By Jada Forbes, Senior
When you think of Hispanic Heritage Month, who is the first Latin American celebrity that comes to mind?
I’ll say that the first Latina that I think of is Selena Quintanilla. If I’m honest, I think there is a little problem with my choice.
I am an Afro-LatinX from Honduras. For those of you who don’t know, LatinX is a gender inclusive term for the Latin-American community. My father is black and was born on an island in the Caribbean on the northern coast of Honduras, called Roatan. My mother was born on the mainland in a city called La Ceiba. In elementary school, I had issues with my identity as a black girl from Latin America. I thought I had to choose either Black or Latin-American; I didn’t know I could be both. I seldom found myself in friendships with people who looked like me, considering there weren’t so many kids who actually Looked. Like. Me.
Given my circumstances, I did what almost every child does at one point or another: I turned on the television. Looking for answers to questions I hadn't formed quite yet, I waited to see if I could find myself on cable TV. I lived and went to school in predominantly black and LatinX areas. Rarely ever coming across a white person in real life, I seemed to always see one on TV, on every show, on every channel.
Then, she popped up on the screen. Jennifer Lopez was playing Selena Quintanilla in the biopic, Selena. At this point, I didn’t know Selena was a big deal, but apparently she was– and she still is! The Mexican-American singer was praised for her music, not only during her life, but even after her death. Jennifer Lopez does identify as an Afro-Latina, but the issue still stands–there is a lack of representation for the Afro-LatinX community in industries, such as music and film.
Just to name a few, Selena Gomez, Mario Lopez, Wilmer Valderrama, and Sofia Vergara are all very successful Central and Southern American celebrities. Even so, none of these people are of Afro descent. In the more recent years, actors of Afro-LatinX heritage have been speaking out against Hollywood’s failure to cast actors and actresses of their kind. For example, controversy was sparked when actress Zoe Saldana was casted to play Nina Simone, an African-American singer-songwriter and activist, in a biopic. Saldana had to wear dark-makeup to resemble Simone for the film. This is also known as blackface, a controversial act, consisting of the use of dark makeup to resemble a black person. Most people do not realize that this is actually disrespectful towards the black community because historically, this action was used for comedy or ridicule or inferiority. In any case, the casting directors could have taken another route in casting for Simone and could have chosen an African American to play an African American.
Dascha Polanco, an actress best known for her role as Daya in the Netflix Original Series, Orange is the New Black, spoke on her opinion on Saldana’s role, as well as her experiences as an Afro-Latina working in the film and television industry on the radio show, The Breakfast Club. Polanco is from the Dominican Republic and chooses to represent the Afro-LatinX community and expresses her concerns about the lack of representation in the industry. In the interview, the interviewer asks Polanco why not just call herself Dominican?p Polanco highlights the issue: “We’re talking about where you’re from–your country– and you’re talking about race, ethnicity, right? So, I am Afro-Latina… as far as [how the] United States [perceives me].” Right here is the concrete example of how others perceive us and how we, the Afro-LatinX population thinks. This lack of understanding about identity creates confusion and sometimes, underrepresentation and bigotry.
I agree with Polanco, in the sense that without the understanding of what makes up an Afro-LatinX, there would be no way to accurately identify us when we work. I’ve found that there are Afro-LatinX celebrities and successful public figures that are Afro-LatinX, but they are never described as such. In the years to come, I hope that more people, celebrity or not, use their platforms to raise awareness, so others understand that we do exist and matter.