*This article is a continuation of our Black History Month celebration*
Since the people I interviewed in this article, including myself, come from the islands of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and both are considered in Latin American and the Caribbean, I will be using the terms Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latina interchangeably.
I never identified myself as anything other than Haitian. In Haiti, you never identified yourself as being anything other than Haitian. However, in my time growing up in America, it felt almost essential to have a clear label to your racial identity. This became obvious to me one night in my younger years. I was watching a movie with a group of friends when a commercial for Roots played. This sparked a conversation between me and one friend about the impacts of black film. I admitted to her my lack of knowledge about black directors. My friend responded “oh it’s because you’re not black.” This led to me being silent for the rest of the movie. As soon as I got in the car with my father, I brought the conversation up and expressed my frustrations.
“What’s that supposed to mean? How am I not black? I’m Haitian!” My father listened to me as I rambled and said, “do not let anyone tell you what your identity is.”
I nodded unaware that this would be something that would be a constant reminder for my future.
The biggest struggle of my college career would definitely be my identity. This was a result of my early school years when my peers would try to ignore my blackness. It led to a struggle of finding out where I fit in. “Should I hang out with the black kids? Should I hang out with the Latino kids?” It would lead to moments where I would stare at census forms and try to figure out what box I wanted to put myself in. It would take until I attended North Carolina State University that I would find other people who understood my personal experiences. I eventually embraced my identity as a proud black woman. I hope in the future we will stop the erasure of blackness amongst Afro-Latinx and Afro-Caribbean populations.
A feeling that was consistent throughout my growing years was the idea that I had to choose my identity. More so, I should choose the one that makes the most sense to other people despite anything I may feel. In the Afro-Latinx community, it is a constant task to explain and debate who you are to other people. “I always have people trying to define my identity, tell me that I am not black, or that I am not Latina enough. I often find myself feeling excluded from the black community because ‘I am not black enough.’ Constantly having to explain my complex identity to people or having to debate with them because they are uneducated,” says Naz Santiago, a 19 year old NC State student that is majoring in Business Administration (Marketing intended) that identifies as Dominican.
There’s an expectation for black people (of all backgrounds) to visibly fit a cookie-cutter sense of what a black person should look like. “When you see me, I don’t look like I’m Afro-Latina because I am very light skinned, instead I look super racially ambiguous. A lot of people don’t even try to make an effort into actually understanding what my background is and instead make assumptions on how I look or who I hang out with,” says Brianna Ochoa, 21, an NC State student majoring in Paper Science and Engineering that identifies as Dominican and Mexican.
Growing up, the only person that I could look up to that was a famous Haitian was Wyclef Jean. When I watched telenovelas or American movies, very rarely did the Latinas starring in them have curlier, kinkier hair or darker skin. Sometimes it felt almost impossible to be both black and have another intersectional identity such as Afro-Caribbean because you rarely ever saw it as a possibility on your tv screen. When I reflect on my freshman year of college, I remember feeling this lack of representation, and feeling rather isolated in my identity. I remember at one point being fully convinced that there were no other Haitian students in my college. I remember digesting the ideas that the media fed me. This even led to a point where Latinos not having lighter skin or not speaking Spanish was a foreign idea to me.
Naz expresses this when I asked about the representation of Afro-Latinas in the media.
“Afro-Latinas in America are very underrepresented, this is why the term isn’t even widely known. I think we need more representation. When a Latina is being depicted, I often don’t see myself because they are often the idea of what a Latina is ‘supposed to look like.’ There is this whole idea that a Latina is light skinned with wavy or straight hair, ignoring the fact that we exist.”
According to the Pew Research Center, “a survey of Latino adults shows that one-quarter of all U.S. Latinos self-identify as Afro-Latino, Afro-Caribbean or of African descent with roots in Latin America.”
Organizations like the Caribbean Student Association, Fusion Dance Crew, Black History Month Committee and Latinx Heritage Month Committee are just a few of the organizations that helped me love every part of being an Afro-Caribbean woman. From the kinks and curls in my hair, to the spice in my food, I love every part of living and expressing who I am as a Haitian woman. Although there are trials and tribulations that come with identifying as Afro-Latinx, it seems as though once you reach a level of insight within yourself and you make that identity visible to others, it brings in a whole new perspective of how you see yourself.
I talked to both Brianna and Naz about how they reached the acceptance of their identity as Afro-Caribbeans. When I asked Brianna about her journey of acceptance, she explained to me:
“I only just started claiming my identity as Afro-Latina when I came to college. Being a mix of Mexican and Dominican, I didn’t learn a lot about my Dominican side until later on in life because my family wasn’t as close. My wanting to learn more about my Dominican side all began when I started to wear my hair naturally. I had grown up in an environment that made it easier and more acceptable to straighten my hair rather than to wear it naturally. However, one summer vacation as I cut my hair super short, I realized how beautiful my naturally curly hair was, and was no longer afraid of it. Once I began to wear my hair natural, I started to be asked more about what I identify as, because I must be mixed in some way to have that sort of hair. Throughout my time in college I have learned more about my hair and the culture that goes with it, and have started to appreciate more each day to the point where I am proud and happy to call myself Afro-Latina even though I may not look it to other people.”
Similarly, I asked Naz the same question and she responded:
“At first, I had no idea what that was, I only identified as Dominican, nobody teaches you that stuff in the Dominican Republic, because everyone just identifies as Dominican. Then you move to the states and realize identity is very important here. Race and ethnicity in the states is talked about often, so when I moved here I was always overwhelmed with the question of ‘what are you?’ I always answered with ‘Dominican,’ often getting backlash from certain people because they knew I was black and they thought I just didn’t want to admit my blackness. Many Afro-Latinos are not educated about their identity, and I believe I was one of them. Until my older sister started teaching me about our history and why we are Afro-Latinas, everything started making sense. As the term became more visible, I started to take on the identity of Afro-Latina. I happily claimed it. I finally had an identity that combined my struggles and my race and ethnicity. Often, they don’t teach us to embrace our African descent, causing us to deny our identity, and to not be educated, or we are just straight up taught to embrace the European in us and neglect the African descent, sticking to that colonizer mentality.”
As Black History Month comes to an end, it serves as a reminder for all of us from different backgrounds that this is deeper than a month, and this doesn’t stop after the last day of February. We are all black, and we keep on being black from the time the sun rises to when it sets. It’s been a difficult journey for all of us but at the end of the day what holds true is that our identity will be something that carries on with us forever and we are all embracing our blackness no matter what language we speak and no matter what flag we wave. We can only hope that the visibility for Afro-Latinx and Afro-Caribbeans increases with time and that the next generation of black children with similar backgrounds don’t feel like they cannot express their identity the way they want. In those hopes, I leave the future generation with kind and warm words from people that were in a similar position.
“Do not let anyone tell you what you are, don’t let people get to you, educate yourself about your identity and voice it however you want to, and strictly let them know you know what you are and you don’t need to let anyone tell you what you are, or what you are not. You are not less black or less Latina. There is no shame in embracing your blackness.”
–Naz Santiago, 19
“One piece of advice I would give to younger Afro-Latinas is to not be afraid. Don’t be afraid that you may look different, whether it’s your hair or the color of your skin. Don’t be afraid to voice your opinions and thoughts, and have the courage to tell people that you identify as Afro-Latina. It took me a long time to have the strength to do it myself, and I wish someone had come to me when I was younger and just gave me validation that my hair is beautiful with all its kinks and waves and that no matter the shade of my skin I am indeed Afro-Latina.”
–Brianna Ochoa, 21
Raniah Jeanlys is a proud Haitian-American woman that was born in Pétion-Ville, Haiti and then grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is currently a senior at North Carolina State University majoring in Business Administration with a concentration in Finance. She enjoys being an active student and participating in activities outside of school like dancing and volunteering at animal shelters.