One of the problems that Modestin cited is the preponderance of negative messages about image and identity that young Afro Latinas have to reconcile. She remembers receiving a phone call several years back from her teenage niece in New York City, who said that a classmate had used a racial slur to heckle her as she walked home from school.
“She called crying, I did not know what to do,” Modestin said. “I was sad that she had this experience at such a young age.”
More troubling, she added, is that the harmful barbs often come from sources closer than a rude classmate on the street.
“Negative messages our girls are getting … it is not just from the media and it’s not just from TV,” Modestin said. “The messages are coming from home.”
Part of the problem is a difference in perception. Outside of their homes, some of these girls identify with their blackness. But at their homes, Modestin said, “they have parents who are telling them, ‘No, you are not black, you are from whatever country.’”
Though these parents may merely want to emphasize pride in their national origin, Modestin argues, they can wind up pushing children to base their identities solely on what countries they come from, discouraging them from becoming comfortable with their racial identities.
Another issue that concerns Modestin is the concept of beauty. It can be a contentious matter, not only during “moments like Don Imus calling these young women ‘nappy-headed hos,’” she said, but also within black and Latin communities.
“We have sisters that have issues with [Afro Latinas’] hair … sisters that say, ‘Woo, there she goes with that ’fro,’” Modestin said.
Through HER, she tries to help young girls understand that whether they hail from Cape Verde, the Caribbean or Central or South America, whether they speak Spanish or Portuguese, they can find commonalities in their African roots, such as styles of music and dance, or even certain foods that cross cultures.
“Every community we know of eats black-eyed peas on New Year’s Eve, no matter where you are from,” Modestin said.
Encouraged by the success of the first few HER courses, Modestin said that while she now works with only one school at a time, she is hopeful that she will be able to find more funding and bring the program to more schools.
EDA is a full-time job for Modestin; the organization receives fiscal support and office space from Northnode Inc., a Roslindale company that helps community-based nonprofits and other agencies that work in health and human services. She also does community work and consulting, specifically on women’s issues, HIV/AIDS and domestic violence.
Modestin also serves as the commissioner in the U.S. and Canada for Red de Mujeres Afrocaribeñas y Afrolatinoamericanas y de la Diáspora, an international grassroots organization of African, Caribbean and Latin American women that discusses a variety of issues facing women, especially those faced by members of the African Diaspora.
It takes a tenacious attitude to devote so much time and energy to advocating for others. Friend Tony Van Der Meer says Modestin’s tenacity comes from her Yoruba spiritual practice.
“Yvette takes the question of blacks and Latinos, especially Latino women, very seriously,” said Van Der Meer, an adjunct professor of Africana studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
Van Der Meer is also Modestin’s spiritual advisor in the practice of Ifa, which originated in Africa but declined as the result of colonialism and the advance of the Islamic and Christian faiths on the continent. Large numbers of Yoruba natives were transported to the Caribbean and Americas as slaves starting in the 16th century, and a fusion of the Yoruba Ifa beliefs and Catholic practices were brought to the United States by Puerto Ricans and Cubans in the 20th century.
As the religion combines African, Latin, Caribbean and American elements, “it’s a very common thing for [Modestin] to merge her concern for Afro Latinas and her spiritual practice together,” according to Van Der Meer.
The Ifa practice “is where I find a great sense of peace and a great sense of clarity,” said Modestin, who is learning to speak Yoruba. “It’s where I turn to when things get difficult,” and another means of embracing her African heritage.
Modestin said she finds it sad that members of the Diaspora don’t talk much about their African religions, “which had been demonized in the media.”
“And we ourselves fall for it,” she said. “I go home [to Panama] and I wear my eleke (a beaded necklace and bracelet that represents her Ifa practice) and I have people in my own community say … ‘She is a voodoo woman.’
“But that’s ours,” she added. “That was ours.”
Even today, at a time when immigration and changing social attitudes are helping to swell the numbers of multiracial Americans at 10 times the rate of white population growth, multiethnic people are still struggling to avoid being labeled and marginalized by a society they say is far from entering a “post-race” era. More »
"['Miracle at St. Anna'] really discusses some of the nuances that are felt deep within the Latin community with regard to people being of different colors, because the issue does exist in America and Latin America," said actor Laz Alonso, who played Afro Latin soldier Hector Negron in director Spike Lee's adaptation of James McBride's acclaimed World War II novel "Miracle at St. Anna." More »
After a dismal showing among Hispanics in his Super Tuesday showdown with Hillary Clinton, the question arose: Can Barack Obama entice this key voting bloc? And if not, what might that say about a color divide that extends beyond black-white in an ever-expanding brown America? More »