By Viviana López Green, Senior Director, Racial Equity Initiative, UnidosUS
Black History Month is an opportunity to be reminded of the beautiful, complex, multi-layered, and diverse nature of the Black experience in the United States. Afro-Latinos, with their unique voices and perspectives, are an essential and vibrant group in the makeup of the Hispanic and Black American identity. From writers to social innovators, from performers to musicians, from cultural icons to scholars: La Afrolatinidad está presente!
This year, UnidosUS wanted to showcase the ingenuity, varied perspectives, and contributions from Afro-Latinos to our country’s social fabric and culture. The list compiles some known and some upcoming names in Afro-Latino literature, poetry, dance, social theory, and more.
May this list be an invitation to keep learning about the Black experience in the United States throughout the entire year!
Literature and Poetry
My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter: This collection of poems by Aja Monet is described by its publisher as “an ode to mothers, daughters, and sisters—the tiny gods who fight to change the world.” These powerful poems deal with racism, sexism, grief, motherhood, hope and the power of love. Monet is a Cuban-Jamaican American poet, performer, and educator from Brooklyn, who lives in Little Haiti, Miami. She has been awarded the Andrea Klein Willison Prize for Poetry and the Nuyorican Poet’s Café Grand Slam title, as well as the New York City YWCA’s “One to Watch Award.”
Island Born: Junot Díaz’s compelling children’s picture book centers the life of Lola, a young immigrant Afro-Latina girl who discovers her curiosity about the island she was born, after being assigned a school project about her origins in a class full of students born elsewhere. The teachers asked the students to draw where they are from. Many of the kids drew pyramids and mongoose, but Lola didn’t know what to draw because she left her unidentified island as a baby. Lola raises her hand and asks the teacher what to do when you can’t remember where you’re from. The teacher responds by asking her if she knew people that remembered the island. “Like my whole neighborhood!” Lola responds. “And they’re always talking about the island.” The illustrator Luis Espinosa provided bright and colorful images of Dominican flags, the island of Hispaniola, and a community of people listening to music, cooking, and taking moto-taxis. This heartfelt story is a perfect opportunity to focus on heritage and conversations around home and community.
The Poet X. Afro-Latina author and spoken word artist Elizabeth Acevedo offers us a beautiful novel in verse titled The Poet X. The novel is told from the journal of its protagonist Xiomara, who is a New York teen struggling to find her voice. She struggles to speak up about her doubts in her mother’s Catholic faith and to find a way to express her experiences in love, friendship, and family. Xiomara joins her high school’s slam poetry club and begins to find her voice and a new identity for herself in the world. You can find Acevedo’s book in audio form being read by her in the style of spoken-word poetry performance. Teens and adults alike will find this to be a quick and absorbing read, as Xiomara takes them into the feelings she experiences as she moves between home, the school, and the church.
The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States: According to Duke University Press, this work offers insight into Afro-Latino life and new ways to understand culture, ethnicity, nation, identity, and antiracist politics, and presents “a kaleidoscopic view of Black Latinos in the United States.” It addresses history, music, gender, class, and media representations in more than 60 selections, including scholarly essays, memoirs, newspaper and magazine articles, poetry, short stories, and interviews. This seminal work in the field of Afro-Latino studies was co-edited by Miriam Jiménez Román and Juan Flores.
Locked In, Locked Out: Gated Communities in a Puerto Rican City: This ethnographic work by Zaire Zenit Dinzey-Flores, Associate Professor in Latino and Hispanic Caribbean Studies and Sociology, was the winner of the 2014 Robert E. Park Award from the American Sociological Association. In the words of the Afro-Latino writer Junot Diaz, this work is “an elegant, unflinching dissection of the way gated housing in Puerto Rican communities produce and reinforce the symbolic and physical inequalities of our neoliberal era. In this far-ranging and original work, Dinzey-Flores maps out the zones of exclusion that are proliferating throughout our built spaces and which threaten our communal future.”
Afro-Latinos in the U. S. Economy : As the book’s description states, “very little research has been disseminated in the field of economics on the contributions of Afro-Latinos regarding income and wealth, labor market status, occupational mobility, and educational attainment.” Afro-Latinos in the U.S. Economy aims to contribute to fill that gap by outlining the current position and status of Afro-Latinos in the economy of the United States. The book was co-edited by Michelle Holder and Alan A. Aja.
Reggaeton: This work brings critical perspectives on a popular music genre that has turned into a global phenomenon. Journalists, scholars, and artists delve into reggaeton’s local roots and its transnational dissemination. According to Duke University Press, “they examine the genre’s aesthetics and explore the debates about race, nation, gender, and sexuality generated by the music and its associated cultural practices, from dance to fashion.” The book was co-edited by Raquel Z. Rivera, Wayne Marshall, and Deborah Pacini Hernandez.
How I Made It: Ayodele Casel (Podcast): Casel does it all. She is an actor, tap dancer, choreographer, and champion of arts education. Her impressive list of awards includes the 2017 Hoofer Award and the 2018 Artsmith Transcendence Award. She was selected to represent City Center On the Move 2019, where she shared her work “Rooted” and engaged with New York City communities. Casel was also the 2018–2019 dance artist-in-residence at Harvard University. She has been hailed by the legendary Gregory Hines as “one of the top young tap dancers in the world” and by the New York Times as “a tap dancer of unquestionable radiance.” In this “How I Made It” Latino USA episode, Ayodele Casel takes us through her life and career and how she reclaims tap dancing as a Black art form.
Media and Popular Culture
Sonia Manzano: The Power of Writing (Podcast): You may remember Manzano as María in Sesame Street, but you probably do not know that she has been awarded 15 Emmys for television writing, and has authored several children books. After retiring from her more than four-decade career on Sesame Street, Sonia is back with an animated show on PBS Kids, Alma’s Way. In this Latino USA episode, Sonia talks about this beautiful TV project and “how she is drawing from her childhood memories in the Bronx to affirm to the children of today that the way each of them looks at the world is valid.”
A Spoken History Of The Nuyorican Poets Cafe (Podcast): In this episode of Latino USA, several artists offer a spoken history of the legendary cafe. Poet Jesús “Paopleto” Meléndez, the Bronx poet Caridad De La Luz, -known as “La Bruja,” playwright Ishmael Reed, and artist and archivist Lois Elaine Griffith reminiscence anecdotes, stories and events, and remind us about “the café’s legacy of fostering Black and Latinx talent on and off stage” and “the importance of preserving the Nuyorican history for future generations.”
Music, Video, and Film
AfroLatinos: An Untaught History: AfroLatinos is a documentary television series that illustrates the history and celebrates the rich culture of people in Latin America of African descent. The film chronicles the trans-Atlantic slave trade, as well as the race identity issues that continue to exist in the Hispanic community today. The film is directed by Emmy Award winning television producer Renzo Devia, and produced by the playwright, speaker, and activist Alicia Anabel Santos. Both aimed to empower more than 200 million Afro-descendants in Latin America by telling them their “untaught history,” while initiating a dialogue to dismantle systemic racism and promote social change. This documentary film has been an official selection at the Pan African Film Festival and the New York International Latino Film Festival.
The Last Mambo: This documentary film explores the Salsa/Latin Jazz community in the San Francisco Bay area, seen from the diverse perspectives of dancers, DJs, and musicians. According to the film’s web site, it traces the 60+ year evolution of the West Coast Latin sound, “a potent gumbo of Afrocuban rhythms, jazz harmonies and funk infused grooves.” The documentary highlights the cultural, economic, and social forces that impact this artistic community and shape the future of the art form. The Last Mambo brings together interviews, archival material, photographs, and concert footage that capture the pulse of this creative collective. Directed by Rita Hargrave. Organizations can request a screening event of the film, through their website.
Conversations on Afro-Latinidad
The Afro-Latinx Experience Is Essential To Our International Reckoning On Race (Podcast): This Alt.Latino podcast, produced by NPR, is a conversation about how the Afro-Latinx community is often left out of national discussions about Blackness. Petra Rivera-Rideua of Wellesley College, Omaris Z. Zamora of Rutgers, and NPR publicist Anaïs Laurent, navigate through layers of complexities in this conversation and share knowledge on the Afro-Latinx culture and reggaeton. The episode ends with an interview with Dominican musician and novelist Rita Indiana discussing Afro-Caribbean Blackness and discrimination (en español).
A Family Conversation On Race And Latinidad (Podcast): In this Latino USA podcast, two Afro-Latinx cousins meet to talk. Umar Williams, who is a musician and radio host living in the Twin Cities, and Alexander Newton, a strategy and analytics consultant who lives in Washington, DC. Both cousins share their experiences with racism, the unique struggles faced by Black Latinos, and what it meant to “grow up in a family that taught them that ‘Black is beautiful.’”
Alzheimer’s in Color (Podcast): This podcast aired in September 2020, a few months after the COVID-19 pandemic began. The story of an 84-year-old Dominican immigrant living in the Bronx, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, reveals some of the unique and pressing challenges that Black American and Latinx communities face. The “intimate portrait” is told by her daughter, “who takes us through her and her mother’s Alzheimer’s journey, and the value of memories in keeping those we love alive.”
These Afro-Latino Actors Are Pushing Back Against Erasure in Hollywood (Article & Video): “But while there are millions of Afro-Latinos around the world, they are chronically misunderstood and underrepresented. Across Latin America, they are marginalized and discriminated against. In the United States, they are less likely to go to college and are more likely to have a lower family income than other Latinos. In terms of representation, almost all of the biggest Latina entertainment stars—including Jennifer Lopez, Sofia Vergara, and Salma Hayek—are fair-skinned, as gatekeepers perpetuate a narrow image of what it means to ‘look Latina.’ Afro-Latino actors are consistently shut out of roles because they don’t match that image—and when they are cast, it’s even rarer that they get to play Afro-Latino characters, instead playing characters who are Black or mixed-race but not Latino.” This article was published in TIME magazine. Written by Andrew R. Chow. Video by Jenna Caldwell, Erica Solano.
Carolina Contreras, “Miss Rizos”: Miss Rizos works to eradicate the discrimination against natural curly hair of Afro-descendant populations as a means of addressing broader issues related to race and color. Carolina Contreras, the woman behind this project, is an Ashoka Fellow. According to her profile page in Ashoka’s website, “the novelty and effectiveness of Carolina’s approach stem from having found a simple and accessible channel–namely, hair—through which people can more easily grapple with a problem as complex as systemic racism. Toward these aims, Carolina empowers women and girls through pioneering all-curly hair salons in Santo Domingo and New York City, workshops, and an influential social media presence.”
AFROSAYA The Afro Latino Podcast: Alex Gutiérrez-Duncan lives in Sacramento, CA, and is a high school Spanish teacher. He independently produces a podcast that focuses on Afro-Latino issues, news, and culture, titled Afrosaya. Alex has worked with Black communities in Latin America for more than 12 years. The podcast is produced in English and in Spanish, and Gutiérrez-Duncan advocates for access to education, health, and justice for all. Occasionally, he is joined by guest speakers who share their personal stories and joy. His work is aimed towards the larger goal of inclusion of the Afro-Latino community, as he believes “visibility leads to representation and representation leads to inclusion.”
Other Posts by UnidosUS on Afro-Latinidad