‘Negra, Yo Soy Bella’ is a love letter to Afro-Latina women

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Executive produced by Queen Latifah and directed by Vashni Korin, “Negra, Yo Soy Bella” is a documentary that celebrates Black Puerto Rican women, their ancestors and the power of bomba dance.

A new documentary short film is showing the world what it means to be Black, beautiful and rooted in tradition on the island of Puerto Rico.

“Negra, Yo Soy Bella” — which is Spanish for “Black, I am Beautiful” — tells the story of Mar Cruz, an Afro-Puerto Rican bomba dancer, using the African-inspired improvisational dance tradition to affirm her Blackness and heal her pain.

The film, a product of Queen Latifah’s Queen Collective, is directed by Vashni Korin, a Black Puerto Rican and Caribbean filmmaker, who set out to disrupt the erasure of Afro-Latinos in media through solid representation.

Mar Cruz dances Puerto Rican bomba in the film "Negra, Yo Soy Bella." Director Vashni Korin, Pelua Productions. Tribeca. (Photo by Gabriella Baéz, courtesy of Vashni Korin)
Mar Cruz dances Puerto Rican bomba in the short film “Negra, Yo Soy Bella,” directed by Vashni Korin for Pelua Productions. (Photo: Gabriella Baéz, courtesy of Vashni Korin)

“Growing up, I rarely saw a Black Puerto Rican woman on screen,” Korin tells theGrio in a recent interview on TheGrio Weekly. “When we’re not represented, when you don’t see yourself on television, you don’t see yourself in the media, on billboards … You begin to lose what is possible for you, the magnitude of what is possible for you and your life and what you can do if it begins to disintegrate. So I think it is so important that we begin to infiltrate certain images of ourselves on screen.”

“Negra, Yo Soy Bella” is filmed in a mix of powerful dreamlike sequences that intertwine bomba dancing, bomba drummers and bilingual reflections from Cruz about growing up as a Black woman in Puerto Rico.

With brown skin and dark locs, Cruz recalls being questioned by other Puerto Ricans, asked “Are you from the islands?” as if she were a foreigner in the land In which she was born and raised.  The film shows how racism and colorism hit bone-deep, but are valiantly resisted as women like Cruz and Miss Universe Puerto Rico semi-finalist Dorayma Mercado Cepeda insist on wearing their natural hair and claiming their Black identity.

“Before being Puertorriquena,” Cruz says, “I’m a Black woman.”

The women dance bomba in public places and tap into the spiritual strength of their Black ancestors for guidance.  For them, bomba music and its signature drums can heal and relieve everything from racial trauma to deep personal pain, which Cruz reveals in “Negra, Yo Soy Bella.”

“It’s like an awakening,” she shares.

Djali Brown-Cepeda, archival and post producer for “Negra, Yo Soy Bella,” says the short doc holds up a mirror to show a piece of Black Latino life that has always proudly existed, but deserves more elevation.

“It goes back to that saying, ‘Everybody wants to be Black, nobody wants to be Black,’” Brown-Cepeda tells theGrio. “So much of the cultural fabric of our society is a society in which we are still seeing the byproducts of enslavement. We see anti-Blackness. We see certain communities not invested in. We see certain people not represented in media. We see certain folks not able to actualize and realize their fullest potentials because of, say, racism and all of these things that are still plaguing our societies.”

The story of Mar Cruz takes place within a larger movement of Black pride that has only been increasing and expanding in recent decades as Afro-Latinos reclaim space and history that many mainstream institutions overlooked.  According to the Pew Research Center, in 2020, there were six million adults who identified as Afro-Latino in the United States.

“There is a deeper desire to know our history, the real history,” says the film’s producer, Karely Pérez-Cruz. “I think for a long time, Puerto Rico has been feeding us a history that doesn’t always encapsulate the truth of what’s happening in the Black community. So I think this vehicle of dance, this beautiful art form, is such an amazing way to open the doors to learning more about yourself, learning more about your roots.”

“Negra, Yo Soy Bella,” can be viewed on Season Four, Episode Four of the Queen Collective series.

Watch the full interview with the film’s creators above and tune into TheGrio Weekly each Friday at 2pm/10pm ET on streaming platforms, and each Sunday on theGrio TV’s cable channel at 11am ET.

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