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WUWM's Teran Powell reports on race and ethnicity in southeastern Wisconsin.

Milwaukee creative says to be Afro-Latina means understanding who she is and where she comes from

Joan Marie Luciano Vargas is the owner and creative of JoMaLu LLC
Teran Powell
Joan Marie Luciano Vargas is the owner and creative of JoMaLu LLC

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, WUWM is celebrating the rich cultural diversity of Milwaukee’s Hispanic and Latino people.

Today, we highlight Afro-Latino voices in the city. Afro-Latinos are Latin Americans of African descent. According to the Pew Research Center, about six million U.S. adults identify as Afro-Latino.

Joan Marie Luciano Vargas was born and raised in Ponce, Puerto Rico, and came to Milwaukee at the age of 13.

Among her many titles are mother, dancer, painter and creative. She owns a jewelry and vegan beauty product line called JoMaLu LLC, where she uses her art to embrace and affirm culture, ethnicity, creative engagement, spirituality, faith and hope.

Vargas' family came to Milwaukee after a hurricane destroyed their home. She said the transition was scary.

"A lot of times we think because Puerto Ricans have dual citizenship, most people think that's not really migrating from a new place because you're a U.S. citizen. But we starting a whole life brand new, in a different country, where they speak a different language, different weather, different everything. So, we don't know what's gonna happen," Vargas says. "We just came in in hopes that we would be able to succeed."

Before she could find community in Milwaukee, Vargas says the first challenge was understanding her own identity. She talks, for example, about that challenge of finding her people in school; she and her siblings were scattered across Milwaukee Public Schools.

"The English that is taught in Puerto Rico is very minimal so I ain't understand very much when I came in and I was put in a monolingual school," she says. "Being in a monolingual school most of the kids are either gonna be Black or white, so then you try to see and figure out who's my people? Where do I fit in? Who can I try to communicate with?"

Vargas says the question of race, ethnicity or color wasn't even a concern of hers until she got to Milwaukee. She talks about looking at herself, being of lighter skin tone, but she wasn't white. Then she thought, "But I'm not Black. Or am I Black? Because I look at my mom, she's Black. So, am I Black? But then my dad, he's pretty fair skinned. I don't know where I stand," she explains.

Vargas says she would try to connect with the white girls in her school, but realized they were just making fun of her. She was more welcomed by the Black girls. "We started communicating very minimal, you know just small words here and there, exchanging Spanish words for English words," Vargas says.

They connected over common cultural practices like wearing head wraps and braids. Vargas would come to school wearing both. "So, I guess that is something that they saw it was very much mirrored in their culture and what they also have embraced in their community and they felt that I belonged there too," she says.

Vargas says her identity as an Afro-Latina means understanding who she is and where she comes from. "When I look at my mother, and I look at my family, and I see their traditions, the things that they hold dear to their hearts, the color of their skin, and the way that I carry myself, I understand that my identity is an African centric identity," Vargas says.


Teran is WUWM's race & ethnicity reporter.
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