When I walk into a room, most people immediately assume I am a Black American. Upon introduction, my name leaves little doubt that they think they got it right. After all, I do have English sounding surnames and do not speak with a discernible Spanish accent. This misclassification happens with white people, Black Americans, and even among my fellow Latinos.
But in reality, I am one of the growing numbers of Black Latinos (Afro-Latinos) in the United States. Both my parents emigrated from Cuba in the mid-1960s. We spoke Spanish in our home and celebrated Navidades with lechón, congrí, and yucca. My family had loud salsa parties and boisterous domino games lasting into the early morning hours. Celia Cruz and El Gran Combo filled our house with music in addition to Stevie Wonder, the Eagles, and Michael Jackson.
I am not unique. The Pew Research Center estimates there are between 12 million and 15 million Latinos of African descent in the United States, numbers that are likely an undercount. Some of it is due to self-identifying; not everyone considers themselves to be an Afro-Latino. Secondly, some of the estimated 10 to 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., have consistently led to a Latino undercount. And considering that 95 percent of all enslaved people were first brought to the Caribbean and South America, our countries of origin are racially diverse.
One-third of the Latino population in Massachusetts identifies as Black, and Boston has the third-highest Black Hispanic population among metro areas, after New York City and Miami. While the media too often depict Latinos as looking like some variation of Jennifer Lopez or Jorge Ramos, we can be Black, indigenous, Asian, West Asian, or any number of combinations.
So what’s it like being a so-called minority within a minority? Sometimes it’s difficult and exhausting. I have been passed over for seats on commissions, boards, and a couple of jobs that seemed earmarked for a “Latina.” I remember getting a call from a board I served on to inquire whether I had “accidentally” checked off “Latino/Hispanic” on a form. Or the white colleague insisting that I couldn’t really be Cuban because all Cubans looked white (at least a third of Cuba’s 11 million+ population consider themselves Black).
It is also true that throughout Latin America and the Caribbean diaspora, Latinos have a complex relationship with race, often perpetuating the same racial hierarchies that we see in the United States. Every social, health, and economic indicator places white European-presenting Latinos at the top of the food chain, with outcomes getting progressively worse the darker one’s skin color.
My Afro-Latinidad gives me greater perspective, empathy, and understanding, which is desperately needed in today’s polarized society. I fully understand and embrace the Black American struggle for racial and social justice and the need for more Latinos to stand in solidarity. I can illuminate for my Black American friends that immigration is also a racial justice issue. And I am not surprised that so many Latinos voted Republican in the last election. We are not one thing; we don’t represent one point of view. We are not single-issue people but multi-dimensional, like diversity itself. Our country of birth, culture, race, education, and socioeconomic status all play roles in how we show up politically and socially.
So, as we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, let us remember that Latinos represent a rich diversity — socially, economically, and in our backgrounds, education, politics, and thinking. Let’s keep in mind that the minority within this minority — Afro-Latinos — bring much to the table on so many levels. And with this in mind, let’s hope that the next time I walk into a room, people don’t jump to the conclusion about what I am, because I’m so much more. And so are millions of Latinos like me.
Mary Skelton Roberts is a member of the Latino Equity Fund Advisory Committee and senior vice president of programs for the Energy Foundation.