Nearly 100 years ago, historian Carter G. Woodson established a week-long commemoration of Black achievements and history. Through that initiative, Woodson lay the groundwork for what would eventually become known as Black History Month. In the United States, the month of February is a celebration of Blackness, paying tribute to those who fought for racial and social equality. The month serves to highlight the existence of the African Diaspora in the United States, and in school, turned our civics and history classes into necessary discussions about their contributions. However, many times this history is incomplete.
While we commonly learn about imperative African-American figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Maya Angelou, and many others, we don’t often hear about the importance of Afro-Latinos in the United States. Because Black and Latino are incorrectly seen as mutually exclusive, Afro Latinos find themselves overlooked.
As we acknowledge and honor Black heritage, here are eight Afro Latinos whose important contributions to US history should not go unrecognized during Black History Month or the rest of the year.
Miriam Jiménez Román
Miriam Jiménez Román’s influence is expansive, but perhaps nothing is as strongly felt as her book, The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States. Jiménez leads the AfroLatin@ Forum, which is dedicated to raising the awareness of Afro Latin@s in the US. She has used her own experiences as a Black Puerto Rican to educate the world on Afro Latinidad and to bridge the gap between the presence of African-Americans and Latinos in the US.
She created spaces and outlets for Black Latinos that previously didn’t exist and addressed issues that often go ignored. Along with her co-editor, Juan Flores, Román conducted informative workshops with middle school students and discovered that many had a hard time understanding Afro Latinidad.
That’s why she knew crafting a book like The AfroLatin@ Reader was essential and something that should have always existed. “I said I wanted a book that addressed some of the concerns I felt when I was young,” Roman told Los AfroLatinos. “This kind of book should have been around when I was a kid because Blackness was equated with being African-American. This limited view left me concerned about my Blackness because I grew up as a Black Puerto Rican, and I’m very conscious how race and ethnicity have both impacted my life.”
Down These Mean Streets, a memoir written by author Piri Thomas, is a noteworthy work on Afro Latinidad in the United States. Discussing the racism, identity issues and poverty he experienced during his lifetime growing in Spanish Harlem in NYC, the Cuban-Puerto Rican poet created a piece of literature that shone a light on his own community.
As a darker-skinned Latino, he faced discrimination, both from his family and society as a whole. His father reportedly preferred his lighter-skinned children, according to The New York Times. During his youth he used and sold drugs and ended up in prison after he hurt a police officer. During his seven years imprisoned, he finished high school and turned to writing. The work he created was so trailblazing that his editor told him that with Down These Mean Streets, Piri created a new genre, one where “everybody speaks like themselves.”
He also became involved in his community and advocated for at-risk youth. In Carmen Dolores Hernández’s Puerto Rican Voices in English: Interviews with Writers, Piri said that if people wanted to know what he had done after writing his novel, all they had to do was to “ask the communities, the schools, the universities, and colleges.”
Piri is remembered as an influential voices of the Nuyorican Movement, which captured the experiences of Puerto Ricans in New York through the discrimination and marginalization they faced.
José Celso Barbosa
Physician, sociologist and politician José Celso Barbosa was one of the first Puerto Ricans and persons of African descent to receive a medical degree in the US. But he also made history in plenty of other ways. He served in the executive cabinet under Puerto Rican Governor Charles H. Allen and joined the first Puerto Rican Senate. Barbosa, who advocated for statehood, also established El Tiempo, the island’s first bilingual newspaper.
The late television news anchor Gwen Ifill, whose father was of Panamanian and Barbadian descent – left a mark on American media. As one of the first Black women to host a nationwide televised public affairs program in the United States, she paved the way for other journalists of color. Ifill worked for The Washington Post, The New York Times, NBC, and PBS, and became the first Black woman to moderate a vice presidential debate.
After her death in 2016, PBS published a piece titled “‘Dear Gwen: Letters from female journalists of color she inspired,” which showed how deep her legacy is. For Gwen, championing diversity in journalism was necessary. “Diversity is essential to the success of the news industry, and journalists must include diverse voices in their coverage in order to reach a broader audience. We have stories to tell, but many in our audience have stopped listening because they can tell that we’re not talking about them,” Ifill said.
In fall 2018, Simmons College is set to rename its new media arts program after the journalist, calling it the Gwen Ifill College of Media, Arts, and Humanities.
Sylvia del Villard
Santurce, San Juan native Sylvia del Villard was no stranger to the performing arts. The actress, dancer, and activist faced discrimination as she pursued her studies at Fisk University in Tennessee.
But it’s when she moved to New York City where del Villard began to take an interest in her roots, joining a ballet group called the Africa House. She also went on to establish the Afro-Boricua El Coqui Theater, which the Panamerican Association of the New World Festival named “as the most important authority of Black Puerto Rican culture.”
In the 1970s, she and Carmen Bélen Richardson also spoke out about the racism faced by black artists in Puerto Rico’s media. In 1971, del Villard released a press release “criticizing racist casting practices in television, the limited opportunities for black actors and actresses, and the ongoing use of blackface.”
Felipe Luciano is the founder of the Young Lords New York Branch – a Puerto Rican activist group started in Chicago and New York City with the same missions as the revolutionary Black Panther Party. The Young Lords was “indisputably the main catalyst for the second [US-based boricua] generation’s baptism into radical politics.” Luciano focused on the liberation of oppressed communities.
Luciano grew up underprivileged to a single mother and even through the struggles he was determined enough to go to college and pursue an education. Getting involved in student activism on campus is what led to the creation of the Young Lords and to him joining the Original Last Poets, a coalition of African American and Afro-Puerto Rican poets.
Julia de Burgos
Poet and journalist Julia Constanza Burgos García hailed from Carolina, Puerto Rico. From Puerto Rico to New York to Cuba, Julia de Burgos’ influence is felt in many places. Her poetry addressed themes of feminism and social equality. Her dynamic poetry profoundly influenced many Afro-Caribbean writers who came after her. By age 19, she graduated from the University of Puerto Rico with a teaching degree.
Joining the Daughters of Freedom and the women’s branch of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, she remained committed to supporting feminism and the Nuyorican Movement.
De Burgos celebrated her blackness in her poem Ay, Ay, Ay de la Grifa Negra, which in part reads, “ay ay ay, que soy grifa y pura negra/grifería en mi pelo, cafrería en mis labios/y mi chata nariz mozambiquea.”
As Vanessa Perez Rosario’s Becoming Julia de Burgos: The Making of a Puerto Rican Icon notes, critics said she symbolized the “wounded cry of our national conscience reflecting the solitude of our darker political hour.”
Arturo Schomburg was a historian who raised a significant amount of awareness for the African Diaspora. Reportedly inspired by a teacher who said that African descendants had no history, he dedicated his life to showing how vital their contributions were.
After moving to New York, he became an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance. He also joined the Revolutionary Committee of Puerto Rico and co-founded the Negro Society for Historical Research, which united African, Caribbean, and African-American scholars. He later served as the president of the American Negro Academy, which focuses on black history and literature.
In 1925, Schomburg found the Negro Literature, History, and Prints Division of the 135th Street Branch Library. It later became known as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a “leading cultural [institution] in the world devoted to the preservations of materials focused on African-American, African Diaspora, and African experiences. Recognized for its prominence in digital humanities, scholarly research, and vast collection spanning over 10 million items, the Schomburg Center won the National Media for Museum and Library Service in 2015.”