Afro-Latinos were celebrated during Black History Month

As we close out Black History Month, I wanted to share some thoughts about being Afro-Latino in America from a personal and family perspective. One of the first blog posts that I saw in reference to this year's Black History Month was in honor of the late and great Cuban singer-performer Celia Cruz, a musical legend, "the Queen of Salsa," and person who was clearly of African descendancy. My initial reactions were, "great, now Afro-Latinos get celebrated during during Black History Month and National Hispanic Heritage Month," which got me to thinking of the significance and relevance of the Afro-Latino identity as it applies to me and my family. As a Latino of mixed racial background and being married to a Dominican woman of African descent (as I believe is true for most Dominicans), I wonder if we should refer to ourselves as Afro-Latinos and enjoy the honors and celebrations of both heritage months? I understand the appeal with the identity, "Afro-Latino," but being a Latino from up North and living in the New South, I already claim a number of different identities so I’m not sure of the value of adding another identity to my already long list. Here are some thoughts I've considered in this personal journey of self reflection.

Cultural Identity and Pride

For starters, most Latinos will claim their country of origin first and foremost, and this lasts for generations post migration and of course, gets diluted with cross-cultural or mixed-ethnicity marriages. How many times have you heard someone say, I'm half this, quarter that and quarter (insert country of origin)? With similar fever to third, fourth or later generation Irish descendants on Saint Patrick's Day, a Puerto Rican of any generation will still don the flag on their head or wardrobe during the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City, for example, as a way of showing pride in their cultural heritage. Affinity and pride in one’s ethnicity or culture is a function of a number of factors, such as one’s citizenship or immigrant status, upbringing, knowledge of history, time since immigrating to this country, whether one still has home ownership or family in that country, to name a few.

It's beneficial to know and take pride in your roots as well as to preserve your culture, pass down oral history and traditions to subsequent generations, care for your own, and share what makes you unique with people of other backgrounds or cultures. One of the challenges of living outside of your home country is passing on oral history, traditions, language, culture, etc. to subsequent generations on an individual, family and community level in our pluralistic and fast paced society whose mass media isn't wired to depict the subtle nuances of every particular culture or subculture we have represented in America, whether those cultures derive from abroad or domestically. Even Spanish language media from Latin America promotes stereotypes and tends to favor the European side of our collective heritage.

Our Storyline

So the rise in awareness, popularity and affinity towards the Afro-Latino experience is a realization that we Latinos, both inside and outside of Latin America or individually and certainly collectively, have a mixed racial background and despite not learning much about this background or history at home, in schools or in the media, we should own our history and reframe who we are as people. The typical thought process may resemble the following: "I have African, European, or other ethnic descendancy, I was born in a Latin American country or raised by Latino parents in this country, so therefore I am Afro-Latino." I get it. This is a historical awakening; an internal course correction of sorts in our understanding of our collective self to recognize our African ancestry and the current manifestations on modern culture.

I think it's fair to assume that most Latinos don't grow up hearing "oye muchachito, how many times do I have to tell you, you're Afro-Latino." Claiming an Afro-Latino identity, I believe, is a personal branding, and typically adult, decision. I recognize that the largest African diaspora community resides in Brazil and that a substantial percentage of all Latinos have African descendancy. Latinos of African descent are passing down elements of their African heritage to future generations, yet the fact is that African culture has influenced music, dance, etc. across all of the Americas, not just among Afro-Latinos. As I’ve raised our two sons, I made sure to tell them something similar to this storyline, "hey, your mother is Dominican and black so therefore you guys have African roots, and grandma was Puerto Rican and white so you guys are both Dominican and Puerto Rican as well as black and white."

Yes, redefine identity but be balanced

The personal questions I ask when deciding whether to call myself Afro-Latino are many: to what extent will this new label help redefine my identity in a way that creates further alignment, clarity and purpose in my life? Is it my way of acknowledging the subtle nuances in Puerto Rican culture whose origins are clearly African, like the practice of Santeria in addition to and in some ways masked by the dual practice of Christianity. Or is it the fact that my extended family includes "blanquitos" and "negritos" (as my father was called) and many shades in between? Is it my small way of bucking a system that downplays historical African contributions to modern day society and cultures? I ask myself how many labels do I want to carry? I am already a Puerto Rican American as well as New Yorker (therefore Nuyorican) and Charlottean, to name a few identities I use on the regular.

To what extent do I want to uplift my African roots at the exclusion of other elements of my Latino heritage? Not that I'm from there, but did you know that there are over a million Chinese people in Peru alone as well as many other Asian and European descendants throughout Latin America. On a personal note, my uncle is Cuban Chinese. Granted, it's through marriage that we add that element to my extended family but I have four first cousins that look Chinese. Almost half of my cousins were born half Italian-half Puerto Rican, reminiscent of the 60's movie, West Side Story. My great grandfather was French, and two of my cousins on my father's side of the family are half French. Latinos are a culturally and racially diverse people. As a group, we've been mixing it up for over five hundred years, from pre-Columbian to modern times.

Identity reconstructed - a look at our history

As we reframe ourselves, we must ask the question, "how far back should I go to reconstruct our identity?" The Moors conquered the Iberian Peninsula from 711 to 1492, so maybe my ancestors include Muslims of Arab or African descent. I can't count how many times a Lebanese person both in New York or in the Carolinas has opened to me by speaking Arabic, because as they say, "you look like one of us." Or maybe I have descendants who were Sephardic Jews, expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492. On Columbus’ second voyage, a group called the Crypto-Jews settled in the mountainous regions of Puerto Rico, where my mother’s side of our family originated, so maybe I have Jewish descendants, who knows? My father always proclaimed our indigenous roots as Taino descendents of Puerto Rico. Members of a larger Arawak tribe who originated from the Amazon Basin, the Tainos were indigenous peoples of the Bahamas, Greater and Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean. According to the history books, most of these indigenous people were killed off by infectious diseases and oppressive colonization practices shortly after Columbus’ arrival from Spain in 1492. So while unlikely, claiming our Taino roots was a strong part of our upbringing. Oddly enough, it was the Tainos that were enslaved in Puerto Rico, while the early Africans that arrived with the invading Spanish Conquistadores were free men. But in order to staff the mining and fort building operations, the Spaniards did import slaves from Western Africa and other parts so the slave trade did bring African peoples with unique cultural and religious practices, which changed Puerto Rican demographics and unquestionably, influenced its culture.

Claim the totality of our identity

The point of all this is to simply say, I don't know all of my ethnic or cultural background but If I knew, I would claim it all (the people that is, not their practices). I would take pride in all sides of my background. For in fact, I am Hispano. I am Latino. I am Taino, African, Arab, American, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and so on, including whatever other background I may have missed. I am certain of this - both of my parents, one white skinned and the other darker, were born in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, came to the mainland, married and raised us as Puerto Rican Americans. So conceptually, I know I am Afro-Latino but it's not a strong identity for me personally and to be balanced about what I am sure is a rich and diverse racial, cultural and even religious background of which I know little about, I'll stick to my usual, "I'm Latino", "I'm Nuyorican," or "I'm American"  responses when asked about my identity. I guess carrying three identities is my personal limit. Growing up in the New South, I bet my sons would have a different response when asked about their identity, and that's okay too. Identity formation is a personal journey and  changes throughout one’s lifetime with the passage of time, new experiences, personal reflections and revelations.

One Love

In conclusion, each of our personal identities is influenced or informed by history, traditions, language, practices and personal choices about how we want to be described. Know it, own it and celebrate it. It’s all good. But please don’t denigrate people on account of it, as we too often see happen throughout the world. In the inevitable words of Bob Marley, “One Love." Regardless of your background, I hope you have enjoyed Black Heritage Month.

Peace, my brothers!

Bill Garcia

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Email me at GarciaTalent@gmail.com

Research credits: www.wikipedia.com

Photo credits: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABlackHispanic.jpg By CoCoLumps [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons from Wikimedia Commons