CONCORD — Dr. Sonia Manjon is one among many in the Bay Area Afro-Latino community who are learning to navigate their connections to both ethnicities.
“Usually people look at me and assume I’m African American until they meet my family and come to my home and begin to understand the cultural nuances that I have, which is a Latino experience,” Manjon told KPIX. “There is a lot of anti-Blackness in our community that has to be talked about.”
Manjon is co-executive director of LeaderSpring, a nonprofit that provides leadership training to people in the Bay Area. She has also worked in higher education and government administration.
Manjon often hosts friends and family at her home to share stories about their background and culture.
A recent survey from the Pew Research Center found that six million people identify as Afro-Latino in the U.S. — about 12 percent of Latino adults in the country.
“Pride is something that was instilled in me very, very young by my grandmother,” Manjon said.
With loved ones who gathered in her backyard on a Saturday earlier this month, she recalled the teachings of her elders.
“She always said ‘Tu eres Dominica, don’t ever forget that and be proud of that,'” Manjon recalled.
Her grandmother came to the U.S. in the 1950s and experienced segregation. Manjon’s mother did not know English after moving here and grew up in Des Moines, Iowa. Both of her parents are from the Dominican Republic and she says that culture has a mix of Spanish, African and Indigenous roots. Throughout her life she has had to explain that the Dominican Republic is on an island in the Caribbean Sea called Hispaniola, which is shared with Haiti.
“As a cultural anthropologist, I’m a storyteller. I love stories, I love telling my story, collecting other stories and I think that’s what brings us together more than keeps us separate,” Manjon said. “I had to really search for my tribe and — here in California — the tribe is here.”
The release of an audio recording earlier this month capturing an L.A. city council member making racist comments put a spotlight on some of the frustrations Manjon has dealt with in the Latino community.
San Francisco mayor London Breed had to apologize a few weeks later for an unrelated incident where some of her comments were viewed as anti-immigrant.
“Here in the Bay Area, everything is so intermingled, everything’s so intertwined and you can kind of see all of these different cultures just kind of being hand-in-hand everywhere,” said Nelson German, chef and owner of Sobre Mesa Afro-Latino cocktail lounge in Oakland.
German grew up in New York and found that he was always seen as Dominican but not Black in that part of the country. When he moved to California, he connected more with his African roots and he feels more seen as a Black man who speaks Spanish.
“The energy out here made me want to educate myself more and seeing it in the food,” he said. “Bridging both cultures, it’s why I opened Sobre Mesa, it’s to really showcase how beautiful and broad the African diaspora is.”
Manjon and German came together earlier this month to share their experiences as members of the Afro-Latino community who had similar challenges from different sides of this bi-cultural identity.
“Oh you’re Dominican? But you don’t speak Spanish?” Manjon said about how she was received in some circles growing up.
While Spanish is her second language and she is not fluent, she heard it at home all the time. “They would speak Spanish to each other and they would speak English to the kids but we knew what they were talking about.”
Working in the food industry for more than 23 years, German says that bringing his culture to the forefront is part of his mission as a restaurant owner. He sees his cuisine as pan-African and embracing all of his roots has made him a better chef. He believes his food can help build more understanding from those still learning about the Afro-Latino experience.
“When they enjoy the food, their minds open up more: ‘Oh I want to learn a little more, I want to taste more of the food, I want to learn about the people and their history,'” he said. “I’m coming full circle within myself, my heart, my soul. Let me showcase that more in everything I do and again, be more intentional and proud in what I’m doing.”
Back at her home, Manjon said that people from different perspectives in the Latino community can learn from each other and the challenges they’ve faced living in the U.S.
“I think it gives me entrée into both communities,” she said. “There’s a level of comfort that people find within my settings.”
Both German and Manjon hope that, by sharing their stories with more people, they can help the Afro-Latino community feel seen more fully.
“We need to tell our story, we need to be constructing the narrative so that it’s from our perspective,” Manjon said. “There’s diversity within diversity, there’s so much diversity within the Latino culture.”
This content was originally published here.