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The Non Spanish Speaking Afro-Latina: Growing Up in Urban Black America

African, Panamanian, Basian, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Haitian, Dominican, Native American, and Jamaican are the known races that make up my very diverse family. Marriage and adoption have truly blessed my family with this melting pot of rich culture and history. It wasn’t until about 3 years ago that I even identified with being an Afro-Latina.

I can recall hearing my grandmother and her cousins speaking Spanish from time to time when I was a child. Eating paella, souse, empanadas, red rice and cod fish cakes. Heck I even still have vivid memories of traveling to Panama during the summers to visit with my Great Aunt Ursie. She would bath me in one of those big tubs in the kitchen of her house and we spent hours going into town to shop. You would think I would have a true and deep connection to my Latino roots, I don’t.

You see, my maternal grandparents migrated here from Panama when all of their children were still very young. I believe my mother may have been 3 or so years old. She has one older sibling and one younger sibling. There is only 1-3 years between the three of them. I honestly don’t know if my grandparents spoke English when they arrived in the U.S. My mother swears she didn’t have a green card, but I always tease her and say that she did! 🙂

My cousins and I are all 1st generation Americans. Get out! 1st generation! Funny thing is that none of us speak fluent Spanish or identify much with our Latino roots. We grew up in the Big Apple and most, if not all of our experiences were with Black American culture. The neighborhood we grew up in was over 80% black. Our schools may have been a bit more diverse but not by much. The church we went to was Black, many of the stores we shopped in were in Black neighborhoods and we ate many traditional Black American foods. The majority of our friends were also Black American.

The delicious foods I mentioned earlier typically were prepared on special occasions. Birthdays, family gatherings, funerals, and holidays. On a daily basis we didn’t eat these foods or speak to each other in Spanish.

So you see, I grew up very much outside of the rich and beautiful Panamanian culture that I have since grown to love. When my grandmother died 8 years ago, a lot of our history and culture resurfaced within the family as we became closer and started spending more time together. Stories were shared about my grandparent’s migration to the U.S. and their difficult transition to this country. Things started to become clear.
During a conversation with my now 93 years old grandfather last year, he told me that he had no desire to go back to Panama. He said that once he left decades ago he knew we was never going back. Sigh. I don’t know the whole story about their experiences in Panama but I do know that it shaped our (their children and grandchildren’s) lives.

People who have met my grandparents always make reference to their accents. Of the two my grandfather had the stronger dialect. To this day he still has it. My husband calls grandpa “Panama Slim”, as a result of this picture. 😉 This picture was taken on their wedding day.

My lovely grandparents, Miriam and Cleveland. Picture taken in Panama on their wedding day.

My lovely grandparents, Miriam and Cleveland. Picture taken in Panama on their wedding day.

I’m grateful for my upbringing and for the many experiences I had. I’m proud to be learning more and more about my very diverse culture and history. As I experience growth and become more and more comfortable with my true heritage, I liken myself to a perfect blend of the great matriarchs in my family; Miriam, Mildred, Ursula and Earline and the amazing women in history Angela Davis, Mary “Stagecoach Mary” Fields, and Lucy E. Parsons.

The life and times of one Black mama who conquered the world through adoption. This is my story.

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