If Derek Zoolander ever had opinions to share about Black Latinas, I’m pretty sure he’d say something like “Afro-Latinas are the essence of lit, and lit is the essence of fire.” Unfortunately, not everyone understands how fire and great Afro-Latinas are, in fact, many would prefer not to recognize us at all. As Black women who are part of the Latin community we aren’t just faced with underrepresentation, we’re also frequently questioned on our identities as Latinos and asked to explain how our identity could possibly exist on a daily basis. Along with the everyday microaggressions of identity-challenging that we experience, there are a slew of spoken and nonspoken slights.
1. My most vivid memory of being made to feel “other” and less than because of my skin tone happened in a ballet studio.
CREDIT: Alex Portée
There’s no doubting the positive impact my years of ballet training had on forming my personality. Ballet taught me discipline, the value of self-care as well as an appreciation for my own femininity. (Also, these days I’m often told that I have pretty on point posture.) Still, even years later, it remains just as easy for me to remember the lessons ballet taught me about Black skin: it was one of the first environments where I learned that it would rarely be embraced.
Ballet has a thing for the color white, actually, it glorifies it. Classic ballet styles often hold dearly onto the image of pale tutus and dresses, white swans and snowy fairies. It was on the floor of dance studios and behind curtains that I learned that this reverence extended beyond clothing and to skin, just not mine. This was a lesson that I had drilled home for me by a teacher who relentlessly made a point of letting me know how much of a hassle she thought that my skin was to her. Particularly when it came to my shoes. Every year when dress rehearsals came around she’d grumble about the way my pink stockings and shoes looked against my dark skin.
In the world of ballet, pink or beige colored stockings and shoes are standard in keeping uniformity among the corps de ballet dancers who are typically white. The colors, generally, blended well with their skin on stage and in photos and typically gave the desired “flesh” tone look, but it never worked with mine. Even if my instructor had allowed me to find stockings and shoes that would match my own skin tone, the products would not have been available. At the time, darker flesh-tone colored shoes weren’t available in mainstream ballet shoe companies. Even today, professional dancers of color struggle to find shoes that match their skin and often endure the laborious task of “pancaking,” or applying makeup to shoes in order to match their skin tone.
2. My experience as an Afro-Latina in a primarily white school was often just as hurtful, if not worse.
yall basically view afrolatinas as an anomalous incomprehensible aberration. a glitch. a pebble in your shoe.
— morenaje (@bad_dominicana) June 7, 2018
My skin became an easy target for a lot of my peers who shared the playground with me during my days in elementary school. But when it came to actual microaggressions around my identity as an Afro-Latina, standardized testing seemed to be my most predictable aggressor.
Most minorities already know this story well, the one where their first ever identity crisis occurred at the hands of a standardized test. One where they were instructed by a teacher to fill out a survey that asked for their sex, race, or ethnicity and soon found out that they were given a limited amount of options, some that might not have even applied to them at all. The first time I became confused about my own sense of Afro-Latinidad happened when a state issued test to pick between my race and my ethnicity.
I remember searching through the very short stack of categories and uncertain of how to define myself. I could pick Black (me), Hispanic (ahem, also me), but not both. As I re-read the section I became perplexed. I’d never had a hard time understanding the concept of Afro-Latinidad. My mom was Black and from Cuba. She was both. Pretty simple stuff. But I also knew that if I only selected Hispanic then I would be leaving off the part of me that came from my non-Latino Black father. I raised my hand to clarify. When my teacher came over to help, she erased my answer for me, “Oh, no,” she said walking away. “You can put Black. Latinos are white.”
3. As I got older, the microaggressions I faced became more obvious to me the more I realized how often I was constantly being told how “intimidating” I was.
— Paige Travis (@Paigeblkcreativ) March 29, 2017
“I was too shy to say ‘hi’ to you our first day because you seemed so intimidating.” I got this a lot as a student in high school and college, and it was generally always from the students in my class who were not of color. Initially, I took the comments as a form of flattery, as if my drive and success as a student radiated with so much power that I had convinced others into believing that they could never beat me. That they thought I was better. (After all, this was how the comment was being presented to me.) But then I started to tune into key parts of the confessed judgments, “the first time I saw you,” “when we first met,” “my first impression.” There was a noticeable pattern in the comment I was receiving and who I was receiving it from. It didn’t take long for me to also notice that none of the other Black and Latina women in my class were having a problem pairing up with or approaching me before class.
I can’t imagine that many people feel complimented when they’re told by a person who doesn’t know them that they give off an initial impression of being scary. The feeling doesn’t get much better when you’re a person of color who knows that you’re being described in this way because of your status as a minority. Of being raised in a society where your existence as a person of color is often shipped as a threat. As a Black girl who lives in a world that teaches us that to be Black is to be threatening and white to be: pure, I’ve come to understand that to be seen as intimidating is to be perceived as scary. That it means I’m being percieved as The Angry Black Girl.
4. These days, I still find myself being challenged on my identity as a Latina.
CREDIT: Alex Portée
Recently I went to a hair salon where I had a brief conversation in Spanish with my stylist. I’m not sure when the owner of the salon, who is Latino, was actually invited into our conversation (they weren’t) but they ended up asking if I learned the language in school (as if I couldn’t have learned it in my own damn Latino household). My stylist answered for me and explained that I was Cuban-American. The salon owner instantly chucked me with the “your mom or your dad?” question. This type of cross-examination is something I’m used to as an Afro-Latina and comes packed with a load of implications, the big one being that one of my parents has to be a white Latino. The ironic thing is, my Latinidad gloriously comes from my very Black, very Cuban mother.
Of course, there’s still a lot for the world to learn about Afro-Latinidad. We’re a prevalent, vibrant and important aspect of the Latino community. Everyone should take the opportunity to learn about us primarily because we are so much more than the slights and insults we experience on an everyday basis.