I remember the first time I walked into The Cuban Sandwich Shop off of North Lamar in Austin. It was for their weekly dance night. A cultural anthropology PhD student introduced another friend and I to the place after we’d tried salsa dancing at a more upscale restaurant. We needed the authenticity. We got it.
It was the first time I’d ever walked into any establishment where people assumed I was a Spanish speaker first. I was amazed. Usually if I’m out and about speaking Spanish, there is this look of awe, terror, and disbelief reflected from the face of onlookers. I’m essentially an alien.
On top of being able to speak Spanish, I have an accent. I don’t sound like the first semester Spanish student from the movies. I have no idea where it came from. It’s transformed through the years. When I spent more time with Mexican hablantes, I sounded Mexican. For a stint all I heard was Argentinean Spanish- I sounded Argentinean. Now my world is filled with Caribbean Latinos so I’m frequently mistaken for Cubana or Dominicana these days. I’m ok with that!
It is a badge of honor to be accepted into a community you love so much, to be treated like a Latina. I don’t appropriate. I tell people straight away that my family is from good ole’ Louisiana and Texas, and I’m the only one in the family that knows Spanish the way I do. So being accepted with all of those facts on the table means a lot.
True story: I knew I had been accepted after the first time I was with a native speaker in a public place and we started discussing things in Spanish so nobody could understand (I know, it’s rude). Still, it made me smile on the inside!
On the flip side is the response from my natural people. Most Latinos have embraced me because they know my love and passion is real. African Americans haven’t had the same response. I’ve been treated as if I’m a traitor to my kind. Honestly, I’ve never identified much with modern-day African American culture. It tends to be synonymous with hip-hop culture. Never been much of a fan so those categories just never quite fit. I did grow up with Latinos and Asians (specifically, Vietnamese) and took on many of their customs. If you come to my house you MUST take off your shoes at the door. My handwriting is even influenced by how my Vietnamese friends wrote.
In 9th grade I took Spanish 1. My teacher was black…. from Panama. I didn’t know that was a thing. This is how I learned about Afro-Latinos. This is where the love was ignited. Most of the African Americans that I knew back home didn’t understand though. They didn’t agree. They thought I was trying to be someone I wasn’t. This is me though. The chopstick using, Nigerian clothes wearing, yelling at you in Spanish during traffic person. A cultural menagerie if you will.
Having the heart of an Afro-Latina is more than people thinking I’m special for being so fluent or being able to blend when I’m ashamed to be American (hey, it happens sometimes). Having this heart and being dedicated to the language skills have everything to do with social justice. Over the years, I’ve learned that Afro-Latinos globally suffer just as much, if not more, than African Americans. With studying Sociology and Spanish as majors on the collegiate level, what better way to utilize my talents and knowledge? When I read about the conflict on Hispaniola between the Dominicans and Haitians it touches the core of me. I don’t know what I can do exactly, but something deep down tells me it is my duty to do something. Those are my people too, even if I’m only adopted in.
I have so many stories about being an African American Spanish speaker. All the ones about people sharing personal details with their compadres in front of me, assuming I don’t understand. They know differently when I start to chuckle. All the ones about people saying rude things about me, assuming I don’t understand (my Mexican brothers and sisters are notorious for this since Afro-Mexicans are an almost unknown group in Mexico). They learn differently when I confront them in their native tongue. It would take a lifetime to share all the experiences I’ve had as an adopted Afro-Latina. Some bad, some ugly, but mostly beautifully testaments of human kindness, acceptance, and love. I look forward to a lifetime of living amongst my Latino brothers and sister.
As a final note, don’t let anyone tell you who you are or should be. Learning and embracing cultures breeds compassion and understanding. Most of the fighting amongst ethnic groups arises from ignorance. It is resolved by simply learning to walk in someone else’s shoes. You don’t have to let go of your own ethnic identity to embrace others. There’s room for everyone! Amazing, huh? ¡Ojalá que caminen con la gracia de Dios, hermanos y hermanas! Blessings.