For New Londoners with Latino and Black heritage, there is pride in nuanced ancestry
When Yanitza Cubilette returned to the Dominican Republic in 2018, for the first time in seven or eight years, one of the first things she did was visit her old Catholic high school. In the principal’s office, she joked that she used to sit there a lot but now came back “just for fun.”
Looking at “all these girls with this big, beautiful, curly hair” and cornrows and other styles, Cubilette commented on how she had gotten in a bit of trouble for wearing some of these then-prohibited styles. Times had changed.
The New London resident, 29, describes herself as “very Dominican,” which she celebrates with tattoos of a coconut tree, sugar cane and outline of the island. Having grown up watching people protest in the streets over issues like increased bus fares, Cubilette’s upbringing also influenced her community work.
She worked at Hearing Youth Voices, served as director of the CT Black and Brown Student Union, and worked with the Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute. But facing burnout and the loss of her father earlier in the pandemic, Cubilette decided to take a step back and is focused on taking care of herself.
For Latinos who also identify as Black ― whether in recognition of the African roots in colonized Latin American countries, or due to having parents of different ethnicities ― their cultural pride is unique and so is some of the racism they may face.
Cubilette was born and raised in South Florida, moved to the Dominican Republic at 11, and came to New London High School before her senior year. She went from people looking at her as a Latina to people assuming she was mixed-race and asking which of her parents is Black.
“I’d be like, ‘Both of them, because I’m Dominican,’” Cubilette said. She started concretely identifying as Afro-Latina once she got to New London and started community work. Her lens had started to shift, and she felt that identifying as Afro-Latina meant letting go “of some of the anti-Blackness that is inherently ingrained in us.”
“Being Afro-Latina for me is being a Latina who’s Black, and that looks like a lot of different things,” Cubilette said. She noted that the Dominican Republic has more in common culturally with West Indian countries like Haiti and Jamaica than with Peru, for example.
“But somehow we’re different because we’re Latino and they’re Black? Nah,” Cubilette said. “We’re just Afro-Latino, and they were colonized by these people, we were colonized by these people, they were colonized by them, and that’s why we all speak different languages.”
“People identify in a lot of different ways”
Princeton University’s Project on Ethnicity and Race in Latin America estimates that “based on the best and worst recent data,” about 130 million people in Latin America are of African descent, or a quarter of the population.
According to Pew Research Center, about 6 million people in the United States identified as Afro-Latino in 2020, which is 12% of the adult Latino population. One in seven self-identified Afro-Latinos didn’t identity as Hispanic. Asked about their race, three in 10 Afro-Latinos selected White, 25% chose Black and 23% said “some other race.”
“It’s important to know that people identify in a lot of different ways,” said Katerina Gonzalez Seligmann, interim director of El Instituto: Institute of Latina/o, Caribbean, and Latin American Studies at the University of Connecticut. She noted that some people identify as Afro-Latino, some would say it’s redundant to call people Afro-Dominican, and some Dominicans won’t identify as Black.
Melina Pappademos, director of the Africana Studies Institute at UConn, noted that most people of African descent who were forcibly transported to the America didn’t go to the U.S., but to Brazil, continental Latin America, and the Caribbean.
As a scholar of Cuba, Pappademos won’t use the term Afro-Cubano, saying that while the term is legible among U.S. scholars of Latin America and the Caribbean, it doesn’t provide adequate nuance for the history and experiences of Cubans of African descent. She thinks the hyphenated approach of using “Afro” and a country name “may have been a way to enter the conversation, but it doesn’t get us very far.”
In addition to the Afro-Latino term yielding mixed reactions, so too has the identity of Hispanic, a term that links people from Spanish-speaking cultures. Gonzalez Seligmann said people assume that Latino or Latinx is a new way of saying Hispanic, but this leaves out non-Spanish-speaking Latin American countries, such as Haiti and Brazil.
Leaving Haiti out, she said, is connected to anti-Blackness in Latin America and does the work of "lightening" the region and its people. The most explicit example she's seen is in the Dominican Republic, where Haitians are policed at the border.
“What some people don’t understand is there’s anti-Black racism alive and well in the Caribbean and has been for centuries,” Pappademos said, but that there’s denial of racism in Latinx communities.
Gonzalez Seligmann noted that when she took a study-abroad program to Cuba, her Black students were racially profiled by the police. She said while police targeting and racial violence happens against people of African descent in Latin America, there are also Black solidarity movements in the region.
Pappademos said she’s “trying to challenge the idea that racism has to look the same and anti-Blackness has to look the same no matter where you are.” She added that when people try to conflate the experiences of Blackness in the U.S. with experiences elsewhere, “you inevitably will erase experiences. There’s historically contingent differences.”
Within the same ethnic group, people can experience what’s sometimes called colorism, or discrimination against people with darker skin tones. Gonzalez Seligmann feels it’s important to call it racism rather than colorism in Latinx communities, to draw out the privilege some people have even if they’re discriminated against in other ways.
From a Puerto Rican upbringing to Africana education in college
“As a biracial Afro-Latina, life gets a little tricky for me at times,” Taylin Santiago wrote in 2019, as a New London High School student. “Being both black and Puerto-Rican, I know very little about either of my histories other than the fact that slavery and genocide were involved in both.”
She was testifying in favor of a Connecticut General Assembly bill including Black and Latino studies in public school curriculum, which ended up passing with broad bipartisan support.
Santiago said recently she thinks she speaks for a lot of Black and brown people in saying that the presentation in school is that “our history starts at slavery and ends at Martin Luther King, and we’ve had no other contributions.”
She went to college to learn about those other contributions: The 21-year-old is double-majoring in Africana Studies and Urban and Community Studies at UConn.
Born and raised in New London, Santiago said she grew up more in her Puerto Rican household than her Black household, and her maternal grandmother “raised us to be really proud to be Puerto Rican.” There were coquis in the house, a frog native to Puerto Rico, and always a flag.
Her grandmother loved to cook, making arroz con gandules ― rice with pigeon peas ― and chuletas fritas, or fried pork chops. Except for mofongo, her favorite food, Santiago doesn’t order Puerto Rican food much, figuring she and her grandmother could make it better.
Not from her grandmother but from other parts of her family and people outside her family, Santiago said she’s heard microaggressions, whether it’s people saying, “Don’t go in the sun; you’re too dark” or making comments about her hair.
She felt like she was taught growing up, “The straighter your hair the better.” Inspired early in high school by the natural hair movement, she stopped relaxing her hair and went natural. But she still has to tell people in college not to touch her hair.
This past summer, Santiago reflected on the similarities and differences between Costa Rican culture and Puerto Rican culture, as she spent three weeks in Costa Rica for a class on human rights in Latin America.
She also had an internship this summer with the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, researching urban renewal in New London as part of an ongoing project.
New London artist draws inspiration from around the globe
In her New London home last month, Imna Arroyo flipped through pages of prints of Eleggua, a deity in Yoruba religion ― out of West Africa ― and religions of the African diaspora. There was Eleggua in red and black and Eleggua in black and white, Eleggua carrying prayers and Eleggua in Puerto Rico.
These were among the works she was packing up for a retrospective exhibition opening soon in her native Puerto Rico at La Casa del Libro, a museum and library with historic books.
With Taíno and African heritage, Arroyo’s art draws from her identity ― as a Puerto Rican, as Boricua, as a Black Puerto Rican ― and from her many travels around the world.
In New Mexico, she discovered the spiritual world of the Hopi and Navajo. In Cuba, she went to a high priest of Ifá, a Yoruba religion. In Ghana, she stood in Elmina Castle at the “door of no return” ― where enslaved people were forced onto boats ― but recalled hearing that “a voice came from the deepest part of my soul” and said, “No, we return.”
Arroyo has a small room in her house dedicated to her ancestors. One grandmother was a teacher whose daughters all became teachers, and on the other side of the family, her grandparents were a seamstress and a cabinetmaker.
And here Arroyo is, 71, an educator herself, five years retired from teaching art at Eastern Connecticut State University.
Her early art dealt with the environment of Puerto Rico, but once she began studying at the Pratt Institute in New York, she started focusing more on the personal ― on women and on concepts of liberation.
Arroyo was born in Puerto Rico, moved to Brooklyn as a baby, and then moved back in fourth grade. She studied at Escuela de Artes Plásticas ― the School of Plastic Arts and Design ― in San Juan, got married, had children, got divorced, went to Pratt, and got her Master of Fine Arts at Yale before teaching at the former South Central Community College and then Eastern.
“We’re from the Caribbean, and so when we move here, to the U.S. or any place in the world, you’re leaving behind your history, you’re leaving behind your bones,” she said, “because your ancestors are buried there.”
A related theme has come up in her art: Even for people who have to leave somewhere with nothing, “you carry your beliefs.”