I navigate my life by doing two things consistently – explaining and apologizing. Its as frustrating and annoying as you can imagine, yet it becomes necessary when you navigate through life being constantly asked which one of your parents are white (the answer is neither) and how someone of my complexion is of Latino descent. In the United States skin color is your only identity so the moment that I enter a room the confusion starts. Latinos come in various shades as we are the most racially diverse people in the world. As I mentioned in a previous post, it just goes back to history – 95% of the slave trade took place in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Panama, my parents’ native land, even has two significant waves of African/black migration* that helped shape the culture as we know it today. The first is known as the “Afro-colonial” wave in which slaves came with conquistador, Vasco Núñez de Balboa as he settled this territory for the Spanish crown during the 16th century. The second is the “Afro-Antillean” wave which took place around the time that Panama gained its independence and West Indian immigrants from neighboring countries like Trinidad, Barbados and Jamaica, came over to build the Panama Canal. On my mother’s side alone we have family members that are black (primarily of Jamaican descent), white, Asian and indigenous. I think that is actually part of the reason why people have issues with Latinos, because unlike most ethnic groups we are just so diverse that we can’t be categorized easily. Not that we should be doing this but it is a reality, at least in the US. Admittedly, I do associate more with my Panamanian ethnicity than my blackness because culturally that was what I was exposed to more. However, my identifying as Afro-Latina is meant to highlight the African heritage and influences that are often ignored in Latino history and culture. Yet I find that there are people that are quick to say that Afro-Latinos choose when to identify as black and it is done when “it is convenient.”
Taking the time between September 15th to October 15th to celebrate Latinidad as a Latina doesn’t deny my blackness, just like saying I’m Afro-Latina isn’t meant to take anything away from the African-American narrative. (And while I’m on the subject I should point out that there is a major difference between the terms “black”and “African-American,” much like how there is a difference between the labels “Hispanic” and “Latino.” Language is important so this particular distinction is something that as a cultural anthropologist I have tried to point out as much as possible if only to educate. The identifier of an “African-American” is an ethnicity made up of Americans who, for the most part, are descended from enslaved Africans. ) The more I go about talking about this the more I am surprised that this is something that needs to be explained at all.
That being said, I notice more and more that there are those people that will basically quiz me on African-American and/or Latino pop culture and music as if I have to earn a sort of “Black/Latino Card” in order to be Afro-Latina. Often times this leads me to apologize for my ignorance and lack of knowledge. Most of what I enjoy, like academic research, comics, manga, European art and design, soccer, metal music, museums, Renaissance faires and geek conventions are considered to be “very white” by many people and they tend to react negatively. For them it is as if I am betraying both sides of my identity when in reality I’m not.
An episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air comes to mind, specifically the one where Carlton is told he is not “black enough” to be part of a black fraternity. He is viewed by the fraternity’s president to be a “sell out” to his black roots for his privileged upbringing and preppy lifestyle. In fact one of the best drop mic moments of the entire series comes from that episode when Carlton calls the Frat president for his prejudice with the line, “Being black is not what I try to be, it is what I am.” Re-watching that declaration as a adult helped me realize that even though I go about explaining and apologizing, I don’t have to.
No, I don’t look like the mainstream media representation of a Latina. Yes, I know I don’t look like I studied 17th and 18th century European painting, decorative arts and material culture. Yes, I speak Spanish with a hint of an American accent. Yes, I know I don’t look like metalhead and anime/comic book geek that I am. But I don’t have to meet anyone’s expectations, I just have to be myself.
*I use this term loosely since slaves clearly did not migrate to North or Latin America on their own volition.