Negra & Beautiful: The Unique Challenges Faced By Afro-Latinas

The frustrating ironies of being Afro-Latina hit Yuly Marshall with stunning regularity: At work at a Miami hospital, Hispanic patients of the Cuban-born radiology technician usually assume she’s African American, asking her, “Where did you learn to speak Spanish like that?” and expressing shock—even skepticism—that she’s really Latina. Other times, fellow Latinos will disparage African Americans in front of her with phrases like, “What can you expect from negros?” and then turn around and tell her, as if paying her a compliment, “But you’re not like that. You’re one of us.”

When Marshall talks about race issues with African American coworkers, they often tell her she has no idea what it’s really like to be black. Yet a few years ago, when Marshall dated a lighter-skinned black Latino, his parents persuaded him to break it off because of her dark skin. “They told him to find a white girl so he could adelantar la raza,” Marshall says, using a phrase that roughly means to ‘push the race forward’ by marrying a light-skinned person and producing children lighter than yourself.

“Sometimes I think, ‘When is this going to end?’” says Marshall, 31. “But I love my skin color. God created me this way, and I’m just as good as any other person.”

That healthy sense of pride and self-awareness may be on the rise among young U.S. Afro-Latinas, despite the kind of veiled racism, ignorance and denial—from Latinos and non-Latinos alike—that can make everyday life a challenge for Marshall and others, say Afro-Latino activists and experts.

Part of the reason may be that there are more Afro-Latinas with high-profile careers than ever before—including Zoe Saldana, Lauren Vélez, Dania Ramirez, La La Anthony, Arlenis Sosa, Joan Smalls and Soledad O’Brien—and they are vocal about their heritage and race. “As a Latina, I think we should be very proud of our heritage,” Zoe Saldana has said. “We tend to look for European roots and reject the indigenous and the African, and that’s disgusting. Being Latin is being a mix of everything. I want my people not to be insecure, and to adore what we are because it’s beautiful.”

Afro-Latinas in their everyday lives are also connecting with each other like never before, thanks to social and nonprofit groups on college campuses as well as on social networking sites. On Facebook, where there are several groups about Afro-Latina identity boasting hundreds of members, even the page of a not-yet-aired documentary called Afrolatinos: The Untaught Story has 1,240 ‘likes’ and attracts vigorous debates.

And then there are events like November’s three-day conference in New York, called AfroLatin@ Now! Strategies for Visibility and Action, hosted by prominent nonprofit AfroLatin@ Forum along with El Museo del Barrio, the City University of New York and the prestigious Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. As of press time, more than 500 people are expected to attend.

“People are increasingly identifying as Afro-Latino,” says Miriam Jimenez Roman, who edited The AfroLatin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States, a collection of essays by Afro-Latino writers that recently won the American Book Award. “They’re aware now that such an identity is a possibility.”

If it sounds strange that some young Latinas don’t know that it’s okay to be black and Latina, it’s because of the barrage of mixed messages young Afro-Latinas get.

Of the estimated 11 million enslaved Africans brought to the New World from the late 1400s to the 1860s, most were taken to Latin America and the Caribbean, with only some 645,000 landing in the United States. “So when you’re talking about blackness, you’re really talking about Latin America,” Jimenez says.

Yet while African musical and culinary influence on Latino culture is often celebrated, the Afro-Latino experience in many Latin American countries has been muted. In the Dominican Republic, for example, the government once encouraged blacks to use the term ‘indio’ instead of ‘black’ to describe themselves, partly as a way to distance themselves from neighboring Haitians; Mexico officially recognized its extensive African DNA only recently, even though its second president was Afro-Mexican and at one point slaves there outnumbered their Spanish masters.

Many Latin American countries have de-emphasized race for another reason, says Arlene Davila, Ph.D., a New York University professor of anthropology. “National identity was supposed to trump racial identity,” she says, supposedly making everyone equal. Black Latinos were made to feel as if trumpeting their race made them less Cuban, for example, though in reality, the political and economic power lay with light-skinned citizens.

Immigrants bring that baggage with them to the United States, and acquire more when exposed to American race relations—which tend to be in stark black and white terms, with little room for the possibility of Afro-Latino identities. “A lot of kids grow up in homes where they are living this Latino life that is very white-based, because you have parents who bring with them negative prejudices about African Americans,” says Yvette Modestin, director of Boston’s non-profit Encuentro Diaspora Afro. To differentiate themselves, Montesin says, “parents hold on to their Latino-ness at all costs, imagining that they are making things easier for their kids. And they’re not. They’re making things harder.”

It doesn’t help that despite the high-profile black Latinas making it in Hollywood and other industries, black Latinas are rarely seen as such in movies (many black Latina actresses play African Americans on screen) and in ads, which generally depict Latinos as light-brown hued. The effect on Afro-Latinas, Modestin says, is the creation of a “very schizophrenic world” in which many are not understood or accepted.

During workshops that Modestin puts on for Afro-Latino middle- and high-school students, kids are asked to walk around the room as Modestin asks them about themselves, including their racial makeup. “In all the years I’ve been doing this, there’s never a time when I’m not faced with a young Afro-Latina who stops her movement when asked if she’s of African descent,” Modestin says. “It’s ‘I don’t know,’ even if the child is visibly of African descent.”

The inspiration for the program was Modestin’s own experience adjusting to life in the United States as a freshman at Northeastern University who’d just moved from her native Panama. “I’d come from a strong, proud Afro-Panamanian family and once here, other Latinos absolutely rejected me,” she says. “I said to myself, ‘This needs to be talked about.’”

She began to speak at colleges, and then founded Encuentro as a place where Afro-Latinos and others of African descent could explore and celebrate their roots. Last month, she spoke in front of the Congressional Black Caucus about the challenges that Afro-Latinos face and the alliances that can be forged between Latinos and African Americans. Now in her 40s, Modestin wears natural hair and often sports African or Afro-Panamanian clothes—partly, she says, as a way of challenging Latinos’ preconceptions about what it means to be a Latina.

Still, she says, “There are days when it’s easier to not say that I’m Panamanian, because that way I don’t have to explain myself. And on those days, my head hurts, my stomach hurts, because in that moment I’m not moving as my full self.”

For Marshall, there hasn’t ever been a time in which she’s felt anything but complete as an Afro-Latina. Her parents made sure of that. “They raised me saying, ‘Color is just color. You’re no less or more than anybody,” she says. “You don’t look at color, you look at a person’s inside.’ That’s what I do.” And that’s what so many just like her are starting to do, too.