What it’s like being Afro-Latinx on campus

The Latinx identity is not limited to a single race, yet many are unaware that people can be both Black and Latinx. Photo Submitted by LASSO

The Latinx identity is exceptionally diverse, and the lines between race and ethnicity often blur. Often marginalized within the Latinx community, many Afro-Latinx people around the world embrace their heritage and resist cultural erasure. 

According to the Latinx Student Service and Outreach, as of fall 2020, 13% of Georgia State’s students identify as Hispanic or Latinx of any race. That’s a total of 6,983 students, the highest number of students in a University System of Georgia institution. 

Some students identify as Afro-Latinx within that demographic, and LASSO created a space for students to feel at home.

From its humble beginnings as a “closet-sized office,” LASSO Retention Coordinator Iris Trejo Valencia says that the center has grown to accommodate its growing population. 

While LASSO works to showcase the diversity of Latinx identity and culture year-round, in honor of Black History month, they collaborated with other offices at Georgia State to help students learn and talk about Afro-Latinidad

On their Instagram page and newsletter, LASSO promotes events to empower students, encourage conversation and highlight the various aspects of Latinx culture.

“[We] just [want to] be able to give students a space to ask questions, but also learn from their peers and the different perspectives that everyone has,” Trejo Valencia said. 

Junior Mark Lannaman is of Jamaican and Colombian descent. He believes that his background plays a role in life because he is at the intersection of two minority identities. 

“I’m blessed with my culture being a Black man, and also I’m blessed with being a Latino,” Lannaman said. 

Growing up, Lannaman was aware that he didn’t fit into the preconceived mold of how Latinx people traditionally look. He noticed that because he was different, people also tended to look at him differently as well.

“People tend to think of tan skin and the dark hair or something like that,” he said. “So, being an Afro-Latinx person in the [U.S.] means I just have to recognize that sometimes when you’re going along that narrow line, that sometimes you don’t necessarily fit into either group.” 

The idea of what Latinx people look like ties into Afro-Latinx representation in the media. There are well known celebrities like actress Zoe Saldana and basketball player Carmelo Anthony. However, there’s still a lack of diversity. 

“While it is good that we get representation, many times the people you see in the media are usually lighter skin with loose curls,” Lannaman said. “That’s always bothered me because there’s a wide range of what [Latinx] people look like, you know. [Someone] with the kinkiest hair and the darkest skin … can be just as Latinx as someone else with the typical tan skin or curled hair.”

Racism and colorism are present throughout the world, and it’s not only found within the U.S. The discussion of race and ethnicity within the Latinx community can be a challenging one. 

Lannaman would like people, especially the non-Black Latinx community, to listen when Afro-Latinx people speak up about their history and issues. 

“In the Latinx or Hispanic community, we’d like to think we’re exempt [from racism or colorism] or more accepting,” Lannaman said. “And whether or not we are doesn’t mean that we are completely inclusive.”

Junior Marina Melendez is Black and Honduran, and she feels more connected to her Latinx heritage depending on where she is. 

When she lived in New York, Melendez saw many people who looked like her and spoke Spanish openly, which she doesn’t see as often in Georgia. 

Melendez has seen more Afro-Latinx representation in TV shows like “On My Block.” 

“The [characters] were just like actual Latinx people, and I think it’s something that I see more of,” she said. “It brings me joy, and as an older person, looking back, I just know that had I seen that when I was younger, it would’ve been such an encouragement.” 

At Georgia State, Melendez enjoys going to a school with a diverse staff who can relate to her as they understand the experience of being a Black person in America. 

“As far as what the university can do to push for diversity, [Georgia State should] continue to fund teachers and staff who represent different cultures that students can connect with,” she said. “[They should also] provide students with the platform to share their voice and how they feel, whether that be through outlets where different people can come in and hear about what it’s like to be an Afro-Latino student today.”

Katie Acosta is an associate professor of sociology at Georgia State. She is Dominican, and her parents were born on the island and immigrated to the U.S. as teenagers.

Although she was born in New York City, she lived the earliest years of her life in the Dominican Republic with her mom.

“Being Dominican informs every aspect of my identity,” Acosta said. “Technically, I’m Dominican American because I was born here and am a U.S. citizen, but I have never felt like an American. Living in this country as a Dominican person has always meant feeling ’other.’”

Acosta says that being an Afro-Latina educator is a lonely experience, as there are few higher education institutions in which one can find people like her.

She explains that the number of Latinx faculty at most schools is even smaller than African American faculty. And Afro-Latinx faculty are an even smaller proportion of Latinx faculty.

Acosta is unsure if being Afro-Latina benefits her teaching and research, as she doesn’t know what it would be like to be a professor as a white person.

“What I can say is that my identity as an Afro-Latina impacts every aspect of how I approach my work,” she said. “It influences how I design my courses, my research interests and how others in the academy see my worth.”

As an educator at Georgia State, Acosta spends a lot of time defending her Blackness to folks who equate Black to African American. In particular, undergraduate students have difficulty processing that.

“I feel like I have to walk around explaining to everyone why I look the way I do,” Acosta said. 

Slave ships brought people of African descent all over the Americas, not just to the U.S. Cuba and the Dominican Republic received vast numbers of enslaved Africans.

Acosta believes that there’s a lot that the university can do to further diversity, equity and inclusion goals, starting with an intentional and coordinated effort to promote a more racially and ethnically diverse faculty.

Georgia State is a minority-serving institution. Still, the faculty is no more racially diverse than predominantly white institutions, and upper administration is almost entirely white

“That’s a problem,” Acosta said. “And contrary to what some administrators think, the solution to this problem is not to have faculty members of color ‘realize their potential’ to pursue administrative positions.”

Other institutions implemented cluster hires to boost diversity and promote inclusion.

“The notion of bringing in a group of scholars whose research interests align with one another who can contribute to our university’s offerings in Latinx studies is a place to start,” Acosta said. “It makes a lot of sense to bring in cohorts of faculty who can support one another, rather than an isolated individual.”

Acosta thinks that strong allyship requires internal reflection for activism, especially for non-Black Latinx allies.

“What are the ways that they benefit from their whiteness? What are the ways that they have been complicit in the erasure of Blackness among Latinx people?” she said. “They also can call their family members out and call them in to acknowledge the erasure and the harm it causes.”

Acosta loves everything about being Afro-Latina, from the music and culture to the language. But the identity carries many challenges.

“It’s exhausting to have to fight for the right to claim Latinidad and fight for the right to claim Blackness,” she said. “You don’t ever really fit anywhere.”