Afro-Latinidades in the United States

Miriam Jiménez Román and Juan Flores, eds., The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010); 566 pages; ISBN-13 978-0-8223-4572-5 (paper).

• May 2012

In the recent PBS series Black in Latin America, the renowned African American scholar Henry Louis Gates travels through various Latin American countries to trace the history of the 11.5 million Africans who were brought to this region as slaves.1 In every episode, the eminent Harvard professor appears surprised when encountering solid evidence showing the important role Africans and their descendants have played in the history and culture of Latin America. Gates learns about such important figures as Vicente Guerrero and José María Morelos, in Mexico, and Antonio Maceo, in Cuba—Afro-Latin Americans who fought tirelessly for their nations’ independence from Spain. Early in the series, Gates admits that he knew little about Latin America and the region’s significant African heritage. And he adds that prior to conducting this research, he, like many in the United States, made distinctions between African Americans and Latinos as if the two were distinct ethnic or racial categories. One of the most poignant moments in the series occurs while Gates is visiting Mexico’s Costa Chica region, an area with a vibrant and marked Afro-Mexican presence. While there, Gates discovers that Mexico isn’t just a “mestizo” nation, a mix of Spanish and Native American, as many scholars have claimed; it is also black, despite the apparent erasure of the millions of African slaves and their descendants from official history. During his visit, Gates makes an extraordinary declaration, “If the ‘one drop rule’ was applied to Mexico, all of these people would be black.”2

The series Black in Latin America focuses specifically on the African presence within Latin America and the Caribbean, not on the Afro-Latin Americans who have traveled north of the Rio Grande (or the Florida Straits) as immigrants to the United States. If indeed Africanness is a fundamental part of Latin American culture, as Gates’ series so succinctly demonstrates, what role has immigration, and the problems associated with it, played in maintaining or losing one’s Afro-Latino culture? What experiences have Latin Americans of African origin had upon arriving in the United States? What role have class, gender, and sexual orientation played in the integration of members of this group into specific Latino/Hispanic communities, African American communities, and mainstream US culture? And finally, how have Afro-Latin@s experienced racism and how have these experiences differed from the racism they faced in their home countries

The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States attempts to answer these questions and more. This monumental 566-page study, edited by Miriam Jiménez Román and Juan Flores, provides readers with a fresh look at the history of Latin@s of African descendant. As the editors point out in the introduction, the term Afro-Latin@ may be perplexing to many, since most of us are still accustomed to thinking in terms of either black or Latin@. But as this anthology illustrates, the term, which traces its origins to the 1990s, refers to those individuals of African descent living in Mexico, Central America, and South America, as well as to those of African descent living in the United States but with strong ties to Latin America and the Caribbean.

The Afro-Latin@ Reader is divided into what the editors coin four coordinates: group history, transnational discourse, relations between African Americans and Latin@s, and the specific lived experience of being Afro-Latin@. What makes this anthology unique is that it moves beyond the strictly academic to include myriad essays and literary works that reflect the historical and cultural contributions of Afro-Latin@s in the United States. Combining traditional historical research essays with literary and autobiographical ones, The Afro-Latin@ Reader offers a balanced look at the role Latin@s of African heritage have played in US society.

For me, the anthology is significant on two levels. First and foremost it provides an important resource for students and academics of Latin@ history and culture, as well as for those interested in African American, Latin American, and Caribbean studies. Though other studies have focused on Afro-Latin@s in recent years, The Afro-Latin@ Reader is the first to look at this group’s experiences—from their earliest presence in the colonial period to the present—solely within a US context.3 But as previously mentioned, in addition to its academic value, this anthology is also a valuable resource for individuals interested in Afro-Latin@ culture for personal reasons. In fact, it’s difficult to find an anthology that manages to combine an academic focus and a personal one successfully, but this work does just that.

Some of the most fascinating and informative essays in this anthology are those centering on the historical contributions Afro-Latin@s have made to American culture. Not surprisingly, then, the anthology begins with essays on the US Afro-Latin@ population prior to 1900. These contributions are vital because they provide information that is rarely, if ever, taught in our schools and colleges. Few Americans, for example, know that the first Africans arrived in what is today the United States with the Spanish explorers in the sixteenth century. And what is more, these Africans served as guides, and oftentimes translators, for the Spanish during their trek across North America. Though they came as slaves, men of African ancestry also served as soldiers and participated in the ongoing struggles between the European explorers and the Native American tribes. As Jack D. Forbes elucidates in his 1966 essay “Black Pioneers: The Spanish-Speaking Afro-Americans of the Southwest,” the African presence in Mexico and the Southwest was significant during the colonial period: “Very few Spaniards of European lineage were available to populate new conquered regions, and this task fell primarily to Hispanicized natives, mixed bloods of all kinds and Negroes” (28). Who knew that California’s last Mexican governor Don Pio Pico, was an Afro-Mexican and moreover, that many of today’s prominent “white” Californians are descendants of the Pico family (34)? Like the Pico family, other Mexican families in California and elsewhere can trace their roots to an African slave. Another section of this anthology centers entirely on the Afro-Puerto Rican scholar Arturo Alfonso Schomberg, a pioneer in Africana studies. Schomberg, who left Puerto Rico in his teens and settled in New York 1891, lived during one of the most intensely racist and discriminatory periods in US history. In addition to including a fragment of “Racial Integrity,” Schomberg’s 1913 essay calling for the establishment of a chair of Negro history in US schools and colleges, this section also includes essays on the life of this Puerto Rican scholar and the world in which he lived. “The World of Arturo Alfonso Schomberg” by Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof, for example, takes a look at Schomberg’s life and the relationships he sustained with individuals of various backgrounds. Although, as Hoffnung-Garskof clarifies, the percentage of Afro-Latin@s living in New York in the early 1900s was small, Schomberg and other members of this group were trailblazers for envisioning an African diasporic identity, rather than strictly a national one. As other essays in this anthology show, subsequent migrants to New York and other US cities also faced racism and discrimination, and had to learn to negotiate between various cultures and ethnicities, but Schomberg and his contemporaries were some of the first to do so.

In addition to essays of a historical and political focus, this anthology also includes several excellent pieces on the contributions Afro-Latin@s have made to North American music, including jazz, salsa, hip hop, and rap. “¡Eso era tremendo! An Afro-Cuban Musician Remembers” offers a unique look into the life of a female musician of color living in 1940s New York. The Cuban singer, Graciela, performed with various Latin@ musicians and bands, including Mario Bauza and Machito, and with well-known African American artists such as Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan. In her interview with Miriam Jiménez Román, Graciela recalls the various forms of discrimination she and other black Latin@s faced in the 1940s in the United States and abroad. She describes in detail how she and other people of color were repeatedly denied entry into restaurants, theaters, and clubs in New York, and how band members on tour would have to stay in different hotels depending on the color of their skin. What is most disconcerting, though, is Graciela’s affirmation that no matter how bad things were for Afro-Latin@s and blacks in the United States during this time, things were a lot worse in Cuba, or as she puts it, “Eso era tremendo.” Indeed, again and again, in essay after essay, contributors to this anthology make reference to the issue of racism within Latin America and the Latino communities. Afro-Latin@s have encountered racism and discrimination from multiple fronts, but perhaps the most hurtful has been the racism directed at them from within their own ethnic group and, worse, from within their own families. As Carlos Flores affirms in “Desde el Mero Medio,” “Race discrimination is a skeleton in the closet of the Latin@ community” (323).

In her essay “Latinegras: Desired Women—Undesirable Mothers, Daughters, Sisters, and Wives,” Marta I. Cruz-Janzen describes the problem of racism within her own family and recalls the famous saying, “Aquí el que no tiene de inga, tiene de mandinga. El que no tiene de congo, tiene carabalí. Y pa lo que no saben ná, tu abuela a’onde está?” (283). This expression, used across Latin America in some form or another, refers to Latin America’s racial mestizaje, the fact that most of the region can trace its roots to indigenous and African ancestry. And even those who try to feign ignorance have a “grandmother in the closet,” so to speak. As a biracial Puerto Rican, Cruz-Janzen experienced blatant racism from members of her maternal family who were white and who repeatedly admonished her mother for marrying outside her race and class. Others who touch on this very theme are Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, in “Reflections about Race by a Negrito acompejao”, who describes similar experiences in his own racially mixed family, and Spring Redd, in “Something Latino Was Up with Us.” Whereas Bonilla-Silva’s family attempted to assimilate into white society, since his father was a distinguished professor, Redd’s family was expected to assimilate into the larger Afro-American culture. Both essays show how biracial and multiracial Latin@s have had to literally “choose sides,” identifying with only one part of their racial or ethnic background in order to fit in into a society obsessed with categorizations.

What makes this anthology so essential is that it provides readers with an in-depth look at the myriad experiences Afro-Latin@s have lived, experiences to which many people of color can relate. It includes a variety of first-person accounts of life as an Afro-Latin@, personal essays that range from early accounts of being black and Latin@ in the United States, such Evelio Grillo’s essay on growing up as a black Cuban in 1930s Tampa, to more contemporary ones by academics and artists. The essays and literary selections in this anthology move across lines of class, gender, and sexual orientation to show the multiple ways Afro-Latin@s have experienced racism and discrimination from outside and from within their own culture.

The Afro-Latin@ Reader is essential because it forces us to think about our own notions of race, class, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. The topic of race may not be a comfortable one for many to discuss, but it is an important one if we hope to improve race relations in the United States and beyond. Latin@s have long fought and continue to fight for equal treatment in the United States, yet within our culture we find discriminatory attitudes and practices that are based on colonial(ist) notions of race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Only by knowing our past, and coming to terms with our complex histories, can we come to understand where these attitudes and notions originated, and perhaps, then, and only then, will we be able to open the lines of dialogue with others who may or may not share our backgrounds. The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States is an important contribution to the fields of Latin@ and Caribbean Studies not only because it includes a diverse array of works on the history and cultures of Afro-Latin@s in the United States but also because it calls on all of us to think about our own concepts of race and ethnicity within our own communities and families.

 

Yvette Fuentes is associate professor of Spanish at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Her research interests include Latin American Women writers, Hispanic Caribbean literature, and US Latino/a literature culture. Some of her publications have appeared in Anthuriam: A Caribbean Studies Journal, Caribe: Revista de Cultura y Literatura, and Letras Femeninas.

 



1 Black in Latin America first aired on PBS in April 2011. The four-part series is now available online at http://www.pbs.org/wnet/black-in-latin-america/.

2 “Mexico and Peru: The Black Grandma in the Closet,” Black in Latin America, episode four, aired 10 May 2011, KPBS TV.

3 Some recent studies centering on Afro-Latin Americans include George Reid Andrews’s Afro-Latin America, 1800–2000 (New York: Oxford, 2004), Kathryn Joyce McKnight and Leo L. Garofalo’s anthology Afro-Latin Voices: Narratives from the Early Modern Ibero-Atlantic World, 1550–1812 (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2009), and Anani Dzidzienyo and Suzanne Oboler’s Neither Enemies nor Friends: Latinos, Blacks, Afro-Latinos (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

 

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