Black, Latino, Visible: Beyond Media's Limited Portrayal

Three joyful Afro-Latina women sharing smiles on a bright and sunny day.

Many Latinos who don’t appear stereotypically “Latino” deal with having their race questioned fairly often. Most educated people don’t need to be reminded that the United States doesn’t have a welcoming history of people of races besides white. Therefore race, ethnicity, and identity that is non-white have simply been pushed into the othered “non-white” category. For Latinos, this is particularly challenging because, by most standards, Latino isn’t a race and is considered an ethnicity.

Yet many Latinos still struggle with race and identity because while Latino is debated as a race, Latinos of various races present as they are, thus confusing non-Latinos whose only familiarity with the community is through stereotypes. Any internet search of what a Latino person “looks like” will confirm the utter and total inaccuracy of what Latinos actually look like.

Google search of “latino person” shows mostly brown-skinned people.

Black Latinos and Afro-Latinos are probably misunderstood the most because mainstream media has done an abysmal job of accurately including them in media narratives. Thus, most people don’t know that Latinos come in all shapes, sizes, and skin colors, which includes Black skin. According to the Pew Research Center, one in four Latinos in the U.S. identifies as Afro-Latino or Black.

The topic of Latino identity and what Latinidad means, particularly in America, is multi-dimensional and ever-evolving. The community as a collective can’t even decide what they want to be called - and maybe that’s a good thing, because if non-Latinos want a single label, they won’t ever do the work of learning the cultural and racial diversity that makes the concept of Latinidad so unique. Being Latino in the U.S. means more than just an outward appearance; it means culture, language, ancestry, geographical roots, and so much more.

The Erasure of Black and Afro-Latinos in Media

For decades, the media has portrayed a specific image of what a Latino “looks” like. Unsurprisingly, that image is lighter-skinned Latinos like Sofia Vergara, Salma Hayek, and Jennifer Lopez.

Researcher Keara K. Goin noted in her research paper in the “Afrolatinidad” subsection, “Popularly imagined as a homogenous “brown” race with a mixed Indigenous and Spanish ethnoracial heritage, the extreme diversity within the Latinx population is systematically flattened, ignored, and erased.”

In his Times article, Andrew R Chow looked at how Afro-Latino actors continue to struggle against Latino stereotypes and discrimination. He points out that “Afro-Latino actors are consistently shut out of roles because they don’t match that image—and when they are cast, it’s even rarer that they get to play Afro-Latino characters, instead playing characters who are Black or mixed race but not Latino.”

The lack of Afro-Latino acknowledgment has its cultural and literal roots in Latin America, where being Afro-Latino comes with displacement and exclusion. It’s painfully apparent in Spanish-language entertainment where non-white actors are rarely cast, much less Afro-Latino actors, opting instead to uphold harmful western beauty standards and colorism by exclusively hiring actors that are either white or very white-passing.

Changing this narrative is far from easy, but it takes creating consciousness first. Starting with learning and accepting that Latinos aren’t just one race, Latinos are different races, and Afro-Latinos are a significant and crucial part of the community. Therefore we must continue to advocate for Afro-Latino inclusion and representation. Hollywood has made some progress in the representation of Afro-Latinos, but not nearly enough.

Afro-Latinos are still too often cast aside or told they should be playing Black characters instead, not Latino ones, because they don’t “fit” into that role. We must take power from our narratives and find support in each other regardless of race. We need Afro-Latino representation so that this harmful cycle is broken, which will result in future generations who celebrate culture, empower all Latinos, and understand how uniquely beautiful and how uniquely Latino the darker shades of our people truly are.

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