BASED IN UK
Tanya Compas is a youth worker and the founder and CEO of Exist Loudly, an organisation that is committed to creating and nurturing spaces of joy and community for queer Black young people from the UK and beyond.
Queer, confused and Afro-Latinx?
I grew up in a mixed-race household, I grew up knowing my mum was white English and Dadwas Black British, we grew up in a stereotypically British household. My Dad’s mum passedaway before my sisters and I were born, I didn’t know her, all I knew was that my Dad’s family spoke French, they were from French Guiana and that whenever my aunt called I would avoid the phone because it would mean I’d have to speak in broken French on the phone and I didn’tknow much past “Ça va”. It was a bit confusing though because she spoke French but lived in Brasil. My dad only ever spoke to us in English, it’s almost as though when his mum died, so did his connection to French Guiana and thus my own connection to my roots.
My quest to find myself and my roots, along with my fascination and borderline obsession withall things South America, began at 18, whilst I was volunteering in rural Peru. I rememberwriting a letter to my Dad (No internet LOL) begging him to fly me to Brasil so I can see myGreat Aunt Célita. I hadn’t seen her since I was little and my Dad hadn’t seen her for over 10years either. It took a bit of persuasion but then my Dad said yes. My Dad flew to Brasil fromLondon and arrived a couple of days before me. He picked me up from the airport with my aunt,at this point I couldn’t speak Portuguese and after hugging my Dad, he said ‘’say hello to yourauntie’’. I turned and looked at my frail little auntie with her walking stick and she cried and hugged me.
We stayed with my aunt in her little flat on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro at the bottom of a favela, my Dad slept in the main room, I slept on her small kids sized bed made out of newspapers and my aunt slept on the sofa. We spent the trip sounding like a dysfunctional family as she would speak to my Dad in French, I would speak to him in English and I’d try tospeak to her in my then very broken and limited Portuguese. My trip there felt like I was scratching the surface at my roots but language barriers meant I couldn’t delve deeper.
Fast forward 3 years, I was now in my third year of University, on my year abroad in Colombiaas I was studying Hispanic studies with a focus on Afro-Latinx people and I decided I wanted togo back to Brasil again and decided to stay for 3 months. This time by myself. I didn’t stay withmy aunt this time around as I was working more central in Rio but I would visit her everySunday. This time around my Portuguese was pretty good and we could actually have full blownconversations, she would tell me about French Guiana, tell me tales about her growing up in theamazon and speak fondly about my Dad’s mum Leoncia. Most importantly, my aunt was the firstperson to give me the ‘Black talk’ and the importance of being a proud Black woman. This started my aunt and I’s now very close relationship.
This was back in 2014, fast forward to 2018 and countless conversations with my Dad, I had finally persuaded him to come with me to visit French Guiana and our roots. This trip was a longtime coming and I can’t express enough how much I personally needed it to know where I camefrom. French Guiana is a tiny little country next to Brasil, it was colonised by the French andtravel is very limited there, they even still use the euro as their main currency. Walking around French Guiana, I couldn’t help but stare at people who looked like my Dad, looked like me and just feel a sense of relief. The pivotal point of the trip was going to the town where my Dad’sfamily were brought up, this was literally slap bang in the middle of the rainforest, with a hugeriver running through and trees everywhere. It was beautiful. But sadly, the exact place wherethey grew up was torn down and taken over by NASA who have a space centre there (random I know).So instead, my Dad and I ended up going to a local restaurant close by, ate some traditionally creole food and before we left, my Dad asked the owner if he knew where the town hall was. It was just down the road and we managed to get there 10 minutes before it closed. My dad pulled out his mums passport which he brought on the trip with him and was speaking to the two Black women behind the counter “I’ve travelled here from England with my daughter because I want to show her where her family is from, my mum passed away and I was wondering if you have any of her documents”. The two women couldn’t quite believe what they heard but started looking through their cabinet and pulled out a massive book with all the records of people from the town dated back to my Dad’s mum. They said they found something and my Dad began to cry, I’ve never really seen my Dad be emotional like that and it took me back. The two Black women comforted my Dad, told him that his Mum would have been proud of him and said that our family, the Compas family, still owned land and we had family there. We cried. We didn’t quite make it to see or meet any of our family, but just knowing there were more Compas’s was enough for this trip.
After leaving French Guiana we went to visit my aunt in Brasil, this time was different, this time it felt complete. I showed her pictures of French Guiana and she’d tell me how much it had changed, whilst drinking from her bottle of red wine, she spoke lovingly about swimming in the amazon river and stealing fruit from the local grocers. Most surprisingly told me that our family are descendents of slaves, something that I didn’t directly know. My aunt came to life as she recounted stories of French Guiana and most importantly, the fact that I could understand her fluently. I was only meant to stay in Brasil for a week but ended up staying for a month and I spent a lot of time with my Aunt.
I was initially nervous because this time around was the first time I came back to Latin Americaas a queer person. I wasn’t sure how she’d react to the ‘new me’. As the last time she’d seen me in 2014, I had long flowing hair and I dressed much more femininely, whereas this time around I had many more tattoos and a short buzz cut. But she greeted the new me with more love and affection than ever before. I’m not going to lie she did try to get me to wear her old granny clothes at times and did call me her Grandson after I came back from a trip to the barbers. But I liked it. At the end of the trip she gave me a t-shirt she’d bought for me, a plain t-shirt but in a gender neutral cut and fit. This very small gesture told me that she ‘saw’ me and I felt loved.
My relationship with my family is bittersweet, as not too long after this trip relations with my immediate family broke down and I haven’t spoken to them since last December. I’m not sure if my Aunt knows. I haven’t spoken to her either. Not because I don’t want to, I do. But I’m scared I’ll have to tell her the relations broke down because of my sexuality and as she’s a very religious 98 year old Catholic, I don’t want her to reject me because of it. Her rejection scares me most because I’ve only just got her back in my life and she’s the only immediate connection I have to my culture, the Black side of my family and my roots.