Fake Latina: My journey of identity and belonging

A student explores her complex journey with being biracial and connecting with both cultures.


“Eres puertorriquena, no importa como te veas, siempre seras una latina,” my abuelita would constantly tell me growing up. 

“You’re Puerto Rican, no matter what you look like, you’ll always be a Latina”

I hold those words dear to this day, but it’s a concept I’ve always struggled with: looking like I’m one race, but being biracial and connecting with both cultures, especially my Latin side. 

Most who don’t know me assume I am only Black. I look Black, act Black — if that’s a thing — and only speak English. However, I am also Puerto Rican  and, for as long as I can remember, I’ve found myself at a crossroads between my two identities. 

I grew up in Hunting Park, Philadelphia, which some locals refer to as “Papi Land” because most of its residents are Latino. My mother is Puerto Rican and my father is Black, but I spent most of my childhood immersed in Latin culture, raised by my mother and abuelita. 

My abuelita’s house was always filled with the aromas of traditional Puerto Rican foods, Fabuloso and the rhythmic bass of Latin music. She taught me how to cook many flavorful dishes, like tostones, arroz con gandules and bacalaitos. My tios and tias taught me how to dance the bachata before I was six, as it was a standard step at any family gathering. 

But no matter how close I was to the culture, I always felt like an outsider because of how I looked. 

I have the darkest complexion on my mom’s side of the family, which always seemed to stick out most when I was around my family members. I wondered why I wasn’t the same complexion as them, which made me question my beauty, and at times, frown upon my physical traits. 

When I was a baby, my hair was soft with thick curls like my mom’s, but as I got older, my hair grew coarse with tight coils. When my mom would use a hot comb to straighten my hair, I’d wince as she combed through the tight naps, wishing I had long wavy hair like my cousins. 

Aside from my physical traits, my inability to understand Spanish made me feel even more disconnected from my Latina side. All of my family members spoke English, but many of them are from “la isla,” or the island, so it wasn’t their first language and they often spoke Spanish. 

When my family would attempt to have short conversations with me in Spanish, I could never make it past, “I’m good, how about you?” 

When my abuelita would play her favorite Spanish songs on the radio, I’d hear melody, bass and different tones, while she would hear a love story or the artist’s journey. I tried to pick up on words I’d heard around the house, but I always fell short, only able to grasp the overall arc of the song, never the details. 

Despite these differences, I’m thankful I have a loving and accepting family. I was always my abuelita‘s favorite, her little muñeca, and my cousins, tios and tias never treated me like I was different from them. 

Still, when I’d leave our family circle, other Latinos looked at me as an outsider. When I went to local Latin shops and grocery stores, the attendants would take one look at me and begin speaking English because I didn’t look Latina or like I spoke Spanish. I hated that part of their assumption was accurate.

As I got older, I learned more about diversity within Latin culture and began to accept my differences. I learned about different notable figures in the Latino community who shared similar experiences as me.

When I was about 16 years old, I came across a television show called “Celia,” a telenovela exploring the life of the Cuban singer Celia Cruz. The show documented her struggles and the impact she made as the Queen of Salsa in the 1950s and 1960s, when colorism was more prominent. Cruz was as dark as me, with curly hair similar to mine. As a dark-skinned Afro-Latina, she faced discrimination for her looks, but she continued to prosper.

Cruz played a pivotal role in helping me accept and embrace my identity. As I journeyed through her music and learned about her experiences as an Afro-Latina, I found solace in her story. Her unapologetic celebration of her identity and her unwavering pride in her Black heritage resonated deeply with me. 

Cruz’s story showed me the power of diversity within the Latino community and was a reminder that being different should be a source of strength, not insecurity. It’s okay for me to embrace and celebrate the unique aspects of who I am, even if they set me apart from others.  

I’ve always taken great pride in my Blackness, and I wear it on my sleeve. It has created a sense of belonging to a legacy of resilience, creativity and cultural richness that has shaped my life. 

Similarly, my family instilled in me a deep appreciation for my Puerto Rican heritage growing up through traditions, celebrations and values. My home was filled with Spanish bickering, blasting reggaeton, late-night parties, Romeo Santos, Coquito, homemade Pasteles and Sancocho, which is also a source of pride in my life. 

Representing both of my cultures has always been important to me. Although to others I may connect more with being Black in my physical traits, I could never allow myself to claim only one race. I may not always look or act the part, but I understand the culture in my heart and because of that, I will always be proud to be Boricua.

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