From a young age, many Black Latinx people have been taught that beauty is determined by a person’s proximity to whiteness. We’ve been taught that soft, wavy hair, pale to olive skin, and slender figures with a hint of hips are the epitome of beauty. Latin America’s complex racial history—stemming from colonization, assimilation, and aggressive attempts to erase its Black roots and preserve whiteness—has played a key role in this twisted mentality.
When all you see are fair-skinned Latinas like Salma Hayek, Shakira, and J.Lo on billboards, adored on television, featured on the covers of editorial magazines, and deemed as the faces of the Latinx community, it’s a constant reminder and reflection of Latin America’s desire to preserve whiteness and erase the contributions of Black Latinas who deserve love, praise, and opportunities as well.
For many Black Latinas, like Panamanian beauty influencer and makeup artist Iris Beilin, it’s taken an arduous yet rewarding journey to fully embrace their identity and beauty. Beilin’s medium deep golden skin, cat-like almond eyes, full lips, high cheekbones, and curves are some of the features—along with her bubbly personality and flawless makeup skills—that make her stand out, and it’s also what made her 1 million Youtube subscribers love her. Yet, it took a while before Beilin learned to love her beautiful features as well.
As a child in Panama, she struggled to fit in because she didn’t have “perfectly straight hair” or a lighter complexion. She would always hear people refer to her as “negra,” which translates to Black woman, yet they would make negative comments about other Black people around her.. One of her relatives used to call her “brillito,” comparing her hair to a Brillo pad, which mortified Beilin. These words held weight. These words made Beilin feel like she wasn’t enough — like she wasn’t beautiful like the other girls. Once, when her aunt gifted her a Black Barbie, she was extremely upset because it wasn’t the regular blonde-haired white Barbie.
“It’s crazy to think that I can perfectly remember this moment from when I was little,” Beilin says.
When Beilin began making videos on her Youtube channel, Irishcel507, over ten years ago, it was a fun way for her to experiment with different makeup looks. She quickly gained popularity for her makeup do’s and don’ts videos, honest product reviews, and soft glam looks. Her makeup journey on Youtube led her into a deeper journey into learning more about her roots.
“I didn’t know much about Afro Latinidad until I started watching a documentary on Panama,” she says. On Youtube, she was surprised to see how many people identified as Afro/Black Latinx. It challenged her to accept her own Blackness. She attributes her newfound pride in her Black Latinidad to her close friend Monica Veloz, better known as MonicaStyle Muse on Youtube. Veloz’s unwavering confidence as a stunning dark-skinned Black Latina inspired Beilin to become her most authentic self: negra y orgullosa — Black and proud.
Stronger than ever, Beilin realized that self-love is the best kind of love. She realized that her sunkissed brown skin, natural curves and big, healthy curly hair is a gift from above. Through patience, compassion and healing, she found her truest self — imperfections and all. Today, she hopes that other Black Latinas can find their inner power as well.
“Take your time,” Beilin says. “I am in my 30s, and I’m still figuring it out. It doesn’t come to you in a day, so just be patient with yourself.”
At times, it surprises Beilin that so many people are inspired by her presence and journey, but on tough days it reminds her that she’s on the right path in her life, and that there’s always room for more love and growth as a proud Black Latina.
“In this journey, I’ve learned that I am unique,” she says. “I am one-of-a-kind. I love myself because if I don’t find love in myself, nobody’s going to do it for me. It’s all within me.”
Although Beilin had to be her own role model growing up, she’s now inspiring a new generation of Black Latinas to love every bit of themselves. Cheyene Richards, now a mentor to other Black women, is one of them.
As a curvy Black Latina from Brooklyn, Richards always felt a sense of pride in her own Panamanian roots whenever she watched one of Beilin’s makeup videos. Seeing women like Beilin who looked like her representing her culture made Richards feel even more proud of being Black.
Growing up, Richards’ female relatives were her role models. From an early age, they instilled the importance of knowing her raíces (roots) in her. Her Aunt Silvia, in particular, always made sure Richards knew how special and divine her Blackness was and is. Richards admired her aunt’s grace and natural confidence.
“She used to go out all the time — I would be there on the weekend, and I would actually wear her heels around the house, and I would get in trouble because the people who lived underneath would hear me walking with them late at night,” Richards jokes.
Whenever she went to get her hair done at the salon, she would hear the stylists recommend that she should chemically straighten her curls or get a blow out. Most people would crack under pressure, but Richards’ mom would swoop in just in time to defend her and her beautiful hair. Moments like this empowered Richards and reminded her that her Blackness is beautiful and that she doesn’t have to change a thing.
Dancing brought Richards closer to her roots. Her aunt and grandmother were a part of a Panamanian Folkloric dance ensemble called Conjunto Nuevo Milenio, and she would regularly attend their practices. During performance, Richards would gaze in pure amazement as her aunt and grandmother gracefully danced across the floor in gorgeous polleras, which are traditional Panamanian dresses with full skirts that are intricately embroidered in vibrant colors, gold jewelry, and tembleques, which are headpieces ornamented with flowers, pearls and gold. She knew then that her culture was important to preserve and keep close to her heart.
At times, she encountered people who would question her Latinidad and test how much Spanish she could speak. Although this was frustrating, it never stopped Richards from being herself. In college, she joined several clubs that discussed Black Latinidad, as well as how to style her naturally curly hair. She even performed her traditional Panamanian dances as a way to stay connected to her roots. Like Beilin, Richards believes that her culture and beauty are what sets her apart from everyone else, and that in itself is beautiful.
“No one is me, no one has my power,” Richards says. “That’s my favorite thing about myself. It took me a while to love my body and my hair as it is, and that’s okay. Being an Afro-Latina means that you have a direct connection to our ancestors. Embrace their spirit and beauty, and all of the natural beauty that was gifted to you.”
Written by Jasely Molina for Youth To The People