“Not everyone looks like Jennifer Lopez,” says Dania Peguero, co-founder of Black Latina Negra Bella.
Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New England, Peguero grew up seeing Latinos with European features and light skin in music and telenovelas. Afro-Latinos, however, were sequestered to the roles of maids in TV shows or not represented at all. Beauty and black were not words used in the same sentence, and there was little to no acknowledgement of the role African descendants played in Latin American history.
“I really didn’t have the words to describe who I was growing up,” Peguero said during a talk at Lesley on Tuesday, presented as part of Latinx Heritage Month celebrations. “The way I was and how I looked was never embraced.”
Once she began to learn about black Latino figures in history, Peguero’s perception of herself changed. Eventually she and her sister, Vilma, started Black Latina Negra Bella to empower other individuals and to increase dialog on race and body image.
During her campus presentation in Alumni Hall, Afro-Latino students and staff expressed similar experiences in their communities.
“Growing up I didn’t want to be black,” said freshman Miralys Santana.
Raised in the Dominican Republic, she faced discrimination due to her skin color. Santana was told that a dress she wore wasn’t appropriate for a black girl, and she has also been criticized for foregoing hair relaxant.
It wasn’t until Santana began to learn about the history of African people in Latin America that her view of herself changed.
“I started to be proud of myself through history,” she said through tears. Adding that she’s found freedom through expression in dance and wearing her hair however she likes.
‘Sheroes’ and heroes
Educating children and adults on their oft-forgotten Afro-Latino history and culture is something Peguero does through Black Latina Negra Bella and as a social worker in Atlanta.
“Kids need to know about sheroes and heroes that look like them,” Peguero said. “I think it’s important that we tell these stories.”
Latino cultures and governments tend to omit the history of African slaves who were part of every nation from Central America to the Caribbean, according to Peguero. Now, the ancestors of those black slaves are often unaware they are of African descent, which is why the Peguero sisters chose to include “black” in the name of their organization.
“We wanted to embrace our blackness,” Peguero said.
She often speaks with family and friends about issues of race and history, but acknowledged some people still aren’t ready to hear it.
“It’s a really touchy subject. Everyone’s going to be at a different place,” said Peguero.
Yet, through gentle conversation and an unflinching self-identity, the word will get out there.
Student Sasha Ndam affirmed Peguero’s message.
“There’s so much power when we discuss who we are,” said Ndam. “This is where it starts.”