‘Mejora la raza:’ A conversation spotlighting the experience of Afro-Latinx people

Here’s how Black Hispanics are excluded from discussions on representation

Members of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists hold a meeting to discuss issues surrounding the AfroLatinx community. (Courtesy of Lillian Hernández Caraballo) (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando)

“Ay, mi’ja, no,” my mother said to me, when at about 10 years old I casually mentioned finding a Black man on TV attractive. “Mejora la raza.”

This common phrase in Latin American culture translates to, “Improve the race.”

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While I was always taught to be proud of my roots, I was given mixed signals with comments like these. I grew up knowing I had to be proud of my Hispanic heritage, but my English needed to be “good.” I had to be proud of my African ancestry, but my curls needed to be tamed.

These concepts were reinforced, as I went to school, made friends and later worked. As a grown woman now, and under the shadow of the current racial reckoning happening in the U.S., I wonder if this kind of thinking influenced how I carried my ethnic background throughout my life.

And I can’t deny it absolutely has.

When I first came to the U.S., I worked hard to get rid of my accent. I may sound like some strange New England-Florida hybrid now, but I assure you, I don’t sound Hispanic. I made sure of that.

Walking into a new job or an interview, my hair will either be flattened pin straight or picked up in a neat bun so tight, it’s like holding down a wild animal so it doesn’t break loose.

It is clear to me now, I strive to fit a mold, one which is the most expected, most appealing version of myself as a Hispanic woman — the one that lands you on TV.

“When was the last time you saw a Black Hispanic woman on Hispanic media? In the news, in telenovelas or in popular movies — I’ll wait,” said Boris Balsindes Urquiola, known as “Boris Q’va,” an Afro-Cuban journalist and podcast show host.

There is a silence surrounding subvert and overt racism within Latinx culture.

We talk about Hispanic pride, about climbing ladders of structural power and overcoming systemic oppression, but fail to acknowledge bigotry within our own culture.

While a quarter of Hispanics identify as Afro-Latinx and more than half of Hispanics identify as “mixed race,” according to the Pew Research Center, Q’va said the preferred aesthetic of the model Hispanic is light-skinned, a visual he said leaves at least 25% of our population basically erased.

While Hispanics have a reputation for celebrating their rainbow of diversity, one look at the Spanish, Hispanic and Latinx worlds of entertainment and media, or even government, and it’s evident our demographic ratio is not accurately represented.

Generations of Afro-Latinx people have to fight the same institutionalized white supremacist structures of power, wealth and opportunity that Black Americans do. But while the rest of the world is having the uncomfortable conversation on race right now, Q’va said Hispanics are not.

“When this is all over, are we going to be the only ones who didn’t sit down to talk about it?” said Q’va, who is also an outspoken racial justice advocate on social media. “We’re asking (Americans) to have a conversation we’re not having.”

Internalized and normalized colorism are so rampant in Hispanic culture that other ignorant phrases like “negrito fino” (“a finer Black person”), and “Yo no soy negro; soy dominicano” (“I’m not Black; I’m Dominican”), are commonplace, Q’va said. After all, we reason, why be demoted to “Black” if you have a ticket out of your Blackness? We allow shade to become social distinction.

Q’va speaks from experience, as well as from his own research on matters of race in Hispanic culture. He recently called for criticism of the musical “In the Heights” for presenting a “white-washed” version of New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood. A community-based social media backlash resulted in actor and director Lin-Manuel Miranda publicly apologizing for neglecting to represent Black people in the Latinx community.

“I can hear the hurt and frustration over colorism, of feeling still unseen in the feedback,” Miranda said in a tweet. “I hear that without sufficient dark-skinned Afro-Latino representation, the work feels extractive of the community we wanted so much to represent with pride and joy.”

Addressing racism within Hispanic circles affects how Black people in our community are seen – or not seen.

In “Afro-Mexicans Fight for Visibility and Recognition,” a Pulitzer Center piece exploring the invisibility of Black Mexicans, the writer mentioned that state-mandated textbooks sometimes don’t include the contributions of Afro-descendants. When these contributions are included, the report continues, it’s only viewed through the context of slavery.

When reading this article a couple of years ago, I was embarrassed to admit I had never really thought about a Black Mexican before.

In fact, racial stratification is so common in Mexico that while indigenous peoples have prevailed throughout the country, they’re seldom seen in a position of celebrity, wealth or power. Indigenous people are typically seen in big cities as “the help,” while Black Mexicans are basically non-existent.

Maya Brown, a Stony Brook University journalism senior and CNN New York News Bureau intern, is half-Black and half-Mexican, raised in the U.S. She said being “mixed” feels as if she doesn’t quite belong to either side of her ethnic backgrounds, no matter how much she tries to embrace them, making her feel unseen and alone.

To fit in somewhere, Brown said, she has to adjust herself to “qualify” as something until she is able to “check a box,” in order to avoiding feelings of alienation. She said the comments she gets that exclude her from her community can be especially frustrating because her Spanish is “not very good.”

“Latinos need to confront their own racism,” Brown said. “You don’t need to look a certain way, talk a certain way, or act a certain way to be something … I am what I am … and it’s just annoying having to prove yourself to someone. You shouldn’t have to do that.”

The nuance of the struggle varies in different cultural contexts. For Puerto Ricans, who have a mix of three races from the effects of colonization, the issue is often politicized, stunting the progress of the conversation, independent journalist Edmy Ayala said.

Ayala said “choosing” to be Black on the island feels almost like coming out.

“Owning your (Black) identity, being from African descent in Puerto Rico and choosing to be visible as such, feels like coming out – feels like a choice that you’re taking about being Black,” she said. “Puerto Ricans define their race on their skin color. It’s very complex.”

Ayala is a half-Black, half-white Puerto Rican woman who uses her platform and education to elevate these discussions on the island and break free from her own preconceived notions, especially since the new American movement against police brutality on Black lives picked up steam last year.

Like Brown, Ayala said this process can be isolating and hurtful.

“I’ve been putting myself out there for a very long time in order to have these conversations,” Ayala said. “I struggle with this on my own, in my own little head … (but) I’ve used my journalism to answer my own questions about myself and my people, which is what I find so liberating.”

When he first became a journalist and had to choose a society to join, Q’va decided to go with the National Association of Black Journalists before eventually joining the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

“I chose a Black group over my own people because I knew they would accept me right away, and I was right,” Q’va said. “I didn’t feel like I belonged among my own, which means a space hasn’t been created there for me.”

One of the last times Ayala, Brown Q’va and I got together, Q’va called me out on how I benefit from being a white-passing Hispanic, and he was right. Perhaps, in all of this, one of the hardest things for light-skinned Hispanics like me to do is openly admit that we benefit from this established power structure. I know that if my hair were thicker or my skin darker, I would face different challenges, perhaps another level of hate or fetishization – or invisibility.

I know that with my social position and the spaces in which I am able to easily integrate myself comes the responsibility to show solidarity and bring these conversations to light. To not leave them behind, unseen in the background, but to provide a platform for the experiences of my Afro-Latinx people.

My part in this is not to speak for them—they have their own voices—but to stand with them and hand over the mic, openly listening and having this discussion.

That’s how we improve la raza.

About the Author:

Lillian M. Hernández Caraballo joined News 6 in September.