By Gabrielle Greiner – For many of us who claim “Afro-Latina/o”, finally finding a label that suits our identity is refreshing. More than that, it affirms who we’ve always known ourselves to be. Not everyone agrees with assigning labels to people, but to quote one of my favorite TV shows, “Dear White People”, “Without labels, people in Florida would drink Windex.” Our brains are programmed to categorize and label things in an effort to understand what’s safe, what’s unsafe, what’s new, what’s familiar, etc. So, I like labels. I love labels. I identify with labels. It helps me process and understand this perplexing world and my identity.
As a little girl, I didn’t really know that I was much different from everyone else. I knew I didn’t look lily white like many of my schoolmates, but I also didn’t have very dark skin like my black schoolmates. I definitely didn’t look like my Asian schoolmates. Mom spoke a little Spanish at home and we ate a lot of rice and beans. Well, I ate the rice with the sauce from the beans. I thought that beans were disgusting until I was in my 20s. I had heard that we were Puerto Rican and that Dad was white, but it didn’t lodge in my mind as anything of true significance, or as anything that might cause me problems later in life.
When I entered middle school, I began to become more acquainted with my ethnic identity. This was around the time when I started to see that I was quite singular: no one looked like me. In fact, no one who looked anything like me shared any similar hobbies or tastes. The other Latin kids at school were odd to me, because they were so unlike me. They were loud, didn’t pay attention in class, dressed in an urban style, and only associated with each other and with the black kids. I suppose I wasn’t considered either because they didn’t want to associate with me. I didn’t like the music they listened to. I didn’t like their clothes. I didn’t like their accents. I didn’t like how LOUD they were in class. I’m sure that some of this stemmed from growing up in a whitewashed educational system that taught me that “white is right” and anything that differed from that standard was incorrect or inappropriate, but of course I didn’t realize that until I entered college.
Some of the Latinas had curly hair, but it didn’t look quite like mine. Their curls were loose and they fell in long layers down their backs. They could sweep it up into a ponytail and their hair would swing from side to side. My hair only swung like that when it was wet. Any other time, if it were in a ponytail, it became a curly puff at the nape of my neck. I hated it. By God’s grace, I love my afro hair now. But, that’s the thing. At the time, and for many years after, I didn’t recognize my hair texture as afro hair. I was taught that Latinos and Black people were two different groups. Yet, we had so many similarities. We looked similar. We were often grouped together, usually called the “urban” and “ghetto” kids. How could we be strongly distinct groups if we had so many similarities?
So why did I have hair like that? Why did the other Latina girls have different hair? Many of them had straight hair. The Colombian and Venezuelan girls had long, straight, black hair. Their lips were smaller than mine. Their features sharp. They looked like a blend of indigenous and European heritage (I didn’t know this at the time.) The Puerto Rican girls had hair that was similar to mine, but not quite as textured.
I grew into a young Puerto Rican/German woman with no understanding of my true ethnic identity, as I saw it. I knew I was Latina, but I didn’t see myself in the Latinas at school and definitely not in any of the famous Latinas at the time. The early-mid 2000s was not a good time for Latinas in Hollywood. Well, Hollywood still isn’t welcoming to Latinas and if they are, you wouldn’t find an Afro-Latina in a starring role. I’ve yet to see one of us in a strong, lead role, where no one is a maid, a temptress, a teenage mom, or a thug girl. I knew about Jennifer Lopez, but she didn’t look like me. She had light-colored, straight, long hair. Her lips weren’t as large as mine. I remember seeing Rosario Dawson star in “RENT”, and I learned that she was also Puerto Rican. But, I felt like she looked black. That confused me so much. How could she be Puerto Rican if she looked black? Puerto Ricans aren’t black. They’re Puerto Rican. Right?
Until I was in my early 20s, I was left in this binary and felt absolutely unsure about where my place was. I never identified with any Latina that I ever knew, either because of the difference in our respective phenotype or a difference in tastes or behavior. The latter is another story. Then I heard about Gina Torres. As a nerdy girl, I loved the TV show “Firefly” and the movie “Serenity.” I loved Gina Torres’ character. She was a black badass woman with an adorable white husband who loved her strength and brought out her soft femininity. I loved their dynamic. I LOVED her hair! It was curly and looked like mine, although it was a bit longer than mine. Her lips were large like mine. The main difference in how we looked was the drastic difference in skin color. Her skin is much richer and darker than mine. In fact, I had cousins who looked like her. Hmmm. Maybe…
A simple Google search told me that she was Cuban and my mouth hit the floor. My heart jumped! I knew that Puerto Ricans and Cubans, besides being neighbors, were closely related people groups. What does all of this mean?? I explored the Internet some more and discovered the term “Afro-Latina.” A Latin person with African roots. A black Latin person. Equally black and Latin. All at the same time. Latina magazine interviewed Torres five years ago and she’s quoted as saying, “My view of myself doesn’t change. I know who I am. I’m Cuban American, both my parents are Cuban–one was a little browner than the other one. That’s who I am. I feel sorry that it’s taken so long for the film industry to figure it out and to catch up.” This incredible discovery prompted me to research Puerto Rico’s history through two courses on Puerto Rico at my alma mater, Hunter College in New York City.
While studying there, I learned the full history of Puerto Rico, from the time of the peaceful Tainos, the dehumanization of African slaves brought by Spain’s colonizers, the U.S.’s colonization and sterilization of our women, Pedro Albizu Campos and The Young Lords (both Afro-Latinos as well), and the current state of the island. Typing in “Puerto Rico” in your search bar will bring up countless articles about what our island is suffering and what we have survived thus far. I encourage you to do some reading.
I realized that I was an Afro-Latina. This explained my hair texture, my voluptuous body, and my full lips. My skin was lighter than Gina Torres’ skin and other Afro-Latinas because my father is a German-American man. Although my skin is fair, my African blood runs strong through my veins. I had to learn this in school and on the Internet because my mother never told me that we were black. She doesn’t see herself as black. I suppose you could say that she hasn’t been awoken to the truth of her Afro-Latina identity. But for me, finding out that there is a name for what I am and who I am felt so satisfying and validating! Now when people are curious about my ethnic background, I can proudly tell them that I am Afro-Puerto Rican and German. When people ask why my hair is so puffy and curly, I can tell them that it’s because I’m black. When they ask, “How can you be black? You’re Puerto Rican…and your skin is light.” Then I can tell them the story of my isla, Puerto Rico. The only way we’ll achieve a deeper and more widespread understanding of Afro-latinidad is by telling our stories to others. When that story has been shared enough, we must change the story from simply “Black Latinos exist” to “This is who we are. Write about us. Make movies about us. In fact, let us do it ourselves. Because we have a lot to say.”