Where are you from?
It’s a question that Franchela Ulises hears often in Arizona when she speaks in Spanish. In her native language.
She is used to the question. But she’ll never get used to the strange looks from others when she’s in public. She’s seen that look at the grocery store or at the park when she’s with her kids and they’re all talking in Spanish.
Sometimes she laughs it off. Other times, she lets her frustration flow.
Franchela was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Her parents are from the Dominican Republic.
In the country of her parents, Franchela doesn’t attract attention. Here in Arizona, in a desert state on the border with Mexico, a Black woman who speaks Spanish is watched with curiosity and sometimes reveals the prejudice toward people who share her heritage.
Facing discrimination. Not feeling recognized, included or accepted as an Afro-Latina. It’s exhausting, she says.
Franchela channeled her frustration into creating “Mujeres of all Shades.” The organization helps women of all races and cultural and ethnic backgrounds champion their own style, their own identities, their own expressions of beauty and brilliance.
Franchela works as a model, fashion stylist, and social media influencer to empower Afro-Latinas and unite women of all skin colors.
She’s cultivating a collective of women who are changing the fashion industry to be more inclusive of what women want and how they want to be seen and heard.
Together, they fight for confidence and self-esteem and against stereotypes about beauty, race and gender. For Franchela, it is a movement.
She has three daughters. She wants them to see more Afro-Latinas represented on television and other media.
On a cool day in downtown Phoenix, Franchela is posing for photos and speaking in Spanish and English. She explains what life is like for Afro-Latinas in Arizona.
She fixes her hair and adjusts her jacket with splashes of vibrant colors from lime green to indigo blue. She crosses her legs and sets aside her Gucci bag.
Looking at the camera with the confidence of a Hollywood star on stage, a model on the runway or mama with three babies, she smiles and says:
She releases a mischievous laugh adding, “I’m a little bit of everything.”
Franchela is 30 years old. She tries to explain how she defines herself, shows her identities in simple, straightforward ways that still seem so complicated in the eyes of people who do not know her cultural mix and her roots.
“Look, my parents are Dominican, but I was born in the Virgin Islands, where there are many Dominicans,” she says. “But this is the United States. So, I am African American.”
“But sometimes I’m not Black enough for people here. I’m also not Latino enough in this country. In the end, I think we can all be a little bit of everything.”
Franchela is proud to wear her Afro-Latina identity in Arizona, where laws have been passed to stigmatize race, culture and language. And where some people mistakenly think that all Latinos in Arizona are from México.
Franchela is an American citizen who champions Latino/a/x immigrants like her parents. Francisco Ulises and Elcilia Mercado taught her to love her culture and her language.
“My parents are amazing. They are both Dominican and traveled to St. Thomas, which is the gateway island to the Virgin Islands, before I was born,” she says. “They are a blessing. They always instilled in me our Dominican culture and appreciation for speaking Spanish very well.”
Dominicans represent the fourth largest group of Latino immigrants in the United States, after Mexicans, Salvadorans and Cubans, according to the Migration Policy Institute, or MPI.
MPI data shows that the number of Dominican immigrants in the U.S. increased 33 percent from 2010 to 2019. Those 1.2 million Dominicans represent approximately 3% of the immigrant population in the U.S., which is about 44.9 million people.
Latinos in the U.S. with Caribbean roots are more likely to identify as Afro-Latinos or Afro-Caribbeans than Latinos with roots in other regions (34 percent vs. 22 percent, respectively), according to a Pew Research Center survey. Those who identify as Afro-Latino are more concentrated on the East Coast and in the South compared to other Latinos. An estimated 65% of Afro-Latino immigrants live in these regions versus 48% of other Latino immigrants.
Franchela moved to Arizona 10 years ago to study criminal justice. She arrived with a heart full of dreams, but she found herself rejected. Some people, upon hearing her speak Spanish, looked at her strangely and whispered behind her back.
She felt like she couldn’t escape all the sideways glances.
“People are always shocked when they see me. They’re literally frozen when they hear me,” she says. “They ask me, in surprise, where I learned to speak Spanish.”
It hurts, she says, to know that her Afro-Latino culture is not appreciated enough in her country.
“We’re Latinos, we just look a little bit different,” she says firmly.
She remembers her life and traditions in moments. Living with her grandparents in the Dominican Republic, eating rice and beans and playing with her cousins, speaking in the language they grew up with.
Women of All Shades
Franchela faced culture shock when she moved to Arizona. She took that pain and channeled it into creating “Mujeres of all Shades”.
For her, it means everything for every woman to feel confident about her ancestral roots, the texture of her hair, the color of her skin color, her voice and her shape. Franchela feels confident wearing red lipstick and fierce colors. It’s a medicine for a fashion guru to feel beautiful, brave and bold.
Not everyone looks the same just because they’re from the same country or culture, she says.
“We have to change the stereotypes (in the U.S.),” she says. “It’s the same in México, where there are blonde people with green eyes. We must accept that we come in all colors.”
Through her organization, the model offers a series of tutorials for women to feel comfortable in their own skin. She covers personal styling, fashion events, wardrobe checks, outfit planning, shopping plans, fashion consultations, and even a fashionista photo shoot.
She doesn’t only focus on fashion, style and the beauty of women. Franchela seeks to educate Latino and non-Latino communities about cultural, racial, ethnic representation, equality and diversity. She wants Latino communities to recognize and celebrate Afro-Latino cultures.
She hopes people don’t think that observing Black History Month in February is enough. Rather, she wants an inclusive conversation about respecting people of color and people from these communities who speak different languages.
“We are not well represented in the United States. We’re lacking space on television, where our stories are told, so people get to know us,” Franchela says. “We have to focus on the Black and Afro-Latino community every day, not just one month, because the problems we face happen all year long.”
And to begin to make a change, the style consultant and mom has educated her daughters Yoelianny, 9, Alianny, 7, and Leilianny, 2, to feel proud of their Latina roots, the color of their skin and of being bilingual.
“I instill the Latino culture in them,” Franchela says. “We speak Spanish. I explain to them where I come from, where their father Juan Franco, who is Dominican, comes from. I tell them that they are beautiful and that they are also Latinas.”
‘When people talk to me in English, because they think I don’t speak Spanish’
Franchela is active on her personal and business social media networks. The entrepreneur shares her bold fashion sense and stories about her experiences as an Afro-Latina woman.
She often hears back from other Afro-Latinas who feel seen and heard. She hears from people who love her style and culture. But there’s hate, too. Like a recent racist comment on Tik Tok.
“They told me that I was too dark to be Dominican,” she says.
She faced the same old stereotypes. But she saw it as an opportunity to change the way people perceive Afro-Latinas like her.
“I get those comments a lot,” she says. “I use them to educate, because if that person was thinking it, I’m sure there are a hundred others who are thinking it too.”
Franchela uploaded a video with audio from the popular “Caso Cerrado” television show to her social media, using humor and language to talk about being Afro-Latina and proudly speaking Spanish.
She posted it with a banner in black and white: “When people speak to me in English, because they think I don’t speak Spanish.”
“Buenas tardes! No ‘afternoon’ or ‘hello’ here. Spanish is spoken here because this is a program in Spanish”, Franchela says with authority, a head tilt and a hard stare.
The Afro-Latina says there’s been progress over the years in education and action against racism. But there is still rampant “racism that gets swept under the rug.”
“The aggression that people of color [face] is not always so direct anymore, but it is indirect and it is racism all the same,” Franchela says. “It hurts, frustrates and makes you feel bad. It (racism) hasn’t gone away. But it could go away. It’s a matter of people with privilege not thinking they can just recognize our culture for just one month – these issues should be regularly exposed.”
Franchela has also dedicated herself to educating those who think that Afro-Latinos are not Latinos, so people learn to embrace the diversity of our (Latino) community.
Fighting for people’s rights and what she believes in is not new for Franchela. She studied criminology to help young people trapped in the U.S. justice system. She knows that the key to supporting people is to motivate and empower them so they don’t feel defeated.
That’s what Franchela is: A motivator who wants people to feel joyful about their identity and their culture.
A powerful leader who empowers others.
A woman who loves bold colors. All colors. A woman who loves her American and her Latina roots.
She’s … a little bit of everything.