When Brayan O. Rojas-Araúz was 5 years old, he realized his afro curls and facial structure didn’t look like the rest of his Costa Rican family. He couldn’t understand why no one else around him had an afro too.
“When I was in Costa Rica, I was the negrito from Panama,” he said. “When I was in Panama, I was the light skin boy from Costa Rica.”
Negrito, although a loving and caring term, designated him as the darkest cousin in his Costa Rican family.
It wasn’t until the end of high school when Rojas-Araúz began looking deeper into his heritage.
His curiosity led his Panamanian mom to reveal that her family had descended from Jamaica. This was a touchy subject for the family and Rojas-Araúz was warned not to bring it up, especially to his grandfather.
“We don’t talk about that,” Rojas-Araúz’s mother told him.
Rojas-Araúz is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in counseling psychology at the University of Oregon who identifies as Afro-Latino. In the U.S., Black History Month is celebrated in February, but the experiences of Afro-Latinx people often go unheard. For Rojas-Araúz it is important to include Afro-Latinx voices in the larger conversations about Black identity.
The concept of Afro-latinidad is notoriously complicated in Latinx culture. Many families, like Rojas-Araúz’s, choose to hide this part of their identity. Partially because of colorism and partially because in Latin America, like in many other countries, nationalism is a trend. People tend to identify themselves with their country of origin or the general term Latinx, instead of their race.
Growing up, Rojas-Araúz identified as ‘Panatico’ — a combination of Panamanian and Costa Rican.
The issue with this is that — while Latinidad is a valid concept that tends to bring people from Latin America together — it leads to the erasure of identities. Particularly of indigenous and African identities.
“I used to introduce myself as half Costa Rican, a quarter Panamanian and a quarter Jamaican,” he said. “To eventually being like, you know what I am a full human. I’m all Latino, I’m all Black. I’m not fractions of a person, I’m a full person.”
Eventually Rojas-Araúz got to a place where he felt comfortable reclaiming his African descendance and adopting the term Afro-Latino.
“When I say Afro-Latino I am stating that this is part of my heritage and this is part of who I am,” Rojas-Araúz said. “I am not less Latino because of it.”
There is an ongoing discussion about who gets to claim Afro-Latinidad. It’s complex. A lot of Latinx people have African ancestry, but that doesn’t mean that they all get to claim Afro-Latinidad. A good rule of thumb, according to Rojas-Araúz, is that the person claiming Afro-Latinx should feel comfortable interchanging the term with the word Black.
“When It comes to intersection, it is not additive. It is not black plus brown,” he said. “It is exponential. It multiplies the struggle and it changes the way in which you experience life.”
For Rojas-Araúz navigating his Afro-Latinx identity meant often feeling like he had to “pick a side.”
He didn’t have many Latinx friends in high school because many considered him a sellout for having chosen wrestling and football over fútbol — or soccer — because that wasn’t what Latinx people were supposed to do. For Rojas-Araúz, it was painful to be invalidated by his own community.
“[I] was always not fitting into this box that people were trying to put me into,” he said.
On the other hand, at times he was seen as too Latino to be a part of the Black community. Although he hasn’t experienced this at UO, Rojas-Araúz has felt that at times he was forced to choose one of his identities. Finding his space during Black History Month in particular can get complicated because people tend to push back on Afro-Latinx people’s ability to claim this month as their own.
If Afro-Latinx people have Latinx History Month, why do they need Black History Month as well?
“It is not a let me get a piece of the slice of cake that was yours,” he said. “It’s like, ‘yo, this is also my cake.’”
Ultimately, for Rojas-Araúz, Black History Month generally lacks Afro-Latinx representation. He feels there needs to be more recognition of the fact that Blackness exists at a global level and that it intersects with other identities. The largest African diaspora is Brazil — a fact that, according to Rojas-Araúz, is rarely mentioned.
About a year ago, Rojas-Araúz decided to submit his application for citizenship. As part of his process of embracing his Blackness, he decided to submit the application on Feb. 1,Freedom Day and the first day of Black History Month. Rojas-Araúz wanted to make sure his application meant something and was done on his own terms.
“Being undocumented Afro-Latino immigrant meant that there was so much that was taken from me, experiences that I got robbed from,” he said. “It has taken a very long time for me to get to a point where I can love myself for all of me and be proud of all of my pieces.”