Identity A Challenge For Latinas Who Are Black

Feb 3, 2016

  When people think of famous Latina women, Jennifer Lopez or Sofia Vergara come to mind.

Not Zoe Saldana or Rosario Dawson.

The difference between these pairs of Latina actresses isn't one of talent or fame. Saldana and Dawson also happen to identify as Black - a reality some Tampa-area Afro-Latinas say is difficult to navigate. 

“People respect our (Latino) community but for the Afro-Latinas, people just like to group us as Black and stuff and want to deny that we’re Spanish,” said University of South Florida student Jessica Roberts, who is Puerto Rican and Dominican. And Black.

Roberts said she doesn’t speak Spanish, and as a result is told that she’s not “truly” Latina. People say she should only identify as Black.

USF student Jessica Roberts is Puerto Rican and Dominican. She said she is questioned all the time, if she is Latina.
Credit Naomi Prioleau/WUSF

“I really don’t like having to associate myself with a different culture that’s not my own, because I don’t know anything about that and it’s kind of annoying whenever someone tells you you’re something that you’re not,” she said.

While Afro-Latinos have ancestry that links back to Africa, some like Roberts choose to identify with the country they’re from or where their parents are from.

“So I always try to side with my Puerto Rican and Dominican side, because that’s really what I am.”

People who identify as Latinos make up a significant part of the Tampa Bay area population, nearly 23 percent. Blacks account for another 26 percent, according to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau

However, it’s not so easy to break down the number of Afro-Latinos here – or elsewhere. The U.S. Census doesn't currently give the option for Latinos to identify as another race, meaning even if someone is Afro-Latino or Asian-Latino, they can only mark Latino.

USF sociology professor and author Dr. Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman said the inability to count Afro-Latinos isn’t the big problem. Latinas who are also Black struggle to find acceptance in both the Latino and Black communities, as well as with themselves.

She said it’s easier for people – in the Tampa Bay area and around the world - to see Afro-Latinas only as Black because skin tone is what people initially see.

University of South Florida sociology professor and author Dr. Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman, shared her thoughts on the struggles Afro-Latinas face to self-identify.
Credit Naomi Prioleau / WUSF

“Their nationality isn’t seen first, their Blackness is seen first,” said Hordge-Freeman, author of "The Color of Love: Racial Features, Stigma and Socialization in Black Brazilian Families."

“So I think that understanding the complexity of Blackness is a global issue, it’s not just an issue for the United States to figure out.”

Evelin Diaz is Afro-Dominican, and a  Spanish language teacher’s assistant at Lennard High School in Ruskin. More than 50 percent of the school's student population is Latino, but Diaz said she gets strange looks from students because of her kinky hair.

“Right now, where I work, a lot of Mexicans, people from Guatemala, students from Guatemala look at me like weird because of my hair, because I’m different than them,” she said. “They don’t have the same hair that I have and we’re Latino.”

Diaz said she chooses to identify only as Latina or Hispanic, because that’s how she was raised in the Dominican Republic.

Tampa resident Nanyelis Diaz - who is also Afro-Dominican – said identity is not that simple—especially when it comes to formal paperwork like a job application.

“I actually leave that question unanswered to be honest,” she said.

The complexity becomes clear as Diaz breaks down her family lineage.

“I don’t know if I’m like White, if I’m African American because I am from the Dominican Republic. I was born there,” she said. “My grandmother is like Black…her skin color is Black, but my grandfather was part Chinese…So it’s just like a mixture. So I just really never know what to identify myself.” 

Afro-Dominican and Tampa resident, Nanyelis Diaz said she never knows what to identify herself as on legal documents.
Credit Naomi Prioleau/WUSF

Hordge-Freeman said it’s critical for Afro-Latinos to know their racial history, and to realize that most people will judge them based off what they see.

“I think that it’s hugely important for Afro-Latinos in particular to understand this particular racial history of their countries and then when once they have that understanding make these more informed decisions about how they identify,” she said.

“Ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s everybody’s decision how they identify, but how they’re read by other people, I think can sometimes contradict how they see themselves.

Roberts said while it may be easier for some to accept what people say they look like, in the end, Afro-Latinas can never, and should never, deny their roots.

“You can’t deny where you’re from and your roots and stuff like that so people can put you in this box but that doesn’t mean you fit there.”