Arlene Sanchez attended Boston Public Schools as a child and returned to them as a teacher in 2013. At UP Academy and Gardner Pilot Academy, she focused on using literature to instill confidence and empathy in her students and worked to increase representation of teachers of color in the school system. As a Navigator, she helps Boston families and students understand the school landscape and achieve their educational goals.
Black History Month makes me reflect on who I am to myself, and then who I am to others. My skin and hair tell a story. I know that when people look at me, they don't automatically think I'm Black, but they also don't think I'm white. However, when I think about myself, and when people ask me my race, I am Black. I am a product of Black history.
My parents migrated to the United States from Dominican Republic when I was 2 years old. As a result, I didn't grow up learning the history of Dominican colonialism and the Transatlantic slave trade that came onto our island. Instead, I received glimpses into the history of slavery throughout my schooling in America. Because I fit in with all the Black kids in my class, and because the United States was the first place I identified as my home, I very quickly identified with the Black experience here. As I grew older, I also realized that the Black experience was synonymous with the oppression and marginalization that my family was experiencing in the United States—because we were all put in the same group if you appeared Black.
There’s a history in this country of asking this question of who is “Black enough.” Some people are like “oh, you’re Latina, so you’re not Black.” But I’ve always understood it as like…it’s just a difference in slave ship routes.
I'm still unraveling what all of this means to me as an adult. I didn't always call myself an Afro-Latina. I think the decision to do that was a direct response to learning about my history in the United States, but also beyond that, the history of the world. That knowledge didn't come from my family, it came from me having a desire to understand what I'm a product of—why my hair is curly, why my skin is brown, why my ancestry looks like a mix of Spanish conquistadores, Africans and Tainos, why there are different variations of Spanish. As a young adult I found myself with a lot of unanswered questions.
Culturally, I identify as Dominican. But what does that really mean without highlighting the African influence in my culture? It's the drums in our music, the click and clack of our hips when we dance to Palo, the seasoning in our meat and beans, amongst so many other things. I spend a lot of time pushing members of my family, helping them understand that we are a product of an African experience and an African diaspora. And more so, that this idea of Latinidad is a response to our colonial history. When the Spanish came into our country and brought Spanish as our colonial tongue, that is also part of our experience. And so, when I think about the decision to call myself Afro-Latina, it’s about embracing all the experiences that led me to this very moment—all the historical moments that made me.
When I watch movies like 12 Years a Slave, I recognize that my ancestors are not going to be a featured character. My family was not in the United States when these things were happening. But I wonder to what extent there's a connection. Of the people who were here in America because they were on those slave ships, whose cousins made it to Dominican Republic just because they were on different ships?
So, I'm like, "Yes, I can claim Black history, American Black history," even though my family's ancestry may not be directly linked to whoever was in Virginia in 1805. Our historical trauma is similar. The raping of our people, the abuse of our people psychologically, spiritually, emotionally—all of that is the same.
I'm a mom now. For my daughter, who is four months old, even before she was out of the womb, I spent time building a library that reflects her Blackness. I was committed to building a library to expand her understanding of self so she will understand that her history is multi-layered. So that she will ultimately understand, as I did not at an early age, that her history is not tied to a single geographic location, but instead to many moments in our history.
My husband and I read to her every night, stories whose protagonists are Black and brown, whose lessons are those she will certainly be able to relate to. I'm so committed to her seeing herself, and using books as windows and doors, but also as a mirror to herself. Because it's really hard to be in a place where oftentimes your skin can determine how you are treated and who you are friends with and where you live. Will you get a loan extended to you? Will somebody rent this place out to you? The number one thing for me being a mother is making my daughter aware of the reality of our world and our country and our city, but also empowering her with the understanding that she can love herself despite the hate and ignorance. I want her questions to be answered from birth. I want her to feel valued right now.