This post was updated on February 4, 2020. It was originally published in February 2016.
This past week, trailblazing reporter Gwen Ifill, who died in 2016, was honored with a stamp from the U.S. Postal Service ahead of Black History Month. Ifill, whose parents were from Panama and Barbados, was a groundbreaker in the world of journalism that has broken countless gender and racial barriers.
However, while the Latino community prides itself on its diversity and the various cultures of its members, Afro-Latinos are often overlooked, both in terms of their inclusion and contributions to Latinos around the world. In honor of Black History Month, we present 11 Afro-Latinos who have had significant influences on American and Latino culture.
Brooklyn, New York
Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in Brooklyn to a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother, and lived in Puerto Rico for a time. Basquiat developed his innate artistic talent during childhood, resulting in his unique interpretation of neo-expressionism, influenced by the 1970s movements emerging in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Combining poetry, abstract elements, and social commentary into visually arresting pieces, his work continues to inspire artists of all mediums and genres.
Named the Queen of Latin Music, Celia Cruz was instrumental in popularizing salsa music across the world. Born in Cuba, Cruz first learned to sing santería songs against her Catholic mother’s wishes. After appearing on Havana radio, Cruz began recording songs in Venezuela. As Cruz’s star rose, she brought the world’s attention to salsa, and Latin music in general. Over her 55-year career, Cruz won eight Grammys, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award.
Sammy Davis, Jr.
Harlem, New York
Known as Mister Show Business, Sammy Davis Jr. began his career in entertainment at the age of three, learning to dance from his Afro-Cuban mother. Originally part of a vaudeville act with his father, Davis stood out for his dancing, singing, acting, and impressions. As a member of the Rat Pack with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and others, Davis became an American entertainment institution. Along with the rest of the Pack, Davis starred in Ocean’s 11 and more than 30 other films. In 1960, he was awarded with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and posthumously honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001.
New York City, New York
Born to a single mother of Cuban and Puerto Rican ancestry, Rosario Dawson began her acting career at the age of 15. Since then, she has starred in blockbusters such as Men in Black II, Rent, Sin City, Seven Pounds, and others. Dawson is also an active philanthropist, working with organizations like Oxfam, Amnesty International, and Doctors Without Borders. She most recently starred as Claire Temple on Netflix’s Daredevil and Jessica Jones, and as the female lead in Krystal.
The Bronx, New York
As the lead singer of the Dominican-American band Aventura, Romeo Santos is credited with popularizing bachata music across the world, and is referred to by many as the King of Bachata. Since the breakup of Aventura, Santos has had a successful solo career. Shortly after the election of Barack Obama, Santos was invited to the White House to perform for the president and First Lady. He had a cameo in Furious 7, and voiced a character in The Angry Birds Movie. Additionally, the music video for his single “Imitadora” won the 2018 Best Bachata Video Awards. In 2019, he release his fourth studio album “Utopia.”
Passaic, New Jersey
Since starring in the highest grossing film of all time, Avatar, Zoe Saldana has become a household name. Saldana, who lived in the Dominican Republic as a child and speaks fluent Spanish, went on to star in movies such as Guardians of the Galaxy I and II, JJ Abrams’ Star Trek series, The Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, and Live by Night, and will star in Avatar sequels in 2021 and 2023. In 2018, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Hailed as a musical prodigy since childhood, Esperanza Spalding has pushed the boundaries of modern jazz, while incorporating interpretations of bossa nova and rhythm and blues. Self-taught on various instruments since first learning to play violin at five years old, Spalding was awarded a full scholarship to the Berklee College of Music where, at age 20, she later became one of the youngest professors in the school’s history. In 2011, Spalding became the first jazz artist to win Best New Artist at the Grammys, and in 2016, Spalding performed at the White House for President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. This winter, her album 12 Little Spells won a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album.
The daughter of a Panamanian immigrant, Ifill was one of the first Black women to host a national television program on public affairs and was the first Black woman to moderate a vice presidential debate. Ifill’s career spanned time with The Washington Post, The New York Times, PBS, and NBC, breaking gender and racial barriers.
St. James, New York
Born to an Afro-Cuban mother and Australian father, Soledad O’Brien has been a pioneer in journalism since joining NBC News in 1991. Since then she has gone on to appear on CNN, HBO, and Al Jazeera, to name a few. She is also the founder and CEO of the Starfish Media Group, as well as assuming hosting duties for the National Geographic Bee after former host Alex Trebek stepped down, from 2013 to 2016.
San Antón, Puerto Rico
Playing all 18 years of his MLB career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Roberto Clemente served as an ambassador for Latinos and baseball fans while the major leagues were still struggling with racism in the sport. He led the league in batting average during the 1960 season and the Pirates would go on to win the World Series against the New York Yankees. During his final season in 1972, Clemente achieved his 3,000th hit in the majors with his final, regular season at bat. Clemente passed away during a plane crash en route to deliver aid to Managua, Nicaragua, after an earthquake ravaged the city. He was entered into the Baseball Hall of Fame the following year with 92% of the vote. The Roberto Clemente Award for Sports Excellence is presented at the NCLR Annual Conference in his honor.
Brooklyn, New York
Part of the SuperDraft class of 2003, featuring stars like Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, whose father was Puerto Rican, has been a force in the NBA since being drafted third overall. Known for his explosive offense, Anthony was named the 2013 NBA scoring champion, averaging 28.2 points per game through the 2012–2013 season. Combined with his two Olympic gold medals, one as part of the 2008 Redeem Team, Melo’s been a staple of NBA highlight reels for more than a decade.
Continuing the Conversation
An estimated 25% of U.S. Latinos identify as Afro-Latino, and many Afro-Latinos—like those above—have made important and significant contributions to American life. For more ideas about how to teach students about Afro-Latino history and community, you can read Progress Report’s article on teaching students Afro-Latino history during Black History Month. You can also learn more about the Afro-Latinx identity in this article about the panel Embracing Our Afro-Latinx Identities at the 2019 UnidosUS Annual Conference in San Diego.