Bonilla, the founder of online community Brown Narrativ, spoke with us about how her experiences as an AfroLatina woman in NYC’s Bronx led her to write and direct her debut film, Pajón.
Madelyn Bonilla is dedicated to being the person she needed when she was growing up.
The former forensic science researcher-turned-advertising guru was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and raised in the Bronx, New York - or, “where Hip-Hop was bred”, as she puts it. Growing up in a typically Latinx family, community, and neighborhood, Bonilla knew that there was so much more of herself to discover, as her interests in Black culture shaped a lot of her life. It wasn’t until her early 20s that she started to allow herself to explore her identity as an AfroLatina woman. The first to do so in her family, Bonilla faced – and still faces – scrutiny and shaming from the Latinx community at large, but also from her own loved ones. Comments like, “Your hair looks messy” or, “Your hair’s not combed” when Bonilla first began rocking her natural curls truly mirrored the thoughts and opinions of those around her, too. Her experiences as an AfroLatina woman are the experiences so many face, as they try to get to the root of their own roots.
The term AfroLatinx is one that has only really become popularized in the last 5-10 years. The term highlights the African lineage that many in the Latinx community come from African slaves who were brought over to the Americas by the Spanish and Portuguese in the 15th and 16th centuries.
In 2016 - the first time an American national survey had acknowledged the complexity and diversity within the Latinx community - the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of Latinx adults and showed how one-quarter of all U.S based Latinx individuals self-identify as AfroLatinx, Afro-Caribbean, or of African descent with roots in Latin America. Bonilla was the first in her family to proudly identify as AfroLatina, a journey she says has been trying. “ I was the first in my family to start this movement of embracing who we are. At first, my family didn't understand it. They would make jokes like, "Oh, your hair's not combed. What are you doing? You have to go to the salon. It's not professional." But through us – myself and my cousins – changing the narrative, they're realizing and educating themselves. And now it's to the point where they understand it more.”
Bonilla’s stories make me think back to a trip I took with my family to the Dominican Republic in 2016. I recall a conversation with one of the cruise directors where he very casually lamented, “I’m not Black like you. I’m Dominican.” At that point in my own journey of celebrating my Blackness, a man darker than 11:53 pm telling me he isn’t Black is not funny - it’s incredibly sad.
Bonilla echoes that this detachment from anything Black or African is common within her community. “Being Dominican,” she says, “It's very ingrained in our culture. There are a lot of jokes about how we don't embrace being Black and how it's not part of our culture. A lot of the things that were ingrained in me from growing up as a Latina come from colonization, comes from all that colorism. It even goes down to the detail of our hair and beauty my mom relaxed my hair when I was six years old. And that's already a form of whitewashing, not accepting what comes naturally out of your head, and trying to change what is part of you.”
Photo courtesy of Madelyn Bonilla
“We’re changing the narrative basically, and actually helping them embrace who they are. It took a while for them to jump on board, and that was early in my 20s. Just recently they’ve started saying, "Oh, your hair looks beautiful. I love the curls. They look so good." It took a while and it took a lot of being comfortable with myself and understanding that it's not that they don't love me or they don't love who they are. They just don't understand and really are ignorant of the history. And they don't understand that it's bigger than us, it's the system that’s set it up like that.”
The language used around the AfroLatinx community has certainly not helped convince many that it’s safe to be proud of their heritage out loud. American rapper Alyssa Stephens goes by the stage name “Mulatto” or most recently, “Latto” (the name change definitely gives the vibe, “I said it with an -a, not the harsh -er”), which is a racial slur gifted to those who are mixed with one Black and one white parent. The term is incredibly damaging to so many members of the Latinx community, but particularly to those who dare to enjoy being dark, and the rapper has faced criticism for her lack of foresight and just basic humanity. Popular rap-stress Cardi B has spent a lot of time having to defend her right to identify as AfroLatina - with many pressuring the fellow Bronx native to tick one of the outdated boxes they salivate over.
Like Bonilla, the AfroLatina women mentioned were, at some point, young girls brainwashed into thinking that their most captivating features were to be witnessed with shame. “My little niece has asked why her skin looks different, why her hair looks different – and she is eight years old. Those are things that I asked myself 20 years ago. I just thought, “Wow, this is something that's still very much present in our culture.”
One of the stories Bonilla grew up being told informs her debut short film, Pajón. The story follows a young girl, Kassie, on her journey to discovering herself through her natural hair, and culture, as an AfroLatina. Many themes and events in the 15-minute movie are exact experiences Bonilla has had - or someone close to her has. And it is certainly a message that many within the community are excited to get out. “As soon as I put it out there,” the writer said, giving praises to the Universe, “So many people resonated with it and wanted to jump on to help work on it. The music is being curated by a group of AfroLatinx's from Panama, the Cinematographer is Cameroonian. So many of the right people are on the team.”
While the excitement of the film - set to debut at a festival soon - is being manifested as another step towards an inclusive, unified AfroLatinx community, Bonilla believes it to be a long journey ahead. When asked if she has a support group in her native Bronx, she says, “I don't want to say no because I know that there is a shift happening and it's a slow shift, but it's happening. There is still work to do. We still don't have the right representation as AfroLatinas or the right stories being told from our perspective. That's what I'm focused on. I want to change that.”
Bonilla created Brown Narrativ with that intent in mind. The storytelling production company was born to tell more authentic, real-life, Black Latinx stories. To shift from the “struggling, oppressive narrative that we’re always put into. I want to talk more about Black and brown joy. That's why Pajón is very important to me. It's that story - an AfroLatina goes from not fitting in anywhere, to then finally understanding why. It’s actually her Black friend who helps her come to her own and understand who she is. And I think that's also very important because like I said, we're all together in this. We're all part of it.”