Unbelonging and the Language of Black Latinx Resistance

June 2023

Lorgia García Peña, Translating Blackness: Latinx Colonialities in Global Perspective (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2022); 321 pages; ISBN 978-1478018667 (paperback)

In Translating Blackness Lorgia García Peña proposes Black Latinidad as an epistemology. This epistemology operates from what she calls “the site of unbelonging” (2) and insists that issues of immigration and migration and those of race and colonization are deeply entangled and must be studied as such. As a methodology, this Black Latinidadalso moves between Black studies and Latinx studies, contributing to them and troubling the disciplinary line between them. On multiple levels, Translating Blackness reads together what is often siloed. Black Latinidad epistemology as García Peña frames it in the introduction forecasts the refreshing intellectual, historical, archival, geographical, and formal boundarylessness that characterizes the entire book.

Translating Blackness is organized into two parts. The first—“On Being Black and Citizen: Latinx Colonial Vaivenes”—is grounded in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and focuses on Blackness, citizenship, and belonging. It maps out a genealogy of Black Latinx political discourse by examining the work of several US Black intellectuals. In chapter 1 García Peña argues, as have other scholars, that US Blackness dominates global Black diasporic discourse. Tina Campt, for example, has shown how Black Germans might use “intercultural address,” evoking African American history as a cultural referent to articulate their own Blackness.1 Brent Hayes Edwards too has expressed how “the level of the international is accessed unevenly by subjects with different historical relations to the nation.”2 García Peña expands on the latter observation by exploring how, why, and when this diasporic hierarchy developed. She places the origin of hegemonic Blackness in the era of US Reconstruction. Exploring the alliance between a new African American sense of citizenship and US imperialism in the Dominican Republic, chapter 1 examines how this moment put Frederick Douglass and Gregorio Luperón—both advocates for Black freedom—at ideological and political odds.

In chapter 2 García Peña follows through with her claim in the introduction that Black Latinidad is an epistemology that understands belonging beyond national boundaries (2). The chapter centers Arturo Schomburg, the writer and collector who dedicated his life to building a diasporic sense of Black nationhood that transcended the limits of any one nation. García Peña examines Schomburg’s thought and archival practices as foundational to Black Latinidad. His work importantly centers Blackness in Latinx studies by emphasizing diaspora, identifying Haiti as a key site for Latinidad, and highlighting Black historical figures. Here, as in chapter 1, the author relies on archival material to establish a sense of history in tracing a Black Latinx intellectual genealogy.

Part 2—“Black Feminist Contradictions in Latinx Diasporas” (italics in original)—is lengthier than the first and moves through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. This section centers Black migrant women and presents gender and sexuality as fundamental to Black Latinidad epistemology. Chapter 3 moves between New York, Italy, and the DR from the 1960s to the 1980s. It reads Afro-religious community possession as a metaphor for the revolutionary feminist praxis that Domicanas used to re-member the dead and combat anti-Black and anti-immigrant sentiments. This chapter reads interesting source material such as Carmen: FotonovelARTE, a graphic novel by Josefina Báez celebrating Black Dominicana everyday life. Indeed, Translating Blackness uses a diversity of sources: anecdotes, personal experience, interviews, academic scholarship, library special collections, speeches, and activist organization materials.

The range of material in Translating Blackness is matched only by its historical reach. Chapter 4 explores the fifteenth‑, nineteenth‑, and twentieth-century contexts for the 2012 murder of Carolina Payano, a Black Dominicana in Italy. It examines how misogynoir, Italian sex tourism in the Caribbean, and anti-immigrant sentiments rendered Payano not as a virtuous wife and mother but as an immoral woman reaping the consequences of being where she did not belong. The chapter turns up the volume on a silenced Italian colonial history, exposing the exoticization, hypersexualization, and dehumanization of Black women. García Peña’s ability to historicize and contextualize such issues is one of the great strengths of the book. She moves across time and place, creating a cohesive argument with connections evident within and across the chapters. It is no easy feat to cohere US Reconstruction (chap. 1) and European sex tourism in the Caribbean. Yet they are tied together by questions of colonialism, immigration, and unbelonging.

The book’s subtitle—Latinx Colonialities in Global Perspective—reflects the work’s geographic breadth, covering the DR, the United States, Haiti, Italy, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. While the title communicates the text’s global reach, it perhaps obscures a central keyword: nationality. This concept is most prominent in chapter 5, which focuses on Black second-generation activists in contemporary Italy as they advocate for legal status, rights, civic participation, and national belonging. Translating Blackness stands in support of various othered subjects who, through international solidarity, have challenged regimes that label them as always foreign. While refuting that exclusion, the book also rewrites the terms of belonging through the epistemology of Black Latinidad, born of vaivén (coming and going) and transcending national boundaries.

Another concept the title impels us to consider is translation. As a trained translator and someone who engages with translation studies, I expected translation to feature differently in this book. There are neither theories on the task of the translator nor any close analyses of translated passages through scrutinizing the text. However, there is an inspired analysis of a raised Black Power fist in Sweden and an exploration of what it means to be “Black in English” (194). García Peña invites us to think about translating Blackness: “Translating racial meaning and racial politics across languages, cultures, and geographies” (ix). Translating Blackness recognizes how a word or gesture in one place signifies differently elsewhere, yet the disparate meanings inform each other. For García Peña, meaning is in vaivén. While she draws on the work of translation studies scholars like Lawrence Venuti and Walter Benjamin, she mobilizes translation primarily as a metaphor to elucidate how subjects from non-US Black backgrounds can use the lingua franca of dominant labels to make themselves legible on a global scale and then expose the systems that marginalize them. For García Peña, translation is a method for making the other visible.

Various elements of the book align with this metaphorical engagement with translation. For instance, Translating Blackness opens with “Notes on Terminology.” This two-page glossary is similar to those typically seen in translated works to help the reader understand borrowed words and unfamiliar concepts from the source text. García Peña creates a common vocabulary for words such as Black and Second Generations. Reestablishing that meaning is fluid, her “Notes” reaffirms how universality cannot be assumed and recognizes the value, again, of a lingua franca. Even at the level of the word, Translating Blackness boasts an ethos of inclusion.

This word-level care is also apparent in García Peña’s sentence structure. She strikes an impressive balance between lengthy, complex sentences and clear intelligibility, not always the strong suit of academic writing. This approach is reflective of her ethical disposition toward making her work accessible to the public—translating it to broader audiences. We see this in the availability of her first academic book, The Borders of Dominicanidad: Race, Nation, and Archives of Contradiction, in both Spanish and English; in public-facing projects like Archives of Justice; and in her cofounding of Freedom University, a Georgia-based higher education program for undocumented young adults.3

Translating Blackness also engages with García Peña’s existing intellectual production. It reprises terminology from previous works, such as vaivén, “contradiction,”and montarse.4 In The Borders of Dominicanidad, we also see her notes on terminology and her skilled practice of deep historicization.5 As Translating Blackness’s dedication includes Black queer and otherized people, we see the same community ethos motivating Community as Rebellion: A Syllabus for Surviving Academia as a Woman of Color.6 Translating Blackness is not just new scholarship; it engages with and builds on García Peña’s other work. Walter Benjamin said of translations: “In them the life of the originals attains its latest, continually renewed, and most complete unfolding.”7 We might consider Translating Blackness a translation of its predecessors, the latest unfolding of García Peña’s thought.

Translating Blackness is not for the pessimist. It is a text powered by hope and committed to disrupting boundaries. Undergirded by a sobering look at the colonial histories that fuel Black death today, Translating Blackness demonstrates how anti-Blackness, anti-immigrant sentiments, and colonialism have collided and been translated across time and place. It then gives us the language to contradict the global manifestations of these processes. As García Peña states in the last sentence—“La lucha sigue” (239)this book is not about accepting defeat but about cataloging victories and continuing the fight.

Lindsay Griffiths Brown is a PhD candidate in the Departments of English and of African American Studies at Princeton University. She studies the archive, translation, and Black diasporic literature. Previously she earned her BA from City University of New York Hunter College in English literature and Spanish/English translation. Lindsay is also a published translator.

[1] See Tina Campt, “The Crowded Space of Diaspora: Intercultural Address and the Tensions of Diasporic Relation,” Radical History Review 83 (Spring 2002): 94–113.

[2] See Brent Hayes Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 7.

[3] Lorgia García-Peña, The Borders of Dominicanidad: Race, Nation, and Archives of Contradiction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), and Fronteras de la dominicanidad: Raza, nación y archivos de contradicción (Santo Domingo: Editorial Universitaria Bonó, 2020); https://archivesofjustice.org; https://www.freedom-university.org.

[4] Vaivén appears in Lorgia García-Peña, “Translating Blackness: Dominicans Negotiating Race and Belonging,” The Black Scholar 45, no. 2 (Summer 2015): 10–20; “contradiction” and montarse in The Borders of Dominicanidad.

[5] García-Peña, “Note on Terminology,” The Borders of Dominicanidad, ix.

[6] Lorgia García Peña, Community as Rebellion: A Syllabus for Surviving Academia as a Woman of Color (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2022).

[7] Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, vol. 1, 1913–1926, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, trans. Suhrkamp Verlag (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002), 255.