For the last week of Black History Month and for the LatiNegr@s Project, I've decided to send out some questions to LatiNegr@s in my life who I've learned from, been mentored by, and have built community with and share them with you all. I thank each of them for agreeing to share their lives with us and to share them publicly. Today's interviewee is my homegirl Chela.
Q. How do you want to be identified?
A. I’m a lawyer and I also work on social justice issues. I recently finished up a masters degree in development economics, with a focus on Latin America and the Caribbean.
Q. What identities do you embrace/have/claim?
A. My background is primarily Panamanian, Cuban, and Barbadian but I was born in the U.S. I never really thought about my identity as an American until I was almost an adult because everyone I knew was either an immigrant or the child of one. My primary language is actually English, although I do know Spanish.
Q. Do you have a preference regarding the terms LatiNegr@, Afr@-Latin@, etc? If so, which one and why?
A. I tend to use the term Blatina to refer to myself. But I also like LatiNegr@. The only one I’ve never really liked is Afro-Latino and I think it’s because it seems to me to be an “othering” of us, as though just using “Latino” inherently means everyone but us.
Q. What images/texts/narratives were available to you growing up about Blatin@s/LatiNegr@s?
A. Of course I was used to seeing my friends and family who were LatiNegr@s, but we didn’t really discuss race at home. And at school, those of us who were LatiNegr@s didn’t really discuss ethnicity. So it was almost like two separate lives, although I don’t think I ever thought about it that way. Almost all of my friends were immigrants so everyone had things going on at home that were different than the mainstream, no matter where we our families originated.
In terms of the images beyond my family, the media was pretty much devoid of Latinos of color – not that much has changed. The only time I really saw LatiNegr@s was watching baseball (which could explain where my love of the game began). As I got older and really realized how invisible we were, I started seeking out anything I could find that reaffirmed the presence of LatiNegr@s, voraciously reading up on the history of various Latin American countries, looking for “us”.
Q. Is there a specific or pivotal time in your life that stands out as being imperative to your consciousness as a Blatin@s/LatiNegr@?
A. Leaving for college was a defining moment in my life in terms of my identity. I was born and raised in New York City, so the idea that someone could be black AND Latino was more or less accepted (although I was always called “Puerto Rican” by non-Latinos). But going first to Virginia and then to Maryland, no one seemed to understand that I could be Latina; not even other Latinos, the majority of whom were from El Salvador at the time. Since it was my first time out of the NYC area (I’d been all over the globe, but not the country), it was a major culture shock. I’d always assumed the rest of the U.S. was like NYC. So that’s when my Blatina identity really took root. Prior to that time, it wasn’t something I’d ever had to think about; it just was.
Q. What are your thoughts about the lived experiences of Blatin@s/LatiNegr@s all over the world having similar experiences with those living in the US (i.e. HIV rates).
A. I do travel substantially and it’s amazing to me how similar the experiences are for LatiNegr@s, regardless of where we are in the diaspora. We have so much in common and we don’t even realize it. In some countries we’re just as invisible as we are here. Or we face issues of racism, lack of a political voice, economic subjugation, limited health information/access to health care. The problem is that I don’t think we really have that connection across borders that would allow us to better share information and experiences with each other.
Q. What symbols/rituals/etc. are important to you for maintaining community (locally, internationally, virtually) with other Blatin@s/LatiNegr@s?
A. Travel is important to me; immersing myself in environments where being a Blatina is normal, something taken for granted. I also feel it’s important to support the work of other LatiNegr@s and help put them on the map of mainstream society. I especially love promoting LatiNegr@ authors, like Nelly Rosario and Veronica Chambers, because they definitely don’t get the same type of exposure as, for example, an actor would. And I think it’s important to realize our talent in all areas.
Q. Is there a book/image/quote/artifact/etc. that is important to you to symbolize your identity? If so, will you share one with us?
A. Actually “La Negra Tiene Tumbao” by Celia Cruz has been one of my anthems for awhile now! I try to live my life with that kind of spirit, de fuerza y sabor. And from the many times I’ve seen Celia in concert, I think she knew exactly what she was talking about.
Q. What else would you like to share with readers?
A. We LatiNegr@s are still a relatively unknown entity in the U.S. and it’s time that we raised awareness of who we are. Latino and Black are not mutually exclusive and we do not have to choose, no matter what society thinks.
Many thanks to la Bianca, LatiNegro, and Prof. Susurro for starting the LatiNegr@ project!
Q. Is there a way readers can reach you through social media?
A. I can be found on Twitter.
Many thanks to Chela for sharing! Please go find her on the web and visit her. Don't forget to visit the LatiNegr@s Tumblr Page and consider submitting something. The page will be available year-round as people are welcome to submit as often as they like.