I remember going to church as a child and understanding that I was different. My abuela and I used to go to a Pentecostal church that was mostly white Latinos, but I had darker skin. I would see the Pastor’s wife and I yearned to look like her. In my eyes, she had milky white skin and silky hair to her ankles. Though she never knew this, I would go home, look in the mirror and wonder why my skin was darker and my hair was significantly shorter than hers. I did not understand what it was to be Latina and black.
Puerto Ricans are descendants of Africans, Europeans and the indigenous Tainos, so it shouldn’t be surprising that Puerto Ricans come in many colors.
In middle school, I continued to grapple with my identity as a black Latina. I felt like I didn’t fit in. While I sounded like the other Latinas, I looked more like the morenas – the black girls. But the morenas could not comprehend a black girl who sounded like Rosie Perez. Needless to say, I ended up hanging out with a Philipina because we both felt out of place.
High School was easier. I put aside my ambiguous looks and became engrossed with social activities. Yes, I am black and yes, I am Latina. But I was also a cheerleader, dancer, chorus singer and honor roll student. While I appeared to be comfortable with my identity, I was actually in denial because a part of me still wished I looked different.
As an undergraduate student, understanding and accepting my hair opened the door for me to love myself. I stopped relaxing my hair and embraced it’s natural texture. I learned that it is OK to identify as both a black and Latina woman while maintaining my other interests.
I still get confusing looks from people when they first meet me: a black woman with a very Latina name. I have had many experiences where people talk about me in Spanish and are stunned when I respond to them. I cannot change anyone’s opinion of what it is to be black and Latina, but by staying true to myself everyday I change people’s understandings of race and ethnicity. You can’t put me into one box. I’ve grown to enjoy that. All I need to do is keep my head high.
If you are black and Latino, I’m sure you’ve had relatable moments. It is important that we encourage our youth to embrace their heritage. Organizations like Project Reach in New York City and The Black and Latino Coalition Project at Arizona State University do a great job helping us build bridges across our differences.
by Carmen Medina