You Don’t Look Latina! Blurring the lines of ethnicity, race and nationality


By Guest Blogger, Delta Concepts Consulting Senior Consultant, Josy Laza Gallagher 

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Being Black and Latina is a beautiful and unique experience. My heritage runs deep. It’s also challenging.

I’m Cuban-American. Both of my parents were born in Cuba. My mother was mulata and my father was Black. That’s who I am. I am not one or the other. I am the best of both worlds and I am proud to be both. My Cuban roots and my African roots intermingle and reside in me.

Hispanic Heritage

My Latina Heritage

I love being Latina. The Cuban culture is very rich, and I proudly display the Cuban flag and my “cubanismo” – pride for Cuba — in all that I do, even in my email address, josy4cuba, and my car plates, 4Cuba!

Being raised in a Cuban family meant that I grew up dancing to the music of Havana-born Celia Cruz, eating rice and black beans, roast pork and plantains. We celebrated saints in the Orisha religion, a blend of native African religions and Roman Catholicism. We belonged to the Cuban Social club in New York where I danced at my quinceañera, which in Latina America and among Latinos is the celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday and her transition from childhood to adulthood.

In New York, I grew up in an Irish-American neighborhood. There were only three families of color in the neighborhood and I went to the local Catholic school where there were only two children of color in the entire school, including me. I tried my best to fit in.

Shifting Between Cultures

It was when I read Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity by Ella L. J. Edmondson Bell and Stella M. Nkomo that I understood the term “shifting.” After conducting an eight-year survey of more than 800 black and white female managers, Bell and Nkomo explained how we all engage in some form of adjusting who we are depending on our environment. Some of us feel that we must engage in shifting more than others.

For example, I can still remember in school enthusiastically singing the song “Molly Malone” at a St. Patrick’s Day event. The nuns thought that it was so cute to see this black child singing this song that they had me sing it to a group of nuns visiting the school. I did not think anything of it then, but it stands out now in my memory as an example of feeling separate and apart from my schoolmates.

When I started my career in corporate America, I learned that there is negativity associated with being Black and that sometimes being a Black Latina made it easier for others to accept me. I was often surprised that when some people learned that I was Latina, they would say that I was a “different” type of Black and more readily accepted me.

At first glance, I am always categorized as Black — until I speak Spanish. I am met with astounded faces. “Wait, are you Black?” people ask. (Why yes, the last time I looked, I am Black!) They ask, “Where did you learn to speak Spanish?” And my personal favorite, “Oh, you’re Latina? Then you must be Dominican.” Latinos are more familiar with seeing Black Dominicans than in other Latino groups.

I’m used to these reactions, because in the eyes of many I don’t look Latina because of the color of my skin.

But what’s a Latina supposed to look like? And why is there only one image of such a diverse culture? The truth is that Hispanic is my ethnicity, Black is my race and American my nationality.

Blurring the Lines of Ethnicity, Race and Nationality

The truth is, I am not easily categorized, and I’m not often “seen” in the media. I am not surprised that most people do not see a Black person as a Latino. The media does not represent us. If you turn on the Spanish-speaking channels Telemundo or Univision, you do not see an Afro-Latina as the main character in the soap operas, variety shows or as news anchors. Occasionally we are featured in the soap operas as the maid or the healer. We even have our own Oprah — her name is Cristina — and she is blond and blue-eyed! Spanish magazines rarely showcase Black Latinos. And yet, there are more people who look like me in the Latino community than not.

Crossing Over Made-Up Boundaries

As a Black Latina, I have struggled with a constant struggle to gain acceptance from both groups.

You speak Spanish but may not be fully accepted in the Hispanic community. You are brown, but you speak Spanish, and may not be fully accepted in the African American community.

Then there is what you look like. Skin color, facial features and hair texture constantly comes up during conversations within the Latino community. You are considered pretty if you have “good hair” (straight and long) as opposed to “bad hair” (tight curls, kinky). The beauty ideal is to have thin lips vs. thick lips and a straight nose vs. a wide nose. Lighter and brighter is constantly being reinforced in the Latino community. We hear it growing up: “To improve our race, you should marry someone lighter than you,” “Stay out of the sun or you’ll become black like tar.”

Are You in the Right Place?

As much as I love being who I am, being a Black Latina can be overwhelming. It seems like there’s not a day that I don’t have to explain myself. A few years ago, I attended a luncheon for Hispanic professionals in D.C. and was questioned if I was in the right conference. When I approached a few tables to find a seat and asked if the seat was available, my Latino colleagues told me that it was saved for a friend. I finally found a seat at a table where non-Latinos welcomed me to join them.

Another time, I was co-facilitating a session for professional Latinas/Hispanic women at a Working Mother conference for multicultural women, and as I greeted the women entering the room, they were confused and asked me if I was in the right place. There was another session for African-American women across the hall and they thought I should be in that session. My co-facilitator was a light-skinned Latina and no one questioned her right to be in that session.

You Belong

Here are a few tips that help me navigate these situations.

  1. Bring your whole self to work. Although it might sometimes make a colleague feel more comfortable to be able to identify you as one type of race or ethnicity, don’t fit yourself into a box. Be yourself.
  1. Share your experiences and thoughts about being a Black Latina. By doing so, you can not only inspire other Black Latinas to be proud of who they are, but you can also educate other people and open their eyes to bias.
  1. Show commonality. There are multiple ways that our cultures crossover to one another. People often connect over food, music, dance and family stories. Although our cultures are different, we can acknowledge the similarities in our traditions. It helps us be able to better see each other.
  1. Be open to listening. It can be difficult to deal with stereotypes. If we want to be valued and respected, we need to value and respect others who may not understand that their words are offensive, or that they have an unconscious bias driving their behavior.

I am proud to be a dark-skinned, Spanish-speaking Cuban-American woman. When I show up as who I am, share my story and question biases and restrictive boundaries, I make the world a more beautiful and culturally rich place to be.

You can do it, too.

One Response to “You Don’t Look Latina! Blurring the lines of ethnicity, race and nationality”

  1. Bradley Wilkinson says:

    Thank you Josy!

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