Dozens of Afro-Latina women in the District on July 25 felt free to tackle the issues that matter to them while honoring their African and Latin ancestry — without feeling forced to choose one side over the other.

Afro-Latina Women of the District Day also became a chance for Black women in other parts of the African diaspora to better understand the unique struggles their Afro-Latina sisters face, including immigration.

Afro-Brazilian dancer Flavia Nascimento at a conference at Howard University on July 25. (Courtesy Photo)

VidaAfrolatina, a group that celebrates Black identity among Afro-Latina and diaspora women, combats child sexual abuse and promotes wellness, held an International Afro-Latin American, Afro-Caribbean and Diaspora Women’s Day conference at Howard University. The one-day conference focused on wellness and sisterhood.

The inaugural conference’s panels and workshops focused on female empowerment, healthy masculinity, cultural pride, healthy sexual relationships, wellness and child sexual abuse.

The nonprofit’s cofounder Luz Marquez Benbow, who lives in upstate New York, is a child sexual abuse and incest survivor who won a NoVo Foundation fellowship to build a network that helps child sex abuse survivors of color advance change. Lori Robinson, the other cofounder, is a rape survivor and author of I Will Survive: an African-American Guide to Healing from Sexual Assault. The NoVo Foundation is an organization that works on equality and partnership.

Incorporating child sex abuse into a conference that celebrates Latina women and girls was important to both of the survivors.

“Childhood sexual abuse is one of the issues that we mostly don’t talk about, especially adult survivors of child sexual abuse,” Benbow told the AFRO. “As a Black Puerto Rican, it has allowed me to come fully authentically into the room and to talk about our issues.”

The ideas they gathered at the conference from the women will help VidaAfrolatina decide how best to help Latina women and girls in the United States and around the world, but future plans aren’t specific just yet, said Robinson, who was raised in Montgomery County, Md. and lives in Detroit.

“It’s really important that Black people in our different countries know about each other — can advocate for each other,” Robinson told the AFRO. “I think the greatest example of that would be how Black people around the world really got engaged in the Anti-Apartheid campaign.”

The conference gave Afro-Latinas — a population often excluded from the mainstream media — a platform to celebrate themselves and embrace their full identity.

Maryland State Del. Joseline Peña-Melynk belongs to both the legislature’s Black and Latino caucuses. Yet the Dominican-born lawmaker confessed that she sometimes struggles to find her place in society.

“I often feel like it’s tough to fit in with a lot of the Latinos, especially when I look at the television and I see a lot of anchors that do not look like me — they’re all White Latinos or African American — the African-American community who sometimes I am not African American enough for them,” Peña-Melynk said at the conference.

Her advice to her fellow Afro-Latinas was to work twice as hard, honor their families, speak well, ignore the haters and to celebrate their roots.

“Be proud of this curly hair, okay? … And when people say to you it’s not professional, B.S., okay? It is you,” Peña-Melynk said. “It reflects you and who you are and be proud of it.”

The inaugural conference marked the 25th anniversary of International Afro-Latin America and Afro-Caribbean Women’s Day.

Kareemah Woodard of Upper Marlboro, is an African American born in South Carolina to a family of Gullah heritage. She said the conference taught her that most of the struggles Afro-Latina women battle mirror the ones that black women in the United States fight.

“There are so many shades and colors of us, but at the end of the day, we’re all victims and victors of White supremacy,” Woodard told the AFRO.