I must have been super racially ambiguous when I was younger. These days, it seems like most folks have figured out that I’m black. Maybe even Afro-Latinx. Maybe.
In regards to race, much of my experience growing up involved a lot of inquiry about who I was. “Why do you act like that?”
“What ARE you?”
“Are you Spanish? Prove it!”
Well, for one, I think you mean, do I speak Spanish? Yes. Yes I do. Will I prove it? NO.
(But actually, I often would prove it.)
Questions like these I would hear over and over again from my classmates, many of my black peers questioning my blackness. I felt a mysterious distance from others at my school who were white, Asian. The various Spanish speaking kids didn’t expect me to eavesdrop on them. They didn’t expect me to know what they were saying, because I didn’t look like them. And no teacher placed me in ESL classes. I struggled towards English on my own.
“I’m multicultural.” I would respond matter-of-factly. That was enough to keep most of my peers quiet.
I identified as multicultural for a long time because I didn’t know how else to conceptualize who I was. All I knew was that I grew up in a household that was different from most of my peers. Did anyone else at my school watch Sabado Gigante with their family while a perm sat on her head? I guess not.
Perhaps most people asked me questions like “what are you?” and “why do you act that way?” because they didn’t really know what to do with me. People don’t say it now. Perhaps since we’re older, folks have realized that it is rude to say such things. To this day, I often feel like most people don’t know what to do with this Panama-born, indie-rock listening, social justice minded, succulent-growing black girl.
In predominantly upper middle class white churches, as someone who is black and reads as black to most white people, I’ve often felt like the only way that many of the congregants would continue to engage with me is if I name-dropped and talked about what they wanted to talk about.
“Oh, I love Berry’s poems. Are you familiar with the Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front?”
Name dropping was my social capital in a world where I was often treated like I didn’t belong. Even though I knew the same songs, was acquainted with the same theology, knew the conferences, and knew many families, I felt like there was an underlying assumption from others that we could have nothing in common. That, or that I needed to be more like them in order to have my conversation starters and introductions reciprocated into deep dialogues and possible friendships.
I’ve had many a friend recommend Latinx congregations or Spanish speaking services to me, but many of them ended up being spaces where no one looked like me. Most Latinx programs and ministries didn’t seem to include the unique struggles that people like me face. It seemed like when people think “Latinx”, they aren’t looking for someone like me. Maybe they are imagining Indo-Latinx people, or someone who looks like an Univision telenovella actor.
Black churches have intimidated me. They still do sometimes. Perhaps it is because I’ve been told so much that I wasn’t “black enough”. Despite those experiences, I’ve been felt welcomed and embraced in black churches. Occasionally, I might be dismissed by one or two elders who adopted the mentality of my growing up peers. But for the most part, I was welcomed, even if I wasn’t always understood.
Because of all of these experiences, I told myself that I was “just awkward”. Awkward black. Cool, you got this.
Just as I was accepting that I was an “awkward black girl”, I learned that I was Afro-Latinx. And there were others like me who made others confused to why we spoke Spanish and ate plantains.
It was a huge blessing for me to learn about the term Afro-Latinx. It put me together. It felt like a wonderful way to affirm my blackness. I AM black. Black with another upbringing. Black with a parallel history to my U.S. born peers. I could finally stop dismissing myself as “awkward”. I could stop assuming that my difficulty finding a place for all of these years was my own doing.
I learned about how my Afro-Latinx peers are still underrepresented in media and erased in leadership. I learned about how most of our actors are cast to take up roles that U.S. Americans traditionally see as “black roles”, forsaking them Latin roles.
So it is no wonder so few knew about us. The teachers, my classmates, the Churches I walked in and out of trying to build a home in. It was no wonder I didn’t know there were many others like me.
But my journey as an Afro-Latinx human being also taught me much more than about what it meant to be Afro-Latinx in a country that doesn’t see us. Being Afro-Latinx taught me about the U.S.’s failure to reject (and in turn, the Church’s own difficulty to reject) binary ways of thinking and binary ways of seeing people. For most of my life, I felt like I had to go into a neat box in order to belong. A Latinx box. A black box. I felt like I couldn’t be both things at once. I could not be multitudes.
I know that blackness is not a monolith. Neither is being Asian or Indigenous. And so I wonder how many of us feel too that we are confined into the boxes that our society, our peers, and even the Church, often places us in. Perhaps some of us who appear to fit neatly into a box have not felt room to embrace the parts of themselves that others do not understand. We have to be this, or that. But not both, nor all of it.
Most days I feel like living outside of this race and ethnic binary is a lonely curse, but on some days, I acknowledge it for some of the blessings it contains. I am full of surprises, and I am ready to receive those surprises from others. I am not as surprised by the surprises. I have learned to expect it more and more.
I still don’t feel like I belong neatly anywhere. I find myself floating between churches so often. My Afro-Latinx people are under-represented invibilized and erased from the Church’s imagination. It is lonely. I pray for the day in which it is noticed that I am not just awkward, I am Afro-Latinx, with a story that wasn’t expected, but is real and welcomed. Maybe someday, more and more of us in the Church will trust each other with stories we hadn’t expected.
Perhaps someday the Church will do better to see me and folks like me. Perhaps someday, when the Church realizes that many of us contain under-representations, complexities, multitudes.
Some of us just have a harder time hiding it than others.