As we celebrate Black History Month, it’s a golden opportunity to reflect on the contributions that Black people have made throughout U.S. history.
While Black History Month is a great time to celebrate the Black race and the Black community, it’s also a perfect time to celebrate the diversity that exists within the Black community, as it is not monolithic. Part of that diversity includes the Afro-Latinx community.
There’s another layer of diversity within the Afro-Latinx community that draws from the intersection between race and identity. One may tie their identity to their ancestral countries of origins; others may look at their indigenous roots. However, the fact of the matter is that an individual’s identity is a nuanced concept that shouldn’t be narrowed down or simplified. In contrast, it should be discussed, understood and celebrated.
According to an article published by the Pew Research Center, about one-quarter of U.S. Hispanics identify as Afro-Latino, Afro-Caribbean or of African descent with roots in Latin America. For this research, the Pew Research Center also found that when asked directly about their race, only 18% of Afro-Latinos identified their race or one of their races as Black. About 39% of them identified as white or white combined with another race, 24% stated their race or one of their races was Hispanic, and only 9% identified as mixed race.
These numbers paint a picture — but a bit of an ambiguous one. The statistics show the complexities that exist within both the African and Latin American diasporas. Those complexities highlight the presence, influence and vastness of the Afro-Latinx community, a group that shouldn’t be excluded during Black History Month.
As African American figures such as Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and many others often get well-deserved recognition during this month, while very significant, they do not represent the entirety of the African diaspora and historical context of this country’s Black history.
Whether it’s in the field of art, like Jean-Michel Basquiat or Clara Ledesma; music, like Celia Cruz or Sammy Davis, Jr.; media, like Gwen Ifill or Soledad O’Brien; sports, like Roberto Clemente or Pele; or activism, like Arturo Alfonso Schomburg or Maria Elena Moyano, the presence and impact of Afro-Latinidad are alive in just about every facet of life.
The Significance of Schomburg
Another one of the most prominent Afro-Latinos throughout U.S. history is Arturo A. Schomburg, a historian, writer, activist and scholar from the Harlem Renaissance period.
He is the namesake of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, one of the world’s leading research libraries devoted exclusively to documenting the history and cultural development of peoples of African descent worldwide.
A Puerto Rican of African and German descent, Schomburg became determined to find and document the accomplishments of Africans after one of his grade school teachers told him that Africans had no history, heroes or accomplishments.
Here in Philadelphia, Taller Puertorriqueño will honor Schomburg and his work by hosting its annual Arturo A. Schomburg Symposium event later this month.
Started in 1997 by a group of Afro-Latinos, the Schomburg Symposium is an annual event that explores the complex relationship between and the intersection of the African Diaspora and Latinx cultures.
“There was no ongoing setting or space where these conversations were happening on a regular basis,” said Carmen Febo San Miguel, executive director of Taller Puertorriqueño and member of the Schomburg Symposium organization committee.
Featuring a number of presentations by distinguished scholars, this event offers the opportunity for attendees to deepen their knowledge and understanding of the African Diaspora in the Americas and foster dialogue between the audience and speakers.
Each year, Taller chooses a theme for the event. This year’s theme is “Afro-Latinx Struggles: Pushing Boundaries Through Engagement.”
San Miguel noted that the struggles that exist for Afro-Latinx communities are vast.
“There are issues that involve representation in media, for example; ignoring the realities of Afro-Latins in reporting stories; there’s issues of artistic representation; there’s issues of violence both against women — not only because of being women but because of being nonwhite — and there’s violence against people of other races,” she added.
“You name it, there are plenty of issues and plenty of activism that has already happened in response to them, but it needs to continue to happen to continue to push society to deal with them,” she added.
The 24th annual Schomburg Symposium will take place on Saturday, Feb. 29 at Taller Puertorriqueño from 9:30am to 5pm.
Faces of Afro-Latinx
Philadelphia is home to a diverse set of people — including those who identify as Afro-Latinx.
To obtain a clearer view of Afro-Latinidad in Philadelphia, AL DÍA reached out to a few individuals in the area who identify as Afro-Latinx, and asked questions about their identity, experiences, and thoughts about Black History Month as it pertains to the Afro-Latinx community. The two featured here are Amy Eusebio, executive director of the Office of Immigrant Affairs, and Bene’t Morando, tech ops analyst at JPMorgan Chase — two Afro-Latinas with different experiences, and distinct backgrounds and paths to get to this point of owning and embracing their Afro-Latinidad.
Background, and early experiences
Eusebio was born in Jersey City, NJ, to Dominican parents — a city she describes as “like a Mecca of diversity,” where people of all races lived in every area of the city. Her neighborhood was filled primarily with blacks, whites and Filipinos. Growing up, she often self-identified as “a black person who spoke Spanish,” without ever having an explicit conversation about the diversity that exists within the Latino community. It wasn’t until she arrived to Philadelphia for college that she became more critically conscious of that heritage.
Originally from Virginia Beach, Morando’s mother is African American and her biological father is Mexican “with a sprinkle of Sicilian.” While living in California, she experienced many of the other little girls calling her “negra,” not knowing of negative connotation. She thought it was just a cool nickname, until her mother explained what the word meant in English and that it was used as a way to belittle her due to the fact that she was a slightly darker shade than they were. Her arrival to Philadelphia, “opened up a whole different world.” It was in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection that she noticed the ordeals that often come along with race and ethnicity.
Checking the Box
With 2020 being a U.S. Census year, the discussion about the imprecise categories of race and ethnicity has come to the forefront. The process of looking at a race/ethnicity question and being unsure what box to check can trigger a discussion. Eusebio and Morando are representative of the nuances that go along with “checking the box.”
“Last time I filled out the Census, I explicitly checked off ‘Black, Hispanic’ because that’s what I can claim. The boxes don’t feel like they apply when we move from one country to another, like you have to reconstruct how we identify because we’re put into a new context with new boxes that don’t feel like they fit,” Eusebio said.
Morando acknowledged a similar uncertainty when she responds to the census or other official forms.
“Recently, I started doing ‘Other’ or not identifying at all, because when I get to the point… I recently just started like making it known and not identifying specifically because I don’t want to feel like I have to choose because I shouldn’t have to,” she said.
Growing up, neither Eusebio nor Morando can recall seeing women or people who looked like them in the mainstream. In terms of heritage, background, skin color and hair type, both struggled to find a reflection of themselves. A lack of representation at an early age can turn into denial and non-recognition of the true essence of an individual’s identity. That can follow them throughout their higher education, and professionally. Now adults in the workplace, each woman makes it a point of emphasis on embracing their true identity and helping others do the same.
The intersection of Afro-Latinidad and gender is also important to each, as Afro-Latina leaders in the public sphere.
“As a woman, especially as a Dominican woman, where Dominicans have very clear definitions of beauty for women — which is straight hair, certain features — that self-hate runs deep and it manifests very differently for women,” noted Eusebio.
“The fact that I am Black and that I own my Blackness has been incredibly helpful in my relationship building, for folks to be seen by the Office of Immigrant Affairs,” she added.
Morando focuses on using her position to elevate women of all underrepresented races and ethnicities.
“I see a lot more black women now in the workplace. Curly hair, straight hair, all types. But now, I want to see more Hispanic women in my workplace. A lot of Hispanic women that I run into are cleaning bathrooms and stuff. It’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just I feel like if I’m going to represent for both sides, I want to see both sides of women. I want to do everything I can to make sure both sides are able to leverage me and get to a point where they are edifying their family, their lineage and everything that comes behind it,” she said.
Black history is American history, and includes Afro-Latinos
The Black community is rich and diverse in terms of both culture and history, and the celebration of Black History Month should be a celebration of all that richness and diversity. This is best done through education.
Morando said that Black History Month isn’t “promoted enough,” but the heritage of African ancestry, culture, and history is something that should be embraced.
“I think Black History Month is about celebrating the fact of overcoming and how much has been accomplished, but has not been taught,” she said. “I feel empowered celebrating Black History month because that’s part of my history and it’s part of American history, so people shouldn’t disregard it.”
Eusebio agreed that “there is power in being seen.”
“A lot of the issues that Latinos struggle with in the U.S., other than things related to immigration, it’s really issues of poverty. And if we can get over identity politics and see ourselves in one another, I think that’s immensely powerful. And that [is] part of that I think [means] owning your Blackness,” she said.
“There’s so much power in storytelling, knowing your story, your history, but sharing your story — spaces where people can elevate those stories and have it at the front of people’s minds versus an afterthought,” Eusebio added.
It comes back to recognizing the multiple narratives, journeys, and identities that form part of the Black community and experience, as well as the history of the U.S. as a whole.
The celebration of Black History Month is a celebration of not only the Black community, but the communities within the Black community. It’s a celebration of not only Black history, but American history. There is not one specific group of people that should get more recognition than another when it comes to celebrating this month. However, the truth is that it’s also a reality that can’t be told with a small handful of names. It’s best told through hours of research, reading, dialogue and discussion.
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