An Existence Anchored In Multiple Worlds: The Queer AfroLatinx Experience And A Complex Walk Of Identity
Black. Latinx. Masculine. These are three words that are too often seen as monolithic, as lacking nuance, as guideposts for how we are supposed to view each as a social category. There are, of course, common experiences in each descriptor that we see with higher frequency. But this doesn't erase the fact that all three share something in common: a misunderstanding of the particular ways a single person can express and experience all of them at one time. This stems from compounding issues of race, ethnicity, gender norms, and sexuality. The effect is the near total erasure of queer AfroLatinx individuals from visibility in pop culture and society in general.
It is difficult to fit the AfroLatinx “experience” into our understanding of American Black History, and it is difficult to fit Black experience into American Latinx History. Both of these histories are understood to be separate and unrelated. In popular culture we see this like in the statement made by Jaclyn Nichole, the biological mother of the baby who plays Grover, Hannah’s baby on the Girls series finale. She argued, “first off, my baby isn’t black! He’s Puerto Rican and his dad is Haitian, does it matter?” Or more recently, Amara La Negra, a Black Dominican singer/songwriter, was accused of wearing blackface on Love and Hip-Hop: Miami because her complexion was seen as “unnaturally dark” or “unreal.” This is an example of how dark-skinned, Spanish-speaking Black women are erased. The list goes on and on but the message is clear: we don’t typically accept Blackness within Latinx.
In Latinx communities, the value of whiteness is present in the issue of colorism. Colorism is within-group and between-group prejudice against darker skin complexions in favor of of lighter skin tones. Being Black, Indigenous, or both, within the Latinx community can be incredibly difficult due to the rejection of African and Indigenous ancestry in favor of Anglo/Spanish ancestry.
In Latinx pop culture, typecasting in Telenovelas insists that lead actors have “attractive” or “desirable” Eurocentric characteristics and that “the help” are often visibly darker with distinctive ethnoracial features. In colloquial language, it is common to emphasize the rejection of African ancestry by using terms like “Negro(a)s” and “morenito(a)s.” Negros is a negative moniker used to address someone who expresses “typical” Black features such as kinky hair and dark skin, while un morenito is a “good black person” who is a lighter brown and expresses “soft” physical characteristics. Cardi B would be considered una morena due to her lighter skin tone and soft features while Tego Calderon is seen as un negro due to his more Afrocentric features, but both are Latinx. On a larger scale, this plays out in devastating cultural politics, including legal maneuvers like the mass deportations occurring in Dominican Republic of Haitian-Dominicans (Black ancestry), where the latter are seen as the erosion of the Dominican culture.
This distinction is extremely problematic and often leads to racial dissonance and self-deprecation in individuals. When you no longer feel like you belong in your own community and become an outcast, the damage seeps into your psyche. For example, growing up I didn’t acknowledge my blackness because in Puerto Rico the focus is in our Borinqueña, our ethnicity. I am both Puerto Rican and Dominican; and I learned both my cultures growing up, but only about our ethnic diversity not the racial. It wasn’t until I moved to the continental United States that I realized my navigation of the world is far different than my white-passing mother.
The turning point came from my first encounter with a racial slur that combined my ethnicities and race: I was called a “Spanish-speaking nigger.” After I began to question my race, I also questioned my belonging in the Latinx community, because I looked different than my relatives and I looked different than how white Americans expected Puerto Ricans to look. I struggled to identify as Black because I understood my race to be Latinx. It wasn’t until I began to explore the complexities of the African diaspora and how AfroLatinx identity exists within it that I finally understood how one can be both Latinx and Black. This I learned with the help of a dear friend who I call my wenidimi (brother).
In our conversations, we explored the complexities of masculinity that exist in both Black and Latinx communities. Each values stereotypical notions of masculinity: devoid of femininity, aggressive, and prideful. Bottom line: queerness does not exist. This highlights the unique hardships of exploring and understanding one’s queerness while being a member of either or both communities. In queer pop culture, the portrayal of masculinity in AfroLatinx individuals is lacking. Masculinity lies in one of two extremes: hyper-femme or hyper-masculine, further complicating how AfroLatinx men (inclusive) come to understand their masculinity. There is a need to not only unpack the heteronormative expectations of masculinity from a racial/ethnic perspective, but to also reject the prescribed expectations for a queer man of color within a social world dominated by whiteness.
The prescribed expectations encompass not only the fetishization of Black men but their dismissal via “racial preferencing,” as well as appropriation of Black vernacular by white gays. These issues were infamously apparent in the Philly Summer 2017 debacle, in which a segment of the queer community was angered when QPOC created an updated Pride Flag that added a black and brown strip to the rainbow. The majority of complaints were raised by whitey gay men who argued that the flag represents only sexuality and that there was no room for race in the flag, as well as question why a black and brown stripe must be added but not a white stripe. Outright dismissing a call to acknowledge issues of racism within the queer community, many completely missed the point.
Similarly, in Phoenix, Arizona white queer men, dismissed Latinx and QPOC advocating for the inclusion of immigrants in Pride celebrations because that “wasn’t the point” of Pride. Mind you, we owe Pride to a Black trans woman, Ms. Marsha P. Johnson -- a leader in the Stonewall Riots who advocated in defense of targeted Black and brown folk in our community. So, yes Becky/Connor, Pride is in fact the perfect platform to draw attention to this social issue. Needless to say, there are many hurdles AfroLatinx individuals, and QPOC more broadly, must overcome to explore their sense of self in a complicated community that is supposed to be rooted in equality.
In closing, to my Latinx folk: we need to do better in understanding and acknowledging the issues of colorism within our communities and dismantle the shackles of white supremacy. We must acknowledge that within our communities there is pervasive prejudice toward Black and Indigenous individuals and we must advocate for all Latinx gente. To my white folk: continue to do better in educating yourselves in varying narratives, as well as acknowledging biases held in your socialization. Don’t be afraid to be called out when you say something problematic and asked to do better. The request comes from a place of care.
To my Black community: we must do better in dismantling misconceptions that the African diaspora is dominated by one ethnicity. The diaspora should serve as a common bond of all our African roots and should be acknowledged as a beautiful tether to mother Africa…basically, we cousins y’all. Lastly, to the AfroLatinx community: don’t give up! There is hope for us yet. We exist, remain, and yes even thrive in spite of centuries of colonization and attempted erasure. We are truly a community of resilience, grit, and orgullo. In these times, our greatest tools are communication, representation, and education. We have the power to show the world that we are here, we matter, and we will not be forgotten. Lift one another’s voices, share our stories, and embrace the complexities of ancestry.
In the famous words of one the most famous AfroLatinx women, Celia Cruz, “la negra tiene tumbao, [tiene tumboa, tine tumboa], nunca camina de lao', anda derechita, y no camina de lao' nunca camina de lao', de lao'.”
Much love, Javi.
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