I knew from an early age that I was Latina. But I also knew that my family and I were black. In our household, three languages were spoken: English, Garifuna and Spanish. We focused on Garifuna, an Arwakan language spoken by Garifuna people (also known as Garinagu), and English (because my mother wanted our household to be completely fluent in it). In our motherland of Honduras, Spanish is the national language, but if you travel to the coast, you’ll find thousands of Garinagu people. The Garinagu weren’t always there. We’re descendants of Central African, West African, Island Carib and Arawak people, and escaped slaves who settles in coastal communities in Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Belize.

As a first-generation Honduran-American, I was aware of our rich culture and traditions. When it came to food, we ate traditional Garifuna and Afro-Honduran foods like ereba (or casabe) a flat bread made out of yucca; pan de coco, or coconut bread; and darasa, which is made from mashed green banana and wrapped in banana leaves. My favorites were Saturday mornings spent preparing and enjoying machuca (a traditional Garifuna meal made with mashed plantains, usually served with either coconut, fish/seafood, or chicken soup). Gatherings — fedu, in Garifuna —were filled with music, specifically punta, a style of music and dance.

I got a taste of the lived experience of growing up in Honduras during two-week stints in Ciriboya and Iriona, both sections of Colón. While I grew up with the culture, I didn’t appreciate its complexities and richness as much I do today.

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Growing up, I always had a resistance to my own culture and background. It was a resistance sparked by a lack of understanding, invisibility within media, and my need to define my own identity on my own terms.

I vividly recall the first time someone attempted to define me. In grade school, introductions always came with follow-up questions about my identity. One classmate named Steven stopped upon hearing that my last name: “Martinez.” After mentioning I was Spanish, which I used interchangeable with Latino, he responded, “No, you’re not.” With each “No, you're not” I grew angrier, responding, “Yes, I am!” I didn’t understand why he, or anyone, for that matter, could question me about my last name or my whether or not I was Latina.

A photo posted by Janel Martinez (@janelm) on

I realized later that it was the color of my skin. That prepared me for the many times I’d be questioned about my last name —“s” instead of a “z,” right? — or which one of my parents was Black. Because they couldn’t possibly both be Black from Latin America?

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When you’re young, color isn’t a thing. It doesn’t serve as a means to exclude individuals, and doesn’t determine how you treat another person. It’s not until someone, maybe even an institution tells you that color does mean something and you will be treated accordingly that it even begins to matter.

How could people understand when they’ve never known an Afro-Latino/a to play a main character on primetime TV, or rarely see us portrayed on the covers of magazines? Now, actresses like Gina Torres, Judy Reyes, Selenis Leyva, Tatyana Ali and Zoe Saldana are representing for black Latina identity. While Zoe Saldana admits, and I would agree, she wasn’t the right pick to play Nina Simone, I disagree with the comments which aimed to question Saldana’s blackness. The Puerto Rican-Dominican actress has acknowledged she’s a black Latina on countless occasions and the fact that people feel they must verify one’s blackness in order for it to be approved is absurd.

Growing up, the “you’re not Latino enough,” “you’re just Black,” and “but your Spanish” comments caused cracks in my once solid foundation. I felt like I didn’t 100 percent know who I was. My family had a strong connection to our culture but even at times, within our own family, comments about complexion and hair texture served as subtle jabs.

For Latinos, identity is complex. We often fall in between the cracks when it comes to how we see ourselves. The Census Bureau reports that in the 2010, 2.5 percent of the 54 million Latinos in the U.S. also identified as black. While over half of Latinos identified themselves as white, 36 percent checked “some other race.”

Latinos are not monolithic. We choose to identify in a bevy of ways. I choose to identify as Afro-Latina. More specifically, Honduran-American, or Garifuna-American. There’s no right way to answer the question. But, most importantly, we should respect how people choose to identify and express their identity.

Despite Afro-Latina invisibility in media, and ignorant comments and resistance to the way, I’ve learned to identify in a way that best suits me and encourage my fellow Afro-Latinas, black Latinas, Latinegras, Asian Latinas, indigenous Latinas, and the like, to do the same.

A photo posted by Janel Martinez (@janelm) on