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Born on one island and raised on another, Kelvin Rojas grew up with a racial identity that he is still learning to define as a college senior at Columbia University.
Moving to Harlem in New York City when he was 4 from the Dominican Republic, Rojas became bilingual and grew up in both cultures, visiting the island country every summer.
“I consider myself an Afro-Latino of mixed background… Most Dominicans are Afro-Latino,” Rojas told Fox News Latino last week. "They just don't want to see it.”
In the United States, Latino youth are developing a consciousness of their Afro-Latino identity as unique and separate from the strictly black, white and Latino labels that traditionally have defined American racial attitudes.
The racial thinking that has been engrained in older generations of Latinos is not as pronounced in younger generations, who are pushing to recognize, learn about and define what it means to be Afro-Latino.
“I wasn’t conscious until I started listening to a rapper called Immortal Technique. In an interview he said, ‘Dominicans are black.’ Hearing him say that opened my eyes,” Rojas told Fox News Latino. It pointed out to him the tendency of many Latinos to shy away from their African roots and deny being black.
“Because my skin is very light I am considered ‘Trigueño,’” Rojas said, “That's someone that is mixed but on the lighter side.”
That kind of categorization of different racial mixtures and skin tones is rooted in Latin America’s colonial history. Guesnerth Josué Perea, the communications coordinator of the Afro Latin@ Forum, explained that, “the supremacy that happened produced a process we call pigment-ocracy: Splitting people up socio-economically by skin tone.”
This historical process of separation by skin tone has caused a denial of African roots for many Latinos.
“There is a big difference between the U.S. and Latin America, and this goes back to the one-drop rule," said Edward Morales, professor at Columbia University's Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. "If you have one grandparent who is black, you’re black. In Latin America it is the opposite. If you have any white, you are not black.”
The slave trade lasted longer in Latin America than it did in North America, so more Africans were brought to the region. Morales pointed out three key distinctions that contributed to the development of Afro-Latino identity: Greater opportunities to buy one’s way out of slavery, the development of a large number of towns full of freed slaves that served as de facto centers of African culture and, finally, the lack of laws banning interracial relations.
“In the U.S., Afro-Latinos have the dual problem of not being accepted into either community [black or Latino],” Morales said.
The marginalization of African roots in the U.S. may reflect an attempt to fit in with the dominant white racial category.
“Some Latinos lean towards the white side of society … to become the model minority,” said Perea. “They say they are trying to ‘better’ the race or ‘improve’ the race, but really they are just saying they want to pull away from blackness. And I think that is tied to a lot of self-hatred."
Groups like the Afro Latin@ Forum are trying to promote the visibility of black Latinos in the U.S. and raise awareness about the issues that the community faces.
One of the places in which Afro-Latinos find receptive audiences are college campuses. The Afro Latin@ Forum responded to the news that "Hispanic and/or Latino" would be available as a racial category on the 2020 U.S. Census with a campaign to exhort Afro-Latinos to "check both" black and Latino so that a more accurate count of Afro-Latinos can be made and issues facing that specific community can be better addressed.
“We have to do better in terms of self-educating about the diversity within the Latino community,” Perea said.
Rojas pointed out that many groups on and around campus at Columbia that are now promoting education and awareness of "Afro-Latinidad," which is for him a welcome change.
“In a lot of conversations with my family about it, they would firmly reject that they were black,” Rojas said. “I asked my older brother why he thought this way and he said in school he was taught that Haitians were inferior to Dominicans because Haitians were of African blood and Dominicans were of Spanish and Taíno blood. It’s very taboo to acknowledge you have African roots.”
Those sorts of attitudes toward race will continue to be challenged as Afro-Latino youth continue to explore, and establish, what it means to be mixed race.
Rojas remains optimistic about things improving, but cautiously so.
“I feel with the generations it gets better," he said. "The youth are not so adamant against [African roots] – but they aren't so proud of it either."