Oh, to be young, gifted, and Afro-Boricua! In this interview I chat with Angela Townsend (IG: @lalaamorena), a talented and confident college student, about the power of dance in expressing her identity, and growing up Afro-Latina in Chicago.
Check out our discussion below.
Who is Angela Townsend?
I am a young ambitious lady, born and raised in the city of Chicago. I am of African-American and Puerto Rican descent and I identify as an Afro-Latina. My mother and Abuela (grandmother) are my sheroes.
What are you currently studying?
I am currently studying Criminology & Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland.
How do you identify?
I identify as a cis-gender, Afro-Latina, specifically African-American and Puerto Rican.
What does it mean to you to be Afro-Latina?
To be an Afro-Latina means to be a concoction of beauty, melanin, misunderstanding, culture, and resilience. I chose the word “misunderstanding” because for a long time this concept of Black Latinos confused many, just as it was a confusing journey for me to come to terms in understanding how I can be 100% Puerto Rican and 100% African-American, simultaneously. I chose the word “resilience” to commend all the ancestors before me who fought, struggled, and have created the vibrant culture we have today.
Dance has been a huge part of your life and you are very talented. How did dance gain a starring role in your life story?
Thank you! 🙂 Dance has been a part of my life since I can remember. I think the appreciation of music came before dancing, though. My father is a huge hip-hop head and grew up when hip-hop was emerging in Jamaica Queens, NY. My maternal grandfather always played salsa, Cuban Son, and similar music in his home where I spent a lot of time when growing up…and all of my family members are House Heads! We all turn up together especially when salsa or house comes on at family parties.
Dancing was something that naturally followed. It gained a significant role in my life when I enrolled in Latin dance classes at the Chicago Multicultural Dance Center at age 3/4. The instructor of the class, Rebeca Aleman, started Pasos Latinos, an all-girl salsa dance group, and ever since then I have had a deep love and passion for salsa.
Watch Angela dance in video below.
One of my greatest accomplishments of this year was co-founding the Maryland Latin Dance Club and starting a performance team. I was so scared and nervous to share my choreography with my dancers and the public, but it is truly one thing I am so happy to have shared with you all. Very excited for what’s to come next 😁💃🏽
How does dancing make you feel?
Salsa dancing, in particular, just does something to me. When the music starts playing, it enters my blood and my body reacts. Salsa dancing has always been one of the closest connections to my Puerto Rican culture. To many, I look Black. I don’t fit the stereotypical Latina look that society has been exposed to. Throughout my life, whenever I danced salsa, people would be flabbergasted that a little Black girl can move like that. I think I enjoy that trickery. People then ask questions and this forces them to change their schema of what a Latina looks like and what Black people or Afro-Latinas are capable of.
As a dancer, how have you been able to express or embrace your Afro-Latina identity?
While dancing with Gifted Souls Dance Company, under the direction of Rocky Quiñones, I learned how to incorporate African dance in my salsa. Especially learning to listen to the intricacies of salsa and expressing that in the movement whether it’s in my shoulders, back, head, hips, etc. Historically, the root of salsa has strong African influences so it’s only natural. Salsa itself is an embodiment of Afro-Latinidad. The drums, the instruments, the call-and-response styles are all African influenced. It just comes naturally.
I also connect salsa with my family and coming from a mixed family, for me, I attach salsa with my African-American grandfather who loved the music, culture, and language. He was the one who first exposed me to the music.
Do you have any memorable experiences growing up in Chicago as a Black Puerto Rican?
Most definitely! I attended Jose de Diego Community Academy in Humboldt Park for elementary school. The school at that time was majority Puerto Rican and all of my friends were Puerto Rican. These years were pivotal in learning about my identity and realizing that I was different in a sense, a Black Puerto Rican.
All of my girlfriends had dark, loose, controllable curls that fell down to their backs, where my hair had a kinkier texture and barely past my shoulders. Their skin tones varied, but I was undeniably the dark-skinned, Black girl. Despite my appearance being stereotypically more “Black,” I believe we had strong bonds because I was able to identify with the Puerto Rican culture: I danced salsa, I spoke and understood Spanish better than most of my Puerto Rican friends, and I shared similar customs as they did. However, I can recall many instances of peers calling out the fact that I was Black and how they were confused about my ability to dance salsa or speak Spanish.
I wasn’t exposed to African-American culture in the same way I was exposed to Puerto Rican culture. Because of this, in high school it was difficult to make friends with African-American students because I wasn’t “Black enough.” Yet, I also received the same comments from other Puerto Rican peers who would comment that I wasn’t “Puerto Rican enough.”
What is your favorite memory from your travels to Puerto Rico?
My favorite memory would have to be when I was younger; we would take yearly trips to Puerto Rico and visit my family in Humacao, PR. My uncle had a beautiful home that we would always stay in part of the time and then stay in the Palmas Del Mar Resort, also located in Humacao. At 8 o’clock in the morning my uncle, mother, brothers, cousins and I would go to the beach and walk on the shore until we reached the “private” Palmas Del Mar beaches. It was such a beautiful and serene walk. During these walks I’d learn so much about my family and about Humacao’s history, as well as see the dynamic changes between “untouched” beaches and “private” beaches.
Do you have a favorite song or music group?
Hector Lavoe’s “Qué Lío” is an all-time favorite. Now THAT song does something to me. But Celia Cruz is queen. She is just everything.
What are your career goals?
This is one of the most stressful questions, lol. Although I am a Criminology major, I actually no longer see myself pursuing a career in that field. I want to do many things. I want to continue my work in advocacy and non-profits, but also become an event planner (weddings, parties, etc.), model, and have a dance team. We’ll see how that all works out.
If your life were a movie, what would the title be and who would play the lead?
Hmmm…the title of my movie would be La Morena, played by Amandla Stenberg.
I think it is incredible that Angela has such a grip on the delicate and sometimes complicated discussion of identity. Boriqua Chicks wishes her much success as she ventures out to the world and makes a difference.
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