Confessions of an Afro-Latina’s Misconception- Leah Zayas



As most 80’s born, 90’s raised, Generation Yers I witnessed the release of one of the greatest animated films of our time. One that taught the in- valuable lessons as being part of the “circle of life”.

And as I will still passionately belt out the lyrics upon hearing its namesake theme song, a particu lar quote has remained with me into adulthood. During a key scene in the film, The Lion King, Simba, now coming into young adulthood, has a ran- dom encounter with the town (kook) wise monkey, Rafiki. Annoyed with the initial interaction, Simba questions “Who are you?”

And in true assistance in verge of self discovery manner, Rafiki simply replies “ The question is, who are you?”. Simba, experiencing the emotional turmoil of inner conflict and self-unawareness, begins to follow Rafki deep into the jungle as his interest is piqued at the mere glimmer of hope that the questions swirling in his head regarding his identity would finally be answered. Classic coming of age story. One that resonates with my own.

I was born into a diverse family setting. I grew up in Queens, NY in a house with my mother, my West Indian great-grandmother, my great uncle, my mother’s brother and his Belgian wife and my late grandmother’s white , one gay best friend. It was the house my grand father purchased with his wife, also inhabited by her brother and her mother, who after immigrating to America from St. Croix, U.S.V.I. a little over 20 years prior, was now living the American dream. In this home, my grandmother raised four children with her husband, my grandfather, a very dashing man from Harlem of Puer- to Rican descent. The quiet, tree lined block in the Hollis neighborhood was occupied by Italian, Irish, Black American and West Indian families.

My grandparents were very progressive in concepts and were part of social circles that included various races and lifestyles. They sent their children to mixed setting schools in Manhattan and traveled outside of the U.S. They encour- aged interests in theater and various musical genres. My mother and her siblings didn’t grow up with color and race as a main factor. This outlook was inherited by my sister and I along with the majority of next generation rela- tives.

I never considered heavily as a child that our family was Caribbean descended. Almost everyone I knew at the time was Caribbean so it was all the same to me. My mother raised me in this home as a single parent. My father, a black (American) would come around from time to time, but meeting his family would come later. Until then, this was the foundational setting of my identity.
During my childhood, I would go with my mother to Harlem to visit my other great-grandmother, Lucy. She was a delicate boned, tanned woman with straight, silvery hair. Her heavily Spanish accented voice was very light and warm. She was often very quiet and observant as if to be soaking in what would be the remainder of her days in this life. She died when I was 8, long before my questions began to formulate.

When I was older, my mother told me that prior to her death, her grandmother told her she was tired. I couldn’t fathom the idea, but as I matured and understood more about her life, I understood what she was saying to my mother all those years back. Lucy also immigrated to the United States in the mid 1930s, a young woman from Santurce, Puerto Rico. She was trigueña, the darkest of her seven sib- lings.

She became pregnant and embarked upon a voyage to America, alone, although there is still some mystery surrounding the entire circumstance. Never the less, legend tells the story of a young woman who traveled many miles from home to end a pregnancy. At some point she met a black woman, eloquently named Grace, who encouraged her to continue the pregnancy and in doing so she would give her lodging and assist her in raising the child.
Lucy took her up on her offer and to my family, she became affectionately known as aunt Grace. Lucy lived in Grace’s Harlem apartment from the 1940s until her death in 1990. In this same apartment, my grandfather was raised, groomed to be a productive citizen of this country, educated and cul- tured. Due to Grace’s age (considerably older than Lucy) and more domi- nant personality, my grandfather grew up within a predominantly black American culture experience.

From food, ideologies and concepts, to neigh- borhood and school environment. This foundation was the basis for how he saw the world and identified. He was not required to learn to speak Spanish and his mother learned to cook American dishes. In a time where immi- grants faced extreme ridicule and discrimination, Lucy changed their names from Spanish names to more “American” sounding names. As I discovered more about my family’s true identity I began to unearth things within myself and the dots began to connect. I began genealogical research in an effort to learn more about the mysteries and also began to teach myself more about this culture that felt like a missing puzzle piece.
I have always felt close to all things Caribbean, with the West Indian in- fluence in my household, however I now wanted to absorb more of my Puer- to Rican heritage. My grandfather would play Latin Jazz sometimes when I would visit him. I loved an array of musical genres, and delved heavily into salsa, merengue and bachata. I took Spanish early on in junior high school and into high school to learn the language better. Since my grandfather didn’t speak Spanish, he was unable to teach it to my mother and her brothers. I educated myself on the history of la Isla, the culture there, as well as legendary heroes. During this time my mother had relocated us to Atlanta, GA. The culture shock was immense. Due to historical racial tensions and assignments, the culture there seemed fixated on cultural connection by appearance. It was at this time I began to realize I would have to choose an identity.

I didn’t fit in at school. You were either black, white or Mexican… or maybe even black/white racial mix. The mentality was intimidating. And the more I presented my case as multicultural, the more insecure I became because of the bewildered looks my explanations rendered. Their faces would express disbelief and confusion.

Eventually I tried to just see what group I would belong to. As I started high school, I became more involved in my self discovery and would bond with others who didn’t fit inside the box. Although my friends were predominantly black/African American, I forged relationships with kids of various races and ethnicities which was true to my foundational mindset. These people were more accepting of my cultural appreciation as opposed to many of my black friends who would often accuse me of “faking” my background.

This tapped further into an already estab- lished insecurity causing me to respond rather angrily to these accusations. But deep down I felt more pressured than ever to prove myself to be partially Boricua. I was in my advanced Spanish class one day in my junior year.

My teacher began to ask me in front the class about my family background. In my usual spiel, I explained my grandparent’s ethnicities, to include my grand- father. A white girl sitting behind me, known for her ignorance, blurted out “there’s no such thing as black Puerto Ricans”.

I responded by asking her “You’ve never heard of Roberto Clemente?” ensuring the usage of all the romanticism of the Spanish language, emphasizing the roll of my r’s. She was quiet after that and I was able to briefly explain to the class that there were many black Puerto Ricans. In hindsight, this awakened a new found passion to educate the masses on the the presence of black people in Latin America, South America and throughout the Caribbean.

However it took me many years to accept that I could be comfortable in my own brown skin and express my connection with my family’s Puerto Rican heritage. I realized long ago that one of the misconceptions of the Afro- Latina is that you didn’t exist. Although there were pioneers like Celia Cruz and Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, the misconception that non-white means non-latina in main- stream America only now, in 2018, appears to be up for reconsideration. I have personally seen a surge of Afro-Latinx pride in the recent months circu- lating on social media platforms, television programs and music. Especially the music!! I am not famous and my small efforts are only recognizable to myself
and my small circle of friends and family.

However, my heart is elated, my soul ignited. The orgullo and self celebration that I see in the Afro-latinx community is epic and I am honored to be a part of this era. The same beauty I captured on my first visit in 2015 to Puerto Rico is what the world is beginning to see through a different lens. Pictures of local citizens I encoun- tered on my stay, each of them exemplifying the various, beautiful shades of brown, those images embedded in my memory, are now images America is seeing more frequently.

Even in the Latinx community the dialogue is chang- ing and the usual rhetoric regarding things associated with black is being challenged. From curly hair revolutions to African Diaspora panels, the movement has enormous momentum. The most basic misconception of all is giving way to the conception that being black and Latino coexist. And while there is still more to overcome, the revolutionary seeds planted many years ago took root and are now blossoming.
I am still on my journey, my path to self discovery.

With each milestone year that passes, new revelations about my dreams, my wants, my fears, my thoughts, surface. I find myself in awe of how much my perspective has changed. When I come back to that question that has loomed over my existence from adolescence, who am I, the voice in my head speaks more loudly to one of the truths of my heart.

I am a black woman with Caribbean heritage. Puerto Rican heritage. I embody the magnificence of blended traditions. I possess the strength and endurance of enslaved ancestors. I dance with the rhythmic undertones flowing in my blood. I am led through a colorful life by love and laughter. My connection is undeniable. In my absolute moment of truth, I am who I say I am. I’m End of story.


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