Pollyanna Rodrigues De La Rosa sat in the back of a cab, on her way to her favourite Toronto Latin music club, El Rancho. To get herself in the mood for a Saturday night of salsa, bachata and reggaeton, she asked the driver for the auxiliary cord to play “Eres Mia” by Romeo Santos from her phone. The music filled the cab and she sang along, the lyrics flowing smoothly off her tongue in Spanish, the language she speaks at home with her family. The driver raised his voice over the music and asked Rodrigues De La Rosa about her background—but her answer wasn’t what he was expecting.
“I thought you were Black!” he said. Rodrigues De La Rosa, who is part Cuban and part Panamanian, is used to this type of reaction. She stands at just over five feet tall, with big, long, black curly hair. Her dark skin matches her brown eyes, and if you saw her on the street you’d probably have no doubts about her racial identity, either.
But what the cab driver didn’t understand was that while she is indeed Black, she is also Latina. To be fair, Rodrigues De La Rosa didn’t always understand the nuances of her racial identity, either. “For the longest time, I actually didn’t know I was Black,” she says. That’s because, growing up, her family considered themselves Latino.
Though they shared the same skin tone and hair texture, her family never talked about their African heritage—in fact, they preferred to pretend it didn’t exist. Rodrigues De La Rosa’s mother even pressed her about her romantic choices, questioning why she dated Black men instead of white men. And the anti-Black racism was present in her extended family, too. When she visited Cuba in 2015, many of her family members would ask her to straighten her hair for a “better” look.
Between her family’s Latino identity and the anti-Black rhetoric she internalized, Rodrigues De La Rosa questioned whether or not she identified as Black.
Then, in 2015, she discovered a term on social media that she truly felt described her: Afro-Latina. The broad definition is simple—someone who identifies as Afro-Latina, Afro-Latino or the more inclusive and gender-neutral Afro-Latinx is Black and from Latin America. But the term’s meaning is much more political.
In these communities, which have a deep history of anti-Black racism, Afro-Latinx refers to “someone [from the Latino community] who reclaims their Africanness and Blackness, which for so many years was erased,” explains Colombian-Canadian academic Andrea Vásquez Jiménez, the co-director of the Latinx, Afro-Latin-America, Abya Yala Education Network (LAEN). “Utilizing terms such as Hispanic erases our Blackness.”
While Rodrigues De La Rosa may have felt like she stood out among her peers, she is actually part of a large cultural community. A quarter of the Hispanic population in the U.S. identifies as Afro-Latino according to a 2014 study. (Similar data is not available in Canada in part because though the census includes Black and Latin American as visible minority categories, there is no category combining the two identities. Respondents can write in their own classification, or mark all the categories that apply, but the data is counted towards the Black and Latin American categories separately.)
“I get looked at all the time when I start speaking Spanish. It’s still a culture shock, especially to old farts. I quickly let them know that there are Black people in [Cuba and Panama],” says Rodrigues De La Rosa, adding that people often seem to think that it’s impossible to be both Black and a Spanish-speaking Latina.
“When I heard the term Afro-Latina, as sad as this is going to sound, it was the first time I thought I was considered Black,” says Rodrigues De La Rosa. “I loved it.”
Unlearning anti-Black racism as an Afro-Latina
People like Rodrigues De La Rosa are why Vásquez Jiménez started LAEN. She made sure the organization was a space for Afro-Latinx people to not only have a voice, but learn about their heritage.
“Blackness is global. An extremely high percentage of [people from Latin America] have African ancestry. The identities of Blackness, Africanness and being Latinx are not mutually exclusive,” says Vásquez Jiménez.
The African diaspora originated with the transatlantic slave trade, when European colonizers dispersed millions of people from Africa to North America, South America and the Caribbean. And regardless of where slaves were taken, sexual violence was common. “This is the most f-cked up part, I don’t know if my Spanish ancestor loved my great-great-great-grandma or raped her,” says Rodrigues De La Rosa.
The intersectionality of Afro-Latinx people can get even more complex, especially for people like CityNews reporter Ginella Massa, who wears a hijab and is from Panama.
“Often, in the realm of my work, my Muslim identity is discussed; my ethnicity or my heritage are rarely ever mentioned,” says Massa. When she made headlines in 2016 for being the first hijabi news anchor, the coverage described her as a Muslim Canadian, but the Afro-Latinx aspect of her identity took a back seat.
Even within Canadian Afro-Latinx communities, positive discussions about embracing all aspects of this intersectional identity are rare.
“Because of anti-Black racism, many folks don’t necessarily speak nor highlight our Blackness within families,” says Vásquez Jiménez.
That’s especially true among older generations of Afro-Latinx people, who have internalized centuries of institutionalized anti-Black racism. Massa says her family’s Blackness was rarely discussed at home. Her family only focused on their Latin heritage.
“My grandmother, I can say this certainty, would never identify as Black,” says Massa. “I’m not sure where she got this from because to look at her, you would say she is a Black woman. But there is this obsession with light skin and desire to distance ourselves from Blackness.”
For Rodrigues De La Rosa, learning the term Afro-Latina was the catalyst that allowed her to understand her who she really was. She was tired of people constantly denying her parts of her heritage—but in embracing this term, she also had to go through a process of unlearning the anti-Black racism rooted in her community.
As she learned more, Rodrigues De La Rosa also tried teaching her family about their Afro-Latinx history. But it was challenging, especially since her mother, who grew up in Cuba, was ridiculed by other Cubans for her darker skin and tightly coiled hair.
“I’ve had to teach my mother to love herself more,” she says.
Amara La Negra and Afro-Latina celebs stepping into the spotlight
Celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez, Gina Rodriguez, and Camila Cabello are readily identified as representations of the Latinx community in Hollywood—yet celebs like Zoe Saldana, Orange is the New Black‘s Dascha Polanco and Cardi B are often denied their intersectional identity and instead solely seen as Black.
Earlier this year, reality TV star and singer Amara La Negra, whose parents are from the Dominican Republic, reignited the conversation about Afro-Latinx identity on Love and Hip Hop Miami. In the debut episode, La Negra and producer Young Hollywood were discussing ideas about how she should change her image to better promote her music. La Negra insisted her look represented her Afro-Latina heritage. In response, Hollywood proceeded to question her identity by asking, “Hold on! Afro-Latina? Elaborate, are you African or is that just because you have an afro?”
Reducing an identity to a hair type exemplifies why the Afro-Latinx community struggles with their identity. What Hollywood said demonstrated the common misperception that someone can only a singular racial or cultural identity, which for people like La Negra and Rodrigues De La Rosa is not the case. Immediately after the conversation aired, social media feeds were filled with discussions about what it meant to be Afro-Latinx.
“It’s annoying the fact I feel I always have to defend myself. Defend my race, defend my looks, defend my fro… so if I want to wear it a certain type of way that shouldn’t affect who I am as a person or my music,” La Negra said at the reunion episode.
The type of representation La Negra is bringing for Afro-Latinx women was totally absent from Rodrigues De La Rosa’s childhood. Growing up, she remembers watching telenovelas on TLN. In all the Spanish-language dramas she watched as a child, she doesn’t remember seeing a single Black actor. Celebs like La Negra are changing that.
“What Amara’s trying to do is, she trying to show that’s there are all types of Latino women, she’s showing the darkest shade,” says Rodrigues De La Rosa.
What’s in a name?
With her newfound sense of identity, Rodrigues De La Rosa is now confident in herself to identify as both Black and Latina—and sets people straight when they question her background.
“Now when I say a sentence in Spanish and people be like ‘Oh my God you speak Spanish? I thought you were Black!’ I don’t find it surprising, I find it ignorant. I choose to enlighten them,” she says.
Her struggle with identity has become less about unlearning her internalized anti-Black racism, and more about educating others every time they question her ethnicity or race. Rodrigues De La Rosa will probably always face questions from people who don’t understand intersectional identities. But that doesn’t stop her from letting them know she exists, and so does the Afro-Latinx community.
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