I’ve spent most of my life confronting other people’s questions of racial authenticity: am I really Black? Why does my hair look like that then? I speak Spanish well—who taught me? A lot of unconvinced side-eye from Black Americans, exclusion cloaked in superficial acceptance from non-Black Latinos, and probing “what are yous?” from white people. The persistent questioning that often accompanies racial ambiguity, at this point well-documented, can feel invalidating. Yet lately I find myself engaging in a similar kind of gatekeeping, closely guarding the boundaries of my own identity. Indeed, as Afro-Latinidad gains some prominence in mainstream media, on social media, and among Latinos in particular, I’ve become wary of claims to it.
I remember a few years ago the only coverage I could find about our community was a short video produced by Mun2 (now NBC Universo), in which several Black Latino celebrities were interviewed about their identities. Watching the video was, for me, a lifeline: it was the first time I had seen people on screen talk about being both black and Latino, at least in explicit terms.
Today, Afro-Latinidad has a weightier presence in many circles. The decades-long work of black Latinx activists —for recognition, cultural preservation, an undoing of color hierarchies, economic equity— has led us to this time of heightened visibility.
With visibility, however, comes the risk of misuse.
Recently, I’ve noticed light-skinned Latinxs who fit into traditional conceptions of Latinidad (olive-toned, dark wavy hair, a more mestizo or Mediterranean appearance) claiming Afro-Latinx identity. Dominican writer and artist Zahira Kelly lamented this trend on Twitter, writing, “Now it’s latina chicks with hair everybody already calls pelo bueno, wearing nappyhead girls ‘pelo bueno’ tees.” Kelly has also, along with others, accused singer Kali Uchis of deliberately manipulating her racial image (presenting herself first as a white, blonde Latina, and then as a brown-skinned one with cultural ties to hip-hop) as she gained popularity within the mostly Black R&B market.
One of my own articles, about Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” reboot, was criticized on Instagram because someone felt that Anthony Ramos (who plays Mars Blackmon) could never, in good faith, represent an Afro-Latino. And just last week, I was unsettled when I heard Big Beach Productions, along with playwright Tanya Saracho, is currently developing a TV show called “Brujas,” about young Afro-Latinas in Chicago.
Of course, these things are not unquestionably bad. It’s common for musicians of color to change their image depending on audience and often this says more about a racist music industry than an individual artist; Saracho’s show may indeed offer an affirming reflection of our community; and although I have little patience for straight-haired Latinas wearing “pelo bueno” t-shirts, it’s possible that many of them are just now coming to terms with their own Black ancestry and view such shirts as a public acknowledgement. Still, this commodification of racial identity concerns me. As Roberto Carlos Garcia writes in his article about embracing Afro-Latinidad, “Remember: We’re not creating a brand. Your identity is not a marketable widget.”
So what happens when it’s treated like one?
I worry that those who should be at the center of this movement, who have in fact led it, will get left behind.
A 2016 Pew Research study found that Afro-Latinxs in the U.S. are more likely than other Latinos to live in poverty, and less likely to have attended college. In 2013, nearly 60 percent of Afro-Latinos reported family incomes below $30,000. And Princeton University’s PERLA, an extensive study on race and ethnicity in Latin America, found that dark-skinned people were consistently most marginalized across a number of categories: housing, employment, interpersonal discrimination. When Afro-Latinidad turns into a brand, these structural inequities —and the people affected by them— get sidelined. In these cases, my instinct toward racial gatekeeping, although not always helpful, is a defense against appropriation, erasure, and the material consequences of these phenomena.
To some extent, even the ways in which I claim Afro-Latinidad require deeper consideration.
I’m a relatively light-skinned Black person, with loose curls and biracial features. I grew up middle-class. Moreover, it seems to me that the public “face” of Afro-Latinidad most often looks like mine: Gina Torres, Judy Reyes, Laz Alonso, Princess Nokia, Rosario Dawson, Lala Anthony, Zoe Saldaña, Elizabeth Acevedo, now Cardi B. Most of these people are also wealthy, although perhaps that means less when we’re talking about media representation, which tends to either favor those with resources or facilitate access to resources. Amara La Negra, one of the few dark-skinned Afro-Latinas with a more mainstream platform, has only recently gained it.
So what’s liberating about a movement if it reifies old hierarchies of color and class?
Indeed, as Amara brought up in her interview on “The Breakfast Club” —in which hosts Charlamagne Tha God and DJ Envy sunk to new lows of misogynoir —color influences so much of what’s possible for people, especially women.
Cardi B’s rapid success as a Black Latina artist has in part been facilitated by her appearance; put simply, the mainstream music industry, a reflection of our society, favors those with lighter skin. Someone who looks like Amara cannot necessarily replicate Cardi’s meteoric rise into stardom.
I’m not suggesting that those of us who are lighter, or have looser curls, or more resources, should negate our Afro-Latinx identity. “Afro-Latinx” is meaningful not just because it denotes our culture and appearance, but also because it carries our histories. It reminds me, for instance, of my family: Black people from Panama who originally migrated from the West Indies to work on the canal. Black people who fry plantains, and cook oxtail and rice and beans on Sundays, and watch novelas every other day of the week. Black people who, five generations ago, were enslaved in Martinique and Jamaica.
But not all our claims shoulder the same weight. As Afro-Latinidad becomes a more recognizable concept here in the U.S., it’s possible that more Latinos —across race— will begin to interrogate their own families, will begin to realize or accept that they too share African heritage. This has already been happening, and I think it’s largely a good thing. However, there’s a difference between having a Black ancestor, and being a Black person. It’s not a rigid or even quantifiable distinction; instead, it’s about how your life has been shaped by history. It’s about how your choices, or lack thereof, have been colored by race. It’s the sometimes blurry separation between pride and profit.
I spent last summer in Latin America, on a trip I had envisioned as a sort of homecoming, but that of course ended up being far less romantic and far more complicated than that. While traveling, I often spoke with my friend, an Afro-Boricua from Brooklyn, about these issues of racial belonging. In one of our conversations, she mentioned wanting to connect with Puerto Rican communities that are “Black-Black.” I immediately noticed myself react to her language; my own insecurities about racial authenticity, a somewhat cliché byproduct of growing up mixed-race, rustled in my belly. I asked her to say more, and she continued: “People who are inescapably Black.”
And from this, I understood what she meant. And so to it I add, people for whom Afro-Latinidad is not so much a matter of reclaiming something lost or disputed as proclaiming something marginalized.
I know sometimes it’s both of those things; often, histories get lost precisely because they’re marginalized. Still, I’ve been thinking a lot about the differences between the two words, and about how they matter.
Maya Doig-Acuña is a native Brooklynite and recent graduate of Middlebury College, where she studied race and worked as an editor for Beyond the Green, a writer-activist blog. She has written for Harlem Focus, will be published in a forthcoming issue of Duende Literary Journal, and has received support from Bread Loaf School of English. Maya currently works at Futuro Media Group in Harlem. She is a lover of feelings and television shows that make people cry.