Too dark to be Latino: Sharing stories from the Afro-Latino perspective

As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re highlighting a group you may or may not be familiar with: the Afro-Latino community.

Afro-Latino is a term that represents people who have both Latin American and African ancestry, and this community exists right here in Jacksonville.

As someone who is part of this community and identifies as Afro-Latina myself, it is important to highlight these stories.

Jacksonville has a growing Latino community that is making strides — from successful restaurants to booming businesses.

Jacksonville native Graciela Cain is a part of it.

They are a proud non-binary Mexican American DJ and activist born and raised in Jacksonville with their own mural on 18th Street. But when people see Cain, they often say they don’t see a Latin person.

“A lot of folks don’t get that,” Cain said. “They’re like, ‘What?’ ‘Huh?’”

Adrian Ross, who is a Panamanian American and also a part of Jacksonville’s growing Latin community, agrees.

“They say, ‘Oh, you’re Hispanic? Well, say something. Can you dance? Oh, okay tell me about some food.’ It’s like a quiz really when you tell them you’re Hispanic,” Ross said.

Unfortunately, that’s a common experience reported by Afro-Latinos nationwide whose experiences are influenced by race, skin tone, and various factors, in ways distinct from those of other Hispanics, including struggling with their Black identity.

Pew Research conducted a survey asking Afro-Latinos about their race.

Only 18% of Afro-Latinos said they were Black, compared to 39 percent who identified as white. While almost a quarter (24%) said their race was “Hispanic” — which is an ethnicity, not a race.

Ross said there was a point in his life where he felt like he had to choose between being Latino and Black.

“What it was there was like a feeling of you’re Black, but like don’t lean into that. You know what I mean? We’re all mixed, everything is great but, ay que mejorar la raza. We have to make the race better. I know they say it joking, but the fact that it is even said is a blatantly racist thing to say, right? Those things make you feel like something is wrong with you being a Black person, you know what I mean?” Ross said.

A majority (62%) of Hispanic adults say having a darker skin color hurts Hispanics’ ability to get ahead in the United States today, at least a little. A similar share (59%) says having a lighter skin color helps Hispanics get ahead. And 57% say skin color shapes their daily life experiences a lot or some, with about half saying discrimination based on race or skin color is a “very big problem” in the U.S.

“When I was a young person, I used to go to a youth group that was like a Spanish youth group,” Cain said. “And you know it was hard because yeah, I didn’t speak Spanish and so seeing those young people talking to each other and being within their culture and then they’d be like oh yeah this is Gracie… and I think I was like woah. No, my name is Graciela, trying to reaffirm my culture in that way, and you know it was really rough. It was tough as a young person.”

Graciela and Adrian insist they don’t fit the mold of what’s portrayed in the mainstream media or in Hollywood with stars like Jennifer Lopez, Eva Longoria, and Mario Lopez among the few representing the community in Hollywood.

Those conversations sparked the start of the Afro-Latino Movement.

Tanya Hernandez is a professor at Fordham University and a leading authority on the issue of disparities based on racism and colorism. She is a part of the organization Latino is Not a Race, which focuses on just that.

Hispanics and Latinos can be of any race and skin color. But not long ago, the two terms were used interchangeably on the US Census to describe people with Latin origins.

“It’s as if to say there were boxes that said Black and then it said Florida resident as if those two things were separate and apart,” said Tanya Hernandez.

Today the U.S. Census lists race and ethnicity as two separate categories. “1. Are you of Hispanic origin yes, or no? 2. Tell us what you racially identify with?”

In the 1980s during a period of rapid Hispanic population growth in the United States, the census introduced a “Hispanic origin” category, enabling Black Latinos to include themselves within the broader Hispanic community.

Decades later data from UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Institute shows many Afro Latinos have higher educational rates but fewer markers of financial success when compared to other Latinos.

Afro-Latinos had homeownership rates of 40%, versus 54% for other Latinos.

The research suggests the disparities are likely an outcome of racism that Black people face like housing discrimination, in addition to the disparities that Hispanics face, like having access to banking.

“Not only are they segregated out of white English-speaking places, but they’re often also segregated from white Latino residential spaces,” said Tanya Hernandez.

According to the data, it’s also a challenge worldwide. While more than 133 million Latin Americans identify as having African heritage, Hernandez insists Afro-Latinos remain among the least visible minorities.

“If you happen to watch a telenovela, a soap opera on a Spanish-language television or even the broadcast news. You would think Latin America is this sea of whiteness,” Hernandez said.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., Conversations are continuing to call for change and greater representation in the Afro-Latino community.

Most people know the story of the Tuskegee Airmen — the first African-American military pilots in the United States. But not many people know Esteban Hostesse, an Afro-Latino Tuskegee airman born in the Dominican Republic, and one of the few Latinos to serve in World War II.

Doctor José Celso Barbosa is another historical Afro-Latino trailblazer. In 1880, he graduated with honors from the University of Michigan as the first Puerto Rican to receive a medical degree in the United States. He also served on the Executive Cabinet from 1900 to 1917 and in the Senate from 1917 to 1921.

Cain said these were untold stories growing up. The activist said it took traveling out of Jacksonville to discover Afro-Latino representation and find their own identity.

“Being in movement spaces and going to California and seeing like afro Latinx folks together and seeing Mexican people and being like woah, this does exist on the other side of the world quite literally,” Cain said.

As an adult, Ross said he is witnessing progress.

“We are in a much more accepting culture of us Afro Latinos. The new Spiderman is Afro-Latino right, and we have Black Panther. We have a lot of role models,” Ross said.

Public figures like Gwen Ifill, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Sammy David Jr. are just a few examples of Afro-Latinos who’ve made strides in Hollywood and mainstream media. But despite who you see on television or in movies, Cain and Ross insist it is important to embrace who you are and where you come from.

“My family from the jump has instilled in us, hey this is who you are. There’s no backing down. Or being afraid of it or throwing it to the side or whatever. This is who you are so be that,” Ross said.

“My mother is definitely someone who inspires me to be who I want to be and proud you know,” Cain said.

Through this story, I am also highlighting my Cuban heritage. Below I am sharing photos of my loved ones.

In all, “Hispanic” and “Latino” are not a race or a color, but a diverse, beautiful and proud culture.

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