Tamika Burgess is a Writer and Educator. She produces the monthly Afro-Latina focused newsletter, Es Mi Cultura. Follow her on twitter @TameeksB
By Tamika Burgess —“I thought you were Black!” This is the response I sometimes get from people when they find out my parents are Panamanian. Looking down at my arm in a sarcastic manner and responding with, “Oh, I thought I was too,” is how I jokingly dismiss the statement when I am not in the mood to explain the difference between race and ethnicity.
Being questioned about my background happens frequently. Mainly because I make it a point to represent my culture whenever possible. Embracing my Panamanian and West Indian background was something that was taught to me at a very young age. Both of my parents were born and raised in Panamá, but past generations from both sides of their families originated from West Indian countries.
My father’s family is from Barbados and my mother’s family is from Jamaica. This is where my family gets our darker pigmentation and our West Indian traditions from. Both families migrated to Panamá to help with the construction of the Panamá Canal. Being a direct descendent of Panamanian parents is something I have always held close to me like a badge of honor, displaying it proudly throughout my entire life.
Growing up in a household with Panamanian parents with West Indian roots meant you were spoken to with a mix of Spanish, Bajan, and broken English. You ate Arroz Con Pollo, Plátanos, Jamaican Patties, (also known as Empanadas), and drank Sorrell. You grew up listening to Celia Cruz, Héctor Lavoe, Rubén Blades, Gregory Isaacs, and Bob Marley. You attended Panamanian events and knew all the Panamanians in the area.
And whenever you met someone who had a Panamanian parent, nine times out of ten their family knew or grew up with someone in your family. And I absolutely loved that. It was like I belonged to my own special club, bound together by Panamanian culture. That made me feel comfortable because we all understood each other.
But things were different when I met people who did not understand. I grew up in a small suburban community, with barely any Black people. When people heard my parents’ accents or noticed we had a “foreign” flag hanging in the mirror of our car, I got questioned: “So if your parents are from Panamá, how are you Black?”
When I was younger I had no idea how I was supposed to answer. My mom would say, “Tell them you are a Black Panamanian.” Giving that response worked for a while but when I got older that response only led to additional questions. People would ask, “Well how are you both?” and often times I would explain. But after a while I found myself bothered that people couldn’t understand how I was Black with a Latin background.
In addition, the community I grew up in was mostly familiar with Mexican people. Even though Panamá is a completely different country located in Central America; whenever I mentioned Panamá and said my parents spoke Spanish, people automatically assumed I was Mexican. Based on where I lived and the age group I was dealing with, I kind of understood their lack of knowledge…
But when I moved to Los Angeles to attend college I figured I would get questioned less, but I was wrong. Since Los Angeles is often referred to as a “melting pot” I thought people would be more aware of cultural diversities. Throughout college I continued to receive the same kinds of questions and reactions regarding my background. I was amazed that people just flat out could not grasp the concept of a Black Latina.
It wasn’t until I watched a few videos on YouTube that I started to understand society’s mentality on this subject. I remember watching a video called “Afro-Latinos: The Untold Story,” it featured Black Latinos discussing our lack of representation in the United States. I was able to relate to everything discussed in the video. The underrepresentation of people like me is what leads to the ignorance of others.
This is why I am thankful for blogs, YouTube videos, and various websites that bring attention to the term “Afro-Latino.” This type of awareness can bring about change in the way we are viewed, or lack thereof.
As for me, I will continue to do my part by producing Es Mi Cultura– A monthly newsletter highlighting Afro-Latinas. And regardless of if I feel people should know the difference between race and ethnicity, when asked I will always take the time to explain my background and let people know I am Afro-Panameña.