Growing up in the 1980s as an immigrant, Junot Díaz felt rejected by African Americans and Latinos – the two communities he considered his own.
“I was neither black enough for the black kids or Dominican enough for the Dominican kids,” the Dominican Pulitzer Prize winner told Fox News Latino. "I didn’t have a safe category."
“Long before the idea of multiculturalism,” he added, “in public people could say almost anything to you and get away with it.”
Díaz’s memories perhaps resonate with many Latinos during this time of year. Though all Hispanics are different, of course – each with their own web of looks, feels and cultural identities – what ties many of them together, and separates some, is their African lineage and how they identify with it.
To that end, Hispanic Heritage Month, which end Saturday, celebrates the significance of the different backgrounds that encompass what it means to be Latino. But a snapshot of Hispanic identity is incomplete without the complicated relationship many have with their African roots.
“My problem was that I wanted to belong to both groups simultaneously, and yet each group was trying to get me to commit only to them,” Díaz said. “Relationships might be monogamous but identities certainly are not.”
This issue leads many Latinos to feel that their identities become muddied when they can’t co-exist between two worlds in which they can identify.
Díaz recalls feeling invisible and ousted by his society.
“The tension was pretty thick. And as a Caribbean, as a Dominican, we are almost entirely invisible” said Díaz.
But would African Americans necessarily see it this way?
Majora Carter, an urban revitalization strategist and winner of The New York Post Liberty Medal for Lifetime Achievement, felt that relations between Hispanics and blacks were balanced.
“I did not feel left out; there was a lot more interaction between us, at least between young people, Carter said. “We knew we were in this neighborhood together as rough as it was, and we were all cool with it.” Carter says that her mother was of African and Native American descent. She had really light skin and long wavy “white hair,” as she called it.
“Some folks in the neighborhood told (my mother) that if she passed herself off as Latino, she would have an easier time,” said Carter. “My mother told them she was from two of the strongest people on earth, why would she want to dishonor them?”
Carter says that her mother went to great lengths to help her children understand the importance of their roots “My mom sometimes wore an afro wig for unification with her kinky-haired children,” she said.
Parenting clearly serves a pivotal role in shaping someone’s racial identity. But are Latino parents always sending the right messages?
“Every single person older than me in my family made sure we understood that not only was there a difference between us and the ‘morenos’ but also us and the ‘Boricuas’,” Díaz said.
But for many Latinos, teaching their children a distinction is important, some say.
Solange Rosario, data entry specialist for The Children’s Aid society from Washington Heights who is Dominican, said she didn’t know she even looked black when she was young.
“I didn’t consider that I could be black, until I started going to school” Rosario said.
Rosario’s African roots were never brought up at home. She learned about them, she said, from her peers in school.
“Everyone would ask me why is my last name Rosario, or why I spoke Spanish. I was always so confused, until I got it. I looked black.”
First generation born in the United States, Rosario wishes she could have learned about her ancestry at home first.
“We Dominicans, we speak Spanish, but everyone in my family is a different shade of brown. We all look black. It’s because of our African roots, the same African roots all Dominicans have.”
For many Latinos, there is a pride that comes from knowing their cultural anchors. And so the month where Latinos celebrate the significance of being Latino also should include a look at Afro-Latino roots that permeate the cultural foundation of Hispanics between different countries, people and places.
For Rosario and Díaz, an acknowledgement and understanding of their background led to a fuller acceptance of themselves and who they are.
“My African roots made me what I am today,” Díaz said. “They’re the reason I’m from the Dominican Republic. They’re the reason I exist at all.”
“To these, roots I owe everything.”