Jennifer Mota on Understanding Her Afro-Latinidad and Pushing the Conversation Beyond Identity
Every now and then I’ll get told by someone, “I don’t know if I can identify as Afro-Latinx because I don’t look it…,” or they will go on and explain how they feel they are just jumping on the “Afro-Latinx bandwagon.”
For many people, the Love & Hip-Hop Miami scene of Amara La Negra defending her Afro-Latinidad was a huge eye-opener and led to questioning their identity and whether they can identify or not. It also became a trending topic. While I was glad that more people were educating themselves, it was disheartening to feel that certain publications and platforms approached the term like somewhat of a modern idea.
Let me make this clear: Afro-Latinidad isn’t new. Latinxs feeling proud of their African roots isn’t new. There are people who have always known they were black and it’s been embraced throughout their families lineage.
Firstly, identifying as Afro-Latinx comes down to what your experience has been and your own personal journey. Anyone who has afro-ancestry can identify, but keep in mind that if you personally can’t use Afro-Latinx and black interchangeably then you really shouldn’t be identifying as such.
The term Afro-Latinx, which to me is embracing my African ancestry, heritage, and culture has become popularized in recent years thanks to social platforms like Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram. Thankfully, I grew up understanding what I was made up racially—but identifying exactly what I can call myself was my own journey.
I was five years old when I first questioned my identity. There I was, in my school’s hallway, waiting to get picked up, when two girls came up to me and asked the question we all hate to hear, “What are you?” Genuinely confused, I answered like and said, “A girl.” One of the older girls looked at me giggling and answered, “No. Like are you black and white, or are you Spanish? Like what are your parents’ color?”
I tell this story every time I speak on my experience because it was a pivotal moment for me. Before then, I never really thought much about color. I was aware that in my family we came in an array of shades. I knew that both my grandfathers were black, my grandmother from my dad’s side had a lighter shade of brown, and my grandmother from my mom’s side was white. I never felt the need to question why. That day I marched up to my parents and asked.
My father, being the passionate Dominican historian/journalist he is, broke down our history.
He explained the history of the slave trade and how these different groups (Spanish, African and Indigenous) mixed. He also explained my afro-ancestry and how it contributed to Dominican culture through food, music, and dance. He ended the lecture by saying, “You’re everything. Pero lo más importante es que eres Dominicana,” or, “More importantly, you’re Dominican.” While the conversation helped me understand the history of my ancestry, it confused me into thinking that Dominican was a race and that it identified the mixture of black, white, and indigenous.
The confusion of what exactly determines race and the colorism in the Latinx community is consistently brought up with people who are new to identifying as Afro-Latinx. For many, going to college aligns them with Afro-Latinidad, especially if it isn’t embraced at home. Personally, for me, my race becomes a curiosity for other’s when my hair is out natural.
As a mixed woman, I lean closer to the conventional “Latina” stereotype when my hair is straightened. As a light-skinned black woman, I will never experience the level of discrimination women of darker complexions will and that makes my Latinx experience different because my Latinidad has never been questioned.
Through social media, the community has become synonymous with the natural hair community, and while both movements are highly important in my life and huge motivators—Afro-Latinidad is not just hair.
Embracing my roots also means bringing awareness to issues that not only affect the Latinx community, but also black communities. Afro-Latinidad is not just a matter of representation in media, embracing our customs, and the natural hair community. It’s also about focusing on issues that affect black communities in Latin America and abroad; how we can use certain platforms to bring awareness around issues like economic inequality, lack of quality in infrastructure for predominantly black neighborhoods, and racial discrimination.
I had to decolonize my mind and get to a place in which I embraced every aspect and feature of myself that was looked down on. Colorism is the huge elephant in the room for the Latin American community. It’s something known but many don’t feel like addressing. A bit of anti-blackness can live in your mind when you have family members calling your hair “pelo malo,” or expressing distaste of your nose, or the African Folklorico dances you participate in.
My main motivation was witnessing my younger sister, who is darker than I am, navigate through her cheer world as one of the only dark-skinned girls on the team. It took me back to my experience navigating through similar situations and how I wished I handled the discrimination and Latinx stereotyping I experienced differently.
I also thought about my future kids and the values I want to instill in them. I want them to live life understanding who they are, where they come from and loving the skin their in, but also finding the beauty in people—not the media’s definition of beauty.
By identifying with Afro-Latinidad I am not disowning the rest of my ancestry, but embracing my features and a part of my culture that have been oppressed because it is rooted in the African diaspora. As a journalist, it means understanding the beauty behind the rhythms that came from these roots and helping the world understand the complexities of being bi-cultural and bi-racial. It means I’m assuming the role of educator. Educating my peers and family, and passing it along with future generations.
Words By Jennifer Mota
Images Courtesy of Jennifer Mota
About the Writer:
Jennifer Mota is a Multimedia Journalist who focus on topics relating to Dominican-American culture, Afro-Latinidad, Latinx Identity, and fashion. As a writer and self-taught clothing designer, she pushes for Afro-Latinx and all body representation. Her marketing for her various platforms is filled with pro-latinx information and content. As a recent Temple University graduate who majored in Broadcast Journalism, she is committed to educating and bringing awareness to the Latinx community on issues that affect them politically and socially.