“You’re black, not Hispanic!” my best friend used to tell me all throughout middle school. These words would bother me to my core. Every time she said them, frustration and anger flared up. Each time, I felt like I had to prove her wrong. I’d respond with a quip in Spanish, or retaliate by giving her the cold shoulder for the rest of the day.
My parents are both Honduran, born and raised. They grew up on the coastal island of Roatán. They both have cinnamon skin, curly, thick, healthy hair, and prominent noses. They both speak Spanish fluently, but because they both came to the U.S. as young adults, their English is pretty up to par as well.
My first language was Spanish. Scents from my childhood include perfume de violetas and camphor. I watched telenovelas with my mom and my favorite meal was black beans and white rice. My mother religiously used Silicon Mix products on my hair. All of these are things many other Latinos have likely experienced.
Yet, outside of my household, I was constantly denied this identity: I faced surprise whenever I revealed it. For example, whenever I called my mom to let her know I was OK while out with friends, I spoke to her in Spanish. Almost every single time I got off the phone, I’d turn and look into the confused face of a friend or acquaintance — a look accompanied by the exclamation, “I didn’t know you spoke Spanish!” or “You don’t look like you speak Spanish.”
Every time I was told I was black, I would go to my mother and ask her if this was true, or if there were any black people in the family. Each time, she would respond with “Mi hija, tú eres Hispaña.”
But while my mother continued to reassure me of my identity, the rest of the world seemed convinced to categorize me into another. My hair is thick and curly, my skin is the color of sandalwood, and my nose is broad. I really did not look like the other Latina girls at my school — who had long black or brown hair, relatively “cute” noses, and fair skin — or the actresses I watched on telenovelas with my mother. Most of the performers were fair-skinned, had straight black hair, and could largely pass as white. I wondered why I couldn’t just look the way I was “supposed” to look so I did not have to constantly defend myself against people who thought otherwise.
My frustration only grew throughout middle and high school: I was considered too light to be entirely black, or too black to fit in with the Latinos, and never felt truly accepted by either group. Whenever I was around my Latina friends they would point out the stark differences between our features. “Your hair is so poufy, can I touch it?” they would ask. Or, they would frequently comment, “You have a big nose.” On the other hand, my black friends singled me out for being “light-skinned,” and for my ability to speak Spanish.
I wanted so badly to straighten the kinks and curls out of my hair, to lighten my skin and to get a nose job. I thought that would allow me to finally conform to what I thought I should look like as a Latina. I began to perm and straighten my hair every day, stayed out of the sun just so that I would not get any darker, and looked into the possibility of getting a nose job. I felt ugly in my own skin.
But around fall 2013, I discovered the term that fit me perfectly, and would change my perception of the world and my life forever. While scrolling through social justice Twitter, I stumbled upon the phrase “Afro-Latinx,” which refers to Latin American people of significant African ancestry. I felt a large wave of relief as I realized I had finally found a word that accurately fit my identity.
I also learned about “colorism,” which is prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group. Colorism is rampant within the Latino community (and plenty of other non-white communities), and I realized that this is the reason why my family has so adamantly denied our blackness. Colorism is the root of my self-hate for not looking “Latina,” and why I wanted to change myself; I wanted to change everything about myself that is natural and beautiful to simply adhere to what other people thought I should look like, to the stereotypical image the media had forced down my throat.
This newfound information made me want to rebel against these societal standards. I cut my straightened hair off and embraced my natural coils and curls. I started soaking up the sun instead of avoiding it. I merged my black side with my Latino side and started to learn about and love myself for who I truly am.
The hardest part for me now is to inform and educate my family, friends, and the rest of the world that Latinos come in a variety of shades, and we shouldn't be placed into a stereotypical box. Being both black and Latino does not make you any less or more of one identity than the other. I’m an Afro-Latina, and proud of it.
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