Vanessa & Juliana

  • Juliana & Vanessa, Philadelphia, PA

“I feel like my identity is a bunch of paradoxes. It’s complex because being Afro-Latina in America is – I want to say it’s hidden – because in terms of media representation they don’t associate blackness with being Latino. My family doesn’t see it as all part of the same culture. They see it as Latinos are not African American whereas I would identify myself as Afro-Latino-American in a way. I don’t see them as separate. I see it as the same diaspora. We’re all our people. These are all my people.”

Vanessa:

My dad is from Jamaica. My mother is born and raised in New Hampshire, New Boston. My dad came to the U.S. alone on a work visa and got a job at the Brigham’s Ice Cream Restaurant in Worcester, Massachusetts. Then his visa expired and he just stayed. He and my mom got married and that was that. My mom is from New Hampshire. She grew up on a farm just to give you an idea of what it’s like. They met at the Brigham’s Restaurant. My mom was working as an ice cream counter girl at the time. He was one of the cooks. She describes their interaction as really funny. They never talked to each other until this one day when she spilled a drink on him. Then it was just like, “Oh, I guess we should talk to each other now because this is weird, like we’ve never, ever exchanged words but we work next to each other.”

We just had a 200 year reunion for my family. The family dates back to New Hampshire in New Boston, same house where my grandparents live now, the family has been there for 200 years. Our ancestors came to New Hampshire and bought this house that my grandparents live in now in the early 1800’s. They were coming from Scotland. Some of them came from England. Some of them came from Ireland, but my mom’s lineage goes all the way back to Scotland.

My dad culturally taught me to embrace the cuisine of Jamaica. Lots of plantains and always making cornmeal porridge. That’s my favorite breakfast item ever. He’s a very interesting cook. Those are things I can probably say stick out the most in my mind in terms of his roots, but also always playing Beres Hammond in the house and Shabba Ranks. Even my mom, she’s always been into reggae music. My dad goes back every two, three months. He’s always sent money and gifts back there which probably was a point of contention between the two of them because he’s always working. I don’t know if you know what they say about Jamaicans – Jamaicans always have ten jobs. They just work very hard all the time. I’ve been to Jamaica probably five times now.

Juliana:

My mom is from Cuba and my dad’s from the Dominican Republic. My mom’s family all came together, most of them to Queens. My dad’s family also came to Queens. They’re spread out all over New York City. They met through mutual friends in high school. My mom and dad went to Jamaica High School in Queens but my dad dropped out. That’s how they met and that’s how I was born. My mom didn’t thoroughly explain why she left Cuba but my mom’s family didn’t agree with Castro’s politics. They left and they went to New York. As far as my dad’s side, I never got the story of why they moved to New York. They don’t really talk about their past that much. I don’t know why that is. They don’t really talk about the past or reminisce that much. They’re more in the moment it seems. I don’t think my mom has wanted to go back for a long time, but since things are changing politically, she is willing to visit now. My mom was saying that my grandfather owned a farm and Castro was taking plots of land – they were going to take his land. That was part of the reason why they decided to move. Now, my most of my mom’s family lives in Miami.

Personally, I feel like my identity is a bunch of paradoxes. It’s complex because being Afro-Latina in America is – I want to say it’s hidden – because in terms of media representation they don’t associate blackness with being Latino. We have exceptions like Celia Cruz, or Zoe Saldana, but the majority of Latinos are represented as fair skinned, with wavy hair, like Jennifer Lopez or Salma Hayek. Being that my whole family is Latino, some of them don’t identify with being black. I was born and raised in this country and all my friends are diverse. Growing up in New York City, I was just around black kids all the time, African American black kids all the time, not just Afro-Latinos. It’s strange because my family doesn’t see it as I do. I would identify myself as Afro-Latino-American in a way. I don’t see them as separate. I see it as the same diaspora. We’re all our people. These are all my people.

I’m a black woman in America. There’s that and then there’s this layer of my cultural experiences as a Latina woman. I still identify completely as a black woman. I lived those experiences while being Afro-Latina. I find myself explaining the history of the slave trade a lot to people, not so much recently because I think people are starting to know Afro-Latinos exist but a couple years back, people would give me weird looks when I said, “Yeah, I’m Cuban and Dominican.” They thought I was lying because they were like, “You’re just trying to be exotic or something,” or they assume that I was denying my blackness like, “You’re not Cuban and Dominican. You’re black.” There are black people in Cuba and Dominican Republic. I have to explain to people that the diaspora came to these Latin American countries.

Vanessa:

We just see all the different avenues that need to be reached in terms of outreach for various communities. Now that we have the building blocks and the framework for having essentially created our own women’s empowerment organization, I feel like we can just take that and do it anywhere. Across the nation, every city could use an effective outreach program that really focuses on women of color, people of color, and kids. I don’t think anybody thinks about the kids. At every point, it just feels like people have you pegged to be some kind of person when I feel like a lot of people don’t either understand or consider the complexity of the experience being mixed.

Not too long ago, I went to this eye doctor’s office in North Philly. It was the closest one to my house. I walk in. I sit down. I had my hair out on this day and these two girls next to me, they’re both dark skinned and they both are looking at me, staring at me as I’m trying to read this magazine. I’m looking to my right. I’m like, “Why are they staring at me?” One of them is like, “Where did you get wax curls at?” I was like, “I don’t even know what you’re talking about? What does that mean?” Then, her friend goes, “Oh, no. She’s mixed,” and then just makes this scalding face at me. I was just like, “Damn, you didn’t have to be all bad. Thanks for the compliment on my hair I guess but then you took it somewhere else.” There’s always a degree of negativity to how white you are amidst your blackness.

Juliana:

Speaking of hair politics, my family is really racially diverse as a Latino family, definitely more African lineage on my dad’s side but regardless, there are all these politics with hair and all this policing of hair. For the longest time, I was getting relaxed because my mom thought that that’s what we should do with my hair because it was “so big and nappy.” I hadn’t relaxed it for the longest time. Then, in high school, I cut it all off and I went natural. Everybody had something to say about my hair. They had something to say about my hair before because it wasn’t as naturally straight as some of my relatives’ hair or they thought I should get a Brazilian treatment to make it silkier or all these crazy things they wanted me to do with my hair. I have this one aunt that was advocating for me to go natural but I don’t think she expected my curl pattern to be as nappy as it was or as big. She’s always trying to get me to do treatments now even after she told me I should go natural. Then, one time I came and saw her and I had braids and she was like, “I don’t like your braids. I like your Afro better.” It’s like, at what point do you stop telling me what to do with my hair? Then, my aunts on my Cuban side, I saw them when I had braids and they were like, “Oh, I love your braids. I don’t like your Afro.” It’s like, you want my blackness to suit you. You want to be able to absorb my blackness. I can’t just be myself.

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