Black Orphans: Latin America Rejects Its Own

(originally posted on June 15, 2008 on

I was at lunch at Guapo’s, a Mexican restaurant in Washington, D.C., eating a chicken quesadilla, humming to a Marco Antonio Solís ballad playing in the background. I was in my element—good food, good conversation and good music. All of that enjoyment was brought to a screeching halt, however, with a simple question from my lunch date.

It was like those scenes in the movies when some life-altering news is shared, the protagonist drops her glass of wine, and the music stops as the camera zooms in for a close-up of her startled face.

“Do you feel like Latin America is yours? Do you claim it?” my African-American friend asked.

His question made me instantly uncomfortable. I took some time to answer, not because I was trying to find the perfect words, but because I had not thought about my relationship with Latin America in a very long time. I had gotten comfortable being Panamanian only when I wasn’t questioned about it.

For some time now, when anyone has asked me where I am from, I’ve stuck my chest out, put my chin up and proudly proclaimed, “The Bronx,” as if it were the most important statement of identity I would ever make. In a similar manner when asked, “What are you?” I’ve answered “Black.”

As a woman of African descent, born in Colón, Panama, and raised in New York from age 3, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I was reminded of why by a conversation with an African-American friend who recently returned from studying in the Dominican Republic. She had a wonderful time and has the pictures to prove it. She said she met great people and learned so much. But she also spoke of the racism she experienced and how African history in Latin America was not only ignored, it was denied.

My friend’s question at Guapo’s brought to mind the time I went to a club in Puerto Rico during spring break and waited a significant amount of time for the bartender to take and fill my order. Meanwhile, he rushed to serve appletinis to some light-skinned Latinas.

It made me recall a want ad I saw in a Panamanian newspaper for a receptionist. The ad said preference would be given to women with light-colored hair and blue eyes.

His question also made me think about sitting in a salon chair while my Dominican hairdresser tried to convince me that I should not call myself “Black” because I was “different” from ordinary Black people.

At my house, after 6:30 p.m., the television in the den is locked to Univision. My family and I watch the news and stay tuned for the addictive novelas. While I love them for their drama, I’ve always noticed that all of the characters have been played by White Latinas and Latinos. The news that comes on beforehand has no Black reporters. When watching “Sábado Gigante,” my mom and I play our own game, counting how many, if any, Black guests Don Francisco has on each week.

So, no, I do not feel that Latin America is mine. I think Latin America has orphaned Black Latinos—left us out in the cold to be adopted by another, supposedly, more fitting identity. It seems as if we have been erased from existence and ripped from the fabric of Latin America.

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