A few years ago while working in San Diego, I came across a young Panamanian immigrant, a high school girl who, like other black Latinos, formed part of a very small minority in Southern California. I'd accompanied her and other teens, most of them Mexican American, to the U.S.-Mexico border crossing for a quick tour as part of a high school journalism workshop.
During the tour I'd noticed a sense of distance between her and the other kids, and had wondered if it involved her language skills, as she hadn't been in the U.S. long and still had a strong accent. She confided something different as we drove back. "The kids in my school don't accept me as a Latina," she said. "They just call me 'that black girl who speaks Spanish.'"
The Telemundo-affiliated cable network mun2 has done a great job of capturing the split identity that black Latinos experience in the United States in a new short-form documentary, simply titled "Black and Latino." A series of interview subjects, most of them entertainers or television personalities (including CNN's Soledad O'Brien) talk about how their racial-ethnic mix has shaped their lives, sometimes in painful ways as they discuss how their identity is misperceived or has placed them in a career box.
While black Latinos are a true minority in the West, immigrants from Latin America include many black Dominicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Colombians, Panamanians, Hondurans, Venezuelans (and yes, there are even black Mexicans), among others. But the perception of a Latino, at least through the American cultural lens, remains that of a person with lighter skin and straighter hair.
"The world likes Latinas to look Italian," says Cuban American actress Gina Torres in the video, explaining why she doesn't tend to get Latina roles, but rather African American ones. Director Jessy Torres, who has Dominican roots, reminisces about being told to act more Latino during auditions, with hurtful questions about his ethnicity arising from "somebody who doesn't know anything about my culture."
As the conversations in the video develop, they grow unsettling at times, including when the old term "avanzar la raza" (Spanish for "advance the race," a euphemism for marrying a lighter-skinned partner) crops up. It's a must-see.