Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, a prominent human rights lawyer and senior counsel at LatinoJustice Puerto Rican Legal Defense & Education Fund, has admitted to Prism's Tina Vásquez that she has been lying about her heritage for years and is in fact white.
In a lengthy feature story, Vásquez reveals that Bannan has spent years taking positions, scholarships, internships and more by falsely claiming she was Latina.
“I am racially white, and have always said that. However my cultural identity was formed as a result of my family, both chosen and chosen for me, and that has always been Latinx. My identity is my most authentic expression of who I am and how I pay honor to the people who have formed me since I was a child,” Bannan told Vásquez when confronted about concerns that she was misrepresenting her heritage. She refused to answer questions about whether it was right for her to have taken so many opportunities from actual Latinx people.
“My biological origins are Italian, atheist Jewish/Sephardic, some unknown (adopted grandfather) and who knows what else. My biological parents were born in the United States, and I was raised with only one of them. Yet the Colombian family who I grew up with and who was responsible in grand part for raising me, who helped form my character and identity were from many different ethnic identities and backgrounds,” Bannan allegedly wrote in a 2016 Facebook post she shared with Vásquez.
The story references another Facebook post that Bannan allegedly wrote on Monday, ahead of the article's publication, where she admits to being white and not telling the truth about her family.
That post is no longer on her Facebook page, but she took to Twitter on Thursday afternoon to go back on her admission, claiming the article was a "distortion." As of Friday, she has switched her Twitter account to private.
"An article recently published about me is a distortion of my story, my identity and my work. It includes misstatements and a narrative of who I am that is inaccurate. Those who I’ve been in struggle with know that & know me. It’s never been about me, but about the work," she wrote.
An article recently published about me is a distortion of my story, my identity and my work. It includes misstatements and a narrative of who I am that is inaccurate. Those who I’ve been in struggle with know that & know me. It’s never been about me, but about the work.
— Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan (@lyciaora) January 7, 2021
Throughout the years, Bannan has given differing statements about her family and heritage. In some videos and interviews, she presents herself as Puerto Rican, in others, she said her family is from Colombia.
In a video shared by her law firm, she speaks about "visiting family in Colombia" and says that salsa dancing was a "chance where I get to step away from being a lawyer and thinking heavily all day long about very serious issues and express myself in a very different, creative way and in a way that is very culturally-affirming and that connects me even deeper with my community and my culture and myself."
But through her investigation, Vásquez found that Bannan's maternal and paternal family was from Russia, Ireland and Italy. She herself wrote in court records that she was a non-Hispanic white person when she was 17 years old.
Yet, in an interview with Voice Latina, she claimed she was a “cultural mix of Puerto Rican, Colombian, Italian and some other.”
The 43-year-old Georgia native has been stealing opportunities from Latinx people since at least 2006, when she began misrepresenting her heritage, according to Vásquez.
Vásquez spoke with multiple Latinx lawyers who expressed dismay that Bannan spent years taking opportunities away from members of a group that are already lacking in opportunities in the legal profession, according to NBC News.
“It’s like she’s wearing a Latina costume and dresses according to Latina stereotypes. A lot of us endure so much criticism because of the way we look and the way that we talk; the hate and harassment we receive means we have to tone ourselves down. Actual Latinas couldn’t get away with what she does,” Guatemalan lawyer Ana Gabriela Urizar told the news outlet.
Prism listed out many of the opportunities she took based on her false identity, including participation in the National Hispana Leadership Institute and awards like the Peace, Health, and Justice Award from Casa Atabex Ache.
She served as president of CUNY Law School’s Latin American Law Students Association and was a fellow with the Center for Latino/a Rights and Equality.
Bannan managed to get an internship in 2010 with the Center for Constitutional Rights’ Ella Baker program. When she was named president of the National Lawyers Guild in 2015, they lauded her as the organization's first Latinx president, according to Prism.
She was a Ricardo Salinas Scholar at the exclusive Aspen Institute’s Justice and Society Seminar, and her participation was funded by a scholarship that specifically aimed to expand opportunities for the Latinx community.
The news outlet also noted that she has had multiple essays and pieces included in anthologies designated specifically for Latinos.
Over the past year, multiple white women have been outed as having lied about their heritage, from Hilaria Baldwin most recently to Jessica Krug last year. While the most infamous example was Rachel Dolezal, more and more have emerged in recent months.
While Bannan tried to defend herself on Twitter, the response was far from positive.
you are a distortion. you took a Latina’s place by taking that job and you violate Latinos by taking their place at every event or conference you attend. one thing is to be a fake ally, but occupying our community’s space is an act of racism.
— Paola Medina Prieto (@ibtchwhruvacay) January 7, 2021
You’re full of it. You think you’ve given yourself plausible deniability by claiming that you’re a “cultural mix” of different things, never outright claiming to be Puerto Rican, but a lot of us can see right through your charade.
— Anthony Cesareo (@anceco) January 7, 2021
What's your story then? Please, enlighten us about your Latinidad and experience as a Latina. We are all dying to hear it.
While you're at it, let us know which publisher it'll land with, how much money you'll make from it, and where that money will go. https://t.co/cTWBiQd5vJ
— ???????????? (@s_phia_) January 7, 2021
You yourself said that “I am racially white AND I identify as Latina because of the culture I was raised in.” (Emphasis added.)
In short, you are a white woman who grew up in Georgia and you appropriated/co-opted Latinidad instead of Blackness. https://t.co/UlnNZ7DAk7
— ría (she/ella/us) (@MrsDubyaInDC) January 7, 2021
Vásquez also took to Twitter to fire back at Bannan about her claim the article was a "distortion," writing that she has already been contacted by others who had concerns.
As the reporter behind the article, I have to disagree. I’ve received emails, messages, and calls today from your students, your colleagues, your law school classmates, and many, many Latina attorneys in your circle who only further confirmed the reporting. https://t.co/YqHPlhC0x1
— Tina Vasquez (@TheTinaVasquez) January 7, 2021
Surprisingly, her employer LatinoJustice defended her, telling Prism that Bannan is a "valuable member of our staff serving as senior counsel to us for years."
"Her race and ethnicity have had no bearing on the quality of her work for LatinoJustice and for our clients,” Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel of LatinoJustice, told Prism in a statement.
Other legal associations she is a part of have said they will investigate the claims and are asking people to come forward with any complaints about her.
When it was clear the controversy was growing, Bannan released a longer statement defending her right to call herself Latina because of her stepfathers.
"My identity is intricate, like that of many people. I am racially white and I identify as Latina because of the culture I was raised in," she wrote on Twitter. "I grew up in a mixed home, culturally and in many other ways. My biological origins are Italian, atheist Jewish and some unknown. My biological parents were born in the United States, and I was raised with only one of them, with either little to no real connection to either the people or cultures of either side."
My Colombian stepfather and family who I grew up with were responsible in grand part for shaping me and forming my character and identity. My Peruvian stepfather who was actually the father that helped guide and protect me over decades left us this past year and with his absence,
— Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan (@lyciaora) January 7, 2021
"My identity as a Latina comes from my most profound relationships. My identity as a Latina has defined and shaped my work, who I do it with and for, my solidarity and my commitment to collective liberation," she added. "My Colombian stepfather and family who I grew up with were responsible in grand part for shaping me and forming my character and identity. My Peruvian stepfather who was actually the father that helped guide and protect me over decades left us this past year and with his absence."
But as Vásquez wrote in her piece, "ethnicity does not come through osmosis."