How Janel Martinez Started the Afro-Latina Conversation — and Keeps It Going
‘Ain’t I Latina’ is one of the few internet spaces women can go to feel represented both as a Latina and a black woman. Martinez spoke to People CHICA about her inspiration for her platform, which has helped educate and bring together an underserved community.
Afrodescendencia is a series honoring the institutions and rights placed 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, it's struggles, it's past and it's future.
Since Amara La Negra positioned herself at the forefront of Afro-Latinx representation in U.S. and Latin American media in early 2018, discussion around the descriptor has been trending. The conversation, however, has been ongoing for years, just ask Janel Martinez. With her website and blog Ain't I Latina, the career journalist has become one of the most active Afro-Latinx voices,
The Bronx native, now 30, consumed all kinds of media growing up. “I was that kid that would come home and watch Oprah for an hour or be really intrigued by the news and behind the scenes,” she shares with CHICA. “Also, particularly when it came to entertainment, all of the shows at the time, which was Moesha, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and also magazines like Vibe and, of course, like, Essence and things like that.”
As an undergrad studying journalism at Syracuse University, she realized there wasn't a space for documenting the black Latina experience. Living in a predominantly white space, where in most cases she was the only black and/or Latina in a class, she embraced her background by writing for the Black Voice student-run media platform as well as pledging Delta Sigma Theta, one of the four historically African-American sororities. She also assumed the role of editor for La Voz, a Latino news magazine.
She constantly felt caught between the two, as most black spaces spoke of the African-American experience, and in Latinx spaces, her blackness wasn't really reflected in the material. This lack of intersectionality and her emotional response to it motivated her after graduation. While writing for Black Enterprise multimedia company, she came up with the idea to start a space of her own.
“I would interview a lot of African-American entrepreneurs and CEOs,” she explains of her motivation, “and that's when I was like, you know, I'm going to launch something that solves this issue that I have. Because in speaking to a lot of entrepreneurs, they were telling me the same thing. The reason why they started their business venture or launched a product was because they saw that there was a problem.”
That's when she realized, “I see problems every day.” Her experiences were reflected in those of other black Latinas, like her cousins and friends. As someone who loves media and was constantly hoping to see particularly the black Latinx experience documented, she decided to be the change she hoped for.
Just a week before her 25th birthday, Janel created Ain't I Latina, an online destination for the Afro-Latinx community. Martinez was not prepared for the overwhelming acceptance when it was finally launched on December 4, 2013. She quickly forged a community through lifestyle coverage, career advice and telling the stories of everyday women who share a complex social identities. Reaching out to those caught between cultures, she participated in Afro-Latina panels for Twitter, Essence and The Grapevine,
The name of the site was inspired by the famous “Ain't I Woman” speech by Sojourner Truth, an anti-slavery speaker who delivered the impromptu words at a women's convention in 1851. “I was thinking about what type of name would resonate most. I knew that I wanted to answer a question or at least to pose the question because I would get questioned about my identity.”
It also refers to the question, “How do you identify me, or how do I personally identify?” Women people of color throughout history have had to struggle for recognition: “It kind of goes back to this idea of giving a nod or acknowledgment of those that came before me.”
And as a Honduran-American with Garifuna ancestry, Martinez has something else to add to the Afro-Latinx identity discourse: Central American insights. A mix of African and Arawaken lineage who speak Garfiuna, they are descendants of exiled groups that migrated from the Lesser Antilles, primarily based the island of St. Vincent, after a series of slave rebellions. Those exiled were the people with the most visible African traits. Most Garifuna live on the Caribbean coast of Honduras, and there are populations found in Guatemala, Nicaragua and Belize.
While it comes as no shock that the Garifuna culture receives little attention, they represent a more common disparity: Most Afro-Latinx conversations tend to exclude Central American narratives and topics. As Janel explains, “I think there's a lot of focus on, like, the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. There's a lot of focus on even South America, but really Central Americans get lost in the shuffle, which is unfortunate.”
In a 2017 blog post, Janel described her heritage with culinary customs: “At home, family traditions — Garifuna traditions — were a large part of our lives. Every Saturday, hudutu [machuca], a coconut-milk-based soup with fish and mashed platanos, was on the menu. Sometimes we opted for chicken soup, or included various types of seafood. Between boiling the platanos, preparing la sopa, allowing the platanos to cool and mashing them, it was an all-morning endeavor. But, to this day, I have fond memories of preparing it and, most importantly, enjoying hudutu.”
Martinez continues to make sure that the Afro-Latinx discussion is one about celebrating difference as much as sharing a lineage.