Growing up, I was immersed in Latin culture all the time: watching baseball with my dad, eating my mom’s delicious arroz con pollo guisado (rice with stewed chicken), speaking Spanish, and listening to bachata with my neighbors. The pan-Latino solidarity and unity I witnessed growing up made me proud of my own Dominican heritage. Yet it wasn’t until the tragic murder of Trayvon Martin that I began unpacking the intersection between my racialized identity and my ethnic upbringing. I started pondering how I might be perceived by friends, teachers, strangers, and more importantly by the police, solely based on my darker skin color. I became, and still am, fearful that I could someday be the next Black man killed by police. I also started thinking about how the experiences of Afro-Latinos are often overlooked. So, in the wake of Black History Month, I want to highlight the Afro-Latino experience and what it means to be both Latino and Black.

My experience is common. Latinos are a multiracial ethnic group, but the experiences of Afro-Latinos, who make up 12% of the U.S. Latino adult population, often differ from those of other Latinos, on account of their race, skin tone, and other factors, including the enduring legacy of slavery and racism in the U.S. and Latin America. For many Latinos, the politics of race, and the impact this has on their lives, is still highly controversial. Latinidad widely promotes the concept of mestizaje or “mixing the races” in hopes of securing better outcomes, while downplaying racial differences and treating Latinos as a monolith. Many fair-skinned Latinos sidestep questions about race or embrace Whiteness, out of a belief that it will lead to greater social mobility and access to education, civil rights, health care, etc.

The Afro-Latino identity, however, is complicated by transnational anti-Blackness, which is pervasive in this country and in many Latin American countries, where Black communities are regularly disenfranchised. Afro-Latinos often face disproportionate levels of discrimination and hardship, based on their skin color, yet they tend to be overlooked or excluded from nationally representative samples of Latinos or research and data collection that favors certain Latino groups over others.

Unfortunately, this also applies to Afro-Latino students, who are all but invisible in education statistics. It’s impossible to adequately serve these students without disaggregated data that accounts for racial differences and more fully captures their unique experiences. Afro-Latino students rarely, if ever, see themselves represented in curricula and the broader pop culture, but they often encounter colorism (i.e., discrimination based on skin color) and racism at school and are at heightened risk of overly punitive school discipline measures.

Suffice it to say, schools aren’t meeting the needs of Afro-Latino students, and the recent spate of teacher shortages, the ban on affirmative action, and restrictions on discussions about race and racism in the classroom are only making things worse. Afro-Latinos are culturally and racially misunderstood when it comes to their social and emotional well-being. We need interventions in place to support Afro-Latino students an early age; we also need to promote the greater representation of racial and ethnic diversity and expression across curriculum, provide professional development opportunities for educators to learn cultural sensitivity and how to address racial bias in African American/U.S. Latin history, and better school discipline policies for Black and Latino students who are more likely to face the harshest and most exclusionary forms of school discipline when compared to their white peers.

Schools, and our nation writ large, are only becoming more multicultural and diverse. The Census Bureau estimates that Latinos will make up more than a quarter of the U.S. population by 2060, while a report by researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles notes that the Afro-Latino population in the U.S. has grown at nearly double the rate of non-Black Latinos since the start of the 21st century. The way forward is to ensure that Afro-Latinos have the resources they need and to continue gathering data, with fidelity, on this group. Students should be exposed to the contributions and rich history of Afro-Latinos in the classroom and have opportunities to explore their shared experiences and heritage with African Americans. District and school leaders should push schools to celebrate and include more diverse racial and cultural representations of Latinos, in and out of the classroom, and do more to eliminate anti-Black bias across the curriculum, in hiring, and in the distribution of school resources, if we hope to achieve educational and racial equity and ensure that all students have opportunities to grow and develop.

Manny Zapata is a P-12 policy and research intern at EdTrust. He is pursuing a Ph.D. in Urban Education at the University of Maryland, College Park.