Our founder Kiana Estevez sits down with Cafe Con Pam to talk claiming your identity and what it means to be Afrolatina.
Cafe Con Pam: I’m so excited to dive into our conversation. We worked together before, and I learned something that I didn’t know which I’m excited to talk about but we’ll get to that. So first, tell me what’s your heritage?
Kiana: I am a first gen latina from the Dominican Republic and I was born in the United States.
CCP: Awesome. So where did you grow up?
Kiana: In New York, and I would spend every summer in the DR with my grandmother and I actually lived there for about 2 years after 9/11. I forgot to speak English when I came back to the states!
CCP: No way!
Kiana: My dearest childhood friend of 20 years now, she was the only person who spoke to me in my class and we became friends off Oreos and Fig Newtons because we just…sign language of snack trading!
CCP: Interesting, how was that for you? You had to transition. So first from the US, then to the DR, then back.
Kiana: It was kind of a game of how do I assimilate that like a 5 year old obviously doesn’t understand that. It’s just “Okay, let me latch onto my cousins and try to understand what they’re saying and whatever I can’t interpret we’re just going to nod, be a little more of an introvert wallflower” and what was most challenging I would say is that I went to school there. I did kindergarten, first grade there so I didn’t even see the American school system until I came back into the states so like in the DR you go to school in uniform, my grandmother is a principal so it was a very strict regimen. I was just lost, it’s a very lonely thought when I come to think of it because in the traveling, I would always travel with flight attendant. Hey, first class upgrades back then! It was a very lonely time for sure, I think that’s what really fostered my independence.
CCP: For sure. Did your parents stay in the US and they sent you to the DR?
Kiana: My mom raised me as a single mother and she would have to work over the summer so it was just free childcare, time with grandma, meet family, get some culture in as well. It’s like the secret ingredient to raising a first gen child.
You start to take a step back and it’s that question of ‘Who am I? Am I this person because I didn’t want to stand out? Because I was afraid to ask the real questions about my culture?’Kiana Estevez, Founder of Aisle Mine
CCP: So you come back to New York and then you have to relearn English, you have to start basically over, you’re also Afrolatina, what have been your experiences as an Afrolatina that has lived outside of the country and come back?
Kiana: In coming back to the states and learning English, it was just jumping to the deep end which would pretty much be the title of an Afrolatina growing up in suburgatory predominantly white Long Island. I mean there was no option for ESL, you’re just like “No, we’re gonna put her in class, she’ll figure it out. She seems smart.”
My currency of friendship was based off snacks. In growing older, of course that black sheep label was part of my mask and it’s what forced me to join every single club and do every single homework assignment because how do I not stand out in a way that’s a red flag? How do I become valuable enough to be in social circles, to be in prominent academic classes and programs. It was just this race of cross it off the checklist – next, next. You can play an instrument? Okay, we’re going to learn two and just keep it going.
A big part of that was being home was lonely, I’d want to be at school. School was friends, school was interaction and any way I could feel that I was a part of this community I was going to morph myself into who I needed to be. It’s survival mode that brings a thriving aspect to life because you’re accomplishing things, crossing things off your list, being that first gen, you’re working towards that accomplishment then you graduate high school and the milestones become to get a little more valuable. A little more currency in society as well, because the high school degree, the college degree and you start to take a step back and it’s that question of “Who am I? Am I this person because I didn’t want to stand out? Because I was afraid to ask the real questions about my culture?”
It isn’t until now with me being in Mexico where I’m speaking the most fluent Spanish that I have in the last 10 years.
I think outside of authenticity in being seen and being heard, being comfortable with sharing your story. I think when you step into that in an unapologetic way, that is raw truth.Kiana Estevez, Founder of Aisle Mine
CCP: You have to, you have to. Though, a lot of people speak English in Mexico. You touched on a lot of important topics like codeswitching and blending in which I see a lot. I mean, I did it when I was in corporate. When I was in the midwest, it was black or white and there was nothing in between. I was the in between space and there was a lot of codeswitching that had to happen. That’s the way that women of color have to endure, that’s emotional labor. How exhausted were you or did you notice?
Kiana: From the physical standpoint itself, I burned my hair for about 7 years to have straight hair. Didn’t wear curls until a few years ago. You introduced me as an Afrolatina, I didn’t wear that label until about 2 years ago. It was exhausting because I always just felt like a hypewoman to everyone else’s culture, everyone else’s background. I was just like trying to become a citizen of the world, trying to be Switzerland and continue blending in as best possible while still being my extroverted person who thrives off energy, who thrives off passion and being a trailblazer and it forced me to accept at such a young age that we live polar truths. Two things can be true at the same time no matter how polar opposite they may feel, even if you don’t know how to put words to that.
I can look at times at my life where that may have lead to binge eating and gaining like 20 pounds in one month or not really eating because you’re in these environments and if you don’t even feel grounded to stand on your own and put your chest out as a person, how do you expect someone to do that with their culture, gender, career, and all of the other strings that come into play as well.
CCP: You mentioned that you didn’t wear the Afrolatina label for a long time and I noticed that a lot. I interviewed someone I thought was Afrolatina but she did not like that label. Respect, right? You wear whatever flag you want to wear. We know it’s because of erasure of African heritage in Latin America. For example in Mexico, there are tons of Afrolatines but they weren’t counted in the census until about 20 years ago. What are your thoughts on erasure of Afrolatines and self labeling that people do and do not?
Kiana: In the family scope, my family is very fair skinned, very white skin. It’s my father who is much darker, that’s how you get this beautiful caramel Black. I was always “la morena”, “Kiana la morena” and then being in the states, the Latina women who were elevated as beautiful were light skinned. Think of so many of our icons. Selena, Jenny, Frida.
CCP: Gloria Estefan.
Kiana: Yeah, America Ferrera. The list could go on, there just wasn’t anyone who looked like me. Growing older, what really forced me to wear the flag of Afrolatina was trauma. I had someone say some very racial and derogatory comments against me and that was the first time I was like “Nope, I am an Afrolatina”, and I am going to make sure that wherever route and journey life takes me on, the next Kiana will see that access, will see that representation and believe that she can do that.
Something I’ve been embracing a lot is “chain link monkeys” instead of “pull down crabs”. So if we become the chain link monkeys, my arm is already ready to grab onto yours and your arm is ready to grab onto the next person and the next person. Then we can rise to the top and we can make a longer chain to rise up instead of one crab pulling the next down.Cafe Con Pam
CCP: Owning your story and owning your heritage and owning where you come from really allows for liberation. Do you agree?
Kiana: I think outside of authenticity in being seen and being heard, being comfortable with sharing your story. I think when you step into that in an unapologetic way, that is raw truth. That’s freedom. That’s something you can’t buy, you can’t read it, you can be around it but if it’s not something you believe deep down in your bones you’re always going be be wearing a different mask, different boxes. You have to ask yourself, how many boxes are weighing me down?
CCP: How many am I carrying? How many am I handing over?
Kiana: And how many have been instilled in me from day one.
CCP: When we allow someone else to put is in the box, we literally put the box on our shoulders. We’re holding it, weighing us down. But when we own the box, when you own your power, your truth, and your story and unapologetically exist within it then you’re standing on it. You also mention your passion for DEI, equity is really allowing yourself to receive what everyone else can receive. It comes from a place of abundance. When you stand on the box, then you’re taking one step further.
When you talk about this, I’m thinking about legacy that you’re leaving behind. The more boxes you stand on versus carrying them, it’s going to be for the people who come after you and even the people who are still here. You can grab them and be like “come on over with me” instead of us carrying them together.
Kiana: I think even taking a step back, when you’re putting that box on the ground, you’re able to relabel that box. You’re able to define what that box means and how strong that box will be in lifting you up. And yes, you’re bringing others along the way to double down on “you are not in this alone, we are better together”
That is something you have to constantly remind yourself of in this culture because we’re programmed to say “If Pam gets to the top of the box first, then I can’t have the box. That means I can’t have that dream”, that is not true. Pam is showing you and showing me that I can have this type of dream. I can see myself in that light. That is magical, and that’s how you receive. That’s how you see life as a gift and miracle.
CCP: Lately, I’ve been talking about exactly that, leaving behind the crab mentality. You know, crabs pulling each other down. Especially in Latin America, it’s prevalent still because of colonization and trauma. Something I’ve been embracing a lot is “chain link monkeys” instead of “pull down crabs”. So if we become the chain link monkeys, my arm is already ready to grab onto yours and your arm is ready to grab onto the next person and the next person. Then we can rise to the top and we can make a longer chain to rise up instead of one crab pulling the next down.
Kiana: Yes to the monkeys! I don’t think women, especially Latina women understand how much of influencers they are in society. How companies are paying these marketing businesses hundreds of thousands of dollars to figure out “How do I get a Latina to buy my product because her word of mouth is 3 times as powerful as a white woman’s or other WOC’s”
CCP: Because we run the household!
Kiana: Damn right, we run the household! And the community.