When 2nd Lt. Emily Perez was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq, she became the first female African American officer to die in combat. Perez, an outstanding West Point graduate, was mourned by two communities because, while she looked like a Black woman, she came from a Black-Latino family.

Like former POW Spec. Shoshana Johnson, Perez’s death indicates how society’s definition of who is Black is changing. Johnson was championed by the Black media, after her captivity was almost drowned out by the spectacle of Jessica Lynch’s staged rescue. (Johnson is of Afro-Panamanian descent and is also identified with the Hispanic ethnic group.)

Latinos are now officially the largest ethnic group in the United States, by passing African Americans, who for a long time have been the largest and most politically-visible minority.

But there are an increasing number of young people who are from both of these significant ethnic groups. Latinos and African Americans often live and work alongside one another in urban areas, and while there are often reports about the friction between the two groups, sometimes the Black-Brown unions work quite smoothly. Many younger Latinos supported President Barack Obama’s campaign, and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villarigosa also courted the African American community.

However, many young Afro Latinos are dealing with a world where they are often supposed to side with one ethnic group based on how they look.

Shay Olivarria, who is Black and Mexican, is a motivational speaker and financial literacy coach. She is also the author of “10 Things College Students Need to Know About Money” and “Money Matters: The Get it Done in One Minute Workbook.” Olivarria says race and racial identity is still an issue in a country that many people would like to think has become color blind.

“I think that many youth are growing up in a world where different types of people are mixing and interacting everyday, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have strong opinions about culture and how cultures should, or shouldn’t mix,” Olivarria said. “Just because they sit next to each other in school, doesn’t mean that they understand each other.”

Growing up Olivarria said that she did not fit in with either of the ethnic groups.

“My mom is Black and my dad is Mexican. I have one full Black sister, one full Mexican sister, and then there’s me. Growing up neither side accepted me. To the Blacks I was ‘exotic’ and ‘different,’ so the girls thought I was a Barbie and the boys were all after me. To Mexicans, I was ‘too dark’ to take home and ‘not really Mexican’ because I didn’t speak Spanish,” Olivarria said. “When I was little, I looked like a Pacific Islander … I ended up spending a lot of time with Asians.” But race is not an issue in her family. “We all get along really well,” she said.

Olivarria said she has learned Spanish, as she got older and that has helped her make inroads in the Latino community. “It has definitely been an asset. Folks don’t accept you as a Latino unless you speak Spanish,” Olivarria said.

Being from both ethnic groups, Olivarria says that she keeps up with the issues covered by ethnic media. “I don’t support causes just because they are mostly supported by Blacks and Latinos, however I do take a special look at causes that the Black and Latino media are rallying behind.”

A resident of Southern California, Olivarria has also lived in Dallas, Texas, Rhode Island and Philadelphia. She hasn’t found California’s multi-ethnic culture any easier or more welcoming than other parts of the country. “It’s not easier to live here,” Olivarria said. “Everywhere is all the same. No one knows what I am.”

Autumn Marie, an activist who is based on the East Coast, had a different experience growing up than most West Coast Black Latinos. “I grew up in Chicago, where there are not as many dark-skinned or Afro Latinos, so people always saw me as being Black,” Marie said. “Living in New York, people are used to seeing dark-skinned Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, etc. so people are more likely to speak to me in Spanish and think I am Dominican, but even Mexicans here never believe I am Mexican. Ultimately American society looks down on both groups, so that is the treatment I receive either way. But, yes I am viewed as a Black woman, and I am very aware of that and approach situations knowing that. Even if people thought I was Dominican, I would still be viewed as a Black Dominican.”

Marie said she had a life-long struggle to identify and appreciate all of the cultures that make up her background. “I was always very committed and intentional about including both of my lineages and refusing to compromise, even when I had to battle the admissions board in college for their racial choices,” Marie said. “I had marked both, and they had a rule at the time where they only counted one based on which was less represented at the school. So I have always been very adamant about identifying as African in America, Chicana and Apache. Of course culturally, I always identified more as an African American, because that has been the predominant community that has embraced me, and I have grown up in that culture.

Marie has also traveled to Mexico to explore the African influence south of the border that predates slavery.

According to Marie, both African Americans and Latinos are both oppressed people, and she finds it frustrating to see how the groups fight with each other, instead of creating a common alliance. “I wish they (African Americans and Latinos) would be more compassionate and enlightened to each other’s struggle and even just open to seeing the strong African roots in the Latino community,” Marie said. “The struggles and political causes are so interlinked, and there is no need to really separate the two. They should equally support each other instead of falling victim to the Willie Lynch ways of allowing the media to pit them as a threat to each other, so it’s really just about perspective.”

Marie has seen evidence of the tensions between the ethnic groups in her own multi-racial family, which includes African Americans, Latinos and Afro Latinos.

“I am equally close to both sides but growing up, it’s constantly been an issue on my Mexican side,” Marie said, “I always felt like my grandma put the lighter-skinned cousins (those mixed with White) pictures in front. And my mom shared stories with me growing up of how bad it used to really be. When she was pregnant with my brother in the ’70s my grandparents took her to a priest, who suggested she get shock therapy for being pregnant by a Black man.”

“My African-American side has never had issues, but I feel like that is because we, as a people in this country, have always had ‘mixed’ people in our families, and we have always accepted them. The one-drop rule always put them with us, so we took it in and are accustomed to it,” said Marie who added that the challenge on the Mexican side of her family is learning how to identify with its Native American roots. “My grandmother will say all the time, ‘My mother was Indian, we are not.’

In my mom’s generation, all of their birth certificates say ‘White,’ and only one of my uncles has taken the steps to change it to Apache and even that is a constant joke with them,” she said.
Marie says being able to communicate in Spanish works wonders, when you are in the Latino community and has enabled her to build bridges with people.

“I get a totally more relaxed, relatable friendly energy from Latino people, when I speak Spanish because it is the common denominator, even though not our original language. It’s funny how my treatment will change, especially from people who think I am ‘just a Black girl,” Marie said. “My lack of being fluent has definitely played a major factor in Latinos seeing me as even less Mexican or Latino. There were many times, when people at my job would speak in Spanish with no clue that I was Mexican and then I would speak back and all of sudden some bond formed from them to me based off of that. It is a comfortable, common identifying factor people have written into our cultural identity.”

Although American society is slowly making improvements, the issue with race is far from being over. Economic tensions and the influx of Latinos into traditionally African American areas, has also caused new problems. Marie also adds that young Afro Latinos still face challenges, because society still judges them based on the way they look.

“I look at the Black and Latino tensions in L.A. and think racism against immigrants (has) given rise to a new flurry of racism. And even with African-Americans it (race) is still extremely relevant, it is just masked,” Marie said. “So I think it is even more of an issue for some younger people, depending on where they are growing up and what they appear to be.”