Credit: Photo Credit Lapacazo Sandoval

The more things change the more they stay the same. According to current data, the largest Latino majority is located in Union City in Hudson County, where nearly 85 percent of the population was identified as Latino.  70% or more of their overall populations—Perth Amboy (83.2% Hispanic), Union City (82.4%), Dover (77.0%), West New York (75.8%), Victory Gardens (74.9%), Passaic (73.1%), and North Bergen (70.9%)

With this influx, cultural traditions extend beyond food. For the Mexican and Afro-Mexican population, the biggest holiday is the commemoration of the departed —  Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) — which is observed from October 27th to November 2nd.

There are numerous misconceptions about Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), often originating from other Spanish-speaking communities. Perhaps it’s the skull decorations that trouble them or the belief that the departed, including pets, return to visit. Many also feel uneasy about the ofrenda, or altar, associating it with Santeria and Voodoo. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

Creating an ofrenda, typically in private homes and cemeteries, is a simple yet profound way to honor our departed loved ones. It includes family photos, marigolds, offerings, water, food, salt, candles, and Pan de Muerto adorned with bones and skulls, symbolizing the circle of life. The aroma of copal incense often hangs in the air, carrying prayers and purifying the space, crafting a sacred atmosphere—a warm invitation for spirits to return.

Día de los Muertos holds deep roots in the ancient traditions of Aztec, Toltec, and Nahua communities, where death was viewed as a natural phase in life’s cycle rather than an endpoint. 

This profound cultural heritage was acknowledged by UNESCO in 2008, recognizing it as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This designation emphasized that cultural traditions, like Día de los Muertos, are not relics but living expressions passed down through generations.

Within the context of the Afro-Latino experience, which is hard to measure because of improper identification the complexity is compounded. 

In this demographic, Afro-Latino adults, particularly those aged 18 to 29, make up 30% of the group. Despite enduring racial prejudices, they find strength in traditions like Día de los Muertos, which offer solace and connection in adversity. As an Afro-Mexican, I reached out to fellow Afro-Latinos like Nioby, Michael Anthony Baca, and Mercedes White, aiming to deepen my understanding and amplify our shared narratives.

Nioby is an Afro-Mexican fashion, beauty, and lifestyle influencer.  A proud Towson University alumna, Nioby holds a degree in business and has seamlessly combined her love for fashion and beauty with her business acumen, creating a powerful presence both on and offline.

Here’s what Nioby Monroe, and Mercedes White shared about being Afro Mexicans in this country and why embracing both cultures.

NEW JERSEY URBAN NEWS: What does it mean to you to be both African American and Afro-Mexican?

NIOBY MONROE: Being both African American and Mexican American means embracing and embodying the rich cultural heritage, traditions, and experiences of both my African and Mexican ancestry. It means having a unique identity that intertwines the history, struggles, achievements, and resilience of two distinct communities.

NJUN: What challenges did you face, if any, growing up?

NM: The challenges I used to face when I was a child and even to this day is people not understanding me because I never fit into a box. 

Mercedes White, an actress, writer, and Director of Theater at the Harlem School of the Arts, is known for her work in productions like “Somebody Somewhere” (HBO) and “Empire” (Fox). Based in Chicago, she grew up in the vibrant Mexican-American community of Pilsen. White is also the producer of the short film “TAKING THE E TRAIN: MAGICAL HARLEM,” adapted from the upcoming book “DIEGO MARTINEZ: MONSTER HUNTER.” As a playwright, her works include “GENESIS,” “THE RIVER JORDAN,” and “METAPHOR FOR A TREE.” Additionally, she has written a pilot, “The 30-year (s),” and directed short films like “Mailroom” and “The 30th Year.”

NJUN: Growing up as both African American and Afro Mexican what’s it like to live between both of those worlds?

MW: Honestly, it was both awesome and confusing. Throughout my upbringing, my awareness of my black identity was limited. I knew I was black – how could I not? But blackness is more than just skin color, and I struggled to relate. It wasn’t until I ventured into my predominantly Mexican neighborhood that I was sharply reminded of my differences. Despite sharing the same cultural upbringing and participating in the same traditions as my Mexican peers, I was always seen as Black, and that was that. This confusion escalated when my father’s side of the family insisted, without relenting, that I was not Black but Mexican.

NJUN: So how was this experience both awesome and confusing?

MW: Well, it was a mix of both. As a child, all I wanted was to belong. Yet, as I grew older, I realized that regardless of what others said or thought, I belonged to both cultures. Nothing could change that fundamental truth.

NJUN: What aspects of the beauty in both cultures, individually and when combined, do you wish more people understood?

MW: Both cultures are deeply rooted in the family unit, particularly under the guidance of the matriarch. This commonality results in upbringing similarities to a significant extent.

There’s nothing better than discovering, to your own astonishment, what you’re meant to do.  It’s like falling in love.”

– Mike Nichols

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