Chances are, if you have Dominican, Puertorican or Cuban heritage, you have African roots in one way or another. The history of the Caribbean is complicated, and rich, painful yet beautiful. Although we don’t have time for a full history lesson today, in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, I’m happy to share a little bit of mine. I am of direct Dominican descent. I was born in New York, and both my parents are immigrants from the Dominican Republic. My family for the most part is Dominican, with some family members who married people from Spain, Guatemala, Ecuador, Puerto Rico, and United States (Caucasian and Black), to name a few. If we were to all get together on my mother’s side and my father’s side for one huge family reunion, you would see what looks like a United Colors of Benetton ad, lol. We have a very wide range of skin tones, hair textures, idioms and cultures across the board and I can say I am so proud to be part of this beautiful family.
People constantly ask me if I’m mixed of Black and White, mostly because of my black features like my hair, eyes, and lips, yet my skin is light, even though I can tan pretty dark. I’m tempted to be a smart ass and say well yes, I’m part Spaniard Colonizer, African Slave and Murdered Indigenous, but I just tell them I’m Dominican and they smile, mainly because they think it’s exotic, haha. My brother and I are pretty much carbon copies with the curly hair, pronounced African features and light skin, while my two younger siblings barely look like us, same parents, mind you. They have deep tan skin tone, mixed features between European and Indigenous and fine hair with a very mild wave. My mom looks Mediterranean and my father has more pronounced European features, although some might argue that he, like my Puertorican husband, has Arabic features, something about the nose, and that may be true. Spain had been invaded by the Moors for over 300 years. My brother took an ancestry test and the results weren’t super surprising except he turned out to be 28% Portuguese and 27% Spaniard. I was not expecting the large Portuguese percentage, so that was pretty interesting, but when you think about it, both the Portuguese and the Spaniards set sail and colonized the Americas practically simultaneously. What I wasn’t surprised about was the 25% African DNA (split between different regions) and 7% Indigenous (Dominican Taíno, Central and South American, and even from Mexico). The 8% Scottish/Irish was a huge shock, even a 3% British and a 1% European Jewish!
All of these DNA percentages aside, I am a proud Dominican American, and I personally choose to identify as Afro-Latina or Afro-Caribbean if I want to get more specific. What does this mean? What’s the difference between being Hispanic, Latino/a/x and Afro-Latinx? And can I identify as just one of these categories or all if I want to? All great questions and I’ve done some research to understand these concepts myself, so I will try my best to answer them all.
Hispanic is a term that originally denoted a relationship to ancient Hispania (Iberian Peninsula). Now it relates to the contemporary nation of Spain, its history, and culture; a native of Spain residing in the United States is a Hispanic. Aside from being from Spain, today Hispanic also refers to any group of people or countries that share the history of the Spanish Colonization, meaning that they can trace their heritage and DNA back to Spain. The term also refers to language. So, if you come from a country whose main language is Spanish, you may identify as Hispanic.
Latino refers to geography, more exclusively to persons or communities of Latin American origin (including Central America, South America and the islands of the Caribbean) whose inhabitants mostly speak Romance languages While there is a significant overlap between the groups, Brazilians are a good example of Latinos who are not Hispanic. At some point we were taught that Latino also refers to those whose language is derived from Latin, so the romantic languages like Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and French would have fallen under that category. Today Latino is more of a global term based on the geographical location of countries and islands in Latin America. So, Spaniards wouldn’t claim the term Latino in this case.
Latinx is a gender neutral or non-binary term for latino/a. The Spanish language is very gender driven so Latinx serves as a more inclusive word to identify Latin American ethnicity or culture. This term has been a source of controversy. Some argue that the word is an American invention and it is impossible to pronounce and others argue because they are either unaccepting of gender neutrality or the change of language. Latine is beginning to gain popularity as it is easier to pronounce while removing the “a” for the feminine pronoun or the “o” for masculine to keep the gender neutrality.
Afro-Latin American or Black Latin American (sometimes Afro-Latino/a or Afro-Latinx), refers to Latin Americans of significant or mainly African ancestry. Related ethnic groups include: Africans, Afro-American peoples of the Americas, Black Hispanic and Latin Americans, and Afro-Caribbeans. Many Afro-Latinx struggle with this identity because the history is painful and the struggle to accept this identity is very real. Internalized racism due to deep rooted colonization trauma can make it difficult to self accept for some. Also, external racism is a determining factor, so some Afro-Latinos would simply prefer to reject this term and simply identify as Latinos.
Afro-Caribbean (or African-Caribbean) history is the portion of Caribbean history that specifically discusses the Afro-Caribbean or Black racial (or ethnic) populations of the Caribbean region. Many Afro-Caribbeans share DNA linked to the indigenous population of the Caribbean, the Taíno people, which are considered to be extinct, as history reports they were killed off by disease, slavery, and war with the Spaniards. Some Caribbean have began to identify as Indigenous or Taíno, but DNA would show that they do have European ancestry as well. It is said they the identify as Afro-Taíno, denying their European heritage.
My experience as an Afro-Latina
I always knew that I was was African descendant. It was pretty clear to me especially having a black grandfather on my father’s side. Unfortunately, my dear grandfather did not see himself as Black. Looking back, it was definitely the result of internalized racism and quite possibly he himself suffered racist attacks during his lifetime. Things that made me realize that there was colorism among Dominicans were interactions at the beauty salon, which I was taken to quite often “to tame my curls” with roller sets and Dominican Blowouts (the most painful blowout on the planet). Women would talk about the good hair versus bad hair, or pelo malo, which is course, or “nappy” hair. They would refer to their relationships with light skinned men like an attempt to fix (whiten) the race. All these unintentional internalized racist remarks, not realizing that they were slandering themselves, and I never understood that. I’ve even faced difficult conversations with family members because I’ve publicly stated that I identify as Afro-Latina, they themselves denying a clear African heritage.
I’ve probably told this story before, but when I moved to Puerto Rico, I didn’t fit in either. I was called the American kid, “La Gringa”, because I didn’t speak Spanish. I didn’t really feel like a Gringa because I was Dominican, so I made a point to say that, loud and proud. That came with a separate form of rejection. You see, Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, and the proximity from the island of the Dominican Republic made it easy for Dominican immigrants trying to escape a life of poverty to arrive by boat. The Dominican immigrant population is very dense in Puerto Rico, making them a target for racism, classism and other ism’s, as well. When kids would hear that I was Dominican, I would get bullied for it, asking me if my parents came by boat, if they had education passed the 4th grade, if they worked as maids and/cooks, endless teasing that would only be a result of absorbing what they heard from their parents and grandparents. Painful as it was, I never backed down, never felt ashamed and never denied my roots to be more likeable. I turned out to be pretty popular in High School, because I never rejected anybody, joined all the clubs and excelled in academics. I also made a point of learning perfect, proper Spanish, staying after school with a tutor to perfect the language, but with that came a heavy Puertorican accent which is confusing for people. I still have a ton of Puertorican friends and I’m married to a Puertorican man and his family adores me. My husband even says that I’m allowed to claim the Puertorican culture because I was so immersed in it and I know the history more than I know my own Dominican history, which I began to rectify in undergrad studies when I took on a U.S. Caribbean Relations course as part of my Political Science degree, and wrote all of my papers on Dominican Politics and the Relationship with the U.S.
Moving to Texas in my 30’s is when I really felt like a fish out of water. I didn’t have any family or friends in San Antonio at the time, much less a cultural crutch to lean on. My husband wanted us to speak English at home 24/7 so that he could practice and gain confidence in the workplace. If you’re not fluently bilingual, let me tell you. Thinking in 2 languages, but only speaking in one all the time is exhausting! I would call my mom and my girlfriends just to rest and speak Spanish. The other part was the cultural clash. It’s like people in my work and surrounding never met a Dominican-Boricua-Nuyorican before and I would get bombarded with questions and people trying to touch my hair to see how it felt between their fingers. I had no idea how to react to that. In Puerto Rico, so many people have hair just like mine that if I got one compliment that was cool, but here I was a novelty, exotic. I didn’t know whether to feel complimented or freaked out because I thought it was borderline rude. I eventually got used to it, but now I ask people to please not touch my hair because it can ruin the curl pattern. Neat trick.
So, when it comes to embracing my Hispanic Heritage, I see it more like embracing all of it. My Hispanic side, my European side, my African side, my Indigenous side, my Caribbean side, my American side and even my adopted Islander side ALL form part of who I am, and all will be passed down, proudly to my future children. In this house, we speak English and Spanish, and learning Italian. We eat Caribbean Criollo food like Arroz con Gandules, Tostones, Mofongo and Mangú; we also eat American, Pan-Asian, Italian, Middle Eastern, African and all kinds of cuisines. We have friends who are Texan, Mexican, Puertorican, Dominican, Haitian, Cuban, Venezuelan, Colombian, Panamanian, Honduran, Caucasian, Black, Asian, Indian, French, Italian, Brazilian, African. I’m probably missing some, but you get the point. I am proud of my Hispanic, Latin, Caribbean Heritage and I am happy to share that with the world!