Being Black & Latinx in the United States

When I was a little girl, my grandmother used to fret about me staying out in the sun for too long. “Te vas a poner prieta,” (“You’re going to turn black”) she would cluck at me, clearly wanting to prevent this horrible thing from happening.

I was always super confused about this cause I was born with chocolate brown skin. I’m darker than some of my black girlfriends. There was no going back to some lighter-skinned fairytale version of myself that never existed. No matter how much I avoided the sun, my skin was going to be “prieta.” The funny thing about this is that the very same word used to denote unwanted blackness is also used as a loving nickname. Calling someone prieta or prieto in Puerto Rico (where my family is from) can be a term of endearment.

We have a complicated relationship with race and colorism all across Latin America.

All across Latin America, the black populations are often the poorest, most marginalized communities. It’s also REALLY hard to get some AfroLatinos to admit that they are black. I’m pretty sure if you ask the Dominicans born of Haitian ancestry currently being deported back to a country they have never called home what they think about that, you’ll get some interesting answers.

Here in the United States, it also very complicated when you ask Latinxs to self-identify race. Though about 25% of Latinxs surveyed here in the U.S. say they are “AfroLatino” only 18% of them denoted their race or at least one of their races as black. Say WHAT?

Part of the problem is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the words Latinx and Hispanic connote. Neither are indicators of race, you can be Latinx and be black, white, indigenous, Asian, etc. It just basically means that you’re ancestors come from any country in Latin America or the Spanish Caribbean, including Brazil. Though this is often used interchangeably with the term “Hispanic,” they are not the same. Hispanic just generally refers to those who come from countries of origin where the Spanish language is spoken. So this term would encompass those from Spain, while the term Latinx would not.

What makes my brain hurt is the fact that there is a large community here in the U.S. willing to identify as AfroLatino while simultaneously refusing to accept their blackness. There is an intense anti-blackness drummed into Latinxs. The colorism is so deeply ingrained in Latin America that if you ask someone who looks like me what their race is they will go down a list of everything from “India” to “Mestiza” to “Mulatta” just to avoid saying black.

Once you add the basic human desire to always see another group as less than — no matter where in the hierarchy of oppression you stand — you can understand why some U.S. Latinxs may be comfortable embracing their AfroLatino heritage, but not their blackness.

Black people are subject to unrelenting systematic racism. Demonized by both mainstream media and the criminal justice system. the U.S. black community is more marginalized than most any other minority group. Who would want to identify with that history of hatred and abuse?

But we have to align ourselves. And we should want to. Because the black community here in the U.S.A. and those of African heritage all across the globe have been standing up to the kind of fascism we’re currently dealing with for hundreds and thousands of years. People like Donald Trump think there is a difference between calling for the registration of Muslims, mass deportations and policies like Stop & Frisk but there is not. It’s an attempt to make us all less human and to make our civil rights less important than theirs.

It took me a long time to self-identify as black but it wasn’t a case of self-denial. My parents did a really good job of explaining the African ancestry of Puerto Ricans to me and I was well-educated and proud of that aspect of my history. I just always felt “not enough.” When I with my black girlfriends, it was clear to me that I was most definitely not one of them and that I could in no way understand their struggle. Which is 100% true. It’s a different experience. When I hung out with Latinas, it was made clear to me that even though I had dark skin, I was lucky because I had “good hair,” and and other phenotypical attributes that they blatantly pointed out kept me from the “black” designation. Now I know I am enough, but it was confusing and apparently, I’m not the only one.

What finally crystalized my identity for me was a couple of horrible racist experiences I had as a young adult. First, I was denied service in a bar in Latin America because I was black and told the only reason they let me in was because I was with a bunch of “gringas.” Then I experienced NYC housing discrimination at its finest when I showed up with a deposit check to pick up keys to a new apartment that reached full capacity the second the management saw my face (even though it had just been built and about 50% of the apartments were empty that very morning). Racists don’t see any difference between me or a black woman or a lighter-skinned Latina. They just see a woman who is NOT white.

The only way we can force racists to acknowledge our humanity and basic rights is to do it together. Instead of denying our blackness, let’s embrace and uplift it and work together to bring the most vilified, the most oppressed, the most marginalized communities real justice. Desmond Tutu said it best:

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.

All lives won’t matter until #BlackLivesMatter.