I vaguely remember it— looking down at my complexion and noticing it wasn’t like my Barbies, the girls on TV or even my own mother. It never particularly bothered me; in my head it was just something that was always true. When I was young, I saw myself in my grandfather the most, with his dark brown, aged skin. He is one of eleven siblings, from Jalisco, Mexico. I found peace in his dark features, because even as a child, I was searching for where I fit in in my family.
My grandmother is a fair-skinned woman from Chihuahua, Mexico and my mother is their second of three daughters. Growing up, it was the four of us in the house. Aunts and cousins came running in and out, each with their distinct features unlike my own. I knew I was different, but within my family, I felt safe and loved.
One of one
I came to learn the outside world was a little different. It was colder, suspicious. If I ever alluded back to my Latina heritage, I was met with instant confusion. In elementary school, my Hispanic friends were confused by the idea of me being Mexican. I didn’t look like them or their family, so I must have been lying. This questioning of my identity at a young age was eye-opening. The greater world overall turned out to be a lot like this playground. Dismissals of my Latinx heritage happened in brown spaces where it was just assumed I didn’t understand or know of the culture I was brought up in.
I am the only Black person in my Mexican-American family. As an only child to a single mother, I am one of one. For most of my life I thrived in my uniqueness. But as I became a writer, it hurt to not be able to put my experiences into words. My Black womanhood was something that had to be lived in order to be understood.
The thing about being an additional race than your entire family is that there are certain aspects about the experience that they will never truly understand. No matter how much they love me, uplift me and remain unconditionally on my side, it’s a tough reality to explain. I navigated the world differently than they did.
Loss of innocence
There is a moment for every Black child in America when you realize that this world will hate you for simply trying to exist in it. I had joked once, when I was 13, that if I were to ever get pulled over by a cop, I could simply flirt my way out of it. (I think I had seen this in a movie or TV show once.) The two people I was talking to, who were Black, laughed at my ignorance and explained to me just how untrue that was. I remember being taken aback and not truly understanding what they meant because I had never heard of such a thing before. My protected suburban bubble was later popped after the protests in Ferguson and the six years that have followed.
When I was 18, the week before I got my driver’s license, I had a panic attack at the thought of being pulled over. I later learned from the internet, my glimpse into Black households, that young Black children are normally sat down for a conversation about police violence. This was one of many lessons I endured alone. Even if I shared with my family or friends, I felt they could never fully grasp the Black experience on a deeper level. I felt like I was the only one jumping at the sound of police sirens, like I was the only one that noticed the confederate flag shirts worn at our local mall, like I’m the only one hearing the N-word sang along to by a room full of non-Black people.
My mother’s primary role is my protector. However, this complex reality for Black people will always be something she cannot save me from. It’s intense to live a life so differently from your child. As a parent, you never want your child to go through something alone, but existing as a Black woman is something she will never do.
The internet became a haven where I could find people like me. I first heard of the term “Afro-Latinx” after the musician Amara La Negra went viral on Twitter because of an interview with music producer Young Hollywood. The video featured Amara standing up for herself after Young Hollywood questioned her Latinidad and suggested she change her look to be more successful. The conversation felt all too familiar. After further research, I discovered the term was used for those from Latinx countries that were of Black descent.
I claim Afro-Latinx as my own. As a Black Latina, this label has provided a home and affirmed much needed validation. The internet has been a huge part in developing and understanding that I am not alone in this world. On social media, I found little pockets where I belonged, where I didn’t have to be one of one.
In all truth, the Black diaspora is immense. I am simply a drop in an ocean filled with Black Latinos just like me. Being the only Black Latina in my family means sparking these conversations. To me, it means getting those around me to expand their ideas of what a Latina is.
I am a Mexican-American woman, I am a Black woman. These days, I look in the mirror proud of the complexion I see before me. No longer shocked or confused, but delighted in this life I’ve been blessed with and this culture that feels more and more mine every single day.