Highlighting Afro-Latinx Voices on Campus this Latinx Heritage Month
written by Mia Miranda
Photography by Lydia Sellers
“La Raza” is a fictitious and harmful concept that tends to violently pervade Latinx spaces. Especially during Latinx Heritage Month, few Black Latinx people are given the space to talk about their experiences with Latinidad. And despite Black Latinx making up a significant percentage of the population in Latin America and across the diaspora, there are still many misconceptions about Afro Latinx people. But Afro Latinx individuals are everywhere we look: in our media, in our books, on Duke’s campus, and beyond.
To celebrate Latinx Heritage Month month, it is only proper that we highlight the voices of these individuals, who are frequently overlooked in the Latinx narrative. Here I interview two Afro Latina women on Duke’s campus, Gia Cummings (‘21) and Maya Yvette-Lofton (‘22).
Gia Cummings is a Senior majoring in Public Policy and minoring in Global Health. She was born in New York City and raised both there and in Atlanta, Georgia. She also lived for some time in Panama City, Panama, where her mother is from. She’s interested in reproductive health and all of its offshoots—race and racism, feminism, bodily autonomy, access, etc. Currently, she’s writing her thesis about the reproductive experience of Sub-Saharan migrants in Morocco.
Maya Yvette-Lofton is a Junior who was raised in Pittsburg and moved to a small rural town in Georgia. She is Afro-Chapina from Guatemala. She’s involved in The Bridge Community Committee, Mi Gente Political Committee, Team Kenan (Center for Ethics), Ethics Living & Learning Community, the KSAC D2D Buddy Team, and Define American Internal Advocacy Pillar. She’s also an RA in Keohane 4A and a student worker in the Perkins Multimedia Project Studio.
Mia Miranda: What does Latinx History Month mean to you as an Afro Latinx? As a Latinx woman?
Gia Cummings: Latinx History Month is a relatively new concept to me—it wasn’t really discussed in my school districts before college, but I feel less connected to it than I do Black History Month (as most things, I feel more connected to my Blackness than my latinidad, because no one has ever tried to take my Blackness away from me, it’s not misunderstood or questioned, and I don’t need to justify it).
Latinx history month is complex for me because I feel pride in my people, but I know that a lot of them don’t feel pride for me, and wouldn’t claim me as their own if I went on to become someone worth celebrating during Latinx History Month, so it can be hard to wholeheartedly embrace something that doesn’t embrace you back, often doesn’t even acknowledge your existence.
I feel more connection to Latinx History Month through my womanhood; I feel a special kind of pride and connection to Latinx women that is distinct from my conception of latinidad as a whole—maybe because I experience being Latinx primarily through women in my family.
Maya Yvette-Lofton: I don’t know if this is the same story for everyone, but growing up, my school’s library would feature book selections and posters during important months of celebration (LHM, BHM, etc). For Latinx History Month, I could only remember seeing posters of people who didn’t look anything close to me. Some of them were white-presenting, some of them indigenous and more “brown,” but Blackness was definitely missing from every display and every book that I saw. And it’s funny because when I celebrate Black History Month, I think of my Blackness as a separate entity. But for LHM, I think of myself as Black, a woman, and Latina all in one; it’s been difficult for me to consider myself as simply “Latina,” and I’m not sure if that’s just because of the complexity of latinidad or if it’s due to me looking different than the stereotypical “latina.”
I’ve always felt that I have to prove my latinidad, prove that I can speak Spanish, prove that I am worthy of being included; it’s pretty tiring, but recently I’ve felt more comfortable with having a multi-faceted background. And now, I see more of an active push to be more inclusive of who exactly is included in Latinx. There are just so many layers to the Latinx community, and each layer is full of incredibly different experiences, different shades, different countries. But it’s a way for all of us to recognize these differences and appreciate that there’s so much diversity within our community and shows us that we are stronger together.
Black Latinx aren’t usually represented in the mainstream media or even in Duke Latinx life. Is it difficult to navigate Latinx spaces on campus? Do you think representation is important?
Gia: The thing is that there are actually plenty of Black Latinx people in mainstream media, at Duke, etc. But their latinidad is stripped away from them—they can’t be both; they have to be one or the other, especially if they have darker skin and more afro-centric features. People aren’t able to hold two identities in their mind at once, so Black Latinx are categorized by their phenotype and not given the latitude to be their full selves.
Even when Black Latinx people are depicted as themselves, the Latinx community often doesn’t claim them as such. For instance, Insecure has received critique for not having Latinx characters when several featured characters are Panamanian, and that’s an important aspect of their plotline. So representation extends beyond the physical, to the experiences and stories of the people that are depicted—I think that the continued erasure of Black Latinx people has fed into the public inability to understand that concept.
On Duke’s campus, I have found the Latinx community to be intimidating and hard to enter, especially as someone who doesn’t look stereotypically Latinx. Entering La Casa especially is something that I’ve only attempted a couple of times because I have received odd looks, or been asked what I need (in a manner that suggests that I’m a visitor, entering for a specific purpose, not someone who belongs in the space) and I think that representation would do wonders for the community.
I have tried to do my own part by becoming more active in Mi Gente this year and trying to reach out to the Black community, in the event that there are Latinx students who don’t know how to tap into that community at Duke, that they have an avenue to do that through and can potentially see me and see themselves, but it’s difficult because I’m often the only one. I don’t actually know if my presence in that space is effective if no one who looks like me is there to see it, but it’s important to me, and I’ve enjoyed being more involved in the Latinx community, so it’s helped my Duke experience at the least.
Maya: I would definitely say that coming to campus as a Freshman who didn’t go to the Latinx Student Recruitment Weekend (LSRW), and being very comfortable in my Blackness, it was extremely difficult to connect with Latinx spaces. I didn’t know where to go, where to start, because I wasn’t familiar with anyone before coming, and I wasn’t sure who to reach out to. It’s not like I can just walk up to random brown students on campus and say “Hey, I’m Latina too! Let’s be friends!” I even took a class during my first semester on Latino/a studies, and it looked like everyone in the class already knew each other and were friends, so that just made me more convinced that I wasn’t part of the community. And being an introvert, I rarely take the initiative to get out of my comfort zone and meet new people, even though I felt that I was missing that entire part of my background, my childhood, my home life, while I was on campus.
I remember my dad calling me a few weeks after I got settled in during freshman year, and he was wondering if I met any Dominicans or Boricuas on campus, which was his way of asking if there were other Black Latinx people around. At that point, I hadn’t gotten to know any, but I decided to at least go and try to find these spaces. I looked online and found out about La Casa in the Bryan Center, and sometimes I would walk past really quickly just to see who was in there. I was so scared to go in because I didn’t want to be rejected or questioned. It wasn’t until April of my first spring semester when I was walking by La Casa and saw my Dominican friend sitting at a table with a few other people that I decided to muster up the courage to go inside. No one really acknowledged my presence except for my friend, so I was incredibly uncomfortable sitting there. This was before the furniture was moved around to make it a more welcoming environment, but I still felt really out of place, and I didn’t go back until sophomore year.
I wondered if I wasn’t included because I don’t really look the part; Is my skin not light enough? Is my hair not loose enough? Is my nose not narrow enough? All of the reasons that I’ve been uncomfortable with the duality of my identity resurfaced, and I don’t ever think it was purposeful, but I didn’t feel welcomed at all. Honestly, I think that the only reason that I feel like I’m part of Duke’s Latinx community now is because I started going to La Casa all the time, I joined Mi Gente, I started forcing myself into the group pretty much. But I realize that it does also take work on the student’s part; they can’t possibly know every Latinx person that walks on campus, and I shouldn’t have expected that.
But I do think that if I had seen more representation in these spaces, on the websites, in the photos of LSRW, I would have felt a little better about being in the community. And this happens not just at Duke, but in society as a whole, popular media, especially. Not all Latinas look like Jennifer Lopez or Sofia Vergara. If I asked someone to name three Afro-Latinx celebrities, they would probably say Cardi B, Celia Cruz, maybe Miguel, possibly Amara la Negra, but what about Gina Torres, Kid Cudi, Zoe Saldana? There’s a lot more than you would think; people just need to change their image of what “Latinx” looks like.
What is your favorite part of your culture?
Gia: The kindness and warmth that people show each other—I’ve never seen it replicated in the same way in the States. There’s an underlying empathy and connectivity between people and those outside of themselves—outside of their culture, their country, and beyond—that makes me incredibly proud to be from Panama. The soul; there’s like music in everyone and everything that’s both individually distinct and communal.
Maya: It’s hard to say I have a favorite part; I think what makes me proud to be Afro-Guatemalan is that we’re so diverse. We speak over 20 different (indigenous) languages besides Spanish, so I could go from one department to another, and experience an entirely different culture. We’re like many countries in one, and I love that we were able to keep so many aspects of our culture even after colonization, genocide, all of that.
Who is your favorite Afro Latinx artist? Who is someone you want everyone to know about?
Gia: Celia Cruz. She is so many things that I am—Latina, Black, woman, talented—but she is all of those things proudly, loudly, and the public has no choice but to love her, because of all that she is and her pride in being those things. And her voice sounds like sugar.
Tessa Thompson!!! She’s a such a versatile and talented actress, who is vocal for the queer community, Black community, Latinx community, female community and more—she is my favorite actress hands down
Maya: Wow this is a tough one. I wouldn’t say I have a favorite necessarily, but I really admire Melii’s persona. She’s so in your face, unafraid to be herself, like a lesser known Cardi B type, and I love how honest and “out there” she is, how she lets her curls run wild. And I also have a ton of respect for Dascha Polanco and Selenis Leyva from Orange is the New Black because they’ve been in so many interviews where they are only asked about what it’s like being Latina actresses, and they never forget to mention their African roots and how that aspect of their identities is usually left out. Selenis once said “I am proud of the curves, I’m proud of my wide nose, of my full lips, of my booty. I’m proud!” and I’ve never related to something more.
I wish that I had grown up with more celebrities like her as a role model; instead of having to learn that these features are beautiful on our own, we should be taught that they are. Instead of aspiring to have long blonde hair and European features, and teaching the younger generation to arreglar la raza, we should be setting new and more inclusive examples of who they can look up to. It makes me really proud to be Afro-Latinx now that I see so many other women talking about their own experiences of feeling like they were not doing enough to satisfy the labels that accompany their identities, and it has brought me closer to the point where I can celebrate my differences, as opposed to hiding behind my discomfort.
I've left this last question open ended to let you have space to speak your mind. It can be something you want people to know... something you want to tell people… anything.
Gia: Just a note on something that is important: people can be mixed, but there are many people who are Afro-Latinx who aren’t mixed with anything at all—they are Black people and Latinx people, simultaneously. The narrative that Afro-Latinx people are the blend of two discrete categories breeds colorism and featurism, amongst other things.
This is important because there are so many of us who are not allowed to be our full selves, who must quantify and prove our heritage in a way that other people don’t have to, while simultaneously dealing with the racism and colorism that accompanies Blackness in the first place. It is necessary to give people their nuance.
Maya: I have so many expressive t-shirts. I have one that says Chapina, one that says N⋅E⋅G⋅R⋅I⋅T⋅A. And guess what? They’re both black shirts. But I wish I could wear a shirt that says “My race and ethnicity are not the same!” Latinx isn’t a race, it’s a (racialized) ethnic identity, and when you define someone as just Latinx, you’re inherently skipping over their country, their race; it’s not all-encompassing, and while we can use this word to be inclusive of people from different heritage, it’s also exclusive when it comes to other intersections.
Being Afro-Latinx is not a new phenomenon; we’ve been here, and just because I am unapologetically Black doesn’t mean that I can’t be defiantly Latina too. People are always so surprised when I speak Spanish, like I didn’t know that was exclusive to non-black or black-adjacent Latinx people. We don’t need non-black Latinx people’s acceptance or approval to be in the community, and the same goes for black non-Latinx circles as well. Let’s broaden the narrative.
Thank you to Gia and Maya for taking the time to answer my questions.