My Black Kids Need to See More Afro-Latinx Characters

afro-latinx kids representation
Shayne Rodriguez Thompson
Shayne Rodriguez Thompson

When I look at my kids every day, I don't think about the color of their skin. I look at them and all I see are their beautiful faces. It's only during the quiet times that I think about their race and their racial identities, like when I see that almost none of the YouTubers they like are Black or even Latinx. It's when I take them to jiujitsu practice, where there are hardly any Black or Latinx kids at all. It's when I sit down at night after putting them to bed, and it hits me that I'll only have influence over the books they read and the shows and movies they watch for a little while longer. I've come to realize that isn't good enough. It's not good enough, because Afro-Latinx representation is almost nonexistent in children's media, outside of Disney's "Encanto" or "Sesame Street" star Sonia Manzano's animated TV series "Alma's Way," let alone representation for multiracial, multiethnic Afro-Latinx kids like mine.

I'm not here to assert that representation hasn't made leaps and bounds for people of color in the past several years. I won't make that claim, because it's simply not true. We have made significant progress. There are so many creators working hard to bring Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian stories into the mainstream, and they are succeeding. I'll never forget when the now-Oscar-nominated Disney animated film "Encanto" came out and the story went viral about the toddler who saw himself in the character Antonio. That was major. Or when the little Brazilian girl reacted to looking just like "Encanto's" Mirabel, it was truly special. It goes to show that kids really do notice representation or lack thereof. Progress is slow, but it's happening, and I'll disclaim what I'm about to say here with that.

But in 2022, films like "Encanto" are still few and far between. We rarely get to see all the variety of rich and beautiful Latinx complexions in one film, one book, or one TV show. And even when we do, multiracial and multiethnic kids are still not a consideration. I'm 100 percent Puerto Rican from an Afro-Latina mom and a white Boricua dad, and I married a non-Latinx man born to a Black mom and a white dad. Our kids inherited their deeply melanated skin from both sides of their families, and although they are Black and know they are culturally, they identify as Puerto Rican and American. They don't fit neatly into a box, and those are the kids who are so often left out of the conversation. They're not represented authentically in the media they consume at all.

With the exception of Marvel's Miles Morales, who is Black and Puerto Rican, I can't think of any other multicultural Afro-Latinx or even Latinx character in mainstream entertainment. Maybe it's asking for a lot, but considering that the 2020 census indicated that the number of people in America who identify as more than one race is up a whopping 276 percent, I don't think I'm off base here to say that the media bigwigs need to catch up.

The problem is twofold. First off, my kids still aren't seeing people like them, and I'm afraid that could lead them to disassociate themselves from one part of their identities or the other, which could potentially cause them emotional harm down the line. Secondly, it also means that people who aren't like them in real life are also not seeing people like them on TV or in movies and books. And that could be even more harmful, because they will always be thought of as the "other" by their peers, unless they hide part of who they are. I, of course, recognize that this could be an issue for fair-skinned and white Latinx people as well, but since fair-skinned and white people are still the norm in the media rather than the exception, I'm confident it's a lesser issue, being that at least one aspect of their identities is normalized in the media and generally portrayed in a positive light, rather than the negative portrayals we typically see of darker-skinned individuals.

"From the time they're babies, children are taking in information about ethnicity and race from the people, images, and interactions around them. These experiences inform how children feel about, evaluate, and understand ethnicity-race for themselves and others. Understanding what children know about ethnicity-race at different ages, can illuminate the kinds of media that may meaningfully affect them," asserts a 2021 report from Common Sense Media.

It appears I'm not alone in feeling the need to call for more from the entertainment industry. "Parents and caregivers are looking for realistic, three-dimensional representations of diverse races and ethnicities that aren't rife with stereotypes or cookie-cutter portrayals," Common Sense Media says. "Content creators have a responsibility to improve diversity and elevate inclusion in the media they're creating for young audiences — even for the youngest viewers. They also have an incredible opportunity to use their power to tell the types of stories that will help us all shape the world we want to live in."

Specifically, though, Afro-Latinxs continue to be left out of mainstream media narratives. Movies like "Encanto" and Steven Spielberg's remake of "West Side Story" are trying to show the full spectrum of Latinxs, and there are some Latinx children's book authors like NoNieqa Ramos and Yesenia Moises who really see Black Latinx kids and are doing the work to center them, but largely, creators desperately need to get on track with society today and how our communities are changing and evolving.

"I think it's really important for young readers to feel seen more than anything else. As a dark-skinned Afro-Latina, it wasn't until 2018, when I saw Miles Morales become Spider-Man in 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,' that I saw someone with my background represented in the media I watch," Moises told CNN in 2021, echoing my own experience in relation to my children. "I really loved how the director made a choice to exclude English subtitles for the conversations Miles had with his mother. When you add subtitles, it makes the experience feel foreign; but in their household, it was natural — just like it is in mine. That really floored me."

But it should also floor us that they've only gotten it right for multiethnic and Afro-Latinx kids that one time. They can do better, and they absolutely should do better, because our kids are the face of the future in this country, in which the number of Black Americans who identify as Afro-Latinx has more than doubled in the past 20 years. Our children deserve it. My kids may be little now, and racial identity may be the farthest things from their minds at the moment, but one day, they will look up and realize the same things that so many of us have grappled with most of our lives. They will wonder if they are normal and if they're too different to be accepted, and they will question their identities and where they fit in this world, and it's going to hurt. So when we call for more and better Latinx representation, we can't forget about our mixed-race and multiethnic Afro-Latinx children and individuals. If we aren't intentional about making sure they're seen as well, they will end up in the exact emotional space we ourselves have been fighting our way out of for generations.