Muted Voices: Afro-Latinos

The Afro-Latino experience is often invisible. Despite the deep intersections between Black and Latino identity and the impacts of Afro Latinos in Latin America’s social, cultural, political, religious and economic fabrics, Afro-Latino voices remain largely muted.

The term Afro-Latino complicates the meaning of ‘blackness.’

Afro and Latino are often thought of as mutually exclusive categories, and as such, black identity is oversimplified.

But Afro-Latinos constitute an important part of Latin America’s history and are at the forefront of redefining national identities and challenging the preeminence of Eurocentric ideologies that continue to favour mestizaje (mixed ancestries), and to largely ignore the presence of Afro-Latinos.

As a recent article on Buzzfeed celebrating Afro-Latinos stated, “just because people are both doesn’t mean they are less of one…”

In fact, although “blackness” is often discussed in a North American context, approximately 95 per cent of Africans arriving to the Americas during the slave trade arrived in Latin American colonies.

The Afro-Latino concept is a transnational struggle against the anti-Black racism within the Latin American community itself.

In the constructed racial hierarchy, blackness falls below Latin American mestizaje. In response, Afro-Latino communities have risen in the form of civic, cultural and community organizations to assert their rights and identity.

Despite the continued racism and silencing towards Afro-Latino communities, it is important to note the way in which Afro-Latinos have shaped and influenced Latin American culture.

Samba, most commonly associated with Brazil, emerged from Afro Brazilians who lived in impoverished conditions.

In addition, Dominican Republic’s merengue is also influenced by African rhythms. Cuba’s Santeria religious traditions can be traced back to Nigeria’s Yoruba and Puerto Rico’s Mofongo (plantain dish) is a direct result of West Africa’s influence.

Despite the challenges that many Afro-Latinos face in the context of identity struggles, racism and mistold histories, Afro Latinos have made a mark in the world.

One of the most famous Afro-Latinas is Ursula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso, better known as Celia Cruz.

As the most popular Latin artist of the 20th Century, the Cuban singer earned the title of “Queen of Salsa.” Cruz produced 23 gold albums and is said to be the most influential female figure in the history of Cuba and Latin music.

In addition to Cruz, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg is another prominent Afro-Latino. A Puerto Rican historian, writer and activist, Schomburg was an intellectual figure during the Harlem Rennaisance and strived to raise awareness on the contributions that Afro-Latinos and African Americans have made to society.

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture was named in his honor and features a number of his collection of literature, art and slave narratives.

Ilia Calderon has become an admirable Afro-Latina. As a Colombian journalist, Calderon has been a news anchor in Telemundo and Univision, two of Latin America’s most widely known television channels.

In addition, through her twitter account, Calderon is an active female voice in defining the challenges that Afro-Latinos face:

“One day, in a park, a boy says to a girl: ‘You are ugly, you are black.’”

Her response was more intelligent than any of us could have imagined:

“‘Then your heart is the color of my skin.’ What a profound feeling, knowing that just seven years old, I had to learn to answer in this way.

“I am worried that we live in a world between subtle comments, common in the hallways, the family reunions and in the workplace. No one says anything. There is a double morale. There is a fine line, often trespassed, between critique and satire and the offensiveness towards someone who did not choose their skin color.

Let’s focus on the true difference, which is to make a difference across the new generations.”

The Afro-Latino population, which spans approximately 30 million across Latin America, is a voice that needs to be heard, a demographic that needs to be included and a heritage that needs to be celebrated.

The term “Afro-Latino” is a reflection of the complex intersectionality between Africans and their descendants in Latin America.

It is a reassertion of Latin America’s diversity in response to homogenizing attempts at nation building, and an attempt to transform the narrow exclusive definitions of what it means to be Latino and of what it means to be black.