Here's how to instill a sense of pride, confidence, and self-idenity in your Afro-Latino child.

By Leslie Casimir
Updated: January 10, 2019
Zoe Aldersberg

Zaire Dinzey-Flores and her husband, Edward Paulino, both have roots in Latin America—she was born in Puerto Rico and he is of Dominican descent—and have made every effort to raise their son, Caribe Macandel, 7, and daughter, Lelolai Palmares, 11, as proud Latinos. “They speak Spanish at home, love rice and beans, and visit relatives in the Caribbean once a year,” Dinzey-Flores says. But the New York City mom realizes that every time her children step outside, their dark skin and curly hair might lead others to see only a part of them.

“The fact is, they can’t easily blend in as typical Latinas,” says Dinzey-Flores, who moved her family to Bedford-Stuyvesant, a predominantly African American neighborhood in Brooklyn, so that her kids can see other children who look like them. “We want them to feel comfortable being in their own skin. They need to embrace their blackness.”

Dinzey-Flores knows full well how difficult it can be to fit in as an AfroLatina. “For most of my life, I’ve never been seen as a Latina. People are always surprised that I speak Spanish,” she says. “Bed-Stuy feels accepting even though it doesn’t fully capture all of my experience. I live in a black world that’s ethnically defined by the U.S., but I have a very rich blackness that’s Latino—the language, the music—so there’s a bit of a loss.”

That expectation of having to choose one group over the other can feel isolating and confusing, especially to Afro-Latino children, who might not understand what it means to be a member of two different communities. But if you consider that kids as young as 3 notice race and quickly become aware that color is attached to the way that people are perceived, it is crucial that they understand they can be both black and Latino.

“The goal is to provide a lens through which kids can see themselves and love what they see, value what they see, and feel good about what they see, because society is giving us a completely different message about who we are as people of color,” says Hector Y. Adames, Psy.D., associate professor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology and coauthor of the book Cultural Foundations and Interventions in Latino/a Mental Health.

For moms like Dinzey-Flores, that means being intentional about celebrating their family’s blackness, as well as helping their kids understand how race and ethnicity operate in their lives. “It takes extra work,” Dr. Adames says. But it makes a world of difference.

Understand What Race Means to You

Before that work can start, parents need to come to terms with what it means to be a racial individual since for many Latinos, it is easier to define themselves by their family’s country of origin—Colombian, Mexican, Venezuelan—than pick a race. “We’re socialized to think that race doesn’t matter because we’re all racially mixed, and that’s true,” Dr. Adames says. “However, Latinos embody the entire color spectrum, and our experiences are completely different based on the way we look.” History shows that for darkerskinned individuals, those experiences include discrimination, inequality, and rejection. “Before we’re even born, we’re being affected by the way our mothers are treated, and it could get worse when a child goes to school.”

For people of color and especially those of African descent, it’s important to understand where you come from. “It allows us to narrate our stories and not buy into negative stereotypes about blackness,” Dr. Adames says. Dinzey-Flores sees it as fighting back: “Every black kid goes through a moment when he realizes he’s black and fears that people will see him as less than. But for me, it was about proving to others, and myself, that I’m enough. That blackness is not a bad thing,” says the Harvard grad.

But picking a race isn’t always as simple as checking a box even if someone identifies as Afro-Latino. In a 2016 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 24 percent of Latinos identified as Afro-Latino, yet only 18 percent said they were black, with the highest percentage, 39, choosing “white” as their race. The numbers point not only to the lack of knowledge regarding race but also to Latinos’ historical preference for light skin.

“We’re still uplifting whiteness. Who has power? Who has money? Who are the leaders? We’re surrounded by messages that whiteness is desirable,” Dr. Adames says. Familiar phrases such as mejorar la raza (the idea that we have to marry a white person to “improve the race”) are still prevalent in the Latino community and fall into this category of belief. Yet we don’t stop to consider what impact these messages have on our self-worth, says Dr. Adames. That’s why having a strong racial identity can help counteract the damage, especially as it pertains to the next generation.

"Inoculate" Them Early

Just as you wouldn’t let your kid ride her bike without a helmet, you shouldn’t let her go out into the world without an understanding that racism exists. “You may still get hurt, but at least you’re protected,” says Dinzey-Flores, whose kids were toddlers when she and her husband first explained that some people are treated unjustly because of the color of their skin. “We didn’t want them to be taken by surprise when it happened to them.” And it was a good thing they prepared their children, because those conversations served as cushioning when they inevitably experienced discrimination firsthand.

“We were on the beach in Maine, and a kid said, ‘We don’t want black feet in our sand pool.’ My daughter, Lelolai, understood the language and what was happening and asked if she couldn’t stand in the pool because the association was that she’s dirty,” says Dinzey-Flores, who helped her kids understand the incident in a calm way. “If parents don’t talk to kids about race and color, if they don’t engage, scars are created. Luckily mine had some training.”

Another tactic for counteracting oppressive messages is using positive words that uplift blackness. The younger the kid, the more concrete you need to be: “You can tell a child that she is enough by literally saying, ‘Your skin is just like your grandma’s and grandpa’s, and I love how beautiful it looks. It’s nice and brown and dark, and deeply rich. You are perfect, just the way you are,’ ” suggests Dr. Adames. “Kids need to hear messages that are affirming about who they are, where they come from, and how they look”—not only from Mami and Papi but also from the extended family.

As a parent, you’ll need to make sure everyone is on the same page. Sure, you’ll probably get some shrugs or blank stares from a stubborn tía, but keep at it, advises Dr. Adames. If Abuela calls your daughter “mi morenita bella”—little dark person who is beautiful—challenge her to be explicit in terms of what it is she likes, he adds. “We have to go a step further to celebrate the blackness, the brownness of a child.”

Pave The Way

Showing racial pride can be as powerful or, perhaps more so, than the words we use. Children are learning what it means to be Afro-Latino from their parents, says Dr. Adames. “And for little kids, who are always observing us, it’s not so much what we’re telling them but what we’re doing in front of them that’s important.”

It’s a lesson Anyiné Galván-Rodríguez, a Dominican mom of two in Chicago, learned eight years ago. The daughter of a beautician, she grew up straightening her natural hair as a way to conform to a Eurocentric beauty ideal considered “more acceptable” in society than coarse hair. It wasn’t until her own daughter, Leilani, now 13, questioned her about it that she realized she needed to lead by example if she wanted to raise a confident girl.

“One day she asked me, ‘Mommy, do you have curly hair like I do?’ And I said, ‘I do, but my hair isn’t as pretty as yours.’ She replied, ‘Well, didn’t you tell me that I should love myself like God made me? Why don’t you do the same?’ At that point, she was 6 and in first grade! What kind of example was I setting if I couldn’t even own my natural kinks and coils?” remembers Galván-Rodríguez. It was that moment that led her to rock her Afro with pride: “You need to put your blackness fully in front of your identity if you want your child to do the same.”

Galván-Rodríguez sees personal appearance as a form of resistance. “I love challenging commercial beauty standards of what a Latina should look like by embracing my black skin, my big, natural, coily hair, and the full lips I inherited from my African ancestors,” she says. “I can only hope that my children internalize this as they continue to develop their identity.”

Celebrate Your Family Legacy

Further exposing kids to their Afro-Latinidad can be as easy as giving your home a cultural refresh. Dinzey-Flores’s library, for example, is full of books with black characters both fictional and real, including Latinos such as Puerto Rican baseball great Roberto Clemente and Cuban salsa legend Celia Cruz. She and her husband make it a point to show their kids many positive images of Afro-Latinos who look like them on a daily basis. It’s all about exposure, Dr. Adames says. Parents need to do their homework to find stories about Afro-Latino doctors, engineers, and leaders and share those with their kids.

Similarly, in Phoenix, mom Kisha Gulley has surrounded her 2-year-old son, Santana, with dark-skinned dolls wearing traditional garb from her native Panama. The dolls are not only a physical reminder that Afro-Latinos are beautiful, she says. They’re also a proven tool in helping children of color develop a sense of belonging. “Kids explore the world by interacting with it,” Dr. Adames says.

If you consider the 1940s doll experiment in which African-American children were asked to choose between playing with white or black dolls and overwhelmingly picked the white one, attributing positive characteristics to it, then you can see how playthings are capable of shaping self-image. “The doll study was recently replicated, and the results were the same. And what do children do with dolls? They nurture and take care of them,” Dr. Adames says.

By giving an Afro-Latino child a black doll that looks like him, as Gulley did, you’re letting him know that he matters and that he deserves to be loved and cared for too, Dr. Adames says. As a parent, you can drive that point home by complimenting the doll during playtime: Say, “Look how cute the brown button nose is—it reminds me of your nose,” suggests Dr. Adames. “Toys make it easier for parents to engage in conversations about race even before language fully develops.”

Boost Their Extracurricular Learning

Beyond the home, teaching kids about their Afro-Latinidad can take many forms. Galván-Rodríguez regularly takes her daughter, Leilani, and her son, Leo, 10, to cultural activities in Chicago that celebrate her roots. One of the first exhibits she took her older child to showed paintings and photos of black Mexicans in everyday life at the National Museum of Mexican Art. Galván-Rodríguez was wowed to learn about Mexican heroes such as Gaspar Yanga, an African who established a colony of runaway slaves in the highlands near Veracruz during Spanish rule.

“If there is something going on that features Afro-Latinos, my kids know we’re going to go to that—it’s part of our experience,” says Galván-Rodríguez. As a public-school educator, she knows that her children probably aren’t learning about Afro-Latino culture and history in the classroom and that it’s up to her to provide that education. “I want them to know that their ancestors had a major influence in the fabric we call Latinidad,” she says. That’s also why years ago she enrolled her daughter in Afro-Caribbean bomba dance classes. Galván-Rodríguez remembers watching the class and feeling the joy in the room as kids of diverse backgrounds danced to the beat of the drums. “There’s power in other children, regardless of skin color, appreciating Afro-Caribbean culture,” she says.

Her daughter, for one, has taken it upon herself to spread the word about the rich legacy she’s inherited. “She says the best thing about being an Afro-Latina is surprising people who assume her ethnic background,” says the proud mama. “She really enjoys teaching others about Afro-Latinos and her Dominican and Puerto Rican heritage.” That’s a positive thing because self-confidence, with family support, is what allows children to believe in themselves rather than look to society to determine what they can and can’t do, Dr. Adames says.

Clearly Galván-Rodríguez’s son, Leo, is in step with his big sister. In fact, the little guy is a true showman when it comes to telling the world that he is Afro-Latino. “He loves dancing to all Caribbean rhythms,” says GalvánRodríguez. “Whether it’s merengue, salsa, bachata, or reggaeton, my son never passes up an opportunity to prove to whomever his audience may be that ‘lo negro lo tiene por dentro.’ ” In other words, he feels his Afro-Latinidad deep within his soul—and that’s a beautiful thing.

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