“Yes, but How Latina Are You?”

By ISABELLA ALONZO

I am constantly asked just “how Latina” I am. I would say this question has come up more and more since coming to college. “So, wait… you aren’t black?” Well, I am  —  I am an Afro-Latina. But what does that even mean to someone who is unfamiliar with this demographic — a demographic that has only become comfortable labeling itself fairly recently? As a Dominican American born and raised in Queens, New York, I am not used to being questioned about my identity  —  people kind of just know. “Oh what are you, Dominican?” I guess I took for granted what Queens is — the most diverse borough in New York City, and arguably one of the most diverse places in the entire world. It’s hard to ignore race when there are cultural hubs in Queens for everyone —  Greeks in Astoria; Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese folks in Flushing; Italian Americans in Bayside (where I am local to); Dominicans, Colombians, Mexicans, and Ecuadorians running Jackson Heights and Corona; African-American and Afro-Caribbean people holding down Jamaica; the heavy Jewish community in Forest Hills… We have everything within one place (which, yes, means the food is bomb). When I came to college, I stopped assuming that people were on the same page as me when it came to race, and more importantly, different identities. I have noticed that many people at Middlebury are born and raised in “monocultures”  —  places that lack diversity or multiple identities, often suburban prep cultures that aren’t tricky to dissect. I know New York can’t be everywhere, and it isn’t a comfortable place for everyone, but what it stands for is important and could shine through in more spaces. Why would my peers here be used to questioning identity, or taking it into consideration, when they haven’t been exposed to many races? I suppose they are from places where “other” is simply “other.”

FIGURE 1: CITIZENPATH.COM

 

The questions I am asked have everything to do with why the texture of hair, color of my skin, and plumpness of my lips don’t fall within a familiar category  —  I’m not fully black, I’ve got to be something else. Yet when I tell people Spanish is my second language, it “makes sense.” My last name helps give away the fact that I am “more exotic.” Why does it always feel like I have something to prove? I don’t  —  it’s more that people have something to learn, especially white people. The white definition of what Latinas look like is narrow. Either you look like Selena Gomez, or Gina Rodriguez. You can’t look like Zoe Saldana, Christina Milian, Rosario Dawson or Dascha Polanco. It’s too unfamiliar. I grew up with a lot of people trying to tell me what I am, and while they are correct that I am black, they are often too close-minded to consider that Latina is more than just one color, or one race. “Oh, I didn’t know Latinos could be black…” This mentality is what perpetuates shame in the black Latino community. There is a certain loss to society we have by living in such monocultures :  when cultures become isolated there is danger in having a single story. We lose something as simple as exposure to and acceptance of different foods, while also losing something as great as perspective or empathy.

FIGURE 2: US CENSUS BUREAU 2010

Who do we blame for this? I guess it’s easy to point to the United States government —  but I’m going to point to the United States government. I cannot describe the frustration that comes with filling out forms at doctor’s appointments, especially when it comes to the “race” section. In a country where Latino-ness has been consistently associated with illegality, “crossing the Mexican border,” “Taco Tuesdays” or curvy women in reggaeton videos, the Latino body in the United States has either been made to look like a working Mexican immigrant, or Jennifer Lopez.

I had a friend who identifies as black ask me why I don’t identify as black. I don’t not identify as black  —  I do, and proudly. My frustration is that I am a Dominican-American woman, and I wish more people innately understood that the Latino identity has more to it than meets the eye. Let’s take the forms below for example.

At the end of the day, I can fill out a form any way I want to, but I do get stressed out while doing it. The separate section for “Hispanic or Latino” in Figure 1 explains it all. No one really knows what is going on there, including myself. What does that even mean? One time when I was at the doctor’s office, a man with a similar complexion to me sat down beside me. It seemed he was taking a particularly long time filling out his form, even after being handed one in Spanish. He turns to me and asks (in Spanish), “where do I write down that I’m Cuban?” It made me laugh, but it was a good question. A question I remember asking myself every time I took a standardized test growing up. I was often forced to choose only part of who I am.

I often think, “maybe I should be filling out black and Latino/Hispanic,” but the American definition of black does not explain my cultural background. The American definition of “black” implies being African American, and filling this out would be incorrect because neither of my parents were born here. The term “black” is often an insufficient answer. We look at Figure 2 on the right, one that acknowledges race and nationality. It makes us question why every form doesn’t include all of these subcategories. According to the Pew Research Center, they are trying to find ways to improve the accuracy and reliability of its race and ethnicity data. A major problem is that a growing percentage of Americans don’t even select a race category provided on the form. In fact, “as many as 6.2% of census respondents selected only ‘some other race’ in the 2010 census, the vast majority of whom were Hispanic” (Krogstad and Cohn 2014). Go figure.

So, what is an Afro-Latina? In its simplest definition, “Afro-Latina is an ethnic identifier that enables Latina women to articulate a political identification with their Afro-diasporic roots,” says Dr. Ana-Maurine Laura, an anthropology and Latino studies professor at the University of Oregon. She adds, “the term makes our Afro-diasporic roots visible and central to our identities, like Chicana/Xicana makes our Mexican hermanas indigenous roots visible and central.” It’s a term that has been coined to label this complex identity, and it’s relatively new. According to a 2016 Pew Research study, one quarter of all U.S. Latinos self-identify as Afro-Latino, Afro-Caribbean or of African descent with roots in Latin America. This number only accounts for those who are choosing to self-identify; this isn’t considering those who are ashamed to embrace this, or don’t even know that there is a significant amount of African descent in their blood. How might we increase the number of U.S. Latinos that self-identify as Afro-Latino? Why might people be ashamed to embrace their identity?

I never had the privilege of meeting either of my grandfathers. They are from very opposite worlds in the Dominican Republic. My dad’s father worked for the dictator at the time, Rafael Trujillo, and grew up in a very privileged white-Dominican family. My mom’s dad was an Afro-Dominican who eloped with my grandmother and eventually made it to the United States. If my grandfather (mom’s dad) were in a room with ten African-American men from Brooklyn who identify as black, I cannot help but think that they would not have much to talk about. Besides the fact that he simply wouldn’t be able to because of the language barrier, there is not a huge cultural crossover. Where collard greens and fried chicken feed into a black stereotype, arroz con gandules, platano and pollo guisado feed into another. In a community where Ray Charles and Nat King Cole are eulogized, Juan Luis Guerra and Fernandito Villalona are eulogized in another. What would bind these men is the color of their skin, and the ways in which this has shaped the way they move throughout society.

This also forces me to question, why shouldn’t my grandfather be celebrating who he is in the same room as these ten men? Black culture in the United States is quite synonymous with African-American culture. We often don’t celebrate it with blackness that extends beyond this, such as in the Latino culture. Often, we don’t take the time to celebrate it, period. It has historically been hard for people to celebrate being black when it has been associated with everything negative and unwanted. Black is the color of dirty coal, stormy skies, unlucky cats and crows or bats that fly around ominously in the sky. But black is also a color that represents strength, power and seriousness. It is elegant, formal and prestigious. It can command a room just as easily as it can darken one. Black is beautiful.

There are Afro-Latinos across the United States faced with this conflict. The arbitrariness of the ethnic category in the Latino community causes confusion from within. For ease of understanding the information that comes with our identity, we are forced into a box that doesn’t quite define who we are. A box that often does not reflect genetics in the same way marking oneself down as “Caucasian” would. It does not allow for us to proclaim the race that is so deeply embedded into our culture. But it’s still about a lot more than taking ownership of a category, and having the census hand it to us. Among the limited ways in which the government has chosen to acknowledge this identity, stereotypes of the Latino identity that do not allow for ‘afrodescendente’ to fit into the equation, and the shame associated with celebrating blackness (which is intrinsically linked to systematic oppression that often pushes this aside), it is understandable why Afro-Latinos have an especially difficult time explaining or celebrating who we are.

What I wish more people understood, especially my monoculture-hangin’ friends, is just because people are from both cultures  does not mean they are less of one. To be a black Spanish speaker in Latin America means to see, taste, hear and feel the African heritage at all times in our phenotype, in our food, in our music, in our rhythm and in our dance — to embrace a lot of the aspects that are praised in the Latino community which come from the African influence. Being Afro-Latina means acknowledging my racial and cultural background, so I’d like to continue unapologetically living life on the hyphen. Afro-Latina it is.

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“Yes, but How Latina Are You?”