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Unheard No Longer: UIowa's "Being a Black Latinx" Panel

by Alex Escalada

“Marry someone lighter than you,” “You’re not black, you’re mixed,” “You speak Spanish

so well,” “Don’t stay outside for too long,” “I relaxed my hair till I was seventeen,”

“Nobody likes a black girl”—“We are erased everyday.”

These are the voices of the erased, the forgotten—boldly and unapologetically sharing their lives and experiences with the public. Many of these individuals have grown up in cultures that have largely served to diminish and undermine their existence, their humanity, their blackness. This is the reality for many Afro-Latinx individuals— “racially black people with origins in Latin America”—particularly in the United States where their identity challenges many societal perceptions and expectations of what it means to be black and what it means to be Latinx. In a society that largely operates through establishing clear distinctions and power disparities amongst individuals, it’d be natural for an identity that challenges or blurs these lines to be challenged and suppressed, themselves. Despite this, a small group of Afro-Latinx identifying individuals at the University of Iowa had a platform to share what many in society never cared—or never even thought to care—to hear.

Photo of Zahra Aalabdulrasul, who organized and participated in the :Being a Black Latinx” Panel.  Courtesy of Zahra Aalabdulrasul.

Photo of Zahra Aalabdulrasul, who organized and participated in the :Being a Black Latinx” Panel.
Courtesy of Zahra Aalabdulrasul.

On Thursday, February 7th, 2019, the University of Iowa Latinx Council, in conjunction with the Tippie College of Business, hosted their second annual Latinx Identify Panel: “Being a Black Latina/o/x: Afro Latinidad and Colorism in the Latinx Community.” The panel featured two professors: Dr. Omaris Zamora, Assistant Professor of Latinx Studies at the University of Kansas, and Armando Duarte, a UI Professor of Dance—along with three undergraduate students at the University, including Geo Liriano, Celine Fender, and Zahra Aalabdulrasul. The discussion took place at the PappaJohn Business Building on campus and was mediated by Maria Bruno, the chair of the UI Latinx Council. The panel member’s conversations were prompted by a set of pre-formed questions relating to their thoughts and experiences regarding the subject matter along with a short Q&A session with the discussion.

And what a discussion it was—the panelists were brutally honest, sincerely passionate, and always speaking from their own experiences; what may have been regarded as a ‘hot-take’ or controversial to some was simply reality for many of the panelists. Sometimes it was a reality that was difficult to be confronted with. To start, Liriano and Dr. Zamora talked heavily about the idea that “Latinidad” is inherently anti-black, that the nationalism heavily present in Latinx communities serves to diminish black lives and black experiences by hoping to appeal to those countries’ European ancestry. Liriano gave the example that “I’m not black, I’m Dominican,” would be a common saying from Afro-Latinx in the Dominican Republic Liriano went even further and stated that he “sees no difference between Latino and European”and expressed that the former was a term initially used by European settlers that had established communities in Latin America and desired to distance themselves from Europe. Dr. Zamora added by summing up the ideology of “Latinidad” as a “project of white supremacy—let’s whiten the race.” Further, she explained that white bodies did not necessarily have to be present for white supremacy to exist in black communities, that this internalized desire for whiteness could persist throughout generations with or without white people forcing it upon them. Based on the various experiences of the panelists, it is not hard to understand where she is coming from.

To start, Dr. Zamora stated that being black “doesn’t go away,” that it is a “lived experience.” However, it is often used as a political claim or convenience—often on the basis of heritage—that diminishes the experiences of those who have lived with it. For Dr. Zamora, living the black experience translated to her mother shaming her for her black features, being regarded as not attractive or desirable to her Latinx peers, and having to face countless microaggressions because of her appearance. Complete shock could be felt around the room as she described how a Latina woman once told her that she would not shake hands with a black person such as herself. Additionally, Fender stated that she didn’t want to be seen as black, she wanted to be seen as Jamaican as it was easier for her white-Iowan peers to accept her if they associated her with familiar symbols of the country (Bob Marley was the example she provided). For Aalabdulrasul, she did not feel that Latinx spaces were spaces for her as she had experienced Dominican family members attempted to get rid of “any sign of blackness,” particularly as it related to hair and its vital importance for women in that culture. On that subject, Dr. Zamora stated that her desire to embrace her blackness—through deciding to wear her hair natural—costed her the closeness of her relationship with her mother, the event of straightening hair being viewed as an incredibly intimate mother-daughter bonding experience.

Courtesy of the UI Latino Council

Courtesy of the UI Latino Council

And these sentiments apply to a university setting, as well. When the panel was asked if they had ever felt excluded by either the black or Latinx community, Liriano simply asked the audience—primarily composed of non-black Latinx individuals—whether or not there were any Afro-faces hanging on the walls of the University’s Latinx and Native American Cultural Center, a question that was met with complete silence. Later on when asked if there were any Latinx individuals represented in the University’s Afro-House, he stated that due to his appearance, the pictures on the walls of the AH would represent him to some degree while those in the LNACC would not. More so, he stated that the title of the LNACC, itself, indicates that All Latinos will be represented. Instead, Afro-Latinx individuals are considered “other by both whites and Latinos.” Finally, Liriano added that even if Afro-representation exists in Latinx communities, it is done poorly—an idea he partly contributes to the concept of colonialism and its common association with being rooted in the identity of the Latinx community does not speak to the experiences of the Afro-Latinx whose identity heavily stemmed from slavery.

Despite everything mentioned, there were still many more topics discussed Thursday night—including divisions amongst the black community and the role that gender plays in the Afro-Latinx community. It was a night that significantly challenged this writer’s own perception and expectations of his identity as a non-black Latino and the culture he is a part of.

Before the discussion came to a close, the panelists were asked one final question regarding how non-Afro-Latinx individuals could be better allies, the answer to which I was eager—along with other members of the audience—to hear. Fender stated that simply coming to the panel to gain knowledge was a good start. Aalabdulrasul agreed and said being open and making an effort to learn was the biggest part. Dr. Zamora ended by explaining that one should respect those who don’t want to share their experiences: “Don’t assume anything and question what you know.”

A video of the complete panel discussion can be found on the UI Latinx Council Facebook page.