Afrodescendencia is a series honoring the institutions and rights created by the Afro-Latinx leaders before us and those who are currently present in our communities. The Latinx of African descent are vocal, culturally active and politically aware. By telling the stories of the unheard we remain conscious of the community, its struggles, its past and its future.

By Jennifer Mota
March 27, 2019

Model and beauty guru Ilianna Ayala built a following on the many aspects of her identity that were ignored or perceived negatively when she was growing up. As a body positivity spokesperson and Afro-Latina, she's inspired many by showcasing plus-size fashion and modeling, natural hair tutorials and on-trend makeup looks.

Perceptions of beauty are constantly changing. Today we see more makeup brands including darker skin tones — something that was not taking place five or ten years ago — a time that also lacked size inclusivity. Another aspect of beauty that's changing is how we identify hair — what makes certain hairstyles more acceptable than others. These are all things that beauty influencer and model Ilianna Ayala embraces.

“I know there is history behind these curls,” says the young influencer. She shared her story with CHICA.

The Harlem native — who grew up feeling passionate about dance and music — didn't identify as black. She was always told, you're Puerto Rican and Bolivian. “My mom's side, it is Afro-Puerto Rican, my aunt and grandmother they're all different shades and different hair textures. I knew there was something more, but they didn't talk about it. As I got older, I felt like I needed to research that and really think about how there's more than just being Latina,” says Ayala.

Her pro-black awareness blossomed in the age of social media and phone apps, and she learned from the Afro-Latinx community. “There's so many groups on [Instagram] and Facebook that can inform you. They have events, and there are so many other Afro-Latina influencers that can inform.”

Through her platform, she showcases plus-size fashion and modeling, natural hair tutorials, on-trend makeup looks, and hairstyle inspiration. Though there has been progress in inclusivity of dark shades in beauty brands, Ayala, who worked as a makeup artist for six years, believes the place it's coming from is disingenuous: “I also feel like beauty brands are doing it for us to not get upset and it isn't done correctly.”

“They want to make sure they include darker skin tones, but they don't put to much thought into it. So many shades turn up red, the undertones are weird. And you need to be really thoughtful about that, because darker women need to feel beautiful.”

Featured in Plus Model Magazine, El Diario NY Newspaper, Harlem World Magazine and People StyleWatch, she knows what her end goal is: “I want to change the representation.”

An important voice in the body positivity movement, Ilianna inspires thousands of women on Instagram. The lack of media representation in her early years makes her feel it's her duty to push for visibility.

“Growing up, I didn't see Latinas that looked like me. I saw the fair skin, the straight hair, the bombshell. That's my goal moving forward, it's change that. I want girls to know, ‘Hey, there is a Latina that has melanin, and has big curly hair and is a fuller woman.'”

This messaging is found on her website: Women must be confident “and love themselves naturally, despite what society says.”

But she realizes it's still a challenge, even with the progress made. “It's hard, because beauty brands don't normally cast a plus-size model, I don't know why, but they don't. Recently, I started to work with two makeup brands and I was like, That's a start. But I don't want to be the only plus-size model they cast, I want to see more.”