Tuesday, September 11, 2012

I Am Latina. I Am Black. I Am Me.

Mirna S.
Celebrating Latin American History Month is a month for celebrating our diversity as Latin Americans. Latinos are one of those groups of people that cannot be defined by race or biology because we are a mixture of ethnicities, languages and cultural experiences.

I was born and raised in the South Bronx to immigrant Honduran-Garifuna parents whose objective for coming to America was to search for a better life for themselves and their children. Like many Latin American and third world countries public and complimentary education is scarce and is generally provided to children until the completion of elementary school. Post-elementary education is a luxury that many can’t afford therefore oftentimes children stay home and help support their families by providing childcare, doing housework, cooking, working in factories or on farms and selling food. 

The Garifunas, also known as the Black Caribs are descendants of the Caribbean, Arawak and West African people who lived on the island of St. Vincent. Today the Garifuna people live primarily in Central America and along the Caribbean Coast in Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras as well as in the United States.

As a young person growing up around other Latinos like me I never felt I needed to explain who I was. It was only when I left my home and church community that I felt different. I remember how I used to struggle when I completed the census report for my parents and me or even just applications that would ask for our race and/or ethnicities. I really never felt that I fit in their categories until recently when the census and other agencies began adding the category for Black Latino/a.

On many occasions people assume I’m African American and that’s fine too. But when I speak Spanish in public the reaction is usually one of shock! People say things like “you don’t look Latina” or tell me that I don’t have an accent when I speak English (I suppose Rosie Perez is what they expect). At times, if I’m up to it I give them a lesson on cultural diversity.

In Latin America you see a range of hues and looks even beyond the typical black and white Latinos. And at this point in my life I have come to terms with embracing who I am and I know that I don’t have to be defined by society’s terms as to what is Latina or black, I am both and some… I am ME and I am proud. So I say, Salud to Latin American Heritage Month!

Mirna S.

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At September 13, 2012 at 10:13 AM , Blogger Rosechell Spencer III said...

I appreciate this article very much so. I am black, graduated from a black college, and have my struggles with this topic. Firstly, I appreciate and respect your acknowledgement of being black, latina, and so much more.
My struggle with the topic as an American is I grew up in a society of labels and boxes and I suppose if there is no clear box; I feel uncomfortable. My second struggle, is the fact that my particular box/label is historically synonymous with all that is bad and unpleasant (slight sarcasm).
One of my missions is to support the positiveness of my label by having these conversations. I also aim to communicate that "black" is everywhere and a little bit of everything. I have no intentions of stripping away anyone's identity or culture with labels, but the negativity associated being "black" makes me angry.
Blacks have a huge collective history, and I guess my issue isn't with people not claiming to be black. My problem is the way that information is often presented.

At September 14, 2012 at 12:51 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rosechell, I agree with the idea of needing things squared away in boxes. Categorizing things is the way we process information as human beings, and it seems like an impossible feat to throw that out the window and find a less offensive paradigm no matter how often we feel restricted by labeling. But, I think the key to shrugging off that dissonance we feel when things don’t fit is by doing as Mirna did and expanding the meaning of those boxes for ourselves. So thank you Mirna for sharing your story with us and proudly laying claim to your heritage, both of em.

At September 15, 2012 at 12:35 PM , Anonymous Mirna said...

Thanks for your comments!!

Rosechell to your point labeling is indeed stereotypical and limiting. As the 2nd commentator indicated categorization helps us as humans to process information, yet it can be restrictive, and yes I wanted to share on this blog some of my black and Latina experience.

Generally making assumptions about someone's nationality, ethnicity or heritage may seem easier, nonetheless if we want to see change it has to start with you and me. It’s our responsibility to move beyond societal norms on culture that is so vast and encompass courage to get out of our comfort zone to explore and ask questions to allow the individual to share and answer that for themselves.

Also if interested check out Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. docu-series on black in Latin America. He researched Latino history and culture and examines how Africa and Europe came together to create the rich cultures of Latin America and the Caribbean. I highly recommend.

Mirna S.

At September 22, 2012 at 5:41 PM , Blogger asha.tarry said...

We live in a categorical society, world even. I think possibly we all may look at someone, hear someone speak and put them in a location in our brains that identifies either familiarity or otherwise. It's once we challenge ourselves to be open-minded and explore 1st, that we get something else out of the experience.
Mirna's story is so important and very common in our world.
As a multi-ethnic woman myself I relate very closely to Mirna's experience. I also know the challenges I see, hear everyday and I also know the categories I've put others in to determine my own knowledge against my experiences. It's so engrained, so early. We want, as people to relate and feel comfortable, often, 1st before we go outside the comfort zone for something more. How many times Mirna have we heard a Latina's accent or said some words to each other in spanish and kept speaking spanish to each other/one another around people who didn't understand?
This story is a powerful story, to me, mostly because it's about dual identity and acknowledgment as well as empowerment. Here, a young woman says, "I call myself what I am before you have a choice in labeling me!" and that's dynamic! I want to know why more black Americans and others aren't doing the same.
Great conversation everyone. Let's celebrate the last week of the month and the 1st two of next holding up the greats of both groups! Salud!


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