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The National Lawyers Guild’s former first ‘Latina’ president is a white woman

Prominent human rights attorney Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan has spent more than a decade pretending to be Colombian and Puerto Rican.
Tina Vásquez January 7th, 2021
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Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan sits in a chair beside a screen that reads "Latinas Represent."

For years, prominent human rights attorney Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan has positioned herself as an advocate for Latinx communities, most recently identifying as a Puerto Rican woman from New York determined to aid the island and bring attention to the economic and humanitarian crises produced by colonization. Unbeknownst to many in the Latinx communities she worked alongside and claimed as her own, Bannan is a white woman who grew up in Georgia. Since at least 2006, she has accepted opportunities expressly intended for Latinas and other people of color.

The 43-year-old, who is currently senior counsel at LatinoJustice Puerto Rican Legal Defense & Education Fund, has publicly identified as a Latina for years, though the specifics of her identity and origin story have shifted over time. News of Bannan’s misrepresentation comes on the heels of reports that Hillary “Hilaria” Baldwin spent more than a decade pretending to be from Spain. While the concept of “passing” originated with lighter-skinned African Americans who attempted to pass as white in an effort to evade racial terror, Bannan is part of a recent phenomenon of white women—including Rachel Dolezal, Jessica Krug, and Kelly Kean Sharp—caught cosplaying as Black, Latina, and AfroLatina for personal gain.

Shifting identities

Nothing in Bannan’s lineage indicates that she can lay claim to a Latina identity. According to historical public documents, including census and naturalization records, Bannan’s paternal family arrived in the United States from Ireland and Italy. Her Italian grandmother Lycia, the source of Bannan’s middle name, arrived in the U.S. in 1912. Records also indicate that Bannan’s maternal family all arrived in the U.S. from Russia. Court records from 1994, when Bannan was 17 years old, identify Natasha Lycia Bannan as a white “non-Hispanic.” Nevertheless, in a statement to Prism, Bannan said she has identified as Latina for as long as she can remember because it was the culture she was “raised in.”

In public comments going back more than a decade, she has claimed varying forms of Latina identity, presenting vague and shifting descriptions of her ethnic and cultural origins. In 2007, Bannan told the the Spanish-language newspaper El Diario that she was “a little bit Spanish, a little bit Colombian, and a Sephardic Jew.” When asked about the article, which is no longer available online, Bannan told Prism that she never identified as Spanish.

”I believe I let the reporter know back then that was a misprint in the article,” said Bannan in a statement.

The reporter in question told Prism that she has no recollection of whether Bannan contacted her about an error in the story.  

In a 2015 video, Bannan mentioned dancing in a salsa competition while visiting family in Colombia when she was eight years old. By 2017, claims of a Puerto Rican identity entered the public sphere. In one video, Bannan tells Voice Latina that she’s a “cultural mix of Puerto Rican, Colombian, Italian, and some other.”

Shortly after being contacted by Prism for this story, Bannan wrote a Facebook post Monday afternoon clarifying that she is “racially white” and that her “cultural heritage” and her identification as a Latina come from who her family “has been” and not where her “ancestors were from.” Bannan told Prism that she has been public about her white identity but declined to provide significant examples supporting this claim.

“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 said.

In a subsequent email, Bannan shared a private 2016 Facebook post as proof that she has publicly identified as white.

“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,” reads the post. “Yet the Colombian family who I grew up with and who were responsible in grand part for raising me, who helped form my character and identity were from many different ethnic identities and backgrounds.”

Bannan told Prism that her maternal grandfather was adopted, however he is listed as white in both the 1930 and 1940 census. Bannan didn’t clarify who her Colombian family is, or how long she was connected to them. Public records indicate Bannan’s mother was married to a man with a Spanish surname for five years, during the time Bannan was ages six to 11. Another marriage record indicates her mother had a subsequent marriage to a different man with a Spanish surname in 1995.

In the post, Bannan also wrote of her “deeply spiritual and cultural connection with Borinquen that has lasted many lives and took over my spirit, accent and soul from a young age.”

‘Actual Latinas couldn’t get away with what she does’

Bannan appears in a multitude of videos across the internet, mostly focused on Puerto Rico, as she has positioned herself as a Puerto Rican attorney and expert on the sociopolitical conditions facing the island and its people. No subject is off limits. In one video, she appears alongside survivors of Hurricane Maria. In a DemocracyNow clip following the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting in which 23 of the 49 victims were LGBTQ+ Puerto Rican people, Amy Goodman offers her “deepest condolences” for the tragedy to show guests Bannan and San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, along with her co-host Juan Gonzales, appearing to operate under the assumption that all three were of Puerto Rican ancestry. Bannan accepted without comment. 

Actual Latina attorneys who spoke to Prism said that while stories like Baldwin’s are played for laughs, Bannan’s case is more serious.

Chicana immigration public defender and policy advocate Sophia Gurulé is based in East Harlem and does removal defense in the Bronx, representing detained immigrants fighting deportation. Her professional and social circles overlap with Bannan’s and Gurulé said that watching clips of Bannan talk about the importance of Latina representation in the legal profession makes her feel “disgusted.”

“There’s an interview she did for LatinasRepresent that is just unbelievable to me because she acknowledges Latinas are so underrepresented in this profession. To me, it’s clear she has some kind of white savior complex,” Gurulé said. “In the video, she talks about being the only point of reference her Latino clients know; she says she’s a ‘bridge’ for them. All of it centers her and is framed like she is coming in to save our communities.”

As a public defender, Gurulé said it’s her job to advocate for people who cannot advocate for themselves because of the circumstances they’re in, but she takes her lead from them.

“I actually don't know a lot of the experiences of the people I represent. I was born in the United States. I did not migrate to this country. I did not face the violence at the border. I did not face the violence of the police state in the same way that the people I represent do,” Gurulé said. “[Bannan] has no self-awareness or analysis of how she’s positioned herself or the power imbalance. She’s pretending to be Latina and pretending there is some singular lived experience associated with it that she somehow understands. It's honestly very disturbing, especially given her progressive politics and her constant talk of the colonization of Puerto Rico.”

Bannan has maintained that her identification as a Latina comes from her “lived experiences” and is an “authentic expression” of who she is. “Given that Latinx is not synonymous with race,” Bannan said, it “does not discount” her “lived experience as a racially white person.” There are certainly white Latinos, but all available evidence, including Bannan’s own statements, indicate that she is not one. Ethnicity does not come through osmosis. Being in proximity to Colombian and Puerto Rican people does not make one Colombian or Puerto Rican.

To Latina attorneys whose identities have created more hurdles than opportunities, Bannan’s “authentic representation” appears to lean into stereotypes about Latina women.  

Ana Gabriela Urizar, a Guatemalan immigrant practicing corporate immigration law at a private practice, said that watching videos of Bannan is “sad and funny.”

“It’s like she’s wearing a Latina costume and dresses according to Latina stereotypes,” Urizar said, as Bannan is almost always seen in media appearances wearing oversized jewelry and dark makeup. “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.”

There is also Bannan’s way of speaking. At a 2015 event in support of Puerto Rican activist Oscar López Rivera, Bannan addressed the crowd in what appears to be an affected accent, eerily similar to the one used by Jessica Krug in the now infamous video of the George Washington University professor speaking to the New York City Council.

Urizar told Prism that her accent has created hurdles for her in the legal profession and that it seems as if Bannan doesn’t understand that carrying the identity of a Latina attorney is not just a “luxury,” but rather something that comes with many challenges.

“If you really have an accent, you will have very negative experiences in this industry. People have made comments about whether I belonged here. Several people asked me if I took the bar exam in Spanish. At the time, it was extremely hurtful because I knew they were making assumptions about my capabilities,” Urizar said.

“I’ve been asked if I’m the paralegal or the secretary. People have said, ‘Where are you really from?’ Honestly, there were times when I wished I didn’t have an accent. It took a long time for me to be comfortable with my background and learn how to use it as a tool to advocate for others. So yes, it makes me angry to know that [Bannan] treated this identity like something she could jump in and out of for her own advantage.”

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Urizar said that in professional environments, she is extremely cognizant of the stereotypes that Latinas are loud, hyper-sexual, and wear “flamboyant and colorful clothing” and “huge earrings.” In predominantly white lawyering spaces, Urizar said she is a “watered down version” of herself— she dresses more conservatively, intentionally picking smaller earrings and more muted colors.

Denia Pérez had a similar experience. The policy advisor to the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs was the first Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals beneficiary to become a licensed attorney in Connecticut. In law school, Pérez said she was one of just a few students of color and the only undocumented person.

“There were so many hurdles, sometimes stuff I didn’t even anticipate. I’m very animated when I speak; I use my hands a lot and because of this, comments were made about me,” Pérez said, noting that a white male attorney at a networking event referred to her as “spicy” and in another instance while preparing for a moot court competition, she was advised to “tone down” her gestures to appear more professional. “I kept getting this feedback that I knew was gendered and related to stereotypes and ideas of who Latinas are and how we move in the world.”

‘Latinidad’ and professional opportunities

 Latinas account for less than 2% of American lawyers and the opportunities available to them in the predominantly white legal field are limited—a fact Bannan acknowledged in a 2017 video in which she said she “can’t stress enough the importance of having Latino lawyers.” But that did not stop Bannan from siphoning resources, positions, and other opportunities intended for Latinas and other people of color in spaces where she already had a significant leg up as a white woman—and in spaces where her claimed Latina identity was never necessary for her to advance in her career.

In 2006, she was one of just 22 Latina fellows chosen to participate in the National Hispana Leadership Institute. In 2008, she was the recipient of the Peace, Health, and Justice Award from Casa Atabex Ache, an organization in the South Bronx that facilitates “collective transformation and social change for women of color.” In 2009, Bannan was President of CUNY Law School’s Latin American Law Students Association, and also served as one of two law student fellows at the school’s Center for Latino/a Rights and Equality (CLORE). Despite her resume identifying herself as a fellow, Bannan was an intern in 2010 for the Center for Constitutional Rights’ Ella Baker program, named after the African-American civil rights and human rights activist. Bannan became the National Lawyers Guild’s (NLG) president in 2015 and was heralded as the organization’s first Latina president. In 2016, she attended the Aspen Institute’s invitation-only Justice and Society Seminar as a Ricardo Salinas Scholar, courtesy of the Ricardo Salinas Scholarship Fund aimed at increasing the participation of Latinos in the Aspen Institute’s highly coveted events. Her writings have also been featured in a series of anthologies showcasing Latinos, including the 2018 book Latinas: Struggles & Protests in 21st Century USA and the 2019 book Aftershocks of Disaster: Puerto Rico Before and After the Storm.

Bannan declined to comment on whether she regrets accepting benefits and opportunities intended for Latinas and people of color, but the harm is real. Pérez said that Bannan’s practice of inserting herself into the limited spaces carved out for Latinas “crosses a boundary.”

“It just feels really gross to me, especially when I think back to how hard law school was,” said Pérez, the first person in her family to go to college. “So much of the story about my desire to go to law school is tangled up with trauma as undocumented person and the daughter of people who were on verge of deportation for half my life. There were so few spaces in law school where I felt like I had people. Having that community with Latinos who had parallel or similar experiences made law school bearable. It makes me upset that someone would try to co-opt an identity or experience to get opportunities or access to spaces they could have accessed anyhow [as an ally].”

According to conversations with attorneys who didn’t want to speak on the record, Bannan’s assumed identity isn’t exactly a secret in the legal advocacy community. In one story relayed a few times, Bannan was confronted by a Puerto Rican attorney at a National Lawyers Guild convention. The attorney wanted to know where in Puerto Rico Bannan’s family was from. Unable to answer, Bannan reportedly said she was “culturally Puerto Rican.”

In her 2016 Facebook post, Bannan said that where she grew up in Georgia had “a rich cultural and political identity, but “there was no political space to be anything except white or Black.”

“It was my Latino family that offered me the opportunity to culturally define myself within another context and to shape the work that I ultimately wanted to dedicate my life to,” the attorney wrote in the post she shared with Prism. “As an adult, I have only deepened my relationship with my culture, which has consistently defined me, trying to live a life and work that reflects my latinidad.”

AfroLatino and Indigenous cultural workers and writers like Alan Pelaez Lopez have long urged Latinx people to reject Latinidad, an over simplistic, singular geopolitical identity that erases Black and Indigenous communities and pretends wildly different communities tidily fall under the same umbrella. The Nation’s research director Miguel Salazar wrote that Latinidad is an “exclusionary identity fabricated by—and for the benefit of—white and mestizo elites and the American political class.” It should come as no surprise then that Bannan found freedom in Latinidad, which allowed her to take up an astounding amount of space in organizations, programs, and as part of opportunities specifically created for Latinx people and other people of color.

Prism asked Bannan to comment on Latina attorneys’ views that pretending to be Latina is harmful—both to clients and to Latinas in the profession. Bannan would only say that her participation in committees, organizations, and movement spaces is a result of her “work and commitment” and “has always been designed to open those spaces up, not close them out.”

“She is quite literally taking spaces from people. Latinas are underrepresented, but there is another really important part of this conversation related to which Latinas get opportunities,” Gurulé said. “I’m a white Chicana. I have white skin. The longer I’m in this field, the more I see that most of the Latinas in this field look like me. There aren't many Black Latinas; there aren't many brown Latinas, there aren't many Indigenous people. She is absolutely taking up space that is already so limited and when opportunities do go to Latinas, it’s usually people who are already extremely privileged within these spaces.”

The Latina attorneys who spoke to Prism said it should also be cause for concern that Bannan has said that her Latina identity helped her build trust in immigrant communities, including those facing deportation or living through traumatic events. Bannan declined to answer when asked whether she’s concerned about having misled immigrant clients who may not have trusted her if they knew she was a white woman.

 ‘An accountability process’

Despite more than a decade of misrepresentation to organizations, community members, and Latino and immigrant clients, Bannan’s current employer LatinoJustice—where she has been employed since 2015—is standing by her side.

“Natasha Lycia Ora 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,” said Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel of LatinoJustice, in an emailed statement to Prism.

He directed questions about Bannan’s identity to Bannan herself.

However, members of the National Lawyers Guild's United People of Color Caucus and Anti-Racism Committee sent Prism a statement acknowledging the “harm” of Bannan “misrepresenting herself as a Latina/Puerto Rican and a person of color when in reality she is white and of european descent.”

“ARC is initiating an accountability process with Natasha that is rooted in our abolitionist politics and focused on addressing the harms she has caused, internally and externally, by claiming and performing a culture and ethnicity that are not hers and by taking up leadership space under the guise of being a person of color,” reads the statement.

“As abolitionists, we recognize that carceral logic is harmful to everyone involved and will do nothing to further the healing or reckoning process. We wish to navigate this conflict in ways that center the people harmed by Natasha's actions without losing sight of Natasha's humanity, so we are asking people not to call for Natasha's disposal from the Guild or other punishment.”

Despite whatever process the National Lawyers Guild has initiated to repair her harm, Bannan continues to assert a Latina identity in statements to Prism and on her Facebook account. She did not respond to any questions about the harm she’s perpetuated and has not expressed any regret or remorse.

The NLG’s United People of Color Caucus and Anti-Racism Committee told Prism that an “internal process” related to Bannan’s deception was triggered in mid-2020, however she remains co-chair for the Guild’s Puerto Rico Subcommittee, Colombia Subcommittee and Taskforce on the Americas.

The United People of Color Caucus and Anti-Racism Committee are urging those “who have been harmed by [Bannan’s] appropriation” to contact the anti-racism committee at antiracism@nlg.org. When asked how the NLG will undertake an accountability process with Bannan, the committee said that “bringing Natasha to a place where she can acknowledge the harm she has caused is part of the accountability process, not a prerequisite to it.”

Latino attorneys, advocates, journalists, and others in Bannan’s circle over the years are grappling with the news of her misrepresentation. Puerto Rican journalist and founder of Latino Rebels, Julio Ricardo Varela, said he was “shook” by the revelation. Bannan appeared on a radio program with Varela and two other actual Puerto Rican commentators. Varela said he was “impressed” by Bannan’s knowledge and later hosted a few online shows with her as a guest.

“I’m really shocked,” Varela said, noting that Bannan and her work are deeply respected. “I had no idea she actually wasn’t Puerto Rican. I don’t understand why she couldn’t just say: ‘I’m a white person and I want to be an ally.’ We need allies, but now I’m thinking about all of the badass Puerto Rican women attorneys whose voices were left out because [Bannan] was uplifted as an expert.”

A number of Bannan’s colleagues and fellow legal advocates declined to be interviewed for this story. While acknowledging that she has done harm, they went on to say that Bannan is a “nice person” who does “good work.” Gurulé says this doesn’t bode well for accountability.

“Look at the roles she has held, the boards she has served on, the organizations she has represented. Her presence benefited them so that they could say, ‘See? We have a Latina,’” Gurulé said. “She hasn't been creating spaces; she's been taking the spaces—and she's been sprinkling herself all over the place to get recognition and power.”


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