Defying Labels: The Afro-Latinidad Complex

by Haasitha Korlipara, April 19, 2021

Think back to Shakira and J-Lo’s memorable, high-energy performance during the 2020 Super Bowl halftime show. The singers embraced various elements of Latin American culture, an example being the incorporation of two Afro-Colombian dance forms, Champeta and Mapalé, into Shakira’s choreography. What appeared to be a showcase of Latino pride, however, I likely would have never stopped to consider a form of appropriation had I not been sitting in Professor Cristina Khan’s seminar course on Afro-Latinidad in the Americas last February. It is important to note that this tribute to Afro-Colombian culture featured the lighter-skinned Shakira front and center, accompanied by Afro-Latina backup dancers. The performance offers a symbolic representation of the marginalization of Afro-Latinos, both within Latin America and upon migration to the United States. It is a result of this marginalization that Afro-Latinos must learn to navigate the complexities associated with their ambiguous identity.

Racism in a “Post-Racial” Region

Anti-Blackness is prevalent throughout Latin America. Yet ironically, nations in the region often deny the existence of racism. One popular argument used to support this denial focuses on mestizaje. As described by scholar Ariel Dulitsky in her essay featured in the 2005 book Neither Enemies nor Friends: Latinos, Blacks, Afro-Latinos, “mestizo” translates to the idea that “we all have some indigenous or black blood in us” (Dulitsky). The concept, however, can be used to downplay racism through the perspective that “if we are all mestizos, then there are no racial distinctions and mere discussion of the racial issue is therefore viewed by many as a foreign or non-regional issue” (Dulitsky). The problem with embracing mestizaje is that it is rooted in a history of racist ideals. After all, it was “by encouraging miscegenation or marriage between non-whites and whites to make the population whiter” that ultimately gave rise to mixed race (Dulitsky).

Another form of denial is based on the idea that lack of official racist legislation translates to absence of racism in the region. Some claim that “since the segregationist laws and practices of the country to the north [United States] have not been applied in Latin America, there is no need to look at other forms of racial exclusion and alienation” (Dulitsky). While there may not have been bodies of laws sanctioning discrimination towards Blacks, the fact is that racism continues to penetrate various aspects of society in Latin America. Alexander Gonzalez and Jessica Bakeman, in a 2018 article for WLRN News, discuss an example of racism in the Cuban entertainment industry (Gonzalez). In Little Havana, the showing of the famous Spanish-language play “Tres Viudas en un Crucero” features a Blackface character who, during a particular scene, “would jump on stage, pounding her chest and opening her legs wide open, and say that ‘we’re going to drink, dance, and have fun like three gorillas’ ”(Gonzalez). The inclusion of this type of Blackface character is considered normal in many Cuban theater productions for comedic effect, although the clearly derogatory portrayal reinforces the stereotype of Black people as savage and animalistic. Racism can even be perpetuated within the family. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, in his personal narrative featured in the 2010 book The Afro-Latin Reader: History and Culture in the United States, relates his experiences as a Black Puerto Rican. He recounts his childhood years, describing how “[He] heard all sorts of racist statements about Blacks from some of [his] aunts and even [his] own mother” (Bonilla-Silva). While the racial categories in Latin America may not be as distinct—or as Black and White—as in the United States, there is evidently a preference for lighter-skin over darker skin due to the prominence of colorism. The myth of a “racial democracy” in Latin America fails to account for the relegation of Blacks to a collective identity that falls outside the norm, more specifically defined as the category of the Other.

Migration to the United States: The Afro-Latinx Experience

Individuals of African descent, upon migration from Latin America to the United States, experience a more blatant variant of racial discrimination as Afro-Latinos. Within the Black-White binary racial system, Afro-Latinos receive the official designation of “Black” and therefore become victims to the oppression that accompanies the label. They must learn that they will likely get pulled aside by the police or denied a job offer solely based on the color of their skin. Of course, it is important to simultaneously recognize the ethnic discrimination that all Latinos, regardless of skin color, will face upon migration to the United States. These Spanish-speaking “foreigners” are often victims of injustice within the workplace and housing market, giving rise to Latinx movements. However, as Cristina Beltrán puts it in her 2010 book The Trouble with Unity: Latino Politics and the Creation of Identity, the problem with the concept of Latinidad lies in the presumption that “Latinos as a group share a common collective consciousness” (Beltran, 5). This unifying term proves limiting in that it serves to mask the regional, ethnic, and most importantly, racial differences amongst them. Latinos don a variety of skin colors. Yet it is singer Jennifer Lopez who is deemed to represent the Latinx community while rapper Kid Cudi is assumed to be African American, his Latino background left unrecognized. Journalist Miguel Salazar, in a 2019 article for The Nation, highlights the Afro-Latino struggle with “what they see as an exclusionary identity fabricated by—and for the benefit of—white and mestizo elites…” (Salazar). As members of the Latinx community, Afro-Latinos must yield to the lighter-skinned Latinos holding power and further attempt to work alongside these individuals, who face an entirely different form of racial discrimination, towards a cause that does not necessarily correlate with their own. The root of the problem with the term Latinidad lies in its assumption of a shared experience for Latinos of all skin types, while in reality, there is a stark contrast between the way lighter-skinned Latinos and darker-skinned Latinos experience discrimination. In this sense, Afro-Latinos effectively become an Other within the Other. 

So how do Afro-Latinos approach their status as the Other? Oftentimes, Blacks in Latin America fail to recognize themselves as targets of Othering based on race. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva characterizes his own father as a victim of such ignorance. Upon recalling racial incidents, an example being when “a clerk in a shoe store treated him like dirt because he was Black,” Eduardo’s father would argue that these episodes were based on classism or individual prejudice rather than racism (Bonilla-Silva). This is largely owing to the persistent denial of racism throughout Latin America, as detailed earlier. Yet it is upon migration to the United States that Blacks from the Americas begin to develop a deeper racial awareness. The day-to-day discrimination they face based solely on skin color drives them to consider past experiences in their native land through a racial lens. It is within the biracial context of the United States that Afro-Latinos fully accept their Blackness. As a result, Afro-Latinos are unable to assimilate into the lighter-skin dominated Latinx community. Yet at the same time, they are rarely offered a space within the African-American community, which views them as “lesser Blacks” (Bonilla-Silva). And so Afro-Latinos take on a triple consciousness, navigating through life as a Black, a Latino, and an American, never fully belonging to one community. 

Conclusion

Afro-Latinos face the issue of marginalization, and that too, within two separate regional contexts. But new efforts are being made by Afro-descendants in Latin America as well as Afro-Latinos in the United States to combat racial discrimination. A 2018 World Bank report details how the Latin American region has gradually shifted from denying the existence of racism to acknowledging it, with countries such as Brazil and Colombia embracing affirmative action policies (Freire). This has further encouraged the rise of cohesive Afro-descendant movements, which focus largely on awareness-raising campaigns (Freire). Similarly, Blacks in the United States with Latin American origin have increasingly begun to reject the concept of Latinidad for their unique Afro-Latinx identity. Yet the discussion becomes more complex as we consider which individuals get to claim it. Are lighter-skinned Latinxs who identify as Afro-Latinx overstepping the boundaries of the term? Conversely, in setting these boundaries, do we risk imposing blackness as a monolithic ideal? Embracing Afro-Latinidad means navigating these important questions. But one thing is certain: Those who adopt the label must carefully tread the fine line between embracing their roots and commodifying a racial identity. 


References

Beltrán Cristina. “Introduction: Sleeping Giants and Demographic Floods: Latinos and the Politics of Emergence.” The Trouble with Unity: Latino Politics and the Creation of Identity, by Beltrán Cristina, Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 3–19.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. “Reflections about Race by a Negrito Acomplejao.” The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States, edited by Román Miriam Jiménez and Juan Flores, Duke University Press, 2010.

Dulitsky, Ariel E. “A Region in Denial: Racial Discrimination and Racism in Latin America.” Neither Enemies Nor Friends: Latinos, Blacks, Afro-Latinos, edited by Suzanne Oboler and Anani Dzidzienyo, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Freire, German, et al. “Afro-Descendants in Latin America: Toward a Framework of Inclusion.” Economic and Sector Work Studies, 2018. Open Knowledge Repository, World Bank Group.

Gonzalez, Alexander, and Jessica Bakeman. “How Racism Persists in Latin American Communities.” WLRN News, WLRN, 1 June 2018.

Salazar, Miguel. “The Problem with Latinidad.” The Nation, The Nation, 16 Sept. 2019.