Afro-Latino Heritage Must be Highlighted

By Nicole C. Lee -Guest Columnist- | Last updated: Oct 23, 2009 - 2:13:15 PM

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This month is Hispanic Heritage Month, a celebration to recognize the lives and contributions of people from Latin America and Spanish-speaking Caribbean countries in the U.S. This is an important month but how it is celebrated in the U.S. leaves many African-Americans not fully understanding the important stake we have in this month. That is because so often celebrations of this month very rarely highlight the important, vibrant Afro-Latino population living and working in every Latin American country. Every country—yes, even Mexico and Argentina.

Without a doubt, the experiences of some communities, including Afro-descendants and Indigenous, have historically gone unrecognized. The inclusion of Afro-descendants in mainstream conversation rarely happens but it is necessary in order to understand the truth of history and the present. African-Americans have a stake in ensuring that these conversations recognize the commonalities within our experiences and in highlighting race as a factor in Latin America.

Working in Latin America with women's groups, youth and political organizations, I am heartened by numerous cultural similarities between African-Americans and Afro-Latinos. In culture, style and experiences we are in many ways the same people. I have said many times before our ancestors didn't get to choose whether the slave ships stopped in Charleston, South Carolina, or in Rio de Janiero; it is only geography and language that separates us.

U.S. policymakers focused on Latin America, rarely focus or even acknowledge race as a major factor in Latin America. Unsurprisingly, both predominately White institutions and many Latin American governments reinforce each other's apathy and ideological perspectives. Afro-Latinos, however, have not waited for policy wonks or their government to change on their own. They are changing their societies from within.

The numbers of people of African descent in Latin America are astounding. There are 150 million Afro-descendants in the Western Hemisphere. Brazil has more people of African descent than any country in Africa except Nigeria, making Afro-Brazilians the second largest population of Afro-descendants on the planet. The U.S. has the second largest population in the Hemisphere but it is quickly followed by Colombia, a country embroiled in a civil war with severe racial dimensions.

Rarely do we hear about the racial aspects of the war in Colombia on the evening news. Countries like Cuba and the Dominican Republic have formidable Afro-descendant populations but so does El Salvador, Honduras, Bolivia and Venezuela. Shockingly, anytime these countries are in the news, the coverage seems to “whitewash” the population implying this notion that racism is just an American construct.

These images rarely reflect the reality of racial diversity within these countries and give little space for heterogeneity of these communities. The few times we do see Afro-Latinos represented they are exoticized or regulated to the same stereotypical roles that African Americans have been struggling against.

Our own immigration debate in the U.S. is a very important area where Afro-Latinos have been rendered invisible. Immigration from Latin America is not a Black-Brown conflict. It is a result of unfair economic and political practices on both sides of the border. These practices disfranchise both African Americans and our brothers and sisters in the whole hemisphere. While immigration discussions explicate issues of alienation, race is rarely directly addressed as a factor in the movement of poor people into the U.S.

One thing that remains apparent is the similarity within our experiences. Regardless of country, we know that Afro-descendants throughout the Americas have less access to quality education, health care, housing and job security. Unfortunately, racism remains a reality throughout the world and Afro-descendant issues and priorities remain marginalized among U.S. foreign interests in Latin America.

I applaud U.S. policymakers who are prioritizing these conversations. During this year's Congressional Black Caucus conference, Congressman Donald Payne led a panel to discuss and address these issues that face Afro-Latinos. We need to take those unique dialogues to challenge not only our own knowledge but the media and our policymakers to give voice to a population that is 150 million strong but so often go uncounted.

(Nicole C. Lee is the executive director of TransAfrica Forum.)