Multiethnic Latinos increase across generations, expanding the portrait of U.S. Latinos

“I’m Black and Latino.” “I’m German and Mexican.” “I’m Afro-latinx and Black.” “I’m Afro-Boricua and a Detroiter.” 
Sisters Renee Zenteno Diaz (left) and Alicia Diaz (right) with their mother Dorothy Thomas Diaz, who passed away this past April at the age of 89. PHOTO COURTESY OF ALICIA DIAZ

Latino identity is constantly adapting to how people define it and experience their ethnic and racial identity. 

“Sometimes people don’t even want to speak Spanish to me,” said Sabrina Stahlberger, 21, of Sterling Heights, Michigan. Stahlberger identifies as German and Mexican.

She said, she is well aware of the question, “What are you?” 

According to the U.S. Census, the number of multiethnic Latinos living in the United States is increasing. 

Almost one in five Americans identify as Hispanic, a 26 percent increase since 2010. According to the Pew Research Center, almost four in ten U.S.-born Latinos were married to a non-Hispanic person in 2019. On the U.S. Census, 27.6 million Hispanics identified as two or more races. In 2021, U.S. Hispanics who identify as more than one race was almost ten times the amount from the 3 million in 2010. 

While some Latinos continue to raise families with experiences of their heritage, multiethnic U.S. Latinos have had their own unique experiences in themselves.

“Everybody’s always so shocked. Normally people ask how did my parents meet and I’ll go down that route, but it’s always a shock to people,” said Stahlberger, who grew up traveling between her parents’ hometowns of Cuernavaca, Mexico, and Baden-Baden, Germany.

As a child, she spoke German and Spanish while participating in traditions of both cultures. She twirled in German dance classes, attended after-school German language class and joined her family in Oktoberfest celebrations.

She also traveled to Mexico each summer with her family, walked the same neighborhood her mother did as a little girl, learned to speak Spanish fluently and enjoyed her favorite foods, chilaquiles and enchiladas. 

“I know I am both,” Stahlberger said.  “And I was always confident in that – because my parents did a great job of showing us both cultures, showing us the food and showing us the language. They did a beautiful job with that. I think when it came to other people understanding me, that’s where I kind of struggled a little bit.” 

One of the things she noticed is people consider her ‘white-passing’ in the U.S. She often saw her brother treated worse because they made assumptions about him based on his skin color.

“They look more Mexican than I do,” she said. “People don’t think I’m Mexican.”

Sabrina Stahlberger of Sterling Heights, Michigan, smiling at a German dance performance when she was around 10-years-old. PHOTO COURTESY OF SABRINA STAHLBERGER

White-passing, or presenting as a non-Hispanic white person in the U.S., has deep roots in the Latino community, said Alicia Diaz, an Instructor at Wayne State University’s Center for Latino/a and Latin American Studies in Detroit. Diaz, 61, is a native Detroiter who identifies as Afro-Latinx with roots in Puerto Rico and as a Black woman.

She recalled a moment when she was a college student at the Center for Latino/a and Latin American Studies, then known as the Center for Chicano and Boricua Studies. Where someone accused her of white-passing. 

It was at a bake sale and she was selling tacos for a fundraiser. “I remember a young woman walked up to me at the table. She was a young sister of African descent. And in a very accusatory tone asked me, “Why are you wearing that shirt?”

“Why? It’s mine,” Diaz said about her shirt, which had a Puerto Rican flag on it. The girl responded, “Well, those people are white.”

“She was accusing me of passing for something else,” said Diaz, who recalled the moment decades later. “This is a very painful chapter in African American identity in this country, of people ‘passing.’ And this passing is not exclusive to African Americans. You can talk to Detroiters, Black and Latino of a certain age, of the pain that comes from racism and colorism, and knowing individuals who attempted to ‘pass’ here in Detroit.”

The relations between Latinos and African Americans in Detroit began in the automotive plants in the 1920s, Diaz said. A population of Puerto Ricans and Mexicans were moving to the city to find automotive jobs.

“The initial arrival of Puerto Ricans here in Detroit were largely single men and a number of them, because of Northern racial segregation, were blended right into African American neighborhoods. That’s why you have African American families in Detroit that have a Spanish surname,” she said.

Wayne State University Center for Latino/a and Latin American Studies Instructor Alicia Diaz sits in her office on campus in Detroit surrounded by an art and book collection known as “la galería” to students. SHAWNTAY LEWIS/LATINO REPORTER

When Detroit became a hub for the civil rights and Black liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s, some of the Puerto Rican and Mexican residents joined the anti-war, labor and civil rights movements, Diaz said.

“When you think about this intersectionality, you need to go back to the origins of the community itself. If you think about who were in the automotive plants together,” she said. “There were huge racial tensions and inequalities that were happening within the automotive plants in the industry.”

Growing up, Diaz said she went to an African American Baptist congregation on Sunday, then went to Catholic Mass in Spanish the next week.

Her mother is African American and her father is Puerto Rican. She said she was able to live in her ethnic identity more comfortably thanks to the support from her mother, who passed away in April.

“My mother had spoke Spanish and she had made the decision that I would have a full identity. It was my mother who saw to it that I was educated in southwest Detroit, so that I would be in the classroom with other Latino kids,” she said. 

Stepping into her office, the liveliness of the Detroit Latino community paints the canvases and bookshelves. It’s not her art collection, but her colleagues’ collection that fills the room with paintings, books and monuments representative of the culture that she thanks her mother for. 


David Cazares, a public radio editor in St. Louis, Missouri, was born and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana in the 1960s. Cazares faced similar experiences of discrimination. He identifies as Black and Latino. His mom is African American and his father is Mexican American. He grew up being the fifth of 15 children. 

As a child, he lived in a Black neighborhood and attended a segregated school. He said what he experienced as a Black American defined his identity the most.

“I was just a kid with two parents who lived in a Black neighborhood. They all accepted us and we lived in that Black neighborhood because for somebody like me, that was the only home you had. That was the place where you went legally and otherwise,” Cazares said.

He can recall being called racist names throughout school and experienced the discrimination Black people faced in the U.S. around the same time the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, and Loving v. Virginia was ruled in 1967 for interracial marriage equality.

“I’m a Black person from the United States with a Black American heritage. We have this long history of struggle and it’s very important to me to honor that and my ancestry,” he said. “I also celebrate a pan-Latino identity that I learned from people who are very close to me.”

In college, Cazares studied Spanish literature to connect with the roots his father had.

“I wanted to be more part of that world also. It’s very important to me to have this cultural duality,” he added. “Some people might say that people like us put too much emphasis on that, but why can’t we just be us?”

Cazares realized later that he wasn’t close to his father’s side of the family because they rejected his father for being married to a Black woman.

“He lovingly called us his Black kids,” he said, of his father who passed away ten years ago. “He was a great father— kind of a tough father. He was proud that I wanted to be like him, but he was also proud that I was being who I was.” 

Angela Lugo-Thomas, 52, of Highland Park, Michigan, shows seeds for her Boricua-inspired garden at the Keep Growing Detroit Farm in Detroit’s Eastern Market district. SHAWNTAY LEWIS/LATINO REPORTER

Across town, Angela Lugo-Thomas, 52, of Highland Park, Michigan, plants recao seeds in the soil at the Keep Growing Detroit Farm of Detroit’s Eastern Market district.

A light blue and red Puerto Rican flag flies high over her plot of soil where she’s prepared to plant her Boricua-inspired garden. 

Lugo-Thomas is the garden development manager at Keep Growing Detroit, an urban farming organization promoting urban gardens in the city with their 1.38-acre urban farm. This summer, they’re planting cultural mini gardens to represent the diversity of their team. 

Even though she can’t plant most of the tropical plants from the island in Detroit, she brought the vibrant colors and the memories of her childhood to the garden. A morivivi, also called a sensitive plant, is her favorite.

“If you touch the leaves, it closes. It’s one of the favorite pastimes of kids in Puerto Rico,” the mother of three said. 

Lugo-Thomas is an island-born Puerto Rican who came to Detroit when she was six years old. Her mother is African-American from Ohio and her father is from Arroyo, Puerto Rico. She will tell you she is proudly Afro-Boricua and people know her as Detroit Boricua.

“When I was little, my mom told me that I would just go up to people and start talking in Spanish because I saw people of all colors in Puerto Rico and we all spoke Spanish. I didn’t know that people didn’t speak Spanish here,” she said.

She learned English in a closet-sized classroom in a school near northwest Detroit with students who spoke Japanese, German, among other languages. She said she had to better understand her identity while knowing she wasn’t from Detroit and being unaware of the increasing Hispanic population in southwest Detroit til later in life.

“Other children would tell me, ‘you’re not Black.’ And I was like, looking at my skin color and my features, like, ‘if I’m not Black. Then what am I?’ They would say, ‘You’re not Black because you speak Spanish.’” 

She had to explain to people that she is Black and born in Puerto Rico. “I’ve always felt 100 percent Boricua because that’s where I was born and that’s where my heart is,” she said. “But especially coming to Detroit– I’m Black.”

Lugo-Thomas is a community leader in the food accessibility movement in Detroit. She spends three days a week at the KGD farm to harvest produce. She also served on the board for the Detroit People’s Food Co-op, a Black-led and community owned food co-op bringing fresh food to a predominantly Black and low-income neighborhood. She spends her time involved in both Latino and African American communities in Detroit.

Angela Lugo-Thomas (center) with her husband, Jamal Thomas, and three daughters, Jamela, Anaya, Karima (left to right), in Caguas, Puerto Rico, on their last trip to Puerto Rico in December 2019. PHOTO COURTESY OF ANGELA LUGO-THOMAS

Today, Lugo-Thomas has three daughters who are 17, 21 and 16-years-old. She said, they identify as Afro-Latina or African American. One thing she looks forward to is for her daughters and future generations of Puerto Ricans to have space to thrive in the city they call home. They used to have the historic Club Puertorriqueño de Detroit, but it closed in 2018. 

“We don’t have a place to be Puerto Rican and we don’t have a festival anymore, so it’s been lacking. That’s one of the reasons why we started working on La Casita, which is going to be a gathering place for Puerto Ricans to be Puerto Rican and also share our culture with other people,” said Lugo-Thomas, the Co-director of La Casita.

Plans for the permanent ‘casita’ in southwest Detroit for Detroit’s Puerto Rican community are underway, branching from La Casita Cimarrón y Yuketí de Detroit performance venue.

She said one of her dreams is to host a multicultural festival in Detroit, to ensure a future where all Latinos have a space to feel like they belong in their culture.

Shawntay Lewis is a senior at Wayne State University in Detroit for a B.A. in broadcast journalism and Spanish language. She is a Caregiving Reporting Intern for Urban Aging News, a nonprofit publication on all things aging in metro Detroit. Lewis covers healthcare, vulnerable communities, culture and entertainment. She aspires to pursue a career as a producer. Reach her at shawntaylewis93 [at] gmail [dot] com or on X at @Shawntay Lewis.

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