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Thursday, April 18, 2024

‘I did find it hard to identify with one race’: UF Afro-Latino students share experiences with race in the US

Student members of culturally diverse organizations claim their identity as Afro-Latinos

Many countries in Latin America have intersecting heritages. For Latin American immigrants who come to the United States, however, their mixes of white, Black and indigenous heritage often conflict in the context of the U.S.' racial dynamics.

Lisa De Leon, a 21-year-old UF biology student and member of the Dominican Student Association, grew up in Port St. Lucie, a 63% white town in Florida. She found it difficult to identify herself with any one race, she said.

“In my town, you were either Black or white, there wasn’t much in between,” De Leon said. 

De Leon also had a hard time finding a Latin American community in her town. The only Dominican people she knew while growing up were her family and a few adult friends of her parents, she said. 

The struggles of finding a community weren’t her only issue.

“I asked my mom what race she thinks she is, and she said white,” De Leon said. “Meanwhile, we are the same skin color. Honestly, it wasn’t until high school that I started questioning what race I was.”

Self-identification, most of the time, comes from the parents’ perspective of what race they should consider themselves. In many cases, there’s not a race hierarchy in predominantly Black Latin countries like the Dominican Republic. 

“On all my federal documents up until high school, I was put as white for my race by my parents,” De León said. “Once I started filing my own documents and applications, is when I started putting Black as my race.”

De Leon said her skin color identifies who she is.

“It affects my everyday life,” De Leon said. “Sometimes when I walk into a class, I am a part of the few or only POC in the classroom, and I notice that.”  

The Dominican Republic is not the only Latin American country with significant Black heritage. While Brazil is considered a minority Black country, its residents don’t have to deal with race in their everyday lives like they might in the U.S.

William F. Santana, a 28-year-old UF sports management doctorate student and member of the Brazilian Student Association, came to the U.S. in August 2023 and experienced many conflicts when defining himself.

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“In the beginning, I found it very difficult to identify myself with anything regarding race and ethnicity,” Santana said. “Mostly because in Brazil, the demography is made differently.” 

The differences between cultures made him rethink how he described himself when his race became a matter of importance to fill documents.

“One of the hardest things was filling forms to apply for Social Security number or to apply for a driver's license and everything,” Santana said. “I found out that I didn't exactly know how to fill the form regarding what race and ethnicity.”

In the U.S., being labeled as Latin American often conflates him with Hispanic South Americans. While they do share a geographical proximity, his mother tongue of Portuguese makes him reconsider what ethnicity he should be. When asked what race he identified with, he said Afro-Latin, but it is still a challenge for him to fit in just one box.

“Every time I'm filing a document I will put that I consider myself Latino,” Santana said. “Regarding race I'll put that I'm Afro-American, but I admit it is quite confusing still.”

Santana never expected to see such a diverse group of people when coming to the city. He felt more welcomed by seeing others who looked like him.

“I actually see a lot of Black people in the supermarket, in university not occupying leadership positions,” Santana said. “They exist here, which is at least very good for me to not feel alone.”

Jordan Bryant, a 20-year-old UF public relations student and member of the Elite Chompette, comes from a diverse background she describes as a melting pot.

“I did find it hard to identify with one race,” Bryant said. “My family’s cultural background comes from Belize, India, Jamaica and the Bahamas. Because I’m a melting pot of this, I am often mistaken for other things.”

People mistake Bryant as Dominican in many cases just based on her appearance, she said.

“It’s very easy for people to just label you and disregard the diverse variety of backgrounds that make a person who they are,” Bryant said.

Bryant fears choosing a race will make her neglect a part of who she is, she said. Fitting a person in a category, she said, will only limit them.

“I didn’t understand the concept of race in America until I got to college,” Bryant said. “I didn’t really even know the difference between a race [and] ethnicity, and why I had to force my diverse background into one category.” 

American efforts to categorize all people together based on appearance undermines the rich cultural diversity inherent in Latin American immigrants, she added.

“This country was built on ignorance and continues to profit off of it,” Bryant said. “There is no reason why a white person should be able to tell me to stay in a box. I descend from a rich diaspora, and no checkbox on an exam will change that.”

Contact Laura Quintana at Follow her on X @LauraCQuintana1.

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Laura Quintana

Laura Quintana is a third year Journalism major. Spring 2024 is her first semester working at The Alligator. Some of the things she likes to do is read, write, and take pictures. Her biggest goal is to become a novelist and travel the world.  

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