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For Afro-Latina supermodel Joan Smalls, Puerto Rico and family are 'my safe haven'

"When you leave — you actually realize how important these things are to your happiness and fulfillment," she says.
Joan Smalls at the Cannes Film Festival in France on May 12, 2018.Alberto Pizzoli / AFP via Getty Images

Christmas is a meaningful time for supermodel Joan Smalls to reconnect with her roots and her family in Puerto Rico, where she was born and raised.

"Being with my family on my island is my safe haven," Smalls said. "It's important for me to get home every so often to be on my island and with my family. It not only grounds me, but with all that's going on in the world, it's a much-needed reminder that home and family is where I feel most comfortable in a world that can often provide much discomfort."

Smalls, whose mother is from Puerto Rico and whose father is from St. Thomas, made history in 2011 when she was named the first Latina face of Estée Lauder's global marketing campaign. By 2015, she had placed sixth on Forbes' list of the world's highest-paid supermodels.

While growing up in the countryside, Smalls actively pursued modeling by entering local competitions and submitting photos to agencies in New York City and Los Angeles. After she earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from the Inter American University of Puerto Rico, her modeling career took off when she signed a contract with an agent in New York City, where she's based.

Smalls has walked in over 400 fashion shows and fronted coveted advertising campaigns for Chanel, Ralph Lauren, David Yurman, Tom Ford and others. She is now part of an ad campaign for Bacardí rum's ready-to-serve Coquito, the iconic eggnog-like Puerto Rican drink made with coconut and rum that has come to symbolize a tropical Christmas for many Puerto Ricans.

While she works around the world, she remains an island girl at heart.

"The hardest thing about spending time away from Puerto Rico is that it's where my entire family remains — my parents, my sisters, aunts and uncles and childhood friends. I'm a very family-oriented person, so I never like to be gone for too long unless work is calling," she said. "Other than that, it's the food, the energy, the people, the climate, the nature, the beaches. When you leave — you actually realize how important these things are to your happiness and fulfillment."

Puerto Ricans are famous for celebrating one of the longest Christmas seasons, starting in November with Thanksgiving, continuing through Three Kings on Jan. 6 and celebrating for eight more days known as Octavitas. Christmas celebrations normally involve big family reunions, traditional Puerto Rican food and parrandas, Puerto Rico's festive holiday caroling tradition.

Nearly 6 million Puerto Ricans live in the mainland U.S., and over 35,000 live in other countries. Many, like Smalls, make it a tradition to visit the island during the Christmas holidays, but the coronavirus pandemic has led many to postpone or cancel their trips as Puerto Rico and the rest of the U.S. try to control the surge in cases.

This summer, as tens of thousands of demonstrators nationwide protested the death of George Floyd and demanded accountability for the dehumanization of Black people at the hands of law enforcement, Smalls pledged to donate 50 percent of her salary for the rest of the year to support organizations helping the Black Lives Matter movement. She also promised to encourage the brands she works with to implement policies that further racial inclusivity in their companies.

"But I also wanted to use my voice to encourage others to support," Smalls said. So she created a platform called, an online tool that helps people break down their wages and select what parts they'd like to donate.

"It's something that we as people in a position of privilege should try to do. I'll continue to find a way to support and fight for what's right in any way that I can," she said.

Reflecting on her storied modeling career, Smalls said: "Every person that has come before me that is Black or Latina has helped. I'm grateful for them and thankful that I get to help continue to open doors for others, especially those that are emerging and hopeful for a future in this industry."

"There are so many beautiful people that don't see color and continue to seek equality and progression in our industry," she said, "but there's still so much to do."

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