“Is she adopted?” That was the first question my brother’s math teacher asked my mom as we awaited seating at his ninth-grade graduation ceremony. I was only in fifth grade and I didn’t know what adopted meant. But I did see my mom’s frown. Her mouth twitched and I knew what was about to come wouldn’t be nice.
Minutes later my dad walked up to my mom, who was fuming. Asked what happened and she let him know. My dad only wished he were present to give the math teacher a piece of his mind.
My mom had already cursed Mr. Tonato out. And she had every right to do so. Now, let me make it very clear: Being adopted is wonderful, but I was the biological product of two very different looking people. And to many that was an alien concept. Little did I know that wasn’t the first time my parents ever got asked that question. It was just the first time I ever heard it. It certainly wouldn’t be the last.
I’m Afro-Latina. My mom is a white Latina and my siblings have her skin tone. Our dad is Afro-Latino. Both my parents are originally from the Dominican Republic. And this has been our story throughout my entire life. My mom having to explain to people that I’m her daughter. Me trying to teach people that Latinos come in different shades, sometimes all within one family. To add to some people’s confusion, my siblings and I are bilingual — we speak Spanish, our parents’ native language.
The kicker here — I grew up in New York City. The melting pot of the United States. Sometimes it felt suffocating to navigate the streets feeling as if even in such a diverse city, I didn’t belong. I wasn’t alone in that train of thought. I was part of what the book The Afro-Latin@ Reader describes in detail: “a large and vibrant, yet oddly invisible community in the United States: people of African descent from Latin America and the Caribbean.”
The specific moment that my blackness became the center of my existence, and the first time I experienced prejudice by people of my own culture, happened during eighth grade. I was sitting at a table with about five other girls, a group of white Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, doing an art project. Our teacher told us to pick up our mess when I heard one girl say, “Karina, you pick it up.” I thought she was just trying to avoid the work, but the words that followed made me freeze: “Well, you’re black and I’m white. And black people were slaves, so you pick it up.” At that moment I knew that my blackness would follow me around wherever I went. It made me self-aware and even afraid sometimes because I never knew how people would react to it.
Growing up, my siblings got taunted at times for being Latino. But never for the whiteness of their skin. They were never told to go back to their country, or to pick things up because their ancestors might have been slaves. But they did explain to people that the Dominican Republic was a land full of diversity. That we’re a majority black culture and white Dominicans are the anomaly. Throughout college I found myself having to explain to people that black Latinos exist, which countries Latinos come from, and the richness of our cultures. And that while my blackness might be my presentation card, it doesn’t define me.
In 2016, the Pew Research Center did the first survey of its kind to find out more about Afro-Latinos in the United States. It found that about one-quarter of Latinos in the country identify as Afro-Caribbean or of African descent with roots in Latin America. Like me, the majority — 65 percent — live on the East Coast and tend to be of Caribbean descent. This is in contrast to the 2010 Census results, where only 2.5 percent selected black as their race. One-third chose other. The rest chose white.
I chose other. I never really thought I was either fully black or white. That is until I was thrown into the throngs of work interviews, networking sessions, and job changes. No matter where I went, people would automatically assume I was of African-American descent, until I started speaking Spanish.
And then they were in awe. Followed by a new awareness: Language transcends skin color. In my work life, whether in New York or Boston, I’ve occasionally experienced a one-two punch of stereotypes. One minute I’m seen as the angry black woman who voices her opinions too aggressively — and then people learn I’m Latina, and chuck it up to passion.
But at my 38 years of age, I’ve made peace with my beautiful skin, my curly hair, and my parents’ native Spanish. I have walked waving my Dominican flag in the yearly Dominican Heritage Day parade in Jamaica Plain, honoring my ancestors. I want people to know about the many contributions of Afro-Latinos such as news anchor Gwen Ifill, of Panamanian and Barbadian descent; Puerto Rican historian Arturo Schomburg, who raised awareness about the African diaspora; and the unforgettable Celia Cruz, the “guarachera” revered as the queen of salsa. And our very own David “Big Papi” Ortiz, plus one of my all-time favorite players, Pedro Martinez.
Come the 2020 Census, you better believe I will not select other. For I am black. A proud Afro-Latina. And I also count.
Karina E. Cuevas is a producer at Telemundo. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.