What Does It Mean to Be Afro-Latino? The NBA’s Charlie Villanueva Explains

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Earlier this week, ESPN’s One Nación released a five-minute film that attempted to define Afro-Latino identity through the experiences of three people. While the film’s intentions have been widely debated, it featured current Dominican NBA player Charlie Villanueva, an adjunct professor from Columbia University named Ed Morales, and an administrator named Victoria Benítez also from Columbia University.

Professor Morales provided viewers with some important historical context, while Villanueva and Benítez shared a series of heartfelt anecdotes, which described their experiences as Afro-Latinos. Villanueva spoke candidly about the first time he experienced explicit racism while doing a photo shoot with a photographer in high school, and later implies that being an Afro-Latino does not exempt you from anti-black racism or discrimination in this country.

In a similar moment of transparency, Benítez describes the first time she told her mother she was black. “Mom, Puerto Rican is not a race,” Benítez explained when her mother told her that she was Puerto Rican and not black. Then followed a brief description about Puerto Rican (and by extension, Latin American) racial dynamics, where race is not thought about in black-and-white terms, but rather on a spectrum.

But for those who have lived on the Eastern seaboard in cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, the Afro-Latino experience is far from new.

Afro-Latinos have been an integral part of these cities since the late 19th century, when thousands of Afro-Latinos began to immigrate to the Eastern and Southeastern region of the U.S. from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and other places in the Americas. People who live in cities like Los Angeles, however, often struggle with the fact that one can be both black and Latino and seamlessly navigate both English and Spanish.

This of course raises the following question: what does it mean to be an Afro-Latino?

As the video points out, the Spanish and Portuguese empires imported African slaves to nearly every country in the Americas by force. What the clip fails to mention is that one of the most striking differences between the U.S. and Latin America was that approximately 10 to 12 million enslaved Africans reached Latin American shores, whereas only around 400,000 made it to the United States.

Still, for many in the U.S., being black is often synonymous with being African-American, which neglects the black experience in Latin America and the ability to think about blackness diasporically.

ESPN’s One Nación should be commended for their attempt to package the Afro-Latino experience in a five-minute film, but as with any racial and ethnic identity, attempting to define it using a narrow lens often leaves much more to be explored. Moreover, the film potentially confirmed the false belief that the Afro-Latino experience should be entirely defined by folkloric music, dance, and sports. Where the film does succeed, however, is recognizing that identity and race is as complex in the U.S. as it is in Latin America, and the person you may be sitting next to on the subway ride to work or school might be “seis diez” (as Charlie Villanueva explained), have the ability to speak Spanish and English, and dunk a basketball.