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KBIA's special series ¿Dónde está mi gente? (Where are my people?) features Engagement Producer and reporter Kassidy Arena as she investigates where Hispanic and Latino people are throughout mid-Missouri and why the state has one of the lowest percentages of Hispanic and Latino people in the Midwest. ¿Dónde está mi gente? documents her journey in a six-part, narrative that highlights successes and gaps in demographics, business, community outreach, higher education and identity.

Afro-Latinidad: Something Missouri is still learning

07222022-Elijah-and-Kassidy
Missouri News Network
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KBIA's Kassidy Arena spoke with future law student Elijah Brown about how Latinidad can be different to all people who identify as Hispanic or Latino.

Arena:
Let's start off with the big question. So when somebody asks you, and I'm sure you've gotten it, because even I've gotten it when they're like, ‘So like, what are you?’ First of all, what is your response when people ask you that?

Brown:
It's such a funny question, especially like, comparing that from Colombia to the U.S. Because in Colombia, it's always ‘Oh, he's Colombian,’ because I look like a Colombian guy, you know? I look like every other Afro-Latino, so they don't really think that I'm American.

But here, when someone asks me like, ‘Okay, so what are you?’ You know, like, ‘Where are you from?’ I’m like, ‘I'm Afro Latino.’ They're like, ‘~scratches head, tilts sideways~ What does that even mean?' And I'm like, ‘Oh, so I'm Puerto Rican. But I'm also African American. Yes, obviously.’ And they're like, ‘Oh, okay. Well, do you speak Spanish?’

And before I learned Spanish, that was a hard question for me. And I would often like, never claim being Puerto Rican because I didn't feel like I was Puerto Rican enough, because I didn't speak Spanish. Now that I speak Spanish, I'm a little more confident in my ownership of it. Even though I recognize that speaking Spanish isn't a prerequisite of being Latino, of course. But yeah, being Afro-Latino, especially here in Missouri, it's always very odd. Just today, I was playing some salsa music, chilling out, people were like, double-taking me like, very confused. I feel like that's a very Missouri thing to experience. You don't really see that in New York. But here, it's very different for an Afro-Latino in Missouri.

Arena:
Yeah, yeah. And I get that. Like, having to almost prove you're Latina, like something like that. And that's why it's almost like the opposite for me. I'm so fair, you know, like fair skinned? Well, according to my family, I'm very fair skinned, maybe not for everybody else. And for me, it's always the opposite. I always like, in somebody's face, I'm like, ‘I'm Latina.’ Like, I will say it to make sure people understand that,

Brown:
You know, it hurt my heart when I was younger, I didn't speak any Spanish at all. And I'm just like, ‘Oh, maybe I'm not Latino because I don't speak Spanish,’ you know? So I used to be a little hurt by that. My Spanish was bad at first too, like it was horrible. But I still wanted to leap into that. Because especially like, my freshman and sophomore years, I was searching for who I was. That’s why I was so happy with Encanto. I was so happy that movie came out. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, like, an Afro-Latino family, like sick! You know?

Arena:
I think that's a concept that maybe a lot of, for lack of better word like Anglo or like a lot of white people kind of overlook is that there can be a lot of racism. Is that something you have ever experienced within Hispanic communities: being the person that doesn't quite fit in there, but then you also don't quite fit in with this group?

Brown:
Especially like, here in Columbia, Missouri, and St. Louis, even. I felt it was very difficult to find my place in these spaces. So yeah, I think being Afro-Latino is something you have to fight for more in the U.S., especially being in Missouri,

Arena:
Finding the balance, I feel like is maybe something that we have very unique experiences. So I went to the Hispanic Heritage Festival in Iowa, and a man from the Dominican Republic walked up to me, and he's talking to me in English. And then all of a sudden, he switches, and he's like, '¿Hablas español?' I'm like, ‘Yeah.’ And he was like, ‘Oh, I thought you were a gringita.’ He was like, you know, 'I thought you were a little white girl.'

And it's always like that, when I'm surrounded by you know… I guess people in Columbia, Missouri, they think, ‘Oh, you’re so dark,’ or exotic is a word that people like to use. But then like, within our own community, it's like, ‘Oh, you're so white. You don't quite fit in here, either.’

What are the things that you keep in mind when you're trying to balance all of those different aspects of identity? And I like that you also brought up like, just purely American identity is also an aspect.

07222022-Elijah-Teaching
Courtesy Elijah Brown
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Elijah Brown (back row, fourth from right) taught students in Colombia for a year. Brown said he was often mistaken for a Colombian during his time there, and that racism was still very prevalent.

Brown:
Yeah, it's a real hassle dealing with all these identities. It's kind of stressful sometimes. And I feel like, it really is different here, though. Because in Colombia, again, I didn't have to think about it that much. But here, it's like a constant battle of who you are. Because when I'm with my Black friends and my Black family, ones that don't have any Latino heritage, you know, they hear me listening to salsa music or something or speaking Spanish and they’re like, ‘Oh, you don't want to be Black?’ I'm like, 'What do you mean I don't? I'm just speaking Spanish. Like, what are you talking about? Reggaeton comes from Black folks, do you guys know that?'

Arena:
Bad Bunny wouldn't have his music without you [laughs]...

Brown:
Literally! But they don't want to hear that. They hear me speaking Spanish or saying that I'm Puerto Rican and they're like 'Oh, you must not want to be Black.' And it's like, no, I didn't say that at all. I love being Black, of course.

Arena:
Do you think that the term Afro-Latino means something different?

Brown:
Definitely. Even within the Afro-Latino group, it's very polarizing. I feel there are some Afro-Latinos who don't really claim that Afro side as much. I think, colorism within the communities, you know, it makes people not want to acquaint themselves with that Afro-Latino side at all. So it makes them want to get as far away as possible from that aspect of themselves, which is sad to see, you know? And it's going to take generations to heal it.

But from my American side, Afro-Latino to them, they're so confused about it still this day, you know? And I have to constantly remind myself that it's not my job to educate everyone, because that's exhausting. Like I said, in New York and Florida, maybe it's a little less stressful because you know, it's something so common. But here in Missouri, it's exhausting.

Arena:
Yeah. When you have the idea of mi gente you were talking about how you talk to other Afro-Latino kids, why is it important to you to seek out some of those people that maybe might share one aspect of your identity?

Brown:
Like I said, it can get exhausting trying to explain this whole spectrum, this whole intersectionality thing of being Black and being Latino at the same time, because here in Missouri, it's like astrophysics, trying to explain that to some people. But in those moments, I was looking for other Black people, like, ‘Oh, my God, who can save me from this solitude that I'm experiencing right now.’

Arena:
Do you often feel like there's kind of a solitude?

Brown:
Yeah, as an Afro-Latino? Yeah. It's really hard sometimes in certain spaces. In white crowds, I'm the only Black guy and it's stressful, but I see another Black guy and that’s like, ‘Oh, cool,’ but he can only relate to like half of what I go through. And then in those Latino crowds, it's like, ‘Oh, great,’ but they can't really relate to what I go through as a Black man. I don't have the answer.

Arena:
Do you think you'll ever really get to that wrapped in a bow, quote, unquote, “right answer?”

Brown:
Probably not. Honestly.. It just sucks to say. So no, I don't think there's ever going to be a real answer for that, at least in my case. Yeah, always searching for that feeling. Hardly found though.

Arena:
Do you think that your search for that feeling will affect the likelihood of you staying in Missouri?

Brown:
My family has deep roots here now. And I'm the eldest so it's hard to leave. It's really hard to. Even though I know it's better for me, you know, mentally, physically, it may be better to go somewhere more diverse. Leaving home for me, it’s very difficult, you know? Because I love my family. I love, like, the area I grew up in, you know? Even though it wasn’t the most diverse, it’s still home.

Kassidy Arena is the Engagement Producer for KBIA. In her role, she reports and produces stories highlighting underrepresented communities, focuses on community outreach and promoting media literacy. She was born in Berkeley, California, raised in Omaha, Nebraska and graduated with a degree in Journalism at the University of Missouri, Columbia.
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