Afro Latinos: Everywhere, Yet Invisible
Struggles with self-image, assimilation mirror Black American experience
By Cynthia Griffin, Special to the NNPA from Our Weekly –
Last year, during a discussion on increasing the number of African Americans in Major League Baseball, Angel's centerfielder Torii Hunter in a USA Today interview called the dark-skinned Latino baseball players "imposters" and said they are not Black.
Hunter's comments strike at the heart of an issue that is one reason scholar Miriam Jimenez Roman is undertaking a three-day conference called "Afro Latinos Now! Strategies for Visibility and Action," on Nov. 3-5 in New York that will be the biggest such effort her organization, The AfroLatin@ Forum, has undertaken.
"This is the first time we have done such a comprehensive event where we discuss Afro Latinos specifically. We're going to look at the state of the field and where we want to be, and there is going to be a heavy emphasis on youth, especially those in middle school years."
Jimenez Roman says the confusion Hunter demonstrated about the connection between Africans born in Latin America and those born in the United States is particularly acute for U.S.-based 11- to 15-year-old Afro Latinos. In the context of a racist society like America, they are not only struggling to figure out how they feel about themselves, but also how they connect in relation to others, especially African Americans.
There are millions of Afro Latinos in America who live their lives in what is essentially a "Black" context but identify themselves as White, because of the perceived stigma of being African American, said Jimenez Roman, who last year came to the West Coast promoting her newly released book "Afro-Latino Reader," co-edited with Juan Flores. The 584-page publication, which grew out of the notes the two professors always pulled together for classes they taught, explores people of African descent from Latin America and the Caribbean.
"In the Latino community, we tend not to talk about race; it's in poor taste to bring up race and racism. It's the notion of complaining. If you make a big deal out of it, you are the problem, and they say you're playing the race card," explained Jimenez Roman, who is of Afro Puerto Rican background, and noted that during book events, African Americans were much more receptive to the reader than were Afro Latinos.
She attributes that to a dichotomy about race many Afro Latinos experience in their countries of origin.
"There is the idea that Latino culture is Mestizo and European and Indian, and Black people don't belong," said the race and ethnicity professor about how many Latin American countries think about themselves. In fact, Latinos of African descent have been in many countries for at least 200 years.
If they do acknowledge their Black citizens, Jimenez Roman said officials will say "they all live on the coast."
"This isolates them. Or in Bolivia, for example, there are Black communities in the mountains. They are totally isolated and ignored."
But in reality, Afro Latinos are everywhere in Latin America as they are in the United States, says the head of the AfroLatin@ Forum.
In Los Angeles, there is large community of Garifuna people and many Afro Mexicans in Pasadena.
The Garifuna are found primarily in Central America along the Caribbean coast in Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras, and are descendants of shipwrecked slaves who intermarried with the Carib Indians on the island of St. Vincent.
Both the British and French tried to colonize the island, but were initially rebuffed by the inhabitants. By 1796, however, the British were victorious in gaining control and shipped Black-looking Caribs to Roatán, an island off the coast of Honduras. Only about 2,500 survived the voyage.
Because the island was too small and infertile to support their population, the Garifuna, originally called the Garinagu, petitioned the Spanish authorities to be allowed to settle on the mainland.
New York has the largest Garifuna population, heavily dominated by Hondurans, Guatemalans and Belizeans. Los Angeles ranks second and is populated by the Belizean Garifuna.
The City of Angels is also home to a growing number of Afro Mexicans who have both a contemporary and historical space in the city.
According to Alva Stevenson, program coordinator with the UCLA Department of Special Collections, who has spent the last 12 years researching and lecturing about Afro Mexicans, there were some Afro Mexicans in California in the early days prior to statehood, including the Pico family.
Two of the most prominent members of the Pico clan, Pio and Andres were intimately involved in the development of the region and the state. Both were businessmen who amassed fortunes from their various ventures, including a hotel in downtown Los Angeles.
Both also served as key political figures—Pio as the last Mexican governor of California and Andres as a member of the Assembly once California gained statehood. Reminders of their presence today include a major thoroughfare, Pico Boulevard, named in honor of Pio.
Their paternal grandmother, María Jacinta de la Bastida, was listed in the 1790 census as mulata.
Stevenson said what is important to note is that the Pico family originated from a town in Mexico, Sinaloa, where two-thirds of the inhabitants were of African descent. And that sort of mixing was not unusual.
"In fact, a professor did a DNA study (in the last 20 years) in Northern Mexico and found that two-thirds of the people living in the region have African ancestry," Stevenson said.
Sinaloa was also one of the areas where the 44 Mexican settlers who helped found Los Angeles came from. About half of those pobladores, as they were called, were of African descent.
Contemporary Afro Mexicans have migrated to the Pasadena area. Trying economic times have also prompted many younger Afro Mexicans to migrate northward to the U.S. seeking work, and Stevenson said they have landed in locations like Santa Ana in Orange County and the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., region.
Jimenez Roman adds that while Afro Latinos are everywhere in the United States, there are larger pockets in regions like California's Bay Area, Louisiana (helping rebuild New Orleans), Florida, Detroit, Chicago, other parts of the Midwest and the Carolinas.
"There is a small community of Afro Mexicans who migrated across the border and are now working in processing plants in the Carolinas," said Jimenez Roman pointing out there are African-descended people from Colombia, Panama, Guatemala and Brazil in the United States.
For Afro Brazilian artist Bakari Santos, his arrival in Los Angeles was a just stopover during a backpacking journey to Europe 33 years ago; he visited a friend who is now the U.S. ambassador to Niger. He laughingly says, "I'm still on my way to Europe."
"I came here and had a tourist visa, and I found a job at the Brazilian Consulate," said Santos, who ended up in America after graduating college in Brazil with a biology degree. "I spent 10 years with the consulate, then after 10 years, I was tired of working for the government."
So, Santos drew on his longtime artistic bent and began to focus on making a living with his art.
"There were very few Brazilians in town at the time; the community who really helped me and gave me a good start was the African Americans," recalls Santos, who at that time in the '60s was still wearing his Afro.
Santos, is an example of the types of Afro Latinos that will typically immigrate to America, said Jimenez Roman—middle or upper class with the resources to travel. Many Afro Latinos are relegated to the bottom of the economy in Latin America and just do not have the resources to do much more than subsist.
They are often ignored, added the scholar, and she said that invisibility traditionally follows those who are able to immigrate to the United States.
That's one reason why it is so difficult to actually pinpoint exactly how many Afro Latinos are in the U.S. It's also a reason that the AfroLatin@ Forum partnered with the U.S. Census Bureau to promote a campaign that urged Afro Latinos to check both the Latino and Black boxes.
"In the 2000 Census, there were 3 million Latinos who said they were Black; almost 2 million of them live in New York," said Jimenez Roman.
But that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Understanding the reality of living as an Afro Latino in a very Black and White America means recognizing and talking about the fact that the lighter a person is, the more likely that individual is to say they are White and downplay, underplay or even ignore their African roots.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are the darker Afro Latinos, who Jimenez Romano say often live with or next to African American communities, intermarry with them and take on the African American identity.
And then there is a third reality that is explored in a one-hour documentary, "The Neo-African Americans," by Ghana-born filmmaker Kobina Aidoo that questions ethnic identification in the context of rapid, voluntary immigration from Africa and the Caribbean (and Latin America) to the United States that is transforming the "African American" narrative. From Somalis in Minnesota, to Trinidadians in New York, to Afro Cubans in Miami, to Nigerians in Maryland, the term "African American" means something unique to everyone. But the film asks if these individuals are considered African Americans.