Latina was supposed to be.
When Univision or Radio WADO weren’t blasting at full volume at my grandma’s house, that meant all the adults were at work. I took advantage of this silent, empty time to flip through my grandparents’ hidden photo albums which held the first snaps of their lives in the South Bronx. There were pictures of my tall, fair-skinned grandfather in his guardia uniform. My grandma was statuesque in her cropped pants and heels, her hair perfectly straightened and cascading down her back. She, like Celia, was so beautiful. But unlike Celia, she was much quieter and restrained about her beauty in those pictures.
As magical and powerful as I found Celia and my grandma, I found Blackness confusing. Some of my relatives look Black, while others look like El Chivo himself. People would say derogatory things about Haitians and Black non-Latinos ― things you’d expect to hear come out of Bill O’Reilly’s face and not necessarily my tiny Black aunts who looked like they could be from just about any country in the African diaspora.
What I realized about my Black-looking relatives was that they never saw themselves as Black.
At least not this American Black that the younger members of our family seemed to embrace and explore with unrestrained curiosity.
"...I latched onto the stories of Black women resisting and writing themselves into history."
I’ve always found the concept of American Blackness very fascinating. I learned a lot about the civil rights movement of the 20th century by reading the writings of Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde and Shirley Chisholm. I was fixated by their ability to bend their words into a language of resistance. I wedged myself in between their thoughts, picking out the parts of their story that I could use to better understand my existence as an Afro-Latina in the United States. In the absence of Latino history throughout my compulsory education, I latched onto the stories of Black women resisting and writing themselves into history.
Until I got to college, my Latino education had been a blur that skipped from the Aztecs and Mayans to Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. The real education happened privately: phone calls with my grandma, learning to cook with just the most basic ingredients and family rituals that honored patron saints and tradition.
At family gatherings, we danced bachata and merengue into the early morning. My uncle and his friends, however, also listened to Rakim and KRS-One and played basketball at the courts by my grandma’s house. I learned from my uncle and my younger relatives that we didn’t have to choose between being Black and being Latino. But above everything else, my uncle set an important example for me: I could equally love the Black and Latina in me.
As children of the diaspora, our identities have roots in the messy, complicated and ugly history of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Our memories are scattered across islands and oceans and continents. But in the struggle of finding who we are, we might be closer to finding we can be many beautiful, synchronized things all at once.