Last Updated on October 13, 2022 by BVN
When Sherla Reeves first emigrated to the United States from Panama City, Panama, she was in high school. As the oldest of four children, she was the first to leave home along with a childhood friend to go live in Los Angeles with her aunt and uncle, tío Mateo and tía Martha, who had made the move from Panama some years before.
“First, I was put into the English for Spanish Learners [ESL] class because the teacher thought we didn’t know how to speak English,” she recalled regarding her experience at Los Angeles High School. Reeves is fluent in English and Spanish is her first language. Her mother, Elena Hinds, spoke only English in their home.
Reeves has rich brown skin, dark red hair and a subtle accent. People who meet her often assume she is Black, and just that. When she talks, she said a lot of people guess that she is Belizean. She identifies as Panamanian, as being “Hispana.”
I just call her mom.
As conversations about Afrolatine identity become more frequent, I decided to interview my mom about her upbringing as someone who identifies as being Hispanic rather than Afrolatine/o — a word that she has only heard in recent years.
“This word didn’t exist before,” she explained. In a country that is so driven by identity politics and racial identifiers, my mother had never cared to know how people saw her in the U.S. “I see this as a word that this younger generation has come up with.”
Arianna Huhn, a sociocultural anthropologist at California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB) and director of the CSUSB Anthropology Museum explained that among people she interviewed for an upcoming exhibit, the word Afro Latino/a/x did not resonate with everyone she spoke with. For the exhibit, which highlights the Afrolatine culture and communities across Southern California and Mexico, Huhn and her staff conducted interviews with those who are of African descent with Latin American origins.
“So many people that we interviewed had so much to say about the term Afro Latino, or Afro Latina or Afro Latinx. There were a lot of opinions. Some people really prefer just to be called Black Hispanic,” Huhn stated. “Some people prefer to be called a term or identify themselves with a term that was more specific to their national origins, like Black Panamanian. Some people just didn’t identify with the term Latinx.”
Similar to those Huhn interviewed, when I spoke with my mom, she said she prefers to be called Panamanian.
“I identify as Hispana. Yes, I’m Black, but I always tell people Black is a color. America, to me, [has] brainwashed people. You’re White because you [look] white and you are Black because of your skin. That’s it. I don’t understand that,” my mom said.
She refuses to draw lines around her identity so that she is easier to digest for people who don’t understand. Before coming to America, my mother had only known life in Panama where, according to her, everyone was Panamanian first and foremost.
“As with the Latin@ concept itself, as well as the African American, it is increasingly important to resist the limitation of Afro-Latina@ to its national United States confines,” reads an excerpt from “The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States” by Miriam Jiménez Román, Juan Flores.
The book explores and examines Afrolatine identity in the United States while also tracing the origins of the word and its historic and cultural emergence throughout Latin America and beyond.
While my mother does not expressly identify as Afrolatine, my siblings and I do. As her children born in the U.S. to a Hispanic mother and an African American father, we identify with our heritage on both sides. My mother did not teach her children Spanish, and as a child, I held on so tightly to the belief that to be considered — even a little — Hispanic or Latino/a/x, one had to know the language to be of the culture.
As I got older, I found other ways to connect with my Latine identity by visiting Panama, communing with extended family (despite the language difference), learning family history (my great uncle worked on the Panama canal) and mastering family recipes like bistec y patacón (steak and fried plantain).
One thing my mom made clear during our conversation is that she is unbothered by how the world chooses to see her, categorize her and quantify her based on perceived ideas of race and ethnicity.
“We were not taught to be [this] or [that],” she stated.