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After the Bar


The Afro-Latinx Experience in the United States Legal Profession

Larissa Mervin

The Afro-Latinx Experience in the United States Legal Profession
kali9 via iStock

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What does it mean to be of Afro-Latinx heritage? How does that shape one’s lived experiences in the United States? And how do those lived experiences intersect with one’s chosen profession, specifically the legal profession? These questions, and more, were asked and thoroughly discussed at the ABA’s YLD Hispanic Heritage program, “A Conversation with Afro-Latinx Legal Professionals in the United States.” The panelists shared the beauty, passion, and struggles of Afro-Latinx heritage and how their heritage shapes their daily lives as practicing attorneys.

What Does It Mean to Be of Afro-Latinx Heritage?

So, what exactly does it mean to be of Afro-Latinx heritage? A Black Latino is a Latin American of African descent or has one parent of African descent and another of Latino descent. As of 2017, there were more than three million Afro-Latinos living in the United States. According to a Pew Research Center survey, one-quarter of US Latinos identify as Afro-Latino, Afro-Caribbean, or of African descent with roots in Latin America. Latinos with Caribbean roots in the United States are more likely to identify themselves as Afro-Latino, given that slaves were taken to the Caribbean islands more frequently than other Latin American countries during the transatlantic slave trade.

For years, Blackness and Latinidad in the United States were seen as two different experiences that could not be shared by the same person. However, awareness about the Afro-Latinidad diaspora has increased over the past few decades, as more Afro-Latinx speak out about their identities and experiences. As Jazmin Samora, a Dominican photographer, put it, “My being, my space, my body is not up for an argument. It’s not up for debate that I exist in this world that you also exist in.

A Resilient and Determined Community

There is a common thread of great pride and joy when Afro-Latinos speak of their culture. In the ABA “Conversation,” Panelist Doralyn De Dios explained her heritage is a “superpower” for her: “there’s so much richness going through my veins; African, Indigenous, European; I have it all!” Another panelist, Justina K. Rivera, shared her love for the food, music, language abilities, and other cultural experiences that their heritage has given them. Yet, there was also discussion surrounding the common struggles that Afro-Latinos face daily. Like most Black Americans, Afro-Latinos experience racism, colorism, and discrimination, even within their communities. At times, there can be a sense of alienation or of having to explain oneself constantly. As Amara La Negra, a well-known Afro-Latina celebrity has expressed, she is always explaining herself in a society that likes to categorize people.

To challenge the racism and colorism that Afro-Latinos face, including among the Latinx community, Pedro Noguera, a dean at the University of South Carolina, reminds us,

[i] t’s not static. It’s rooted in politics, not biology. Once we see it that way, we understand how and why it’s used. It’s used to rationalize oppression. It’s used to divide people. And that’s what we have to reject. We have to reject racism and the ways in which it’s used to keep people apart and to justify discrimination. Once we see it that way, then we can celebrate our identity, celebrate our culture and not do it in ways that put others down and perpetuate racial hierarchy.

While receiving racism, colorism, and alienation can certainly be disheartening and upsetting, the panelists agreed that the Afro-Latinx community is resilient and determined. They are challenging the negative narratives daily while at the same time celebrating the rich beauty within their culture and using those experiences to affect change.

Afro-Latinx Experiences Naturally Translate to a Legal Career

Applying these experiences to life in the law, how do their heritage and identities influence Afro-Latinos’ advocacy or duties as a lawyer or legal professional? Like other groups, most Afro-Latinos in the United States participate in the workforce, including legal services. Panelist Doralyn De Dios, an assistant district attorney, said her identity has helped break down barriers in her representation of victims because many can identify with her and are willing to open up to her. For panelist Louis Mercedes, a corporate attorney, his experience helping his family navigate the immigration system and other US systems as a child helped translate into advocacy he now provides for his corporate clients. Panelist Adriana Foreman, an employment law associate, shared how she has a unique perspective to impact her community and pay it forward.

The panelists all noted that their experiences also naturally translate into their duty as a lawyer to promote justice, fairness, and equity. For the Afro-Latinx legal community, our profession’s call for justice can be deeply personal for members of the legal community who have experienced injustices first-hand. There is a need to balance one’s role as an officer of the court with the duty to bring about systemic change. Systemic racism is real and needs to be addressed, even within one’s community, and those working in the law have the tools and resources to do that.

The panel generally agreed that this does not apply just to Afro-Latino legal professionals but allies as well, as we should all strive for progress in the systems that govern our country. After all, everyone in the legal profession has clients and colleagues that belong to this and other minority communities and are in a unique position to address the systems that need to change. This includes making the profession more inclusive and just for everyone who encounters it.

A More Inclusive Profession

So, what does it mean to be Afro-Latinx? How does that shape one’s lived experiences? And how do those lived experiences influence an individual as a legal professional? As we come back to those initial questions, consider reading the linked stories above and watching the webinar. Programs like this one aim to bring greater awareness and understanding to the legal profession so those who identify in this group will be seen and heard, and allies will appreciate and draw awareness to the issues Afro-Latinx and other underrepresented groups in the profession face. 

Visit the central clearinghouse of ABA-related information and resources for attorneys, the legal profession, and the public on a wealth of issues addressing bias, racism, and prejudice in the justice system and society.