People CHICA presented a fascinating debate on Afro-Latinidad with Selenis Leyva, Melii and Lala Anthony in New York City. In case you weren't in the front row, here’s what they had to say.

By Lena Hansen
April 11, 2019 09:02 PM
Ciro Gutiérrez

“Nearly a quarter of Latinas in the U.S. identify as Afro-Latinas, and yet visibility is kind of not there for this community,” executive editor Shirley Velasquez said at the opening of the People CHICA panel on April 11. Producer and actor Lala Anthony, Harlem-based singer, songwriter and rapper Melii and Orange Is the New Black star Selenis Leyva were also on-hand to tackle issues affecting this growing community in a conversation moderated by Velasquez.

Lala Anthony shared some of her personal experiences. Growing up, people would tell her she didn’t look Puerto Rican. Instead she looked “mixed,” and she had to choose either being Latina or being black. “Within our own culture there is so much division, and within my own family too, because some of us have blonde hair and blue eyes, some of us look like me and some of us are even darker than me.” But, she added, “I’m proud to finally be at a point where I can just be who I am,” she said. “All Latinas don’t have to look the same.”

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Before marrying NBA star Carmelo Anthony, Lala’s last name was Vásquez, yet people were still surprised when she spoke Spanish. “Both of my parents are from Puerto Rico. Yo puedo hablar español,” she emphasized. “That’s what was spoken in my house. I speak Spanglish, I’m from Brooklyn.” Lala recognizes that her dark skin makes people doubt her Latinidad. “They’re surprised, because for so long, we’ve all been brainwashed about what a Puerto Rican person looks like, and that’s just not me. I’m here today to continue to break down stereotypes.”

Leyva, relating her experience, said she had people tell her she wasn’t Latina because she “didn’t look it,” particularly in showbiz. “It was always the people that weren’t Latino that were telling me that I wasn’t Latina, like Caucasian casting people.” When she would say she is from the Bronx, with a Dominican mother and Cuban father, they would answer back: “‘Wow, you are so exotic!’ and that always means you are not going to get the part.” She says getting television roles wasn’t easy with her “look.” “I wanted to be an actress so badly, and the telenovela chicks didn’t look like me,” Leyva laments, adding that her big break with Orange Is the New Black was long overdue: “It took me 20 years to become an overnight success.”

Although she is against labels in general, when it comes to Afro-Latinidad, Leyva says it’s good to know the nuances. “There is a difference, there is the mestizo, there’s the taíno, there’s the African, we have so much representation. We can’t deny that, and within our own families there is so much damage,” she says.

Leyva stresses that it’s not about having a “color chart” to determine whether you are Afro-Latina or not, and she has had “sisters who have darker hair or wear their hair natural” tell her she is not black enough to be an Afro-Latina. “I know who I am, and I know the struggle that I have been through,” she assures.

The actress also sees how her 16-year-old daughter’s lighter skin becomes an issue for some people. “My daughter is not Afro but she is my daughter. She is blanquita with ‘good hair’ so I’m, like, the nanny when I take her to school the first day,” she jokes. “I’m Afro-Latina, and as much as I was made to feel less-than growing up by my own extended family, I am proud of the curves, I’m proud of my wide nose, of my full lips, of my booty. I’m proud! Now is the time to celebrate that.”

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Melii — who recently dropped her album phAses — is celebrating her identity in her music. “I do represent Afro-Latinas,” the singer says. “The beats that I choose, even the Caribbean vibes, it’s just keeping the balance of me and what I represent.” However, she struggles like any other woman with the way she looks. “There is days that I struggle with myself over having the wide nose and not the pointy nose,” she admits. “There is a lot of things that you grow to accept and to learn that they’re beautiful.”

Ciro Gutiérrez

Addressing the lack of visibility of Afro-Latinos in the entertainment industry, Lala Anthony said: “In some ways, we are winning the battles, but we still have such a long way to go.” Lala sees unity as part of the answer. “Latinos, get it together: It’s time to let go of the nonsense and unify!” she exclaims. “We have to be better to each other, not so critical. We have to love ourselves and then spread that love across.”

Another solution Anthony expressed: “Put yourself in a position where you are creating your own content.” She is taking charge by producing diverse content that she feels is missing in entertainment. “I cast myself,” she added proudly.  

Melii adds that Afro-Latinas and women in general need to make their voices heard. “As a woman, you have to stand your ground everywhere you go. As women we are overlooked.” As far as representing truth, the singer says her songs don’t try to hide her imperfections. “I’m so open because I’m not perfect. As long as I’m living my truth you can’t use that against me.”

Melii, who addresses mental health struggles in her songs, says: “Writing is a form of therapy for me. I express myself better through writing and music in general.” She wants her songs to be uplifting and real. “What I see my music doing is just manifesting. It’s such, ‘bad bitch energy,’ ‘I’m feeling myself’ music,” she laughs. “Turn on some Melii if you’re feeling down!”

Leyva, who is also an advocate for the LGBTQ community, reveals she is working on a memoir coming out next year where she shares her sister’s story. “I have a trans sister who makes me also fight the fight. No one is going to ever tell me that this is wrong. God makes no mistakes,” she notes. “I know that the reason that my sister is here with me today is because she had family. We cannot turn our back on our brothers and sisters.” To which Melii added: “Having a brother who is gay and darker than me, there is two fights that he fights.”

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