“What are you? I thought you were black!”
I often hear this when people find out my parents are Panamanian. Looking down at my arm and responding with a sarcastic, “Oh, I thought I was too,” is how I usually dismiss the statement when I am not in the mood to explain the difference between race and ethnicity. Being questioned about my background is something I have grown accustom to, as it has happened my entire life. As a result, I have made it a point to represent my culture whenever possible.
Natural Born Orgullo
Embracing my Panamanian and West Indian background was something that was taught to me at a very young age. Both of my parents were born and raised in Panamá, but past generation from both sides of their families originated from West Indian countries. My father’s family is from Barbados and my mother’s family is from Jamaica. Both families migrated to Panamá to help with the construction of the Panamá Canal. This is where my family gets our darker pigmentation and our West Indian traditions from. Being a direct decedent of Panamanian parents is something I have always held close to me,like a badge of honor, displaying it proudly throughout my entire life by wearing T-shirts and accessories with the Panamá flag on them.
Growing up in Panamanian family with West Indian roots meant I was spoken to with a mix of Spanish, Bajan, and broken English. I ate Arroz Con Pollo, Plátanos, and Jamaican Patties. I grew up listening to Celia Cruz, Héctor Lavoe, Rubén Blades, Gregory Isaacs, and Bob Marley. I attended Panamanian events and knew all the Panamanians in the area. Whenever I met someone that had a Panamanian parent, 9 times out of 10 their family knew or grew up with someone in my family. It was like I belonged to my own special club, bound together by Panamanian culture. And that made me feel comfortable because we all understood each other’s background and where we came from.
Helping Others To Understand
However, things were different when I came across people who did not understand my background. I grew up in a small suburban community that didn’t have many black people in it. So, when people heard my parents’ accents or noticed we had a foreign flag hanging in the mirror of our car, I would often hear the question, “If your parents are from Panamá, how are you black?”
When I was younger, I had no idea how I was supposed to answer that question. My mom would say, “Tell them you are a black Panamanian.” Giving that response worked for a while, but when I got older that response lead to additional questions and confusion for others. People would ask,“Well how are you both?” With close friends I would explain it. But after a while I found myself bothered that people did not have a basic understanding of the difference between race and ethnicity. Because it was something they were unfamiliar with, people didn’t understand how I could be black with a Latin background.
But when I moved to Carson,CA, a suburb of Los Angeles, to attend college I figured I would get questioned less, but I was wrong. Since Los Angeles is sometimes referred to as a “melting pot”, I thought people would be more aware of culture diversities. Nevertheless, throughout college I continued to receive the same kinds of questions and responses regarding my background. I was amazed that people just could not grasp the concept of a black Latina.
It wasn’t until I watched a few videos on Youtube that I started to understand other people’s mentality on this subject. One of the videos I watched was entitled,“Afro-Latinos: The Untaught Story”. The video featured black Latinos discussing our lack of representation in the United States. I found that I was able to relate to everything discussed in the video. The underrepresentation of people like me is what led to the ignorance of others. It was sad to know that in this day and age people were still able to dismiss a person’s culture because of the color of their skin.
This is why I am thankful for Afro-Latino blogs, Youtube videos, New Latina and Latina magazine. These media outlets have brought attention to the term “Afro-Latino”, which is defined as a Latin person of black African ancestry. I like this term because I can identify myself as such. Bringing attention to the term will hopefully help others to understand that a Latin person can be of any skin color. This type of awareness can bring about change, and then maybe Afro-Latinos will be represented in more TV shows, movies, and magazines.
As for me, I will continue to do my part by sharing information about Afr0-Latino culture on my blog. I will also take the time to explain my background to others, letting people know that I am African because my ancestors were carried on slave ships and dropped off in West Indian countries; and that I’m also Panamanian because both of my parents were born in Panama. I will make sure that people know that I am a proud Afro- Panameña!