Growing up in the Bronx to immigrant parents, I always knew I was Dominican. Not Black. Not American. DOMINICAN. As a first-gen kid, repping my parents’ home country was a badge of honor that shielded a complex history.
To be Black with Latin American roots isn’t a new identity. Though many are just beginning to understand this, the concept wasn’t ushered in in the 2020s. Due in large part to the transatlantic slave trade, Black people have had a strong presence in Latin America and the Caribbean since as early as the 16th century. From crop production to the Panama Canal, our ancestors built the Americas, spanning over 33 countries with a blend of languages and dialects. So why didn’t anyone tell me I was Black?
Negra and morena were consistent terms of endearment in my family, but no one ever said we were Black. “Tu eres Dominica y tu eres Latina” (You are Dominican and you are Latina). My Black American or West Indian classmates would say I’m “Spanish” (an NY colloquialism still commonly used to describe anyone and everyone with roots in Spanish-speaking countries), but they never said I was Black.
To be Black meant you were Black American, meaning generations deep in America, which my family was not. In looking back, so much of the environment that shaped me was a collective gathering of Black cultures. Rice and peas from Jamaica, mangú from Dominican Republic, alcapurrias from Puerto Rico, collard greens from the South, soca from Trinidad, salsa from Colombia. Food, music, art and a je ne sais quoi that, like a lightning bug, you can’t quite capture but you know the magic when you see it. I can’t imagine having that anywhere else but in New York City.
Magic and all, we’re still divided. Many folks believe that being Latino means you are a perfect blend of Indigenous, European and African ancestry—the prototype for racially ambiguous identity. History, as we’re learning it today, reminds us that racial differences within the construct of Latinidad exist at similar levels as they do in the US. Thanks in part to factors like political corruption, war and underdevelopment, the conversations of race in Latino culture are a continued challenge, often dismissed and claimed to be false. Media industries are also a large contributor. Decades of erasing Black Latino lives on the screen, the glamorization of skin bleaching creams and relaxers, and anti-Black propaganda have a significant impact on the socialization between races. Compound that over generations and you have a vast population of Black people who do not claim their Blackness and a section of the population that is not Black refusing to acknowledge the truths about race in our communities.
The rise in popularity of the term Afro-Latino ushered in an era that empowers our Blackness and pays homage to Latino culture. For some, it’s provided safety and belonging. For others, it spiked up confusion and more division. Language barriers from past generations and the human instinct to “stay with your own” for survival has wedged tensions between Black Americans and Black people across the diaspora since Ellis Island was founded as an immigration station in 1892. Rebuilding from a fractured foundation is no easy feat but the tides are slowly changing.
Pioneering journalist and writer Janel Martinez is an instrumental voice on the subject. In addition to being a proud fellow Bronxite, she’s also the founder of Ain’t I Latina?—an award-winning site and destination for millennial Latinas. Leaving her mark across digital publishers like Essence, Cheddar and Remezcla, Janel continues to challenge the culture while centering Black lives. Poet Melania Luisa Marte actively petitioned to have Afro-Latina/o/x included in the dictionary. In a 2018 interview, she notes, “The fact that Latinx was added to the dictionary before and not in addition to Afro-Latina to me felt like an act of erasure and reiterated this constant message that media has been going along with for centuries. That message being, that Afro-Latinx people are almost invisible and perhaps extinct.” Long-standing issues like police brutality, pay gaps and femicide (among many others) both in the US and in Latin America are uniting marginalized groups from Bushwick up to 233rd Street and many blocks in between.
Black people across oceans gave birth to the very sounds, flavors and art that make this city the treasure that it is. This Black, Dominican-American woman will forever be grateful to the Bronx, to NYC, for infusing the traditions of my neighbors into the fabric of my life.
Jess Matos is a proud Bronx-born and -raised Dominican, advocate for Afro-Latinidad, TV executive and creator of The Tia Chronicles, a platform for Tias, Títís and Aunties everywhere.