Ynanna Djehuty’s Path to Identifying as an Afro-Latina
by Nicolle Morales Kern
The journey to self-discovery can be a long one, often involves exploring outside of the boundaries provided by family, and can lead to a new identity.
Such is the case for Afro-Dominican poet, writer, and birth doula Ynanna Djehuty (born Carmen Mojica). Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, Djehuty didn’t start referring to herself as Afro-Dominican until she started researching her heritage at the State University of New York at New Paltz, where she studied Black Studies and Television/Radio Productions. On this journey, she realized that there was a part of herself that she hated.
“The community in U.S. doesn’t like to recognize African heritage. I can only guess that in the Dominican Republic it might be the same. In the U.S., there is a clear black and white line; our society doesn’t understand there is a mix of things and you have to define if you’re black or white, and when I was growing up I didn’t realize that was happening, and always saw white as better.”
During her last semester in college, Djehuty took a class on Women in the Caribbean, which not only focused the racial aspects, but on the entire experience of women and how colonization has impacted their lives. After reading the article Latinegras: Desired Women – Undesirable Mothers, Daughters, Sisters and Wives by Marta Cruz-Janzen, she recognized who she is and how she feels about herself. As a result, Djehuty wrote a 20-page paper on the Afro-Latina identity. One thing she discovered during her research is that there are not many voices contributing to the subject.
“I decided I wanted to add to the voices of Afro-Latinas, to share information with other Afro-Latinas who don’t have words for their experiences,” says Djehuty on her decision to write her first book Hija De Mi Madre (My Mother’s Daughter), published in October 2009. The book is “a combination of memoirs, poems and research material that explains the effects of race on identity from an academic standpoint. She shares her personal story as a metaphor to place a common cultural experience into context.”
While she has always been a writer, Djehuty has a special place in her heart for poetry. “Poetry is the first love of my life. I wrote poems first, about the struggle to find out who I was, and why I didn’t love myself. It’s the raw emotion, where I can be the rawest. I wanted the poems to help tell the story by letting them see and feel the emotion.”
In her second book, Odas de La Mujer de Miel, Djehuty writes poetry in Spanish, a language she has always loved and one she uses for her strongest emotions. One of the main reasons she chose to write in Spanish so her mother could better understand what she was talking about in her life.
Djehuty feels that her mother and the rest of her family understand that college opened her eyes to new things, but they don’t quite understand why she’s so passionate about African heritage. Especially when she started exploring African dances and religions, approaches to life that conflict with her family’s Catholic views. “It has caused a bit of separation, and it’s sad, but do I stop this search for the truth for myself and make people happy? The answer is no, and I have to do what makes me happy. It’s hard because they have a static view of who you are and a fear of the unknown. This is what second generation people deal with. You live in American society and culture, but at home it’s like living in the Dominican Republic; it’s like living in two worlds.”
This past April, she went to visit her grandmother and extended family around Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic for the first time in 15 years. “I found out that the conversation in the Caribbean is just getting started about Afro heritage. When I got there I was called gringa and realized I was a stranger in the country I love so much. I’m still not really a part of this. So in two locations I am being told I am other.”
With her newfound pride in her heritage, Djehuty felt like a new person and chose to follow her African ancestors’ (her research leads her to believe her ancestors come from the Congo, Nigeria and countries in West Africa) tradition of naming ceremonies to reflect her commitment to a new life. Thus Carmen Mojica became Ynanna Djehuty, which means wisdom of the supreme intelligence.
When asked how she feels about her journey, Djehuty said, “Discovering myself has connected me to my roots and a history that I’m proud of. It connects me to history before the middle passage. The more I embrace it, the more whole I feel. I encourage anyone ready to take the journey to follow that path. Know that you’re not crazy, that there’s a whole system that wants to support you. Once you can contextualize you’re experience, you can begin to heal. When you know your history and where you come from you can begin to help the world and future generations.”
Her next projects involve becoming a certified midwife, publishing a new book of poetry, and writing a new book called Mujer Negra: Evolution, the continuation of her first book, Hija de Mi Madre.