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Charlotte's Afro-Latinos celebrate shared roots and diverse cultures

Afro-Latinos representing different national origins and cultures shared their stories at Johnson C. Smith University.
Kayla Young
WFAE/La Noticia
Afro-Latinos representing different national origins and cultures shared their stories at Johnson C. Smith University.

Afro-Latinos of diverse backgrounds and national origins gathered at Johnson C. Smith University to share their cultures and experiences living in Charlotte. One goal of last weekend’s annual Black History Month event was to build bridges and raise consciousness between communities.

As a high school teacher, Milagros Ugueto, one of the evening’s panelists, also pursues those goals in the classroom. When Ugueto left her home country, first for Ecuador and then the United States, her sense of identity began to evolve.

“My history became more important to me once I left Venezuela,” she told audience members Friday evening. “I had never questioned my skin color or my hair before. That happened once I was away, especially in the United States.”

As a teacher in Charlotte, she was confronted by confusion from her students. They wanted to know why, as a Latina, she also identified as Black.

The disconnect, she explained, is in part an effect of colonization, and the dispersal of African people enslaved across the Americas.

“My African American students don’t know that we all come from the same roots, the same motherland in Africa,” she said, explaining that at the same time transatlantic slave ships were arriving in North America, others were going south to Latin America and the Caribbean.

Charlotte City Council representative Marjorie Molina reflected on the importance of celebrating those shared roots between African American and Afro-Latino communities.

“I'm Afro-Latina, according to who judges me, and I'm a Black woman, which is something that I take pride in,” Molina said. “In the celebration today, I'm excited about welcoming other people to learn more about the history of the transatlantic slave trade that took place in the entire Western Hemisphere.”

Molina described the culture shock that many Afro-Latinos face when they first move to the U.S. and are confronted with new labels.

“When you come to America and you have brown or darker skin, and if you've been in Latin America, you haven't necessarily heard someone call you Black,” she said. “You come here and people say you're Black and you're like, well, what does that mean?”

Ailen Arreaza faced those questions about her identity when she moved from Cuba to the U.S. at age 9.

“I remember walking down the hallway of my high school and being stopped by my peers and being asked: 'What are you?' And the first few times I was asked that question, I was like, What do they mean? What species am I?” she said. “I would say, ‘Oh, I'm Cuban.’ And they would say, ’What is that?’”

As an Afro-Colombian teacher in Charlotte, Jady Arriaga said she’s learned how important diverse representation is in the classroom. She remembers one student who approached her at the end of the semester and thanked her for helping her feel pride in being Afro-Latina, something she hadn’t publicly shared before. Having a teacher with similar roots helped her overcome her fear and embrace her story.

The evening ended with an Afro-Peruvian drum performance and a lesson in Afro-Venezuelan dance.

The organizer, el Comité de Fiestas Patrias, or the Patriotic Celebration Committee, will hold its next event, Dominican Independence Day, on Feb. 26 at Charlotte Art League.


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Kayla Young is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race, equity, and immigration for WFAE and La Noticia, an independent Spanish-language news organization based in Charlotte. Major support for WFAE's Race & Equity Team comes from Novant Health and Wells Fargo.