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Elizabeth Acevedo is a contemporary spoken-word poet and National Poetry Slam champion whose work focuses on Dominican American culture and the reality of living at the intersection of multiple languages, races, and forms of oppression. Like many slam poems—poems created for performance at competitions—“Afro-Latina” has been repeatedly shared and revised; the version linked on the poet’s website Acevedo Writes lists 2015 as the year of publication. Acevedo explains that the poem “was written initially as a group poem with poet and friend Frank Lopez [...] and overtime [sic] I remixed my portions because […] the term ‘Latina’ just didn’t feel specific enough” (Ramirez, Tanisha Love. “This Powerful Spoken Word Poem Celebrates Heritage And Self-Love.” Huffington Post, 2016).
In this highly rhythmic free-verse poem, the Afro-Dominican speaker explores her relationship with the Spanish language and Dominican history. After reflecting on her childhood feelings of shame regarding her Dominican heritage, she understands that this shame comes from internalized racism as well as dismay over her ancestral ties to the violence of European colonialism. By the end of the poem, the speaker feels pride in the culture created by Dominicans and other Latinos.
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Content Warning: The source material references sexual assault and racist violence.
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A first-generation Dominican American, Elizabeth Acevedo was born in 1988 in New York City. By high school, Acevedo knew she wanted to be a poet. She found her voice through participation in poetry slams—poetry performance competitions—around New York City. She attended George Washington University in Washington, DC, for her undergraduate degree in the performing arts and graduated from the University of Maryland with a Master of Fine Arts in writing.
Acevedo continued her slam poetry in Washington, DC, winning at the National Poetry Slam, the Beltway Poetry Slam, and the Women of the World Poetry Slam. In 2018, Acevedo published The Poet X, a coming-of-age verse novel about a Dominican American girl; the novel was inspired by her work with Latinx and Black middle schoolers who wanted to see stories about and for them (Carpenter, Caroline. “Acevedo ‘thrilled and overwhelmed’ by Carnegie Win.” The Bookseller, 2019). The Poet X won several prestigious awards, including the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2018. Acevedo has won numerous other awards for her work as a slam poet and novelist, including the Young People’s Poet Laureateship at the Poetry Foundation. Her other novels include With the Fire on High (2019), Clap When You Land (2020), and Family Lore (publication scheduled for August 2023), while her poetry collections include Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths (2015) and Inheritance: A Visual Poem (2022).
Acevedo, Elizabeth. “Afro-Latina.” 2015. Learning for Justice.
Acevedo uses the terms “Afro-Latina” and “Afro-Latinos” as ethnic, gender, and race descriptors. In keeping with the importance of acknowledging African ancestry and the experience of Dominican women of African descent, this study guide preserves this terminology in place of “Latine” and “Latinx,” gender-neutral terms that are more inclusive but also contested in discussions of how to name this identity.
Acevedo also quotes Celia Cruz’s “La Negra Tiene Tumbao,” a 2001 song that celebrates Black women. Nevertheless, the Spanish term “negra”—the feminine-declension adjective “black,” or a noun for “darker-skinned Black woman”—in some contexts is a colorist or sexist pejorative for Afro-Latinas. This language is preserved in direct quotes only.
The poem “Afro-Latina” employs both Spanish and English. The original Spanish is preserved in direct quotes and in the poem’s analysis because of its rhetorical importance in representing Afro-Latinos. See Summary for translations of Spanish vocabulary in the poem.
In this free-verse, spoken-word poem, the Afro-Latina speaker celebrates the African rhythms that inform the way the Black woman carries herself; Lines 3-9 allude to music from the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, including a song by Afro-Cuban singer Celia Cruz, an immigrant to the United States who popularized salsa and other forms of music from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. The poem’s first several lines are in English and Spanish.
The speaker then discusses her relationship with the Spanish language and Dominican culture. Her first language was Spanish, and although she now sees that language as a valued part of her heritage, she was initially ashamed of it, of her mother’s accented English, and of the Dominican dress and food favored by her family. She saw herself as an American and even joined in when her peers ridiculed her family members’ differences from white and English-speaking American culture. Underneath the speaker’s proud American identity, though, was shame over her brown skin.
Looking back on that time, the speaker understands she was ashamed because she ignored the beauty of her ancestry:
the Taínos of the río
. . . . . . . . . . .
and the Yoruba Africanos (Lines 53-57, 60)
However, that story is complicated. Dominican heritage comprises Indigenous groups from the island, Spanish colonists, and enslaved people of the Yorubas from the African continent. The speaker is a combination of these races, but her ancestry includes both enslavers and those they enslaved. She finds it painful to contemplate that heritage, especially when she considers that her genealogy almost certainly involves rape.
Dominican history and identity are more complex than the language of government documents and the violence of colonialism and slavery, which have obscured the resilience and beauty of Afro-Latinos; Dominican hair, which is neither coily nor straight, emblematizes what it means to exist at a linguistic, cultural, and racial intersection. Through acts of creativity in dance, cuisine, and dress, Dominicans have fashioned an identity that exceeds anything their ancestors could have imagined. Their ability to transform themselves and the world around them makes Dominicans and all Latinos of African descent are worthy and the progenitors of something magnificent.
Spanish vocabulary in the poem:
“Camina conmigo” (Line 2): Walk with me
“como” (Line 5): like/as
“¡la negra tiene tumbao!” (Lines 6-7): “The Black woman got style/swagger/rhythm,” from a 2001 Celia Cruz song by the same title
“¡Azúcar!” (Line 7): “Sugar!” (literal translation) or “all my people” (figurative); also from the Celia Cruz song
“habichuela y mangú” (Line 23): beans and mangú, a mash of seasoned plantains; these are staples of traditional Dominican food
“río” (Line 53): river
“que con sus manos” (Line 61): who with their hands
“mundo” (Line 62): world
“nunca imaginando” (Line 63): never imagined
“sancocho” (Line 72): a traditional, hearty Dominican stew that is a mix of many flavors and ingredients
“arroz con dulce” (Line 88): sweet rice pudding
“la abuela” (Line 89): grandmother
“cumbia, / merengue / y salsa” (Lines 92-94): cumbia, merengue, and salsa, Afro-Caribbean and Latin musical genres, all of which reflect the influence of African rhythms
“el destino de mi gente” (Line 127): the fate/future of my people
“Viveremos para siempre” (Line 131): Forever will we live/be
“hasta la muerte” (Line 132): until death/forever
By Elizabeth Acevedo