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Prince George's museum explores racial identity

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Published on: Thursday, October 03, 2013

By Tauren Dyson

Tackling racial identity can be a tough task. People of mixed ethnicities are sometimes unfairly judged and unjustly asked to choose on which side of the racial fence they want to stand. Afro-Latinos are no exception.

In September, in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, the Prince George’s African American Museum and Cultural Center hosted an exhibit, “Voices from the Diaspora,” which showcased the work of five local artists and attempted to spark a conversation around race and identity.

“I sense that the conversation is shifting,” said Maria Saladana, whose work is currently showcased at the museum.  “As a person (of) Hispanic origin, but obviously the most important origin being the African origin, in the 30 years I’ve lived in this country … I’ve always had a sense of anxiety.”

The 42-year-old Suitland High School art teacher’s work featured photos of young Afro-Latino children from around the globe, many of whom lack the knowledge of their connection with the African Diaspora. Saladana acknowledges and embraces that connection, but sometimes she catches flack from non-Latino blacks when she self-identifies as Afro-Latino.

“If I’m in a predominately African-American environment, and I make the distinction that I’m Afro-Hispanic, the perception seems to be that I’m making a distinction to separate myself  (from African-Americans),” Saladana said.

Salanda moved from the Dominican Republic 30 years ago. She said many black Latinos from outside of the United States lack a historical framework about their own African roots and are consequently unaware of the commonality they share with non-Latino blacks in the United States.

Gabrielle Flowers never felt shame about being black, rather embarrassment for not embracing her Latina heritage enough. While she wasn’t born in Latin America, her grandmother was a native of Panama. But, she has taken steps to get closer to her culture.

“I went to a scholarship meeting for Hispanic students …  and everyone in there had straight hair, was speaking Spanish to each other and I was just sitting in the corner,” said the 18-year-old Prince George’s Community College student. “My councilor asked me a question in Spanish, and I wasn’t able to answer it and everyone was laughing at me.”

Flowers, along with Saladana and artist Jose Andres, were featured in a five-minute video, perhaps the centerpiece of the exhibit, which focuses on how each of them embraces their Afro-Latino background.

Up until last year, her darker skin tone and inability to speak Spanish initially left Flowers feeling distant from her Latino heritage. Today, after beefing up on her Spanish lessons and participating in the “Voices” she feels she has moved a lot closer to her Panamanian roots.

“I kind of learned that I need to get more into my culture and learn how to speak Spanish, so I can be taken more seriously by people who the same as me,” she said.

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