Black History Month and My Afro-Latina Identity

For the entire month of February I have grappled with writing this post. Yet the subject is something that is very important to me and what better way to the end Black History Month than by complicating its annual observance.  If you take a look at my “about” page or the bios provided on most of my social media channels for the blog, you will notice that I identify as an “Afro-Latina.” In my experience the term “Afro-Latino” is one that either stumps or angers a couple of people; it usually depends on where you are and who you are talking to. It stumps some people because they are not aware that “Latino” is not a racial category, but an ethnicity, and it angers others because of the misconception that Latinos cannot be Black.

This misunderstanding is one that is sadly shared by Latinos as we generally reference ourselves through our national ties or those of our parents. I grew up understanding that I was the daughter of Panamanian immigrants. Though I was born and raised in the United States, I wasn’t considered “American” by many of my peers as evident from the ever present: “Where are you FROM?” America sees things plainly Black or white and anything that shatters that mentality often brings negative responses. As a result, I was taught to hate my hair, skin color and the fact that my first words were in another language other than English. (I blame the media and the American education system, but that’s a topic for another time.)


Me at 12 years old wearing the Panamanian pollera.

I will admit that prior to 2011 I had always identified as a mixed Panamanian. To me that meant that while my skin clearly had melanin, I wasn’t necessarily Black. This was not done in effort to reject any personal association with Black people and Blackness, rather it was because I didn’t identify with any of the characteristics that I believed makes one Black, like listening to rap music, and watching/playing basketball. (Needless to say that this was due to a failure of understanding that nationality, ethnicity and race were three very distinct things, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)

As a kid, I always felt more comfortable with Latinos than with African Americans or even West Indians, though I was still kept at arms length by Latinos because of my skin color, American nationality and citizenship. Being able to say that I was mixed also helped to explain how I could be a Latina even though I had curly hair and my skin was darker, or at least darker than the mainstream understanding of Latinos. (Think Sofia Vergara.) I never saw characters like looked like me in the telenovelas (Spanish-language soap operas) my mother and her friends watched, or in Latino-run magazines.  I questioned the fact that I was Latina as I clearly didn’t look anything like the beautiful women on the television screen and never heard about Panama in media unless it was referencing the canal or Noriega. In fact the first time I ever encountered a Panamanian protagonist was a book, entitled Marisol and Magdalena: The Sound of Our Sisterhood by Veronica Chambers that my Afro-Dominican best friend introduced me to when I was 17.

By the time I entered college my understanding of identity shifted. This started with an Anthropology class project in which I had to write a (mini) ethnography dealing with nationality and ethnicity. I decided to write mine on people who were products of the marriage of immigrant parents of different nationalities. In one interview I asked my participant to state his name and background. He responded with the following: “I am an American of Colombian and Ecuadorian descent.” Looking back I find it funny that I even dared to correct him as he clearly knew what he was talking about. He was born and raised in the United States ergo he was American. Period. Though it may seems like an obvious observation now, it caught me off guard. From then on I identified as an American of mixed Panamanian descent.

My mother and I at an international festival in 2013 wearing nagua from the Panamanian Guaymi tribe that my mother is from dresses.

Identifying as a American of mixed Panamanian descent wasn’t too far off either considering that my mother is descendant of one of the indigenous groups from Panama. (My mother and I at an international festival in 2013 wearing traditional Guaymi nagua dresses.)

Soon after that I came upon the term “Afro-Latino” which I immediately latched onto. By identifying as Afro-Latina I reclaimed my whole self, breaking away from the whitewashed image that once made me question my existence, beauty and sense of worth.  I honestly don’t remember how I was introduced to the term, though it immediately lead me to start researching the history of Panama and my family tree. I didn’t get too far with my family history, yet I was enlightened by what I learned about Latin America, specifically Panama. For instance, I already was well aware that Latinos tend to be in denial of their Black African ancestry (that came from the slave trade) resulting in anger when it is even mentioned. What I didn’t know was the extent of the history behind this social rejection due to skin color. Much like in the United States, there are a lot of negative views and prejudices attached to darker skin and, by extension, Blackness; such things like violence, and lower intelligence. 

While Black History Month is very big in the United States and even the United Kingdom, it is worth noting that only 5% of slaves arrived here. The other 95% went to Latin America and the Caribbean. Even with these vast numbers, many Latinos still believe that their bloodlines are “purely” European, coming from those Spanish Conquistadors that took over the area. Needless to say, a lot of blending went on. Slaves with the indigenous populations, the Spanish with the slaves, as well as the indigenous populations and so on. And in Panama’s case,  the children from the aforementioned unions mixed with incoming immigrants from neighboring islands like Jamaica, as well as Chinese workers who came to work on the canal in the early 20th century. So its safe to assume that not one Latino is “purely” of white European/Spanish descent. Coincidentally, while many Latinos reject their multicultural and racial roots, nationalistic Latino pride is inadvertently a celebration of African ancestry that is present in our food, music, art,  traditions, and even fashion. Great efforts have been made in SOME Latin American countries to draw attention to the African roots of Latino heritage as well as celebrate the contribution of Afro-Latinos, though it has yet to be acknowledged during the observance of Black History Month. 

Just to be clear, I am not attempting to “rob” African Americans of anything, I just want to be a part of the conversation. The fact is that we should celebrate the African American contributions to as people of color only have access to certain social positions, jobs and privileges because African Americans fought for the rights to have them. Yet the fact remains that Latin America and Latinos, like the United States and African Americans have been affected by slavery, discrimination, poverty, gentrification, violence and negative racial stereotypes. As such, Black history should be a time for lifting each other up, celebrating our differences and embracing the similarities due to our interconnections in African origin. I strongly believe that it is with the inclusion of other Black narratives, like that of Afro-Latinos, could very well help bridge the gap between the African American, West Indian and Latino communities. After all we share the same range of hues and same struggle.

Me this past weekend at my church's international social wearing a Kuna mola tee and textured skater skirt from FTF.

Me this past weekend at my church’s international social wearing a Panamanian Kuna handmade mola tee and textured skater skirt from FTF.

And I know that both the Black and Latino communities will disagree with this, yet whether or not Afro-Latino history and identity is officially embraced this month, it is valid. I am a Latina of Panamanian descent, Black, Guaymi, American, but most importantly, I am Black history.

3 thoughts on “Black History Month and My Afro-Latina Identity

  1. sraedoes says:

    Thank you for writing this. I’m mixed race (black and white) so I can’t empathize with your experience, but the line “By identifying as Afro-Latina I reclaimed my whole self, breaking away from the whitewashed image that once made me question my existence, beauty and sense of worth,” spoke to my own reclamation of the word mulatto. And while I can’t and don’t want to represent the entire Afro Am community, I’m glad you identify as Afro-Latina. I’m sorry some people have a problem with that, and I wish for you lots of relationships that affirm your identity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Marlena says:

      Thank you for your kind words. I’m glad that you are also affirming your identity. I think the more we use our social platforms to spread such messages will bring change to the misconceptions of race and ethnicity, one can only hope it will be soon.


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