The Black History of Latinos

Illustration by Rafael López, from Margarita Engle’s 2015 book Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music

Illustration by Rafael López, from Margarita Engle’s 2015 book Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music

This article was first published by Gozamos.

At least twice a day in my reading I come across the phrase blacks and Latinos, as though the two categories were mutually exclusive. As a black Latino myself, I know they aren’t, and yet even I use the phrase on a regular basis, mainly out of convenience; non-Latinos of mostly African descent and people of Latin American ancestry who don’t consider themselves black is just too clumsy a phrase for any writer. But despite one’s own awareness of how the terms overlap, constant repetition of the phrase blacks and Latinos leads many Latinos to forget what they should already know — a lot of Latinos are black. (In fact, in some Latin American countries, most people are black.)

Blackness is a major part of latinidad, of what it means to be Latino. Blackness is as much a part of Latino identity as the brownness of the indigenous or the whiteness of the Europeans. It’s in the music Latinos sing, the food they eat, and in the stories they tell each other. The national cultures of places such as Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Colombia are unimaginable without their African ingredients. Nonetheless, most Latinos observe Black History Month at arm’s length, as if it were strictly a celebration of black culture, having nothing to do with Latino culture. But Latinos have a black history.

It being a presidential election year, we’ll hear some blacks and Latinos (there I go again) urging their peoples to bridge the supposed gap between the their communities. I’ve never understood where this proposed bridge might be built, because as a black Latino, I stand with one foot in so-called black America and the other in so-called Latino America, like a 21st-century Colossus. Thus, I see no need for a bridge.

Admittedly, though, there are days when I do feel more black than Latino, though I’m not sure what that means, or if it’s even possible to feel such a way. After all, if there’s no boundary between black and Latino — no real distinction between what it means to trace your history to Latin America and what it means to trace your history to Africa — then I can’t possibly feel more black than Latino on any given day. Sure, the Spaniard in me can trace his roots to the Iberian Peninsula in Europe. And the Maya and Taíno in me can trace their roots to the Chukchi Peninsula in Siberia. Ultimately, however, everyone on the planet can trace his or her roots to the East African Rift.

That I feel more black on some days and more Latino on others is proof that I am both all the time. It’s only society which has taught me that blackness is something distinct from Latinoness, and that feeling bonded to black culture is completely incompatible with being Latino. It’s society which tries to convince me that I feel more black on Friday than I do on Sunday. This is the great historical lie planted at the heart of latinidad that has only recently begun to be uprooted. There has never been any difference between blacks and Latinos, no more than there is between whites and Latinos. Estevanico and Juan Francisco Reyes are as much a part of black history as they are Latino history. So, too, are Arturo Schomburg, Don Pedro, Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat and Esperanza Spalding. (Yes, Haitians are members of the Latin American family, too.)

Even for those Latinos who can’t claim a more recent African lineage than 200,000 years ago, Black History Month should be a celebration, a monthlong grito, for a group of people whose experiences in this New World has been both very similar and also very different from those of Latinos. Black people are the descendants of men and women and children dragged across an ocean in chains, of centuries of entire generations bred, raised, worked and broken under threat of the whip. Latinos — namely those who aren’t black, and especially those with indigenous blood — are the survivors of an equally gruesome past, of whole civilizations wiped out by smallpox and greed: one a sickness of the body, the other a sickness of the soul. Both blacks and Latinos (for lack of a better phrase) are the victims of European expansion, white supremacy, Christianity and capitalism. Blacks and Latinos are blood brothers, if not for the blood in their veins, then for the blood they’ve shed.

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Hector Luis Alamo is a Chicago-based writer and the deputy editor at Latino Rebels. You can connect with him @HectorLuisAlamo.

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2 comments
Urmomlol
Urmomlol

You forget to mention that Latinos aren't just either black, white, American Indian (or a mix of the three), but any race(s). Also, your conclusion doesn't apply to Latinos with non-black and non-Native American blood.

Greg Medina
Greg Medina

Hector...your points are insightful, informed and intelligent.


And we have no one but ourselves to blame for this "black or latino" shell-game that gets played in the media everyday.


People of intelligence, integrity and awareness KNOW this.


Where the problem comes in, is where the political opportunist, the community "charlatan-of-convenience" , the faux-academic self-annointed "Latinistas" grab the mega-phone to speak for all of us, as if ANY member of our loosely-connected and VERY divergent ethnic, cultural and racial matrices are just one pile of congruent and interchangeable Taco Bell corn chips.


To make matters worse, the persistent repetition of the "Latino" commentaries that equate "Latino" as a racial designation only persist in this racial-cultural-ethnicity con-job.


And AGAIN, anyone with even a shred of cultural, ethnic or racial awareness KNOWS that "Latino" has NEVER been a racial designation and never will be.


Having been born in a Latin-American historical, cultural and ethnic setting (Puerto Rico) and having traveled throughout the Spanish (and Portuguese-speaking) world, I KNOW first-hand that NO ONE in any "Latin-America" context is confused about their identity...NO ONE!


The only confusion exists in the US and it is as a result of the DELIBERATE pseudo-political brainwash these huckster use to gain a vote, sell more MADE-IN-KOREA "authentic pinatas, or to fill their otherwise empty 3rd rate "Latino Studies" classes, where they will continue to spread this infestation of NON-intelligence.


Thanks for your commentary...it is very needed, but the current wave of mediocrity, political-manipulation and out-right pointless "homogenization" of our different cultures is not going to end anytime soon.


Friends, family and long-time colleagues from throughout the ENTIRE "Latin" world are appalled at how their identities are stolen when they come to the US and they are shoved "head-first" in the US "Latino" blender in they.  They leave, go back to their AUTHENTIC culture and just feel sorry for us in the States who have to hear this culture-stealing, race-trading, ethnicity con-job-peddling everyday in the US.


My Corsica-born great-grandmother once said to me as a little boy,while she was making pasta from scratch in San Sebastian, Puerto Rico...


............"cuando el hombre pierde la verguenza, no hay hadie que se la devuelva"


Even with a 3rd grade education, she KNEW who she was and wasn't waiting to have a "Latino" spokesperson to give her an identity ANYWHERE on the planet, especially ones with PhD's in such drivel as "Diaspora Studies" or "Latinos Who Overcame...(fill-in-the-blank)". 


In her day, she was too busy surviving and feeding her 12 children and that didn't leave her much time to entertain "las babosidades de sin verguenzas sin principio".


Rest-In-Peace...grandma Uffizi-Lambertini- Rondinelli-Martini...and she NEVER became a "Latina", nor a victim, nor a cultural pawn.