Afro-Latino heritage must be highlighted

(NNPA)—This month is Hispanic Heritage Month, a celebration to recognize the lives and contributions of people from Latin America and Spanish-speaking Caribbean countries in the U.S. This is an important month but how it is celebrated in the US leaves many African-Americans not fully understanding the important stake we have in this month. That is because so often celebrations of this month very rarely highlight the important, vibrant Afro-Latino population living and working in every Latin American country. Every country — Yes, even Mexico and Argentina.


Without a doubt, the experiences of some communities, including Afro-descendants and Indigenous, have historically gone unrecognized. The inclusion of Afro-descendants in mainstream conversation rarely happens but it is necessary in order to understand the truth of history and present.

Working in Latin America with women’s groups, youth and political organizations, I am heartened by numerous cultural similarities between African-Americans and Afro-Latinos. In culture, style and experiences we are in many ways the same people. I have said many times before our ancestors didn’t get to choose whether the slave ships stopped in Charleston, S.C. or in Rio de Janiero; it is only geography and language that separate us.

U.S. policy makers focused on Latin America rarely focus or even acknowledge race as a major factor in Latin America. Unsurprisingly, both predominately White institutions and many Latin American governments reinforce each other’s apathy and ideological perspectives. Afro Latinos, however, have not waited for policy wonks or their government to change on their own. They are changing their societies from within.

The numbers of people of African descent in Latin America are astounding. There are 150 million Afro-descendants in the Western Hemisphere. Brazil has more people of African descent then any country in Africa except Nigeria, making Afro Brazilians the second largest population of Afro-descendants on the planet. The US has the second largest population in the Hemisphere but it is quickly followed by Colombia, a country embroiled in a civil war with severe racial dimensions.

Rarely do we hear about the racial aspects of the war in Colombia on the evening news. Countries like Cuba and the Dominican Republic have formidable Afro-descendant populations but so do El Salvador, Honduras, Bolivia and Venezuela. Shockingly, anytime these countries are in the news, the coverage seems to “whitewash” the population implying this notion that racism is just an American construct.

These images rarely reflect the reality of racial diversity within these countries and give little space for heterogeneity of these communities. The few times we do see Afro-Latinos represented they are exoticized or regulated to the same stereotypical roles that African-Americans have been struggling against.

Our own immigration debate in the US is a very important area where Afro-Latinos have been rendered invisible. Immigration from Latin America is not a black brown conflict. It is a result of unfair economic and political practices on both sides of the border. These practices disfranchise both African-Americans and our brothers and sisters in the whole hemisphere. While immigration discussions explicate issues of alienation, race is rarely directly addressed as a factor in the movement of poor people into the U.S.

(Nicole C. Lee is the executive director of TransAfrica Forum.)


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