Representing Afro-Latinidad in the Time of #BlackLivesMatter: An Interview With the Founders of the Afro-Latino Festival

Affirm, educate, and celebrate. These three words have been Mai-Elka Prado Gil and Amilcar Priestley’s guiding principles while organizing the third annual Afro-Latino Festival in New York. In three years, the festival has grown from a one day event to a multi-location, three-day event that includes an awards gala, film screenings, panels, food, art exhibitions, and more than 20 local and international afro-latino artists.

The festival’s mission feels especially vital in a year when conversations about race  – and blackness in particular – are gaining increasing traction in the media and national consciousness. Through the focused work of activists and organizers, the Black Lives Matter movement, a response to a legacy of racial inequity in U.S. policing tactics, has now grown into something that transcends borders and cultures.  And within the Latino community, events like Rodner Figueroa’s comments on Univision about Michelle Obama in March, and the recent immigration crisis in the Dominican Republic, have been fostering more dialogue about the unique challenges and work that lies ahead in fighting anti-blackness in our communities.

This year’s line up – which includes Cultura Profética, Les Nubians, Kafu Banton, Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto, Danay Suarez and Que Bajo?! –reminds us that Afro-Latinidad is part of the cultural fabric of all Latinos, embedded in the rhythms and flavors that traverse the continent.

“My family always instilled being proud of mis raíces,” said founder of the festival Mai-Elka Prado Gil, a singer and songwriter from Panama. “[We] didn’t have that much access to literature about our history, but in terms of feeling pride for who we were, that was always present and clear,” Prado said.

Sitting next to her was Priestly, who said he was born into a family that had always placed emphasis on celebrating their identity. “My father was an activist in this movement for 40 years.” His father, Dr. George Priestley, taught at the Latin American studies at CUNY-Queens College and started the AfroLatin@ Project, a platform and digital tool set for Afro-latinos to tell their stories. Priestley, born in New York to Panamanian parents, took over the AfroLatin@ Project after his father passed away, and came on board as an Afro-Latino Festival organizer this year.

Mai-Elka Prado Gil
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Together they’ve taken a holistic approach to the festival that aims to award those who have been working for the cause, incite conversations about race, and showcase the Afro-Latino arts. Here’s more of what Mai Elka Prado Gil and Amilcar Priestley had to say about what means to host a festival that celebrates and affirms Afro-Latino identity.

How did the idea of the festival come about?
Mai-Elka: The idea came about because we needed to find a meeting point, during the summer, al aire libre,  for Afro-Latinos. And it was really important to have that place where we can share and celebrate our Afro-Latinidad, our culture through music and art. This year we have added conferences and that’s all Amilcar. We have good working chemistry, but different concentrations, he does the academic— having the conversations that are extremely important to have. From my part as a singer and artist I concentrate on the arts.

What’s the goal of the festival?
Amilcar: The goal at the end of the day  is to make it abundantly clear that Afro-Latinos are here, we have created a space for ourselves, everybody is welcomed, but we have a platform, we want our stories heard, we want to insist in telling our stories. We want people to see that yes, there are a lot of countries Mexico, Puerto Rico, Colombia that say there are three roots to Latin America: Indígena, Afro and Europeo. Not all of those get equal filling.

How do you curate the festival?
M: Mainly through applications. We also picked local and international Afro-Latino bands or artists whose music has been a contribution to Afro-Latinos or celebrates Afro-Latinidad. We had so many applications, I could start planning next year’s show and it would be done!

A: We wanted to come out with the strongest line up possible. We thought Cultura would be a great fit because of their long history in the roots and reggae music and their level of consciousness. Kafu Banton, because he’s from Panama and we’ve always been fans of his. Los Gaiteros  because of the contribution to Afro-Colombianidad and Danay Suarez, who is an up and coming really great jazz artist and rapper. And Que Bajo?! has been working in the New York area to really push Afro-Latinidad in the musical context. They’re all part of what I consider a musical resurgence of Afro-Latino influences. There’s always ups and downs, but we’re at a point now that either by happenstance or constant work, or a combination of the two, there’s a resurgence of interest but also a resurgence of musicians who are really embracing Afro-Latinidad in their music and culture.

Danay Suarez
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Are there other Afro-Latino festival in the country ?
There’s one in Seattle.

A:Yeah, there is a festival in Seattle and a parade in Reading, PA but those are the only ones we’re aware of. New York is a key place because per the last census the vast majority of people who identify as Afro-Latino are in the New York state and the Tri-State area.

What does it mean to host the festival in the context of today’s conversations about race & ethnicity?
A: It’s timely. There are a lot of issues that Afro-Latinos can bring to the table from a racial component. As black immigrants and as Latino immigrants we can add a lot to the conversation of immigration in general. What’s been going on in the Dominican Republic with the Haitian deportations has gained a lot of interest and concern. This is not anything new, it’s an issue that has been a slow-moving accident in the last two years and it implicates national sovereignty and international human rights concerns. It implicates a long history of animosity whether it’s racial or national. It’s all being brought up right now. It’s something that will have to be dealt with, but with a broader perspective, because while the DR is deporting Haitians, other countries are doing that with their immigrants as well. It’s important for these conversations to be had.

How do you think racial and ethnic identity is evolving Latin America?
A: This festival is part of the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent, ongoing until 2024. There was a large push from Latin American Afro-descendant organizations in the 90s and early 2000s to really get that going. In the last 15 years, different organizations, communities, and networks which I’ve been a part of  are pushing for greater acknowledgement and recognition. In a lot of instances, race and ethnicity were subsumed in the national interest. It wasn’t that there wasn’t any interest, it just wasn’t seen as a priority. Now you have Día de la Afrocolombianidad that’s officially recognized by the Colombian government, Dia de Los Afromexicanos recognized in the Mexican government, Día de la Etnia Negra en Panama, Día de la Afrovenezolanidad en Venezuela, and Black History Month in Brazil and Costa Rica. There has always been a high level of consciousness, it just hadn’t been recognized.

Que Bajo?!’s Geko Jones and Uproot Andy
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R: How do you see the future of the festival?
M: This festival is going to happen every summer. We’re very aware that we have to be consistent and that this is a yearly commitment. We invite anyone who is interested in learning, celebrating, and helping us raise our voice to say that we’re present, we’re here and we’re not going anywhere.

A: This is at least a 10-year mandate. We’re trying to do this and grow it with the International Decade. The decades principles are “justice, recognition and development” and none of those three things are easily achieved, but we hope this festival is one small step in the right direction.

The Afro-Latino Festival kicks off today: three day passes are $100. You can also get one day tickets online.