Arturo Schomburg Was Vital to the Harlem Renaissance, But His Latino Identity Is Often Forgotten

Art by Alan López for Remezcla

On a list of Latinos who made important contributions to United States history, some might find it surprising to see Arturo Schomburg’s name included. An interesting and notable aspect of Schomburg’s legacy is that the Afro-Boricua activist, scholar, historian, and archiver is rarely recognized or claimed among Latinos, but his importance is acknowledged by African-Americans. His absence from Latino history reflects the erroneous line of thinking that being Black is separate from being Latino. In the 80 years since his death, this misconception persists. Society often asks Afro-Latinos to choose between identifying as either Black or Latino because, according to this dichotomy, a person cannot truly or loyally be both. The irony of it all is that Schomburg’s work attempted to address this mistake.

Despite the fact that asking someone to choose between a racial identity and a cultural one – both of which deeply impact one’s life – is ridiculous and subliminally racist, Afro-Latinos are regularly put in this position. We see this constantly play out in the media with celebrities. Various Afro-Latinos in the spotlight today – from La La Anthony to Amara La Negra to Zoe Saldaña – have commented on what a headache it is to explain themselves, prove their Latinidad, and battle trolls who want them to choose a “side.” They have all firmly declared that they are both. Arturo Schomburg, his work, and the recognition of his legacy are caught up in this same either Black or Latino conflict.

But to understand Arturo Schomburg is to understand why he should be claimed by both African-Americans and Latinos. Schomburg was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1874 to a Black mother and a father of Puerto Rican and German descent – giving him his distinct last name. He moved to New York at 17 and lived among exiled Cuban and Puerto Rican nationalists and intellectuals in Manhattan, learned English in high school, and taught Spanish to support himself. Before becoming a scholar, writer, and archiver, Schomburg helped found the revolutionary nationalist club Las Dos Antillas. Named after two Antillean islands – Cuba and Puerto Rico – the club recognized the union of their political struggles. He also formed part of the nationalist group el Club Borinquen.

Schomburg combined his writing skills with political activism to use Cuba and Puerto Rico as examples to discuss the political climate of Mexico, Panama, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic. His work – some of which is bilingual – was published in numerous periodicals and is housed in the Library of Congress and various archives in Washington DC, Nashville, and at the Harlem research center that carries his name.

From early on, Schomburg demonstrated a commitment to causes thought of as Latino. His work dealt with Latin American solidarity. Despite this, Schomburg couldn’t ignore the racism he faced as an Afro-Boricua while living in Puerto Rico, after migration to the mainland US, and within Latin American revolutionary movements. So he dedicated his life to archiving Afro-descendant contributions in Latin America and countries worldwide, including the US and 14th century Spain. He documented the work of painters, photographers, and composers, as well as the contributions of Afro-descendants to the literary arts, religion, economics, politics, popular culture, and more. The Black intellectual community of the Harlem Renaissance quickly embraced him. In 1926, the New York Public Library bought Schomburg’s collection – one of the largest in the world – and named him founder and curator of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

The fact that Schomburg highlighted Latin American struggles and culture – with a specific focus on Afro-descendants – makes him a pioneer of Afro-Latinidad. According to his contemporaries, Arturo identified as a Puerto Rican of African descent. Yet, he’s not remembered or generally regarded as Latino. This erasure is connected to this idea that you cannot be both Black and Latino, and it’s unfortunately very much alive today.

As these two identities continue to be seen as conflicting, it’s important to note that a double standard exists when it comes to celebrating indigenous and Spanish contributions, which is seen as a proud act of Latinidad, while celebrating African ones is not. But will there ever be a time when society accepts that being Latino can also mean being Black?