Know Thyself, and Know You Are Loved
Written by Stephanie Renee on February 6, 2016
Identity, my friends, is a fluid, sticky, political, personal thing.
This week, I am going to be a cover girl for Al Día News, Philadelphia’s bilingual newspaper. As a part of their recognition of Black History Month, they decided to do a feature on Afro-Latinas, and I will be one of the women who gets a chance to discuss my background, my upbringing and my (un)ease with expressing my heritage through a title. Today, that confidence is a little wobbly, like me trying to dress up in five-inch stilettos for a date. But during my teen and young adult years, I didn’t claim “the Brown” at all. I didn’t want any trouble, and I certainly wasn’t up for the genetic policing that comes along with it.
I am a DC girl down to my bones, which is impossibly empowering and unnerving all at once. In the Chocolate City of my youth, there was only Black and White, and surprisingly little White in my immediate environment. I spent much of my childhood at the feet of my beloved abuela, my Grandma Marie, and reveled in the lilt of the Caribbean accent that came gushing out of her in moments of delight and deep-seated anger. Ours was a singular closeness, reserved for the bloodline’s matriarch and the youngest of the grandchildren, entrusting me with endless stories of our family’s triumph over hardship and discrimination. Tales of the generations before us who consciously shunned accents and other languages to blend in. Cousins who felt so alienated from The American Dream that they disappeared on planes and boats or snuck across borders to reclaim a lost part of themselves. Grandma died before I could glean vital details about those countries of origin, the ancestral journeys and my connection to the folklore. And for years, I felt I had no right to claim them. I was just a Black girl from the Nation’s Capital. Period.
Genealogy and DNA are wondrous things. They can provide context and answers that you may not have even realized you were missing. They can help you piece together your truth. And, in the case of ethnic identity, they can give you the courage to mute the volume on decades of identity policing thrust upon you by society at large. Technology has given me the power to connect with cousins in the Dominican Republic and Brazil, and tied me to yet unknown family in Cuba, Jamaica and Nigeria. I’ve made fast friends with other Latinos who speak little to no Spanish, and we’ve kvetched over feeling left out of the party by not being fluent in the native tongue. But that doesn’t change the ancestry one bit. And…I will no longer make time for misguided Black folks who think I have a secret plan to “dilute the race” or diminish my legacy by claiming the rainbow of my heritage. It is exhausting trying to selectively edit my reality to make other people comfortable when it’s hard enough being comfortable being me.
This week, I am going to be a cover girl for Al Día News, under the headline “Somos Más.” We are more. Not less than. More. And in a way that didn’t seem possible half my life ago, I’m going to believe it. Accept it. Embrace it. Damn your titles or misconceptions. Afro-Latina, baby. And you will deal.
Read more about Stef’s story here: Links to Al Día News story “Somos Más” below (print issue is at honor boxes throughout the city):