“What does it mean to look Latino?”

What does it mean to “look Latino?” And who gets to decide? As part of Hispanic Heritage Month, the New York City Commission on Human Rights held a panel discussion yesterday to address the issues of colorism and discrimination within the Latinx community. Featuring Afro-Latinx speakers, the event was moderated by Brea Frank, host of Univision’s “La Gozadera.”

“We are racist by ignorance, but sometimes we are racists with bad intentions,” said Frank of his own Latinx community in his opening remarks.

The African slave trade touched all areas of the Americas, from Mexico to Patagonia, resulting in a significant population of Latinx-ers with African roots who are known as Afro-Latinxs. In the United States, Afro-Latinxs represent between 25 and 33 percent of the Latinx community, making them a minority within a minority. They face discrimination both within their own community and outside of it.

Panelist Amilcar Priestley, co-director of the Afro-Latino Festival and director of the Afro-Latino Project, said that the lack of Afro-Latinx representation within the Latinx community led him to start his own festival to educate people and celebrate Afro-descendent Latinx people.

“For me, what hurts the most is that it’s our own community that gives us that type of environment,” said panelist Nolvia Blanco. She recounted an experience of being called a negro by other Latinx women while riding an elevator together. “Why do we do this to … each other?” she asked.

This type of discrimination is perpetuated by the underrepresentation of Afro-Latinxs in the media. Darker-skinned characters are often not featured on Spanish-language TV or are cast as the help, leading to a mischaracterization of what Latinx people actually look like and a perpetuation of the stereotype that everyone looks like Sofia Vergara or Angelique Boyer.

“People still ask me if I’m Latina. Which one of your relatives is Latino?” said panelist Angela M. Manso, director of policy and legislative affairs at the NALEO Educational Fund. Manso explained that people are frequently surprised when she tells them that she’s Puerto Rican because the color of her skin does not resemble that which is represented in the mainstream.

Despite differences within the community, combatting systemic racism and discrimination by other groups against Latinxs of all colors remains a unifying concern. In an effort to protect the Latinx community, and other minority groups, the NYC Commission on Human Rights has issued new legal guidance on the enforcement of anti-discrimination law with a focus on immigration status and national origin.

Such discrimination was already outlawed, but the new guidelines give relevant, concrete examples of what constitutes a violation. These include “harassing a restaurant patron because of their accent, refusing repairs on a unit occupied by an immigrant family and threatening to call ICE if they complain, paying a lower wage or withholding wages to workers because of their immigration status and harassing a store customer by telling them to stop speaking their language and demanding they speak English.”

New York Assemblymember Carmen de la Rosa, a Democrat representing several uptown Manhattan neighborhoods with significant Latinx populations, concluded the event by reminding the audience that they can file a complaint with the commission if they experience any type of harassment.

“We are beautiful, we are intelligent, we are workers, but we are also a community,” she said. “And the only way of teaching that we are a community is being united and understanding that within our differences is our strength.”

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