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Candace Avalos Now Embraces Her ‘Blacktina’ Identity — But It Wasn’t Always Easy

This is the first installment of our contributor project We Count: Latinx Portland in 2020. Subscribe to the Bridgeliner newsletter to follow this series.

By Jordan Hernandez

Candace Avalos identified as a Latina teenager when she walked into her first black church service with her dad’s family. By the time she walked out, she was on her way to identifying as “Blacktina” and to fully embracing and understanding what that meant for her.

“I remember going to a black church and getting braids and cornrows from my aunt,” Candace says, laughing. “She took me to the gas station one day and we got weaves and fried chicken…at the same time. I was like, ‘What is this world? Where am I?’ There are aisles of weaves, and my aunt is up at the front getting the chicken and barking at the man telling him to keep adding more hot sauce. So he’s putting more in the bag and just shaking it up. I learned there was this whole other part of me then, a very different side that wasn’t just sitting around watching telenovelas with Grandma and eating tortillas.” 

Candace Avalos welcomes me into her home on a Sunday afternoon, and it’s one of those Portland days where the weather can’t make its mind. I’m on my third cup of coffee for the day when I arrive, so all of my bones are vibrating beneath my skin and I can almost hear my heart pumping as I sit in her living room. She has one of those really great couches that you can sink into when you sit, the overstuffed and squishy kind that you can get lost in should you lean back a little too far.

Candace is a first-generation “Blacktina.” Her mother was born in Guatemala and came to the U.S. when she was just five years old. Her father is black, and all of his family members are from southern Virginia. 

“My mom was an immigrant and my dad was from the Jim Crow South. These two halves of me tell two completely different stories, but there is this thread of pain, oppression, marginalization and lack of opportunities,” Candace says. Her dad has been in and out of the criminal justice system for most of her life, and there was a lot of abuse within her parents’ marriage, something she had to grapple with at an extremely young and impressionable age. Candace didn’t end up meeting her father until she was 13 years old.

That meant Candace grew up Latina. She and her mom lived with her grandparents and aunt, and Spanish was her first language. She didn’t speak any English until she started preschool. 

She can still remember her mom picking her up and them walking down the road together while she pointed at things and asked Candace what the English word for everything was. She also remembers being in school and not knowing how to communicate. She was good at math though because it didn’t have a language, just numbers. 

In high school she made excellent grades, played soccer and eventually joined the step team, which coincided with the time she went to Danville to meet her dad’s side of the family, who were all black. 

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She remembers how foreign it felt, but she also remembers the small moments of validation, like when a family member finally understood how to work with her hair and its texture. Until then, she’d often felt like an outsider in both identity groups teased by black girls at school who called her “Pocahontas” because of her hair, and questioned by others who’d say: “Why do you speak Spanish? You’re black.” 

It wasn’t until she started college that Candace truly began to identify herself out loud as “blacktina,” an identity that she’s been grappling with again on the campaign trail as she runs for City Council. The other woman in the race, Latino Network executive director Carmen Rubio, is also a Latina woman, and I can tell that Candace has complicated feelings about running against her for the same seat. 

“There’s the narrative of [Carmen] being the first Latina Commissioner, but it’s like… what about me? I’m also Latina. I’m a first-generation Latina! So it’s just complicated. Of course I feel like we need to lift each other up in this. We have the opportunity to have an all-women City Council, which would be super dope. But it’s been hard because it’s dug into this unrest that I have about not being Latina enough,” Candace explains. 

She recalls seeing an interview where the TV anchor asked Carmen about the idea of being the first Latina Commissioner, but when she went in for an interview, they didn’t ask her the same question. “It feels like I’m erased, especially because I look black but inside I feel way more Latina.”

Candace also tells me the story of running for student body president in high school, and how she gave the last part of her speech in Spanish with no translation. 

When she won, some of her white classmates told her it was because she pandered to get the Latino vote. In reality, she had won by a landslide and, of course, she’d grown up speaking Spanish fluently. 

“I was like, ‘I’m not pandering,'” she says. “These are my people.”  

Read my full story about Candace Avalos and her candidacy for Portland City Commissioner on Medium.

P.S. Don’t forget to put your primary election ballot in the mail by May 14, or drop it off at an official ballot drop site by Election Day (May 19).