By Quinn Smith-Matta
Amara La Negra has been making waves on social media as the breakout star of Love and Hip Hop: Miami. What sets her apart is her identity as a dark-skinned Afro-Latina and her unapologetic willingness to claim her Blackness. She wears her hair in a big, beautiful afro, which her anti-Black manager finds unmarketable and in her “Meet the Cast” video, Amara states, “There’s women that look like myself in every single Latin country, but everybody just admires and looks at the JLos and the Shakiras, but I’m Latina too! What happened to us?”
Amara’s query is a valid one. With over 1.4 million Mexicans self-identifying as Black or having African ancestry in 2015 and Brazil being the second Blackest nation in the world, it’s almost absurd how the term “Latino” has managed to secede itself from Blackness. Sofia Vergara, Mario Lopez, and other light-skinned and/or white-passing Latinx people have become the poster children for Latin America, failing to reflect the large Black populations in their respective countries of origin. However, this separation of Black heritage from Latino identity is not accidental.
After the abolition of plantation-based chattel slavery and the exit of European colonizers in Central and South American countries, there was a societal push to whiten these countries by diluting the presence of Black populations. Brazil adopted the practice of racial whitening, where by European immigration was encouraged, and social taboos around interracial unions were lifted in an effort to produce light skinned and white-appearing children, ultimately eradicating Blackness in the country should the cycle continue. Ironically, the methods for whitening society differed from that in the U.S. where white supremacists were insistent on white-only unions and violent genocide and structural barricades towards those considered non-white.
The effects of racial whitening are even present in how Brazilians use language to identify themselves, with over 134 terms related to skin color documented by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics. Most of these terms, such as pardo and morena exist for the purpose of distancing oneself from Blackness in the Portuguese language.
Similar linguistic patterns are present in the Spanish language as well; during his rule as dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo required Dominicans with Black ancestry to identify themselves as indio (Indian), which effectively distanced the nation from the neighboring Haiti and pushed the anti-Black customary narrative of “they are black, and we are not.” When terms like negra are used, they are often derogatory and directed at Latinx people who have “undesirable” traits such as dark skin and wide noses. This leads to current domestic policy in which Dominican political leadership expelled dark-skinned Dominicans to Haiti.
Another way identity-based language reinforces anti-Blackness is in how national identity is prioritized over race. It’s not uncommon for Latinx people to talk about how “we are all mixed/a mestizo race;” a problematic stance in that it emphasizes the fiction of color-blindness. Claiming we are all mixed allows for Afro-Latinx people who take pride in their African roots to be culturally maligned as divisive and delusional because they are willing to have both uncomfortable yet empowering conversations surrounding race in a society that considers itself post-racial. In addition to that, it groups Afro-Latinos with their oppressors.
The notion that all Latinx people belong to one mixed race suggests that Lele Pons, a White Venezuelan, and David Ortiz, a Black Dominican, would receive the same treatment in a culture where anti-Blackness is pervasive in language alone. We do not have anything in common with my White Latino counterparts. It is the lighter Latinx people who call us prieta and negra, who poke fun at 4C hair textures or paint their bodies black for the sake of “humor” on national television. At this point, non-Black Latinx people simply say that race doesn’t exist to excuse their anti-Blackness and to keep Afro-Latinx people quiet about advocating for themselves.
I, personally, do not claim a “mestizo race,” nor will I ever buy into the concept of “Latino unity” when my mother’s dark skin and my father’s coiled hair is fodder for racially insensitive jokes are considered harmless because race is allegedly unseen. But they do see race.
They see it when they assume my mother is my nanny or my aunt. They see it when they go into Brazilian favelas and notice that most of the people there are Black. They see it when they watch telenovelas and say nothing about how the only Black characters are given roles of slaves, maids, sex workers, and thieves.
Accepting and embracing my Blackness took a very long time. I have always known my mother and father are Black, but we never really talked about race. I was “just” Honduran. My parents did try to keep me away from Black American subculture for most of my childhood, reprimanding me when I used Black slang or listened to rap music. It wasn’t until my sophomore year of high school that I began to acknowledge my Black ancestry, asking my parents about their upbringing and cultural practices. Looking back now, I’ve been on the receiving end of anti-Black comments from my lighter-skinned family members. They would tell me not to tan, that I looked prettier when my hair was straight. Even my Black cousins, would join in.
I do have much more social currency than my other Afro-Latinx counterparts because I’m light-skinned (my father is half Jewish), and I can’t speak for my mother’s experiences seeing as they aren’t my own, but I hope to enlighten people about race relations in Latin America. Because the default dialogue around race is that we are all mixed, it is much more difficult for Latinx people to align themselves with a certain race and take pride in it the same way that Black Americans often do.
But I want people to be aware that I am not the only face of Latin America. My mother is Latin America. Amara La Negra is Latin America, too. Afro-Latinx people have shaped the music, the food, the celebrations, and almost everything that draws so many people to these beautiful countries, and we have yet to get the acknowledgement we deserve. People love reggaeton and punta, but they don’t love us.
Maybe one day, they will. I’ll keep fighting to see it.
“Let’s talk about phenotype and global Blackness” Siete Saudades, Black Youth Project (January 12, 2018)
“What does Addressing Anti-Blackness in the Latinx Community Look like in the Age of Trump” Diana Lugo-Martinez, Medium (August 21st, 2017)
“This is What We Must Do to Destroy Anti-Blackness in Latino Community” Francisco Herrera, Latino Rebels (June 20th, 2017)
“How Anti-Blackness Thrives in Latinx Communities (And What We Can Do About It)” Tina Vasquez, Everyday Feminism (August 12th, 2015)
Quinn Smith-Matta is a first year student at Lesley University majoring in English with a minor in Media Studies. Her writing often focuses on the nuances of racial identity in Latin America. She can be found on Twitter (@bagbaks) and Medium (@stillmatic).