Meet the Poet Working to Get “Afro-Latina” in the Dictionary
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.
“During the 1970s, the term ‘Latina' was invented to describe a woman of Latin-American ancestry living in Latin America or the United States.” says Melania-Luisa Marte passionately, as she performs her stirring “Afro-Latina” poem. “Miriam Webster, however, does not consider the term ‘Afro-Latina' a word. To them, America's most trusted dictionary, Latin-American people of African ancestry do not exist.”
The Bronx native of Afro-Dominican descent, who goes by Mela, performs multicultural awareness poetry inspired by her experiences as a black Spanish-speaking first-generationer. Based out of Dallas, the spoken word artist ranked 5th in last year's Women of the World Poetry Slam competition and was a finalist at the 2017 Texas Grand Slam Poetry Competition.
In August 2018, the poet, who works as a teacher and creative workshop facilitator, created a petition to include the word “Afro-Latina” in the dictionary. It hasn't been added to date.
On the petition's website, the mission reads: “Including the term, ‘Afro-Latina' in the dictionary is about creating visibility for those who have been erased from media for far too long. The term is to acknowledge someone's Blackness as a product of being of Latin-American descent. For many of us, using the terms Afro-Latina/o/x rather than simply Latina/o/x allows us to center our Blackness and not negate it.”
Her work as a poet references intersectionality in feminism, identity and the erasure of descendants of the African diaspora.
“A lot of people call my poetry aggressive, and I'm just like, what makes it aggressive? The anger? The passion I have for wanting to speak truths to my story, the disappointment in what the American dream is, and how it's unattainable for people that look like me,” she explains to CHICA.
The “Afro-Latina” poem was birthed out of rage and frustration. What started as research to help unpack the term “Afro-Latino” led the young activist to start with the dictionary. The slam poet was shocked when she saw that the term “Afro-Latino” was not listed. Then she felt an immense wave of disappointment. Mirroring mainstream media coverage and popular history, the marginalized Latin-American community of African descent did not exist to the prestige dictionary.
Distraught, Mela reflected on who gets to decide what words are included in the dictionary. Although “Latina” is “used” to represent everyone, it isn't representative of those who are of African descent. Considering that the poster children of the term “Latina” are whitewashed, she felt her identity was erased and her narrative snatched.
The poet explains: “If we don't address micro-aggression, like the ways in which we are silenced, something as simple as the fact that Latina has been in the dictionary since like forever, and then a few months ago Latinx was added to the dictionary because let's be intersectional right, let's respect gender pronouns…. ”
“I found myself questioning. Well, Afro-Latinx has been a conversation. It's been a hot topic. Afro-Latina, Afro-Latino and Afro-Latinx are terms that have been used for a really long time.” These thoughts, along with her studies, helped her conclude that those making the decisions should be held accountable.
She spoke to someone from Dictionary.com on what it takes to get a word on the site and was told that the word has to be a common term as well as used in mainstream media. The #afrolatino hashtag on Instagram has about 94,500 followers and the Love & Hip Hop: Miami moment of Amara la Negra defending her blackness sparked a popular conversation in the press, covered by Essence, The Breakfast Club, The Real and Hot 97's “Ebro in the Morning.” So why was is it easy to get Latinx in the dictionary, but difficult to include Afro-Latina? Which leads to her next question: Are these official language gatekeepers creating more diversity or more oppression?
With poetry, Mela tries to touch on all facets of who she is and not stick to a stereotypical media representation of Afro-Latinidad. In an effort to push herself to examine the traumas and different narratives that she's been force-fed about herself, she has created a book of poetry and personal stories titled Mela. This Black History Month, you can join her in her initiative to get the term added to the dictionary.