I grew up practicing Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian spiritual tradition that is Afro-indigenous at its core, practicing Capoeira at my parent’s Brazilian arts and culture center, and eating foods that were distinct to a Latinx blackness that I didn’t see represented in the world immediately around me. I don’t think you can ever truly strip yourself of who you are, but when I reflect back on that period of my life, I’m aware of how much of myself I did not express because I did not feel that it would be legible to others. I didn’t fit neatly into any category, and it was confusing for a long time to understand.
Growing up Afro-Latina in West LA asked me to shed parts of myself in order to be comprehensible to others. In a city that is predominantly Black American and Chicano, there were only a handful of Afro-Latinx folks that I knew, and the majority of them were my own family.
Recently, I had the opportunity to spend time at LACMA in the incredibly powerful exhibition, Afro-Atlantic Histories. Walking in, you are immediately thrown into a timeless space that connects you across waters. To my left, a map of the transatlantic slave trade, and a brief account of the histories. As the daughter of an Afro-Brazilian immigrant, I knew that Brazil was the last country to abolish slavery (In 1888, just 135 years ago), but to see that represented here in the city that raised me, felt important. As I navigated through the exhibition, I was deeply moved. It was healing to my younger self to see a diverse representation of Black histories that embraced, acknowledged, and connected across the Americas.
My dad tells me stories of when he first came to LA. He had dreadlocks at the time, and is a dark-skinned Black man. When he would tell people that he was Brazilian they truly thought that he was lying, insisting that he was Jamaican. LA is in many ways highly segregated. Depending on the part of the city you live in, you may never interact with folks outside of a certain identity group.
Despite going to a diverse public school, this was similarly reflected. In school, my brother and I had different experiences of our identities based on how the school system divided and sorted Black and Brown kids from the white and Asian kids. I was put on the honors and AP track, and my brother on the “regular” track. I was with predominantly white and Asian students, and my brother was with predominantly Black and Brown kids. I quickly became confused, not knowing where I fit in—a bit too adaptable to other people’s projections of who I thought I was.
While I was not white-passing, I fell into a category of “ethnic ambiguity” that allowed people to assign me into their own categories, and left me constantly shape-shifting. I knew I was Black, but I did the bi-racial kid thing (I’m half Jewish), where I tried to assimilate into whatever culture would accept me. At that age I often felt rejected by the groups I felt most connected to and looked like, and accepted at the cost of tokenization and cultural reduction by the ones I did not. I had people around me who called me “ethnic Barbie” and others who would say, “You’re not really Black, you’re Brazilian,” which felt wrong, but I didn’t yet have the language to explain why.
Then I moved to New York. I remember the first day I walked into Black Student Organization as a freshman. The meeting was packed. The representations of blackness were expansive. As people introduced themselves I became emotional. Represented were Afro-Latinx folks descended from all over the Americas and Caribbean—Panama, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Haiti, and the list went on. It’s not that there aren’t Afro-Latinx people in LA, but I imagine that many people like me were asked to put parts of themselves aside, and lean into fragments of their identities in order to make sense within LA’s cultural expectations.
Being in New York was the first time that I felt like I could really show up as all of myself and that it would be not only accepted, but understood and appreciated. This was the first time where people’s “Black foods,” spiritual practices, and family stories were more recognizably akin to my own. I relished the opportunity to understand the complexity of the diaspora in new ways.
When I think about identity now, I think about the cultures that I grew up in. I think about moving in and out of terreiros (Candomblé spiritual houses) in Brazil, having close experiences with Orixas, the ways that African culture has been preserved throughout generations, and the way that surges through me. I think about the legacies of resistance, resilience, nomadism and mysticism that run through me on my mother’s side. To me, belonging is no longer about “fitting in” as it is about honoring my historical legacies. It is about knowing where I came from, understanding the significance of where I am, and mapping the family tree that will root me as I move into the future. It is about knowing what legacies I am passing onto my future children.
As I moved through the space at LACMA, taking in the artworks, histories and legacies of my Afro-Brazilian heritage alongside the Black American histories and stories that I grew up with, I felt whole. To me, being Afro-Latina means understanding that we are connected across waters. Water is our mother, and carries all of our history and secrets. It is there to remind us of all that we have forgotten over lifetimes and generations. It allows us to alchemize what is painful, confusing, or challenging into healing lessons for generations to come. As a result of my Afro-Latinidad, and my multi-cultural upbringing, I am able to see connection and possibility where others see none, which now feels like a super power. I know that liberation only exists where we are able to meet one another. I am so grateful that this awareness is a fundamental aspect of who I am.