Black resistance in Latin America and the Caribbean has been historically tied to spiritual practices. The preservation of Afro-diasporic traditions like santería, vodou, and candomblé is already an act of defiance against the legacy of slavery, prohibition, and brutal oppression. There’s power in these practices, and a panel at this year’s Afro-Latino Festival in New York seeks to make a precise connection between spirituality, resistance, and #BlackLivesMatter.
“We had organized two talks and co-edited a collection of essays that dealt with issues of transnationalism, conceptualizations of blackness, and cross-cultural solidarity, with regard to contemporary black social movements in both the U.S. and in Latin America,” says co-curator Larnies Bowen, an NYU Latin American and Caribbean Studies MA candidate. “Yet we realized that we had not yet seriously engaged spirituality in any form in relation to these issues.”
The panel, titled “#BlackLivesMatter in Latin America, Part 3: Diaspora, Spirituality & Resistance,” is part of an ongoing #BlackLivesMatter series co-curated by Duke University Ph.D. student Ayanna Legros, which included several other panels, as well as an essay applying a transnational approach to the movement advocating for black lives.
The organizers believe it is crucial to underscore the centrality of religion in the social and political struggles of afrodescendientes, as there is a longstanding commitment to spirituality in the community’s resistance efforts. Take the Haitian Revolution, which started with a vodou ceremony at Bois Caïman. Or Brazil’s largest slave rebellion, the Malê revolt in Bahia, which began during Ramadan. Other examples include the Nat Turner Rebellion, the role of the Black church during the civil rights era, and African Americans’ and Puerto Ricans’ embrace of Islam during the Black Power movement.
“As a student of the African diaspora, you learn about all of these major acts of black resistance that were inspired by or led by leaders of various spiritual traditions and/or religions. These are only a few examples,” Bowen added.
Today, in the face of erasure, many communities have turned to ancestral Afro-diasporic spiritual practices, like the Afro-Mexican women’s dance group Obatalá, who use dance as a medium reconnect with their roots.
“Now more than ever, I believe many of us are feeling a sense of urgency to co-create more spaces where we can access our ancestral medicines, preventative care strategies taught to us by our grandmothers and to reclaim practices that support our physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual well-being and agency,” says Beatrice Anderson, an artist, healer, Ifá practitioner and one of the invited panelists. “Our ancestors’ spiritual technology made it possible to withstand the most traitorous and violent times.”
Recently, music and TV have become powerful vehicles for making the transnational and individual healing power of Afro-diasporic beliefs visible, particularly for black women. Thanks to the Oshún imagery in Beyoncé’s massively popular Lemonade, and artists like French-Cuban duo Ibeyi, Daymé Arocena, NY-based Oshún, and the Puerto Rican group ÌFÉ, African-derived spirituality is enjoying plenty of visibility in pop culture. The challenge is translating individual empowerment into a collective effort.
“With this moment of heightened black activism, from Black Lives Matter to Buenaventura, we’re seeing greater visibility of African-derived spiritual traditions here in the U.S., like the prevalence of Orisha imagery in Lemonade, online conversations around ‘bruja feminism’ and its hashtags, and Princess Nokia’s song ‘Brujas,‘” says Bowen. As she notes, this past month, Colombians in the regions of Buenaventura and Chocó went on strike to battle the economic injustices they have faced in predominantly black areas of the country. While these strikes have an obvious connection to the struggles of black diasporic people living in the United States, much of these and other movements for black justice in Latin America aren’t explored up north, despite the ostensible rise in conversations on Afro-Latino representation.
“The issues [in Latin America] involve police and state-sanctioned violence – in many cases complete abandonment of whole regions where black folk live,” says Amilcar Priestley, one of the main organizers of Afro-Latino Festival. “In many communities, issues of violent displacement due to narcotrafficking, civil war, mining, hydroelectric projects or tourism/hotel development abound. Prison conditions, lack of jobs, daily racial profiling, being able to wear natural hair or braids as a professional or someone who is employed…Sound familiar?”
Featured panelist Beatrice Anderson shared how African-derived spirituality is tied to healing work, and given President Donald Trump’s push to gut the Affordable Care Act, she says it is crucial we act now, given the effect it will have on women, girls, and trans folks. “Systemically and historically, white supremacy and oppression have had very specific and long-term effects on the mental, emotional, and physical state of black, indigenous, and people of color,” she concludes.
Afro-Latino Fest’s symposium will also include conversations touching on activism, environmental rights, culture, and, in line with this year’s theme – “A Tribute to Women of the Diaspora” – women’s issues.
Afro-Latino Festival’s AfroLatinTalks symposium will take place at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday, July 7. Visit the Afro-Latino Festival website for more information.