So, What Are You?

That’s what everyone asks when they first meet somebody. A basic (yet intrusive) question that many people reply to without giving it a second thought. For Afro-Latinos, the answer is usually followed by a statement of disbelief: “Really? But why do you look like that?” There is no simple answer, since each individual has their own personal reasons for why they identify as they do.

It is common knowledge that through the Transatlantic Slave Trade millions of men, women, and children were taken from their home land and displaced throughout the New World as slaves. It is not as commonly known that 48% of slaves were sent to the Caribbean, 41% were sent to Brazil, and less than 5% were sent to the United States.

So why aren’t Afro-Latinos a more prevalent community? Why don’t we know more about this? And why, when we think of Latinos, do we envision the actors and actresses on Telenovelas and the newscasters on Univision?

A lot has to do with the social structure of the Spanish Colonies and how that racist mentality has trickled down to modern times, and how technology and social media perpetuate this perception.

Back then, the social hierarchy went something like this:Tthe Peninsulares (Spaniards born in Spain) carried the most power, while the Criollos (Spaniards born in the Americas), the Mestizos (descendants of a Spaniard and Native), the Mulattoes (descendants of a Spaniard and African Slave), the Indios (descendants of both Native parents), and the Negroes (descendants of African slaves or directly from Africa themselves) had less and less power in the order just given.

As time passed, the true ‘Latino’ became associated with the ones who had the most power, in other words, the Whiter population, while (even after generations) those with darker skin were seen as outsiders, or not ‘true’ Latinos. Even after freedom from slavery, they were still not accepted as equal according to this tragic mentality.

For many people,this is not an abstract issue. My family has dealt with this on a personal level, going back generations. There’s a story regarding my grandfather that has often been told in my family.

Apparently (according to my mother) it was believed that when a woman was pregnant, if she harbored any hate towards anything (person, animal, idea, etc.) your child would embody that hate and turn into that thing. For my great grandmother, that was the explanation as to why one of her children (my grandfather) came out with dark skin, dark hair, and dark eyes, while his siblings were all white with light hair and light eyes.

She claimed that her disdain for a worker on the family farm who happened to be of a dark complexion caused my grandfather to be born dark. In 2020, we all know that this isn’t true and that she probably hid behind that myth to protect herself. My sister and I both believe that she didn’t hate him, but in fact loved him, became pregnant through an affair, and then needed to lie to protect herself and her status.

When my grandmother met my grandfather, they wished to get married, but when my grandfather went to her family for their blessing they said “absolutely not,” since my grandfather in their words was “too black.” Ultimately, they eloped and, after 11 pregnancies, had seven children (one being my mother), raising them in extreme poverty.

Years later, when she was trying to reconnect with her family, my grandmother was turned away and told to ‘lie in the bed she made.’ This demonstrates just how pervasive this issue was in our culture. Years later, my mother immigrated to the United States and met my father, who is of Spanish descent. Before they got married, she made him promise to go to Colombia to meet her family so that just in case her children came out dark, he would know that it would be genetic, not due to infidelity.

We came out very light skinned. In fact, when I was a baby, my mother was asked if she was my caretaker rather than my mother. Even after an apparently major social evolution of the Latino social structure, there are still some overlapping racial issues that need to be addressed. But the only way to change it is to change the mentality of the individuals in the Latino household.

by Samantha Sueiro

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