Celia Cruz, Basquiat & More: 8 Books That Celebrate Inspirational Afro-Latinos

Lead Photo: Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla
Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla
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The term “Afro-Latinidad” was originally adopted in academic circles as a response to the embedded colorism against and erasure of Latino, Latin American and Caribbean Blacks. It was intended to be used by individuals who wanted to acknowledge both their African descent and their Latin American roots. The term has helped many find community and feel seen in the complexities of their identity. Like many other attempts to reclaim identity after the displacement of the transatlantic slave trade, “Afro-Latinidad” is not a perfect, all-encompassing term. Janel Martinez has written about her reasons for moving away from the term “Afro-Latina,” Haitian-Americans are increasingly discussing their relationship with the term and, most recently, “Afro-Latinx” has been embraced by those who remove gender binaries from their identity. It is an ever-changing and evolving conversation.

Despite reemerging conversations on Afro-Latinidad, however, Black Latinos and Black Latin Americans didn’t recently arrive. Since European colonizers invaded Indigenous lands and labeled it Latin America, enslaving Africans to work and build the grounds they viciously conquered, there have been Black Latin Americans and later, after emigration to the U.S., Black Latinos. While their stories and contributions have long gone untold, one thing is certain: Latino and Latin American culture would not be what it is today were it not for the influences of African culture.

Here are eight books you should add to your reading list if you want to read more stories about proud Afro-Latinos and Afro-Latin Americans who were unapologetic about how they showed up in impacting their communities:

"Celia: My Life" by Celia Cruz and Ana Cristina Reymundo

Salsa superstar Celia Cruz began her career in her native Cuba. She eventually became an international sensation, with tributes like a star on The Hollywood Walk of Fame, an asteroid named 5212 Celiacruz and a street named after her in Miami. With hits like “La Negra Tiene Tumbao,” Cruz was always proud of her Blackness and found ways to highlight that pride in her music and lyrics. In her autobiography, Cruz tells the story of her childhood in the Caribbean country, her exile years in Mexico and her extraordinary life and career in the United States. 

"Black Cuban, Black American: A Memoir" by Evelio Grillo

Born in Ybor City, Florida to Cuban parents, Evelio Grillo was a writer and community organizer known for his fierce advocacy for civil rights. In his autobiography Black Cuban, Black American: A Memoir, Grillo captures the joys and sorrows of his experiences growing up in segregation, serving as a drafted soldier in an all-Black unit during World War II and using his experiences to fuel his involvement in the city of Oakland, Calif., the President Jimmy Carter administration, the War on Poverty and the NAACP. Grillo’s narrative is an insightful and inspiring work that explores the nuances of his Afro-Latino identity.

"The Autobiography of María Elena Moyano: The Life and Death of the Peruvian Activist" Edited by Diana Miloslavich Tupac, Translated by Patricia Taylor Edmisten

At 33 years old, Afro-Peruvian community organizer Maria Elena Moyano was assassinated by guerillas of the revolutionary movement Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). Her murder was a warning to others in the women’s movement; however, it served as an awakening to the Peruvian people against the Sendero. Moyano’s life is a testament to the obstacles poor barrio women everywhere face. Her story is both tragic and uplifting. Editor Diana Miloslavich Tupac uses Moyano’s own words to tell the poignant stories of this martyred Peruvian activist. All royalties from this book go to the Flora Tristan Center for the Peruvian women, but you can also find the free pdf version online here.

"Down These Mean Streets" by Piri Thomas

Born in Spanish Harlem, a predominantly Latino neighborhood in New York City, poet Piri Thomas was the son of a Puerto Rican mother and Cuban father. His best-selling autobiography explores the ways that Blackness was rejected in his Latino family and how that shaped his adolescence of drugs and violence. At 22 years old, Thomas was sentenced to seven years in prison for shooting a police officer. Much of his memoir is rooted in the revelations he experienced during his sentence. Originally published in 1967, this story of redemption has seen enduring fame despite attempts to ban the book due to Thomas’s thoughtful reflections on his evolution and identity.

"Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg" by Vanessa K. Valdes

In New York,  many know of the Harlem, New York-based Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. What some may not know, however, is that the man whose collection was bought by the New Public Library was actually of Puerto Rican descent. Arturo Alfonso Schomburg was a Borica-born historian, writer and activist who helped raise awareness about the contributions of Black Latin Americans and Black Americans to the larger society. Diasporic Blackness, a biography by Vanessa K. Valdes, gives a more in-depth look at the childhood and adolescence that inspired Schomburg to start his collection. 

"Jean-Michel Basquiat" by Eric Fretz

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s crown motif has become an easily recognizable symbol in popular culture. The late New York artist of both Haitian and Puerto Rican descent died at 27 years old of a heroin overdose. He left behind countless paintings and notebooks that have been exhibited in galleries and museums worldwide. In this biography by Eric Fretz, the author documents Basquiat’s childhood as well as his rise through the New York art scene.

"Mama's Girl" by Veronica Chambers

The critically acclaimed memoir Mama’s Girl was published in 1996 and details the life of Panama-born and Brooklyn, New York-raised author Veronica Chambers. Chambers speaks to the Afro-Central American experience by specifically reflecting on the ways her mother-daughter bond shaped her personally and professionally. The novel marks the start of Chambers’ successful writing career. She went on to author several dozen children’s books (including one on Celia Cruz) and win a BET Comedy Award for her script work on the hit series Girlfriends.

"The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World" by Dave Zirin and John Carlos

It’s likely you recognize this former Afro-Cuban athlete by the Black gloved-fist he held up alongside Tommie Smith during the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. As the national anthem played, John Carlos and Smith bowed their heads and raised their fists to protest the brutal treatment of Blacks in the U.S. This monumental, revolutionary act has become one of the most iconic images of the Black Power Movement. Carlos co-authored his life story alongside sportswriter David Zirin through The John Carlos Story, which was published in 2011. He maintains that he still feels the same passion and fire for civil rights that he felt on the day that picture was taken.