Gringa, Black or Afro-Latina? I've Been Called All Three

Afro-Latina, Gringa or Black? I've Been Called All Three

I've always had a very complicated relationship with the term "belonging." Perhaps it's because I've straddled so many worlds in my life, but my true "belonging" place often feels like it's in the fringes. 

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My parents are completely representative of Puerto Rico's diasporic history. My mom's deep brown complexion and large-and-in-charge, black, kinky curls serve as the complimentary to my father's fair, freckled skin with soft, dark brown curls. Together, they made me: medium-light skin, a bushel of tight, black corkscrew curls on my head and dark brown eyes. For as long as I can remember, my mother has called me hincha, which in our dialect of Spanish means pale or light-skinned. I don't know why, but from a very young age the word made me feel like an outsider.

Growing up in East Harlem in New York City, everyone who looked at me could tell I was Puerto Rican. But in elementary school and junior high, I was always known as the gringa. I was always one of the girls with the fairest skin in the class with my unruly curls always pulled back into a neat single braid down my neck. My skin literally paled Snow White in comparison to the olive, brown and black complexions of my peers around me — making it that much easier for them to see my cheeks turn red in embarrasment when they made fun of me. It didn't help my case that I didn't know Spanish (yet) and was kind of a book-loving, nerdy know-it-all. 

When I went away to college in the Midwest, my identity journey became even more complex. Attending a predominantly white university in Wisconsin, I was confronted by white people from rural areas who didn't even know what Puerto Rico was. In trying to identify my Caribbean Latinidad, I was a complete enigma between my medium skin tone and my larger-than-life hair. I certainly didn't look white like them, and I didn't look Mexican (which they perceived as the "Latinx Look"), so that really only left one qualifier for them: black. Many people thought I was mixed, black and white, Latinx and black, or just black in general. Growing up as the light-skinned one in my family and in my neighborhood, it boggled my mind that I could also be perceived as black. 

As I started taking more classes on Latinx history, culture and race, I started to learn more about myself and what it meant to be a descendant of the African diaspora. The way that one of my mentors, who is an African-American woman, described it is: there is no difference between where she and I came, just where our ancestors were let off of a boat. While I was hesitant at first, I became more comfortable in identifying as Afro-Latinx, acknowledging that I am a daughter of both a white Latinx man and a black Latinx mother. While I acknowledge that I do not come from the same sorts of experiences as darker-skinned Afro-Latinxs, this is the common ground where I find peace with my identity.

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The identities placed on me have always been within the eye of the beholder, and I've never been easy to put into a box. I know I do not have the same sorts of experiences as black women; however, I know I have blackness in my DNA, and it manifests itself in other characteristics than my skintone. I acknowledge the level of whiteness I have and the privileges it grants me, but I no longer let it define me and encompass all of what I am.