Walter Thompson-Hernandez often sees a reflection of himself in the stories his camera captures. Boldly staring into the lens of his camera, Black Mexican, or Blaxican, men and women slowly unveil a bit of themselves to him.
"I ethnically identify as Afro-Mexican. Racially, I embrace my Blackness as here in LA that is typically how I am read and what my experience is,” reads one of the photo stories now available on Instagram gallery known as “Blaxicans of Los Angeles.”
“The identity of Afro-Mexican acknowledges my African roots as well as the land we live on, though claimed by America, belongs historically to indigenous Mexican peoples.”
As the child of an African-American father and a non-black Mexican mother, the stories resonate with Thompson-Hernandez who started the Instagram page as an academic research project for the University of South Carolina, but found himself personally drawn to the project to understand the complexities of race and ethnicity in a country that often sees both as one and the same thing.
"I ethnically identify as Afro-Mexican. Racially, I embrace my Blackness as here in LA that is typically how I am read and what my experience is. The identity of Afro-Mexican acknowledges my African roots as well as the land we live on, though claimed by America, belongs historically to indigenous Mexican peoples. My mom has always spoken about our family proudly in these terms. It's what I'd like to continue to promote." ��: @mychivas #blaxican #afromexican #losangeles #blackisbeautiful #OrgulloLatino #roots
“When we think of race, people tend to conflate ethnicity and race, and tend to think of the two as one,” he told teleSUR.
“We have to recognize that Blackness in this country is usually described and understood in the African-American experience. We cannot sit here and exceptionalize that experience, we have to recognize other experiences like that of Afro-Latinos, who are often not considered Black in this country.”
Experiences like these, according to the researcher, challenge the rigid definitions of race in the U.S. and allow people to understand that ethnicity and race are distinct, albeit possibly intersecting experiences. Afro-Mexicans, in this sense, “represent a very distinct population who see the world in a different lense. Their music, their culture, their food, might be Mexican but it's also distinctly from the African experience, the fusion of African ancestry.”
The project is aimed at a Latino audience, he says, with the hope it can diversify and complicate the idea of what it conventionally means to be Mexican--”that often is a mestizo, with fair skin and dark hair,” he added.
"I was raised by a single father. I think it's a pretty unique story because my dad was Mexican and here he was raising me. He used to do my hair, my braids, and everything. He would always tell me that my hair and my dark skin was beautiful. I went to an all white school where everyone had blonde hair and blue eyes and I would never hear that I was beautiful so I needed to hear that. My dad told me a story about how one time this woman stopped him in the middle of the street because she thought that he had kidnapped me because we looked different. He never forgot that moment." ��: @mychivas #blaxican #losangeles #blackisbeautiful #OrgulloLatino #roots
In what Thompson-Hernandez described as a “strictly segregated city,” Afro-Latinos are often integrated in both African-American and Latino communities in Los Angeles. But he laments that as a result they are often forced to identify as either one or the other.
These personal stories show that in fact “You can be both Black and Mexican, you don't have to choose” and “what that allows people to do is recognize their wholeness.”
For Thompson-Hernandez to claim the Blaxican identity is a “political and revolutionary act,” adding that people are challenging U.S. racial classifications. “I am not just African-American, I am not just Latino, I am actually Blaxican,” he said.
Last month’s announcement that Miles Morales, an African-American Puerto Rican, will replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man in the Marvel comics, works to bring positive visibility to the existence of Black Latinos in the country, Thompson-Hernandez said.
However, the gap between positive representation and the reality of racial inequality and violence faced by African-Americans, Latinos--and those at their intersections--also cause young people of color to live “in a state of confusion,” he cautions.
“You have relatives that are being deported and you have relatives that are being gunned down on the street because they are Black,” Thompson-Hernandez explained.
For Blaxicans, and Afro-Latinos in general, this means they have an important part to play in bridging struggles for racial justice in the United States as they are able to highlight how issues converge and connect.
While this might promise a possibility for multiracial and multiethnic coalitions, Thompson-Hernandez believes, a lot of work also needs to be done to resolve ethnic tensions among and between the different African-American and Latino communities.
"My dad was born in 1919. And he was born in Texas. My dad needed someone to clean his apartment so he hired my mom and that's how they met. So I identify myself as a Blaxican. Identifying myself as only Black or Mexican would be denouncing a part of my heritage, as though I were ashamed of that part of me or worse ashamed of my parents. I love both of my parents equally and am proud to be an extension of them." ��: @mychivas #blaxican #losangeles #multiracial #roots
“Any conversation on race and Latinos has to involve that Latin America had this long history where they have discriminated against Afro-Latinos,” he said on the task of making the issue of anti-Black racism a speakable topic in Latino communities.
This includes challenging both the historic views about race particular to Latin America and those adopted upon migration to the United States. Similarly, he detects the challenge of combatting negative Latino myths and stereotypes among African-Americans who often believe Latino immigrants are there to steal their jobs.
A person openly identifying as Blaxican and Afro-Latino generally could play an important part in both “redefining their position in the community” while also “saying listen, I am a Blaxican, I am a representative of African-Americans and Latinos we need to find a way to get along.”
At the same time, inter-ethnic conflict works as a deviation from the root problem that truly lies at the heart of common struggles for social justice, Thompson-Hernandez said.
"There's no Nicaragua or Honduras parade out here. I would love to see some awareness that we're out here. I would love people to be conscious of that. When I always get some type of racism, it's always from Latinos. And the first thing I say is: what happened to mi gente? What happened to us feeling like a community and us being here as one? I wish that people would share their community with others and that they would be much more accepting." #afrolatina #losangeles #roots #portraits_ig
“In the U.S., the history of racism against people of color often divides people of color, and I think that is where the attention should be. Not on this conflict between African-Americans and Latinos, but really on the systemic oppressions and systemic racisms that pervades in this country.”