Joan Smalls stunned on Vogue Mexico y Latinoamérica’s April 2020 cover alongside YHLQMDLG urbano star Bad Bunny. It was a union of Puerto Rican excellence we didn’t know we needed and a yet again inclusive addition to the glossy magazine’s collection. Smalls was a class act and touched on identity with a frankness the reporter was seemingly unaccustomed to and transparency some Afro-Latinx readers will appreciate and relate to.
“I was always trapped in the spectrum of my skin being too light to be Black but too dark to be Latina,” she tells Vogue about the onset of her modeling career in the United States. “I came into an industry that immediately put me in a box,” she said.
“I’m not just Black and I’m not just Latina,” she told British Vogue in 2019. The Hatillo-born model went from Devoción in Brooklyn to a cafe in San Juan for that feature in order to show Vogue and viewers the dichotomy between her two lifestyles.
In 2011, Smalls became the first Afro-Latina model to represent Estée Lauder. She’s part of the Business of Fashion 500, is on Forbes’ list of highest-paid models, has modeled for the likes of Givenchy Couture, Victoria’s Secret, Dianne von Furstenberg and more.
“They saw me as the Afro-descendant model—not as a mix… they didn’t see my different layers—as a Latina and Afro-descendant—they only saw my exterior,” she said. “There was no inclusion at the time… whenever they referred to ‘lo Latino’ I was the last to be considered… Now everyone uses the term ‘Afro-Latina’ but when I started, that didn’t exist.”
At 31, with over a decade of experience in the industry, Smalls knows who she is and is set on creating opportunities for the next generation of models who see themselves reflected in her.
“I want to leave a door open for more people can walk in and not have to deal with the difficulties I had, for them to keep fighting to [knock down] the closed doors that are still there,” she declared. “I want people, but especially women, to not feel like they can’t raise their voices.