The Therapy for Black Girls Podcast is a weekly conversation with Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, a licensed Psychologist in Atlanta, Georgia, about all things mental health, personal development, and all the small decisions we can make to become the best possible versions of ourselves.
We’ve talked here before about the importance of having our identities affirmed and celebrated in all of the ways that looks, and joining us today to discuss what that might look like as an Afro-Latina woman is Dr. Luisa Bonifacio. Dr. Bonifacio and I chatted about where to get started in exploring your Afro Latina identity, some of the challenges related to colorism that arise, particularly between generations of Afro-Latina women, media depictions of the community, and she shares some of her favorite resources for finding community.
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Executive Producers: Dennison Bradford & Maya Cole
Producer: Cindy Okereke
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Session 227: Exploring Your Afro-Latina Identity
Dr. Joy: Hey, y'all! Thanks so much for joining me for Session 227 of the Therapy for Black Girls podcast. We'll get right into the episode after a word from our sponsors.
Dr. Joy: We've talked here before about the importance of having our identities affirmed and celebrated in all the ways that looks, and joining us today to discuss what that might look like as an Afro Latina woman is Dr. Luisa Bonifacio.
Dr. Bonifacio is a licensed psychologist in New York with extensive experience working within city hospitals, community mental health centers, and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center. She enjoys working with clients working through trauma, racial, cultural, gender identity, and its impact in our daily lives, challenging family dynamics, imposter syndrome and codependency. She's a graduate of Teachers College, Columbia University, and has previously held teaching positions at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Teachers College, Columbia University. Currently, she enjoys working with clients in her private practice in Brooklyn, New York.
Dr. Bonifacio and I chatted about where to get started in exploring your Afro Latina identity, some of the challenges related to colorism that arise particularly between generations of Afro Latina women, media depictions of the community, and she shared some of her favorite resources for finding community. If there's anything that resonates with you while enjoying our conversation, please share it with us on social media using the hashtag #TBGinSession. Here's our conversation.
Dr. Joy: Thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. Bonifacio.
Dr. Bonifacio: Thanks for having me, I’m super excited.
Dr. Joy: I'm very excited to chat with you, so I wonder if you could just start by telling us what do we mean when we're talking about people who identify as Afro Latina?
Dr. Bonifacio: To me, the identity is really based in the awareness that your heritage is based in the crossing of the two worlds–the black identity and the Latina identity. And to me, whether you grew up in a country that's Latin or Spanish speaking really is irrelevant. It’s more about do you identify and are you aware that somewhere along the line there's blackness in your lineage, in your family history? And so there's an awareness there and that's part of your history.
I'm Dominican and I think a big part of like Dominican culture is to deny the blackness of it, at least in the way I grew up. To many extents now, I think there's huge political and social structures in place to keep Dominican folks from knowing their black history and I think that's a very common experience across many Latin American countries. For me, the Afro Latina identity is this awareness that there's no like purity in that. Like, it's all a big mixed mass and a big part of that was the slave trade and also the black and indigenous folks who were already on the islands in those countries, and so just having an awareness of that identity and of that heritage is really important. To me, that's how I think of it.
Dr. Joy: Yeah, and it feels like my short answer guess as to why that has been denied is like white supremacy and like trying to make anything closer to whiteness the right answer. But I wonder what that is like because it definitely seems like more people are talking about being Afro Latina now and it sounds like, even from your personal experience, it is not something that maybe is talked about a lot in like the information that’s passed down from generation to generation. What are you seeing now in people who maybe are talking more about the Afro Latina experience? Are there some struggles related to not knowing that piece of the history and what it means to now have that awareness and want to embrace that?
Dr. Bonifacio: Coming to that awareness is not without a large amount of inner conflict and inner turmoil, I think, because you grow up in families sometimes actively denying that identity (your black history). I wasn't born here so when I came to the States, it was really my first confrontation with identity. And so I came to be very confused and conflicted about where did I fit in? I think, presentation wise, people can look at me and say, oh, she's mixed, and I heard that (growing up) a lot. And so I didn't really understand what that was and so I think right now, because the history of America is very much this consciousness around race, you can't help but like be Afro Latina and not be confronted by it and so you have to kind of deal with it.
And I think part of that is really navigating what you've been told about who you are and like actually what it's like to hold those identities in this country. Particularly last year with a lot of the protesting and the George Floyd, it forced folks to really confront who they have come to believe they are. As much as I think you can try and kind of avoid and say, “No, I'm not black; I'm Dominican,” that's a really big thing. It's sort of like, well no, you can't do that. Like, that's not how this works. To answer your question, it's not without a lot of, I think, internal conflict that people can come to that identity.
Dr. Joy: The comment you just made like “I'm not black; I'm Dominican,” what do you think like if we peel back the layers behind that? What's typically underneath that for people?
Dr. Bonifacio: I think it's white supremacy. I think for Latino folks, using the Latino identity sometimes can be like a distancing from blackness. Because we've been told that blackness is similar to the things they think folks grew up with in the States. Like black is not great, fix your hair. Coming to terms with what we've been told about blackness is all BS, it takes really confronting then your identity. In the fabric of Latino countries is white supremacy and internalized racism, basically, and so a lot of that is you have to confront like what we've been told about our identities and who we are.
Dr. Joy: There's nothing wrong with having pride in your nationality, right? And so I wonder if you can talk about or give some suggestions for how people can kind of maintain that pride but also explore what it means to be black in addition to that.
Dr. Bonifacio: I think that there's room for both. For us to celebrate our culture, our language, our food, our music, and also I think make room for all the things that we haven't been taught to celebrate. Like a lot of ancestral practices in terms of spirituality have been stripped away from Latinx folks and so exploring that, right? Like that's how our ancestors were denied their identity, to connect to their blackness, to their connection to Africa. And so kind of making room for that too. This really great woman, this Dominican woman who started this hair salon for curly hair people in DR and now in New York, is an example of celebrating that we have this amazing multifaceted hair.
And you know what, I think a lot of Dominican identity, Latina identity, is to try and really tame down and process and like fit into this idea of the whiteness of what's accepted in identity, and so celebrating all that. Celebrating just practices that I think historically in our families weren't labeled “this is from our black heritage.” And so connecting those two is really important. And really being curious and like being willing to have conversations, I think that's another thing that gets lost. Having conversations with our families about, oh, how come we do that? How come, you know, like we say this thing or this prayer?
I grew up with an aunt who was very much into curandeira and that's like an African kind of way of practicing spirituality and I just thought of it as like that's her thing. But that was her kind of practicing ancestral ways of healing and ways of praying that, in our family, we never really discussed, we never labeled like that. We just saw her as like she's just being weird.
Dr. Joy: Yeah, and I think, if I think about like just conversations intergenerationally for black women, I would imagine that they are the same kinds of conversations with a different flavor in Latina communities. And I'm wondering, like you've already talked about how your aunt practiced this particular piece of spirituality, and like with some of those conversations, do you see a lot of tension between like granddaughters and their grandmothers? About maybe the grandmother does not identify as Afro Latina but the granddaughter does. And so what are some of the things that come up in some of those intergenerational conversations?
Dr. Bonifacio: Yeah, for sure that's very much been the reality, I think. For now, the Latinx generation who's like coming into more awareness and more empowerment with their blackness is really confronting *[inaudible 0:11:38] with the family conflict that comes about when you own that identity. I have two small children, they're very black and have hair that is just beautiful and curly and so a lot of it has been around like being mindful of the language that my family uses around hair around them. And so really saying like their hair is beautiful, tell them that it's beautiful and how amazing it is. That's something that now is very present and so it can lead to conflict, it can lead to distancing, it can lead to a lot of feeling like you don't belong.
And so what you think is family, what you think is being proud of your Latino experience, now it’s like, wait a minute, you've been oppressing me and confusing me all these years. And so it can be pretty sad, I think, and confrontational. Of like what you think, what you come to believe family is, what you come to believe what your role and your identity is. But those conversations kind of need to happen. And particularly I think around (for me anyway) like our own children. It's like, well no, we're not gonna do that. Colorism is a huge thing too, and so policing that and comments about being too dark.
And talking to my grandmother about that, I think at this point, I kind of have to enter it knowing, you know, she's like about to be in her 90s. I still have the conversations, I still say my truth but it's a very delicate dance, I think, because for a lot of us family is so important. It's like such a huge part of the Latino experience, is having strong family connections. And so it's a complicated one and I don't have a good answer for it but I know that it's one that is not without a lot of tension and questioning.
Dr. Joy: I know that you have worked with clients from lots of different ages and a lot of your research has been on Latina college students and I'm wondering like in the work that you've seen, we know how important identity is to mental health and how some of those identity challenges can impact our mental health. Can you talk a little bit about what kinds of things have come up in your work as it relates to identity and mental health?
Dr. Bonifacio: Yeah, for sure. Part of my initial research in identity and mental health was around the messaging that particularly Latinas get in college around making career choices. And so what messages are we getting that either help us feel confident in the choices we're making or not confident and questioning. And so we found, not surprising and I think this extends to anyone marginalized, when you're in college... And it depends on the college setting, but when you're in college, messaging around “are you show you want to do that?” or “you don't look like you're going to be good at math” or things like that.
Things like, oh, you speak really good English for a Latina. Things that internally tell us you don't belong, you don't fit in, are you really smart enough? And so what that does is gets you questioning and gets you readjusting and changing your belief system around what you can accomplish and what options are available to you. And like I think this applies to not just the Latina identity, but folks on the margins–people of color, LGBTQ folks–you get these like microaggressions, these messages basically meant to make you question your inherent talents, your skills, your capabilities.
And it's a sort of way of gatekeeping and limiting folks to pursue things that would be fruitful and productive and would be amazing. And so I think the focus on identity is so important. At least for me, the way I see it, the reason why I even like came into this field was because I can’t tease apart your mental health from your identity. To me, they're entwined. Like the way you show up in the world, the way you're treated in the world, the way people see you, you've been told about who you are–all of that affects every single thing. It affects the way your kindergarten teacher talks to you, it affects the friends you make, it affects the relationships you make. To me, identity is everywhere and it affects everything.
Dr. Joy: More from my conversation with Dr. Bonifacio after the break.
Dr. Joy: Can you talk a little bit, Dr. Bonifacio, about your experience as an Afro Latina woman and like how you have shaped your practice around that, and how it impacts the work that you do with your clients?
Dr. Bonifacio: Yeah, grad school was kind of like the awakening moment for me. I came into this field I think wanting that moment and wanting to first work within my community. I grew up in Brooklyn, I grew up in really just diverse and very nurturing kind of communities and so I needed to be a part of it and this happened to be the avenue that helped me give back in this way. And I think grad school was one of those moments for me, being like the only black woman for a big school in New York, and so it ended up kind of being one of those like, okay, I need to really know who I am because if I don't, this place is going to eat me up. Being honest about my experiences was important for me, letting my professors know like this is challenging.
When I didn’t have support, letting people know and so really creating community was important for me. Like coming to terms with how I defined my identity was really important. And it just so happened my particular program was all about we're going to teach you about identity and we're going to make sure you have the language for it and that there is a foundation around how you come to label yourself and how to do this work with others so that there isn't like a further marginalization of folks. So that there's an invitation, okay, let's do this work together, like let's explore your racial identity, your gender identity, your sexual orientation. And how does that feel? And what does that mean? And how had the communities that you're in treated you because of these identities?
It was sort of like this parallel process where I'm doing this work for grad school but then it's like my life, too. Then it's like I need to evaluate my relationships, I need to reevaluate the career choices I've made. And it was a huge shift in my reality and the way I spoke about myself and the way that I spoke about my communities, that I think now allows me to help folks find that language and feel empowered in their language, feel empowered in their identities and their communities, that I didn't have before (and) that I'm super grateful for.
And now in my practice, what that looks like is helping folks along that process. A big part, I think of my career journey has been figuring out who I am in big settings. Like who I am is an Afro Latina in a hospital, (I was to be a teacher) and in a school and figuring out how those systems really affected me and how those systems really are forgiving for folks who are on the margins. And so a lot of my work now is a lot of support and a lot of making room and space for folks in corporate America–out in big law, out working for these big tech companies–that are really trying to find their voice and to feel empowered in their experiences. All that to say it was sort of like this awakening parallel process moment where as I'm entering the field, I'm also kind of like doing a lot of inner work. Yeah.
Dr. Joy: Yeah, it sounds like it. I love the way that you've talked about like doing your own identity work while your program was teaching you how to do that and facilitate that for others. And I'm wondering what that looks like in your practice. Like you've already talked about some of the colorism and texturism issues that come up, I wonder how you facilitate those kinds of conversations or unpacking those conversations for people who come to you with those kinds of concerns. And what might you be able to share with our community about how they might be able to unpack some of those issues related to maybe something like colorism and texturism?
Dr. Bonifacio: Yeah, for sure. I think part of doing this work genuinely and honestly is just owning my identities and making that present in the room and having that be a dialogue with whoever I'm working with. Like what's it like to talk to me? Particularly when I'm working with other black women and there's for sure differences in the way that we present. So I know I'm fairly light skinned and so working with folks who may be darker, what’s it like to talk to me about it? Are you worried about what I might think? How are you thinking I'm receiving it? Kind of making it present in the relationship.
Because I think part of the colorism conversation, what makes it really challenging is when it isn't talked about, when it isn't made present it doesn't serve the conversation or progress. And so part of it is in the moment, in the here and now, what's it like? Making it very present and getting my clients to kind of talk about what experiences they've had with colorism and texturism and how has that kind of affected their journey and their identity? And for me, owning like I'm here going on a journey with you and so my experience is not going to be your experience. My job is to kind of like help me understand your experience.
I think owning my limits, owning what I know and don't know, and kind of doing this work collaboratively is important. Being super curious. It's important for me to know like what language clients are using to describe themselves and their communities, where they feel they belong, where they feel they don't belong. What messages have they been given about who they are and how they present and how they've been made to feel othered? And so the way I've been made to feel othered is going to be different from other folks and so holding space and making room for all of those versions is important for me in my work. But yeah, it's a collaborative conversation that is ongoing and part of all the work that we do.
Dr. Joy: We've talked a lot about identity and we know that much of our identity is informed by media representations and so I’d love to hear your input about like media representations of Afro Latina women especially. And ones that you feel like have been done really well and how that does impact our ability to like figure out who we are.
Dr. Bonifacio: Yeah. Oh boy! I think one of the first Latinas I saw on TV was a detective on 21 Jump Street. Which I don't know if that was like a national show, but it was about these three detectives in New York... Oh, Malik Yoba was in it.
Dr. Joy: Was Malik Yoba in 21 Jump Street?
Dr. Bonifacio: Was it 21 Jump Street or...
Dr. Joy: New York Undercover.
Dr. Bonifacio: New York Undercover!
Dr. Joy: Oh yes, yes, yes. Torres. No, Torres was the guy, right?
Dr. Bonifacio: Torres was the light skinned Puerto Rican but it was a woman. It was a black woman on there and I was like, wait a minute, she has an accent, her skin tone, her hair. To me, I think as a young kid, I was like, oh, she looks like one of my tías, like one of my aunts. That was like a marked moment for me when I saw it. But to be honest, there hadn't been that many that I felt that connected to, that I felt represented. My experience, there was also the show Scrubs. The nurse on there, I forget her name but she was an Afro Latina and I remember feeling like, oh my gosh, she sounds like the women I grew up with, she sounds like my cousins. So that was one.
I think when Orange is the New Black came out, there were quite a few characters on that show that I felt like were authentic, were very real. And then of course now I think Amara La Negra is someone I think is very much in the reality and in the social media space and the TV space that I think she does a good job representing AfroLatinidad. Very authentic, like there's a confidence, I think, about her owning her identity that is refreshing for sure.
And Cardi B. I mean, she's out there, she does her Spanglish out there sometimes and she does her thing. But I think sometimes what I listen for and look for in Afro Latinas out in the space is that confidence I think that Amara has, but also like the owning. I think particularly with colorism, the owning of it that is missing a lot that is disappointing, honestly. And so I wish there was more of a conversation around that. Around being in this space but also like knowing that our experience is a little bit different and we have access. There is a different perception of us than our dark-skinned sisters and so, yeah, sometimes it's still a little disappointing.
Dr. Joy: It sounds like that was a part of like some of the disappointment around In the Heights. That the film didn't necessarily represent the community that it was designed to be about.
Dr. Bonifacio: Yeah, for sure. In the Heights was one of those experiences where it was like, oh, it was great artistically but there's like a disappoint or a longingness for it to feel more full.
Dr. Joy: To be seen, yeah.
Dr. Bonifacio: Yes, yeah. There's a need, I think, for a range of experiences that is just not happening. And I would think by now, come on y’all, like come on!
Dr. Joy: And I wonder, have you seen anything on smaller scales? Like I feel like probably... And I'm not in the TikTok streets enough to know, but I feel like TikTok is a place where Gen Z and younger generations of Afro Latinas are probably creating community and like being that thing for one another that they don't maybe see in greater media representations.
Dr. Bonifacio: Yeah. You mentioned TikTok, I'm not in the TikTok streets at all. Julissa Calderon and I think she came from YouTube shorts, like short videos. She is one that I think has that voice that's very clear and confident and very pro black and like knows she's black. That's another thing too, I think there's a difference between Afro Latinas now who are in the space who are there and hold physically their identity but then don't say it. Then they're not like, yeah, you know, “I'm Afro Latina and this is who I am.”
I think sometimes there's a hesitation to come out and like label it. Like you're still kind of playing the white supremacy thing. And so I think that sometimes happens out there in these social media/TV streets. But Julissa Calderon, I know that she's very vocal, she is getting a lot of Netflix stuff and she's on Instagram. There are a couple others but their names aren't coming to me right away. But yeah, I think now because there is a lot of language for and there's just generally a desire and also like an impatience in the younger generations that are like, “enough.”
Dr. Joy: Y’all have lied long enough.
Dr. Bonifacio: Y’all lied to me long enough, like I am tired. This is who I am, I’m gonna find my people. And it's so great to see when I do see it and I'm excited. I'm excited for younger folks to come and like break it down.
Dr. Joy: More from my conversation with Dr. Bonifacio after the break.
Dr. Joy: What might that journey look like? Like let's say somebody finds our conversation, a very young person, let's say a 16 or a 17-year-old. And they're listening to you and they're like, oh, my gosh, is this something that I have not been told about? What kinds of things might they want to explore? What kinds of questions might they want to ask maybe parents, grandparents? Like how do you get started with figuring out this identity journey? What might that look like with the support of a therapist?
Dr. Bonifacio: Oh, yeah, that's such a good question. I think the extent to which you feel you have access to family oral history, to get super curious and to get super “in people's faces.” Oh, okay, so where were you born? And where did grandpa come from? And kind of just start to ask a lot of questions. I wish I had done that when I was younger. I still do and I still can, but it's sort of like while you have access, start to ask the questions.
For me, it was a little complicated because my family we immigrated here and so we were just like surviving. We were like, don't ask me your questions–we’re trying to pay rent, we're trying to get food. And so I had to build community, I had to build community while going through school, outside of school. Find folks who you feel that connection with, your community with, feel like you share those identities with. It's super important, I think. Without building that community, I feel like I wouldn't have developed the confidence in my identity to explore and to question and to be curious. And that's one thing I would say, like find your people, find your tribe, find the folks that you feel connected to and share your curiosities with.
What that would look like in therapy I think is kind of exploring, what have you been told about who you are? And what have you been told about what you look like in your family? And what messages were you given about that? Were they positive messages? Were they messages that didn't make you feel good? Who did you feel close to in the early family that made you feel safe in your identity? And so kind of identifying those things are important.
Particularly thinking of that age group, like late teens to early 20s, where so much is happening developmentally identity wise that you need grounding, you need some folks to remind you like this is who you are and it's okay that you're struggling right now, it's okay to ask questions. I think particularly around that age group, identity can be so confronted and so shaky that it can lead you to kind of like experiment and do things that maybe aren't so healthy for you. And so those are some things I would recommend.
If you're thinking about entering therapy, kind of enter it with an openness and a curiosity as opposed to “I know already.” Kind of like being willing to explore all the different ways that your identity has impacted your life, I would say.
Dr. Joy: Yeah. I think one thing that often comes up when people start doing this kind of work is shame, like I'm embarrassed that I didn’t know this. What kinds of things would you offer to people if that is something that they experience in this journey?
Dr. Bonifacio: Yeah, you know, shame and guilt they’re like these two cool cousins.
Dr. Joy: Not so cool cousins.
Dr. Bonifacio: Right. Not so cool cousins because they keep you silent and they keep you quiet and internalizing a lot of blame or responsibility for something that isn't. And so if that is coming up, that's why I think having community is important, like having folks to explore those feelings and experiences with. You're not crazy, it's not like you're making it up. But also, super important to kind of release yourself from some of the internalized negative stereotypes and the stigma and, frankly, a lot of the internalized racism that kind of happens. Like thinking of ourselves as bad or not good enough. Because I didn't know this or the family dynamic or the family history and culture is to pretend that these things didn’t exist.
How are you supposed to know? Like how are you supposed to know those things? And so coming to terms with “I didn't know and now I'm willing to learn” is super important to kind of silence those not so helpful thoughts and feelings. It's okay to honor them, making space for them, but to the extent that they keep you quiet or isolated or distant, I would question that. And kind of see where you can kind of let go of some of those things and find community around it. Instagram does, I think, a good job of like you can find your people that way. You can connect to like communities and content creators and say, you know, if you have a question or things like that. Yeah, super important. Find your people and find where you can feel safe.
Dr. Joy: You've talked about the importance of community a couple of times. I was gonna ask you, have you seen communities that would be good for people who are wanting to learn more about this? Like are there certain hashtags that people can find on Instagram or on Twitter or communities at certain websites or a podcast or books that you feel like would be helpful for people?
Dr. Bonifacio: Yeah. There's a really great Instagram account called InculturedCo and I find their account to be so awesome. I think particularly for Afro Latinos coming to their black identity, it's a space I think where the energy and the dynamic is like we're very much here to embrace our blackness and what that looks like in our lives and kind of dismantle all of these stereotypes, messaging, stigmas, white supremacy BS that we've been told about black Latinidad. And so I think, particularly when it comes to like the Dominican-Haitian dynamics and those things, there's a lot that needs to happen in that space and more of seeing each other really as connected people. I think because of the history of the island, there's so much and so that account, I think, does a good job of creating a space for both.
I just found this really great podcast, Bag Ladiez with a Z at the end. And there are these two Afro Latinas, I think they're from the Bronx. And they just do a really good job of like speaking really authentically to their identity, to their experience. Creating a community, I think, around what it's like to walk around with this complex identity and all the different spaces where you may feel welcomed and then not. And so they're really great, they're great to listen to. And I think for me, what resonates is like that authenticity. Being willing to share their experiences and being honest about it and inviting other people to like witness their experiences, is really great. So yeah, those are two that I can think of right now.
Dr. Joy: Okay, that's a great place for people to get started. And where can people find more information about you? What is your website as well as any social media handles you'd like to share?
Dr. Bonifacio: I'm at DrLuisaBonifacio.com and my Instagram is my name, @DrLuisaBonifacio. I'm not super active, I've been taking a little bit of a social media break. Just for my sanity, Dr. Joy, sometimes I need a break.
Dr. Joy: Understandable, you’ve got to step away. Perfect, thank you so much for all that information. We'll be sure to include that in the show notes. And thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us today. I appreciate it.
Dr. Bonifacio: Thank you for having me. This was awesome.
Dr. Joy: I'm so glad Dr. Bonifacio was able to share her expertise with us today. To learn more about her or to check out the resources she shared, visit the show notes at TherapyForBlackGirls. com/session227. And don't forget to text two of your girls and tell them to check out the episode as well. If you're looking for a therapist in your area, be sure to check out our therapist directory at TherapyForBlackGirls.com/directory.
And if you want to continue digging into this topic or just be in community with other sisters, come on over and join us in the Sister Circle. It's our cozy corner of the internet designed just for black women. You can join us at Community.TherapyForBlackGirls.com. Thank y’all so much for joining me again this week. I look forward to continuing this conversation with you all real soon. Take good care.