Image Source: Yo Soy Afro Latina
For Bianca Kea, founder of trendy apparel brand Yo Soy Afro Latina, a poll she posted on MySpace when she was in middle school opened up a Pandora's box of race and identity issues that she had been struggling with throughout her childhood. "I said something like, 'Do you think I'm Black, white, or Mexican?' The poll came back, and a lot of people said Black. I just remember being like, Damn! I understand people think I'm Black, but do they really don't think I am Latina? That hurt. What makes you think I'm not Latina?" she told POPSUGAR.
Bianca grew up in a predominantly Black and white community in the suburbs of Detroit. She was raised by a single mother who passed on her Latinidad to her daughter through food, art, and the merengue, bachata, and salsa classics that she still cherishes to this day. But besides Marc Anthony, Selena, and Willie Colón, when it came to understanding her Afro-Latina cultural identity, she felt like something was still missing. "There were a lot of conversations and topics we didn't really touch on because she didn't have the knowledge or the language. I feel like I had to learn how to navigate between those two cultures on my own."
Like many Afro-Latinas, she remembers struggling to find icons in media and pop culture who she could identify with. "Celia Cruz was the only Afro-Latina that I saw on mainstream media, so I aspired to be like her. She was just so proud to be this Black Latina. I wanted to feel that empowered and feel that confident and comfortable in my own skin."
Moving to New York when she was in college proved to be a life-changing experience that helped her find herself in a truly diverse community in Brooklyn. "I was exposed to so many different cultures, dialects, and ethnicities. Dominicans, Hondurans, Colombians, I was never exposed to those cultures when I was growing up in Detroit," she said.
That whole experience was what ignited her passion and need to understand the richness and diversity of Afro-Latinx identity. She then moved to Los Angeles, where she felt like she was back in a very segregated and isolated culture. "People simply saw me as a Black woman there. They didn't know that I could speak Spanish. They didn't know that I could understand them and be at the intersection of two cultures. That is when the idea for Yo Soy Afro Latina started brewing and coming about." She took that time of isolation in California to start building a plan for her brand and educating herself, reading books about race and history. "The one book that definitely changed my life was Black in Latin America by Henry Louis Gates Jr. This book ignited my whole journey into Afro-Latinidad. It taught me so much about the Black diaspora. Growing up, my mother didn't have this knowledge, so I truly did not understand just how Black people were everywhere, in every country, and that book taught me about the Black revolution in Brazil, the Black revolution in Mexico, taught me about the race relations in the Dominican Republic . . . So insightful and informative."
Initially, Bianca thought of Yo Soy Afro Latina more as a sorority than a fashion and accessories brand. "I was craving community, and honestly, I just wanted to create a brand to help me connect with other women like me. I designed merch because I thought it was cute and bold and empowering to wear, but I was also like, 'Maybe if I create this Instagram, I can connect with other Afro-Latinas.' And that's exactly what happened. I started connecting with Afro-Latinas in New York, Los Angeles, Israel, Germany, all around the world!"
Yo Soy Afro Latina's bestseller is a T-shirt you've probably seen on your Instagram feed, the Morenita Tee ($30). "I was thinking about how my mom always calls me 'Bianquita,' she always added that 'ita' for everything. So, that's how it came about," Bianca said.