“She made me aware that my grandmother was much darker than my other relatives, especially from her side of the family, and she didn’t want me to say anything out of turn or something about her skin color,” said Alvarado, 50, the executive vice president of the Atlanta-based government relations firm Ohio River South.
“These are my blood relatives, what does that make me?” he recalls thinking.
At that moment, Alvarado learned that his grandmother and himself were Black Latinos or Afro-Latinos, a group that historically has faced prejudice within Latino communities in the United States and abroad.
In the last decade, the number of people across the US who identify as Black and Hispanic has increased 11.6%, according to a CNN analysis of census data. The national debate around race along with a growing trend of young Black Latinos embracing their roots in a way that older generations may have not are some of the factors behind the uptick, experts say.
Ultimately, defining what it means to be Afro-Latino is personal and can be subjective, multiple scholars and Afro-Latinos told CNN. They have dark and lighter skin, they are fully bilingual or only speak some Spanish and their families are linked to more than a dozen countries. The term acknowledges that Black Latinos face different struggles than other Latinos, especially those with lighter skin, experts say.
“It may be because of a change in the census form and the way the responses are coded,” Lopez said. “It may be people becoming more aware of their identity because of things like DNA tests and so forth and it may be because of the way in which US society has discussed and engaged with issues around race and racial equality over the last 10 years.”
You don’t have to choose between being Black and Latino
Growing up, Alvarado told others that he was Black. He says it took him years to understand he could equally claim both African and Latin American roots simultaneously.
“I felt like the world was telling me ‘you can either be Black or Latino, but you couldn’t be both,’ and I didn’t know how to explain being both,” he said.
The Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn where he grew up was very diverse, he said, but his lack of fluency in Spanish created a self-imposed pressure to figure out how he could immerse himself in the Latino community.
“I would ask myself ‘am I fully accepted? Do Latinos see me as fully Latino or do they just tolerate me?”’ Alvarado said, adding that no one ever did anything to him to make him feel this way.
Morehouse College, a historically Black all-male university in Atlanta, offered Alvarado a chance to understand his identity, he said. As a student, all but one of his peers saw him as a Black man, he recalls.
“When I came to Morehouse in ’91, there was no ‘oh Joel’s from Puerto Rico.’ Everybody just saw me and said ‘that’s a light-skin Black dude,'” he said.
As a history major at Morehouse, Alvarado researched the transatlantic slave trade as well the expansive history of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. Later, he discovered there were Puerto Ricans on Morehouse’s dive team in the 1950s, so both parts of his identity had a place at his school.
Delving into that history helped him understand who he was as an Afro-Latino, and it gave him a newfound ability to define and vocalize his identity.
“You can be Latino and Black and that doesn’t take away from one or the other, and they shouldn’t have to make you choose between one or the other, you can be both because they’re both representative of who you are as a human being,” Alvarado said.
Racism and discrimination is keeping some from identifying as Afro-Latino
Nydia Guity remembers people calling her “esa morena” in a disparaging tone. The Spanish phrase translates to “that Black Girl.”
Guity, 34, was born and raised in the Bronx to Honduran immigrants. She was one of a few Black students — and one of the few darker skinned students — in her elementary school bilingual class. She recalled Spanish-speakers saying “dehumanizing and disgusting” things about Black people around her because they assumed she wouldn’t understand.
But once it was known she understood Spanish, she said “people suddenly felt comfortable to share things about Blackness in my presence that, for me, are super offensive. It’s like ‘you do know that I’m Black, right?'”
Unlike Alvarado, who was also teased as a child for his racial ambiguity but ultimately came to embrace his full Afro-Latino identity, Guity said she’s exhausted of having to explain to people why she can speak Spanish fluently. For her, saying she’s Afro-Latina erases her Blackness.
“I’m not any less Black because I speak Spanish,” she said.
“In the popular culture there’s still that belief — whether it’s subconscious or not — that if you marry someone lighter than you, you have a better chance for upward mobility,” Peña said, adding there are certain parts of Latin America where social mobility depends on the complexion of a person’s skin.
“Darker-skinned Latinos were more likely across every single discrimination experience we asked about to say that had happened to them in the year before the survey than lighter-skinned Latinos,” said Lopez, the director of race and ethnicity research at the Pew Research Center.
Abadía-Rexach, who was part of the campaign, said she encountered many people on the island who said they didn’t have to answer the race question because they could write in “Puerto Rican” on the census question about Hispanic and Latino origin.
Olave and other experts said there are Latinos who, no matter their complexion, don’t acknowledge their African roots and have a hard time choosing a race.
“I’m not Black, I’m …” Dominican, Puerto Rican, Colombian or any country of origin is common because some people identify more with their experience rather than their race, Olave said.
While some use the term Afro-Latino to merely reclaim their roots, Abadía-Rexach said the term should also be used to challenge the anti-Black attitudes within Latinx communities in the US and abroad.
“People should answer the race question in a political way, how you see yourself, but also how you are treated,” said Abadía-Rexach, adding that she asserts her identity as a Black woman as a means of making a political statement.
There’s a stark difference in generational views of Afro-Latino identity
Growing up, Erica-Antoinette Castillo Slaton, 40, said she always felt like she was “other.” Outside, she was a Black American, but at home, she was the daughter of immigrant parents from Belize and Honduras.
It wasn’t until she turned 18 and left for college that she embraced how different she was, starting with changing the pronunciation of her (maiden) last name.
What was formerly pronounced in English as Castillo — the double L sounds like “jello” — transformed into the Spanish pronunciation Castillo, where the double L sounds like a “Y” like the word “pollo” or chicken in Spanish.
“I decided to no longer assimilate, but to provide it as is in terms of who I was,” Slaton said. Her parents were more concerned with working and supporting their children, she said, than how their name was pronounced.
Changing the pronunciation of her last name led Slaton to eventually see herself as an Afro-Latina woman, something that was unfamiliar to her parents. Slaton said neither of her parents identify as Afro-Latino, even though they could be considered such by definition of their racial and ethnic background.
Her mother identifies as Belizean, Honduran and Garifuna, but has never been in a space to consider whether she was Afro-Latina, Slaton said. Her father identifies as Belizean and Garifuna.
“I think people have the freedom and the right to identify with what they want and it doesn’t have to look a certain way to those of us on the outside,” Slaton said.
While most of the adults who spoke to CNN came to terms with their racial and ethnic identity at a much later age, 16-year-old Nation Shabazz Alvarado is well aware of his diverse heritage.
Unlike his father Joel Alvarado, Nation learned at a fairly young age that his father was a darker-skinned Afro-Latino man from Puerto Rico and his mother was a biracial woman — Black and White — from Alabama.
“It’s confusing for anybody to understand it — especially someone who’s younger — by themselves, luckily I have parents who kind of know this,” Nation said. “They showed me — especially at a younger age — who I am and what I am. That really helped me in the long run, knowing where I fit and knowing who I am.”
When Nation heard the story about his father meeting his grandmother for the first time, he says it confused him and made him wonder what stopped his relatives from showing Alvarado “who he really was” at a younger age. Now, he understands that his grandparents and parents lived during a time where racism, colorism and segregation were more prevalent in both the US and Latin America.
“Racism, in itself, is like a virus. It’s spread until eventually there is antibiotic that takes it out. The antibiotic is the new generation that’s coming in,” Nation said.
“There’s a lot more people like me coming into the world,” he added.