10 Years After Its Original Release, ‘The Afro-Latin@ Reader’ Still Resonates

Art by Alan López

I have always operated in the world with triple consciousness.

After learning the term double consciousness, which was first discussed by W.E.B. Du Bois in his 1903 Souls of Black Folk, in my undergrad African American Studies course, I felt it was a term that best described my awareness of how others viewed me – non-Latinx Black – and how I saw myself: Black Latina. Though my parents both immigrated to the United States and I’m technically considered second-generation, I’ve centered their identity – Garifuna from Honduras – as my own. I’ll admit, identifying nationality first is common in my hometown of New York City. I also never gave much thought to my “Americanness,” but would be neglectful to not mention the privileges that national identity grants me, particularly when abroad.

A decade has passed since The Afro-Latin@ Reader was originally published, but its purpose and mission still rings true.

Several years later, while perusing the web, I discovered another term: triple consciousness. I first came across it while reading about Walter Luis Thompson-Hernandez’s Instagram project documenting Blaxicans in Los Angeles. It wasn’t until recently when I read Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s “Reflections about Race by a Negro Acomplejao” in The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History And Culture in the United States that I made the connection.

A decade has passed since The Afro-Latin@ Reader was originally published, but its purpose and mission still rings true. Scholars Miriam Jiménez Román, co-founder of Black Latin@- advocacy group Afrolatin@ Forum, and the late Director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College Juan Flores co-edited and produced the 584-page collection of newspaper and magazine articles, interviews, scholarly essays, memoirs, short stories and poems that explore the Afro-Latinx experience in the United States. The more than 60 selections unpack class, colorism, gender, history, and media representation, among other topics. The work of well-known Afro-Latinx leaders – such as Dr. Marta Moreno Vega, Felipe Luciano, Yvette Modestin, Piri Thomas and Marta I. Cruz-Janzen – are included in The Afro-Latin@ Reader.

“The agenda of the books is…about what is the relationship between Blackness and Latinoness in the United States? We know the idea of afrodescendiente in the Latin American culture goes back to Latin America, that’s where the movements really got going, but then the application of all of that to the United States is what this book is trying to begin to document,” Flores said during a 2011 Smithsonian Latino Center and National Museum of American History panel discussion.

The pages open to the 16th century, pre-United States founding. The Afro-Latin@ Reader begins with the enslaved Africans who were brought on Spanish ships that landed on the coast of what is now South Carolina, and later the Florida and Southwest regions, and works its way up to the 2000s. Due in part to a variety of reasons, including proximity to the US, Census data, and political climate, the reader delves into the history of Afro-Cubans, Afro-Puerto Ricans, Afro-Dominicans, as well as Afro-Mexicans, in the states.

In its examination of the Afro-Cuban experience, the reader explores their presence in South Florida in the essay “Afro-Cubans in Tampa,” which follows the connection between Cuba and Tampa in the 19th century through the cigar industry and highlights patriots like Cornelio Brito, Joaquín Granados and Paulina Pedroso, whose Ybor City home was turned into a shrine. Whether Ybor City or East Harlem or the Bronx in the 1940s and 1950s, Afro-Cubans lived apart from white Cubans and alongside African Americans, leading to interethnic marriages, families, and traditions. That cultural exchange is what birthed Cubop and Latin jazz in the ‘40s via Havana-born musicians Mario Bauzá and Machito, alongside South Carolina-born Dizzy Gillespie, and what made way for the ‘60s “first Nuyorican music” boogaloo through Afro-Boricua and African-American music, as well as Cuban son montuno and mambo; and later hip hop in the ‘80s and ‘90s, as well as reggaeton in the 2000s.

While there was a clear awareness of their language differences and birthplace or lineage, African Americans and Afro-Latinxs alike understood their Blackness and what that meant to their lived experience. “When you were of color it didn’t matter what nationality you were, you were colored,” said Melba Alvarado, founding member and first woman president of El Club Cubano Inter-Americano. In her self-titled chapter, a carefree Alvarado was undoubtedly aware of her triple consciousness, allowing her to keep her cubanidad intact as she moved throughout various spaces.

Afro-Dominican lesbian Ana M. Lara hints at this consciousness when she throws out the question: Who polices the boundaries of identity, specifically Latina identity? She addresses how Afro-Latina bodies are policed in terms of appearance and economic participation, as well as control of language, historical narratives and, ultimately, identity. At the close of her essay, she calls Afro-Latina lesbians to engage what doesn’t already exist.

I resonate deeply with her culminating words because as people of African descent, we’ve always had to charter new ground collectively.

History, whether written or oral, has provided Afro-Latinxs in the US with a reference point; but as terminology and conditions change, we’ve been forced to create our own formula for survival. For leaders like Arturo Alfonso Schomburg and Carlos Cooks, survival was found through unapologetic Blackness; however, for others, The Afro-Latin@ Reader reveals how this meant heightening their “otherness” to distance themselves from African Americans – these tactics included speaking Spanish at opportune times, altering their appearance, or, for those light enough, passing as non-Black. While there have been shifts, the Census Bureau data for 1980, 1990 and 2000 shows that the category of “white Hispanic” was still the largest, and the smallest percentage was attributed to “Black Hispanics.”

With the increase in the number of Afro-Latinxs who identify as such stateside, I’m reminded that as comprehensive as Román and Flores’ work is, there’s room to build.

Though believed to be far greater, data shows that in the 2010 Census, 2.5 percent of the 54 million Hispanics (the term the Census uses) in the US also identified as Black. Only several years later, a quarter of US Latinx adults identify as Afro-Latinx, Afro-Caribbean or of African descent with roots in Latin America, according to a 2016 report from the Pew Center.

With the increase in the number of Afro-Latinxs who identify as such stateside, I’m reminded that as comprehensive as Román and Flores’ work is, there’s room to build. As a Garifuna-American, I yearned for more than just Aida Lambert’s account, “We Are Black Too: Experiences of a Honduran Garifuna,” which aligns with the first wave of Garifuna immigrants to the the US, yet second, third and fourth waves would likely tell a different story.

In conversation with fellow Garifuna Pablo Joseph López Oro, a doctoral candidate in the Department of African and African Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, he sees the importance of Lambert’s piece and uses it as a teaching device, but similarly takes issue with it. “Aida is a particular generation of the Garinagu migration,” says López Oro, whose work centers later generations of Garinagu immigrants. “She’s coming to New York in the ‘60s. She gets to Brooklyn first and then she gets to East Harlem, but she’s coming to New York in the late ‘60s, so she’s kind of grappling with the space and she’s obviously having these moments [of disconnect] because of language barriers, because of ethnic differences she’s not necessarily being embraced by African Americans.” Those initial encounters have caused Lambert to develop an anti-African American perspective, or so her account reads.

There is very limited research on US-born Garinagu, and López Oro’s work is filling that intellectual gap.

Central American countries are often an afterthought in conversations around Latinidad; hence, Afro-Latinx identity. There was a mention of Nicaragua’s Bluefields, El Salvador, Panama and Costa Rica, but more of those narratives coupled with those from Puerto Barrios or Livingston, Guatemala; or Dangriga or Punta Gorda, Belize could’ve been included.

There’s no doubt the reader is a pioneering text. “It’s really disrupting what we understand US Latinidad to be about,” López Oro adds about the “Bible to Afro-Latino Studies.”

While my generation and the next have been building upon the conversation The Afro-Latin@ Reader started, as we approach the 2020 Census, I’m eager to see how it’ll be captured. With social media platforms fueling these discussions in real time, media outlets beginning to include our narratives in their editorial calendars and the trendiness of Afro-Latinx identity, in what ways will our consciousness exist, and how will the next 10 years be documented?

February 28, 2019 at 3:30 p.m. ET: This piece has been updated to clarify Miriam Jiménez Román and Juan Flores roles.