From ‘Pelo Malo’ to ‘Tango Negro’, Here Are 5 Must-Watch Pieces Centered on the Black Latino Experience

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As you know, February is Black History Month—a time set aside by Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in February 1926. Initially, it was celebrated the week of February 12 to coincide with Frederick Douglass’s birthday. Then, in 1970, the Black United Students at Kent State expanded it to a month. 

Now, countries like Canada, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands also officially recognize Black History Month. Many studios take this time to release films centered on Blackness, most notably the Oscar-nominated blockbuster Black Panther in 2018. In recent years, Afro-Latines have become a part of the celebration as well. One of the best ways to learn about our diversity in this fantastic landscape called Latin America is film. Below we will discuss a few projects that tackle this complex history of the Afro-Latinx diaspora. All are available to rent or stream, and serve as a reminder that our history, often marred by pain, also has many moments of joy. That is something worth celebrating, not just Black History month but every month.

Cidade de Deus (City of God); 2002, directed by Fernando Meirelles & Katia Lund

This film, based on the novel by Paulo Lins, tells the story of two young men growing up in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas in the 1970s. His youth is reflected in the character of Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a young boy that loves photography. The other side of the coin is Li Ze (Leandro Firmino), the local drug dealer. Many focus on the poverty displayed in the film, but it’s way more profound than that. The film highlights classism, racism, and lack of choice. It also shows that there is a bond formed over friendship within those challenging living conditions and a joy that ultimately helps one character avoid a life of crime while the other succumbs to it.

(Pelo Malo); 2014, directed by Mariana Rondon 2014

“Pelo Malo” means bad hair in Spanish. The film centers on a nine-year-old Junior (Samuel Lange Zambrano) living in a poor Caracas, Venezuela, neighborhood. His ancestry is a mixture of European, Indigenous, and African. It’s the African side that shows itself via the texture of his hair. He becomes obsessed with straightening the Black out of his hair. The film examines a complex subject in Latin America. The need to assimilate. The better one’s hair texture, the closer to whiteness and the closer to being accepted. Junior is painfully aware that his hair others him. Many Latinx families often jokingly use the term “Pelo Malo,” which at heart is racist. Through this young boy’s eyes, we see how terminology can determine how the world sees our Afro-Latinx children and how they value themselves.

LaNegrada (Black Mexican); 2018, directed by Jorge Perez Solano

LaNegrada is the first Mexican film featuring an all Afro-Mexican cast. The film takes place in the Costa Chica region of Oaxaca, where most Afro-Mexicans reside. Some traditional practices are still adhered to in the Costa Chica community, such as  a man living with two women in the the same household. Juana and Magdalena are the two women on the bookend of this love triangle. The situation is toxic. Someone is going to lose in the end. LaNegrada isn’t perfect however it does help the world see that Black People are everywhere, including in Mexico.

Black in Latin America; 2011, hosted by Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.

In this docu-series, Gates explores the rich cultures of Latin America through an American Lens. He travels to Brazil, Haiti & the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Mexico and Peru. The series is divided into four parts, with Gates spending a significant amount of time speaking with scholars and locals about Black citizens’ state in each country. He examines how Blackness is defined in those countries via politics, religion, and colonization. He also demonstrates how Latinx citizens from South and Central America have much in common with their North American siblings. Gates, who is American, often applies the conversation via his point of entry, which can sometimes come across as judgmental; however, the series shows that Afro-Latines have been a vital part of the development of each nation despite what has been advertised.

Tango Negro-The African Roots of Tango; 2013, directed by Don Pedro

Director Don Pedro, who is of Angolan descent, examines the African physicality of the tangi and how African culture helped shape the dance style. Tango was created out of the social life of the slaves who were taken to South America, specifically Argentina and Uruguay. He shows explicitly how African music influenced the intricate steps of this duel between man and woman. Pedro interviews Tango fans, as well as historians in Latin America and Europe to help inform the viewer. A highlight of the film is him speaking with Argentinian pianist Juan Carlos Caceres. The best takeaway from Tango Negro is that the film helps break the myth that Europeans invented tango for the upper class. It gives names to many of the forgotten, while celebrating the true origins of this dance.