When Aisha Cort walks into a convenience store with her rich brown skin and tiny dark locs, she knows she has the power to cause confusion by speaking Spanish. Cashiers behind the counter will reply back to her in broken English, showing visible surprise and questioning how she knows the language.
“I'm aware of how people see me,” says Cort, a 34-year-old professor in Washington, D.C. whose mother is Cuban and father is from the South American country of Guyana. “But being Afro-Latina is just who I am. It's not something that I’ve ever had to overthink. ”
The term Afro-Latina—or Afro-Latinx, a more recent adaptation of the phrase Latino for anyone who chooses to remove gender binaries from their identity—is used to describe descendants of Latin America with African roots. Simply put: Black Latinos.
In Spanish, nouns are categorized as masculine or feminine. To remove gender bias, many communities are using the term "Latinx" as an alternative to Latino or Latina. If someone identifies as Afro-Latinx or Afro-Latina, it just means: They're a Latin American of African descent. Though it's a masculine term, Afro-Latino is used in the plural form.
There are millions of Afro-Latino people around the world, from Honduras to Puerto Rico to the Dominican Republic, who have hundreds of combinations of skin colors and hair textures. But for many, the unifying experience comes from their visible Blackness. While some believe identifying as Afro-Latino is a personal choice, others argue it has more to do with a person's physical traits—skin color and hair texture, for instance. Black Latinos lack the privilege that lighter-skinned Latinos have, with an experience that's more akin to the racism and struggles of African-Americans.
Popular culture, however, has only just started to catch up to the existence of Afro-Latinas. Historically, when Hollywood or magazine covers have featured Latinas, they’ve been lighter-skinned celebrities like Salma Hayek, Jennifer Lopez, and Eva Longoria. More recently, Afro-Latina celebrities have been opening up about their identity, like host and actress LaLa Anthony, Orange Is The New Black's Dascha Polanco, and singer and Love and Hip-Hop star Amara La Negra. She told Refinery29 earlier this year that “a lot of Americans are only familiar with the race and colorism struggles of African-Americans, but this exists for Latinos as well.”
“Growing up, I didn’t identify with Hispanics or Latinas at all because I would see Latina media and I wasn’t reflected,” says Nydia Simone, 28, a Panamanian and African-American filmmaker. Simone founded the brand “Blactina” in 2017 to represent Afro-Latina pride and is creating a short film called La Bodega. She adds that she first remembers hearing the term "Afro-Latina" in an interview with Dominican singer Kat DeLuna. “I always recognized myself more in Essence and Ebony, and I was confused how I could be Hispanic and Black. Hearing someone phrase it like that resonated with me.”
It’s not just celebrities leading the charge. Many Afro-Latinas are taking to social media to vocalize their Black pride and ancestry, inspiring dozens of Instagram accounts, meet-ups like the Afro-Latino Festival in New York City, and independent documentary films like Afro-Latinos: An Untaught Story. Each of these stories raise cultural awareness of brown-skinned Latinas, sending the message to the world that Afro-Latinas have always existed. Now, the intersectional identity is finally becoming more visible and more accepted by the mainstream. Census forms and similar applications may also be changing to reflect the fact that while being Latino, Latina, or Latinx is an ethnicity—a way to define the culture you relate to based on where your family is from—your race is more closely associated with your physical attributes.
In 2016, the Pew Research Center issued their first nationally representative survey to ask Latin-Americans whether they identify as Afro-Latino. They found that 1 out of 4 Latinos in the U.S. identify as Afro-Latino—which means one in four people in the United States would need to check both the “Black” and the “Latino” box on census or application forms. But as it stands, they're typically forced to choose one or the other.
The Pew Research Center also found that Latinos with roots in the Caribbean are the most likely to identify as Afro-Latino. It makes sense: During the transatlantic slave trade, more African slaves were taken to Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the islands than to South America or what would later become the United States. Add to that the fact that many enslaved Black women were raped by slave owners, and the result is a very complicated legacy of racial identity for the ethnic group that would eventually be called Latino.
And one result of that painful history has meant that many Latin American descendants ignore their African roots—or reject them all together.
“For some of the people in my family, good is associated with whiteness, and Black is associated with being inferior,” says Alicia, a 31-year-old Dominican-American who preferred not to share her last name because of the way her family might feel about her admission. “Members of my family definitely make jokes about other people because of their skin shade or their color...those are things that are not uncommon in Latino culture.”
Because of those stigmas and stereotypes, for many Latina women, proclaiming themselves Afro-Latina is revolutionary; a direct challenge to the notion that Latinos can't also be Black—and a statement that Black is, indeed, beautiful.NYDIA SIMONE
But making that statement isn't always easy. In September, Afro-Latina meteorologist Corallys Ortiz wore her natural hair on-air for WBBJ in Jackson, Tennessee. A viewer named Donna called in multiple times to tell Ortiz that she hated the look, even leaving a racist voicemail calling Ortiz's hair “n*ggery looking.”
Ortiz recorded her own reaction video to the voicemail and posted a passionate response online defending her choice to be natural.
“For years on end, women of color have always been told their hair wasn’t professional or 'neat' enough for the workplace, and for years women of color would have to adhere to 'white beauty standards' in order to get ahead,” Ortiz wrote.
“For a while, I didn't love my curly hair, but now I love wearing it both ways,” Ortiz says now. “I feel like that's happening more often now: People are embracing theiridentities and not chemically straightening their hair. They're getting more comfortable wearing their hair how it looks naturally.”
The rise in Black consciousness amongst the Latino community is also on display everywhere from merchandise to fictional characters. One of the most popular items on the hair care company MicMas Remix’s website is a t-shirt with the phrase “Todo pelo es pelo bueno,” which translates to “all hair is good hair.” It’s a play on the common Spanish phrase “pelo malo,” often used in Latino culture to describe “bad hair”—or Afro-textured hair. And last year, DC Comics co-created an anthology featuring the first Afro-Latina superhero, La Borinqueña, a Puerto Rican college student who finds her superpowers by going to her family’s island of origin.
While all of these moments are groundbreaking, they don't mark the beginning of Afro-Latina consciousness in America.
“There have been movements about negritude for years and years and years. And I think this is a new generation's arrival,” says Elizabeth Acevedo, an award-winning Dominican-American author and writer of The Poet X, whose spoken word piece “Afro-Latina” went viral in 2015. “On the one end, it's for the Afro-Latinx folks like me who really didn't grow up with the language of Blackness in our households. People like me who have realized: I've always known there was a history we didn't talk about...”
“The other side is that it's the folks who knew they were Black, whose parents were like ‘You are Black,’ but maybe didn't always know how to configure that with their Latinx side,” she adds. “I think Afro-Latinx is really giving people a new access point to being able to say: ‘Here are the many things and places I come from.’”
Jazmin Samora, a 28-year-old Afro-Latina Dominican photographer who lives in New York City, says she is reminded of her Blackness at every turn.
“I had to choose on the playground as an 8-year-old if I wanted to be Black or if I wanted to be Latino, based off of the way other children had been learning history, race, and ethnicity,” she says. Samora has recently stopped straightening her hair with chemical relaxers, opting to let her afro grow.
Since, she says sometimes people won’t speak to her in Spanish at the airport, a microaggression that can be painful.
“I'm sad to think that there are people out there thinking that I'm not Latina. Like how could you even question my identity? My being, my space, my body is not up for an argument. It’s not up for debate that I exist in this world that you also exist in,” Samora says.
It’s a reality that highlights one of the many challenges of this growing movement. With the increasing popularity of the term Afro-Latina (or Afro-Latinx), who really gets to claim it?
Puerto Rican actress Gina Rodriguez, for example, has gotten heat for calling herself Afro-Latina while having fair-skin and straight hair, giving her a privilege that darker-skinned Latinas don't have.
1 out of 4 people in the U.S. identify as Afro-Latino.
Samora believes this is indicative of a larger issue: Afro-Latino isn’t a trend or a phase, but people wanting to claim Blackness at their convenience is.
“I have a real problem with that, because this is a safe space that we've created for ourselves,” says Samora. “I think a lot of people want to say they're oppressed so that they're able to hop between identities and be accepted amongst everyone. But for women like me, this is a term that encompasses all our identities under one name so we can feel comfortable and not have to pick and choose. If you can pick and choose, you definitely are not Afro-Latina.”
While the movement to embrace Black identity expands, there are still women at this intersection who prefer other labels, like Janel Martinez, journalist and founder of the website Ain’t I Latina.
“Afro-Latina is designed to center Blackness, but I have since seen a shift over the years,” says Martinez. As a black Honduran who is also Garifuna (a distinct ethnic group also present in Guatemala, Nicaragua and Belize), Martinez’s textured hair, deep brown skin, and daily experiences leave her searching for a term for her Blackness that is completely unapologetic. So she’s starting to refer to herself as negra, a Spanish word that translates simply to: “Black woman.”
“Afro-Latina is a term that I use for convenience purposes, when I’m saying ‘I’m a black woman while culturally I feel my community is in Latin America,’” says Martinez. “But we were Black before these terms, and we are Black after. As we are navigating through this crazy political climate, I’m seeing a greater need for Black people across the diaspora to be unified.”
But even as the movement grows and evolves, there are still Latinos who aren’t ready to fully embrace their roots just yet.
“Afro-Latina is a new thing— and I don’t think anything is wrong with it, but I don’t think I have that awareness,” says Reina, a Brooklyn-based Latina who also chose not to be named because of her complicatedrelationship with her identity. Despite being mistaken as African-American frequently and even dating Black men, Reina says she feels the term Latina is sufficient to describe her experience.
“If someone called me an Afro-Latina, I’m happy to be like ‘Yeah, I definitely have African roots, I’m not shying away from that,” she says. “But when I look at myself, I see other things—the texture of my hair and color of my skin, I don’t necessarily know that I would call myself an Afro-Latina...I don’t feel like that is descriptive enough of who I am. I don’t think that would define me either.”
Aisha Cort says that in the end, “you can't force identity on anybody. But me personally? I think everyone should acknowledge their roots.”
Cort’s experiences growing up as an Afro-Latina at a predominantly white school taught her that beyond her family, she may be perceived as an outsider, but her Blackness and her Latina identity would always be one in the same. She’s even turned her knowledge of native language into entrepreneurship, launching her own Spanish tutoring business and encouraging other Black women—however they identify—to learn another language.
It’s a peace of mind she wishes for all the women who look like her—who may be ignored, questioned, or told they aren’t enough.
“Sometimes you feel like you have to prove it, but I got over that a long time ago,” says Cort. “I don't have to prove anything to anybody. This is me and I just happen to be a wonderful hybrid.”