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Afro Latinos: everywhere, yet invisible

Cynthia E. Griffin- | 10/4/2011, 5 p.m.

Last year, during a discussion on increasing the number of African Americans in Major League Baseball, Angel's centerfielder Torii Hunter in a USA Today interview called the dark-skinned Latino baseball players "imposters" and said they are not Black.

Hunter's comments strike at the heart of an issue that is one reason scholar Miriam Jimenez Roman is undertaking a three-day conference called "Afro Latinos Now! Strategies for Visibility and Action," on Nov. 3-5 in New York that will be the biggest such effort her organization, The AfroLatin@ Forum, has undertaken.

"This is the first time we have done such a comprehensive event where we discuss Afro Latinos specifically. We're going to look at the state of the field and where we want to be, and there is going to be a heavy emphasis on youth, especially those in middle school years."

Jimenez Roman says the confusion Hunter demonstrated about the connection between Africans born in Latin America and those born in the United States is particularly acute for U.S.-based 11- to 15-year-old Afro Latinos. In the context of a racist society like America, they are not only struggling to figure out how they feel about themselves, but also how they connect in relation to others, especially African Americans.

There are millions of Afro Latinos in America who live their lives in what is essentially a "Black" context but identify themselves as White, because of the perceived stigma of being African American, said Jimenez Roman, who last year came to the West Coast promoting her newly released book "Afro-Latino Reader," co-edited with Juan Flores. The 584-page publication, which grew out of the notes the two professors always pulled together for classes they taught, explores people of African descent from Latin America and the Caribbean.

"In the Latino community, we tend not to talk about race; it's in poor taste to bring up race and racism. It's the notion of complaining. If you make a big deal out of it, you are the problem, and they say you're playing the race card," explained Jimenez Roman, who is of Afro Puerto Rican background, and noted that during book events, African Americans were much more receptive to the reader than were Afro Latinos.

She attributes that to a dichotomy about race many Afro Latinos experience in their countries of origin.

"There is the idea that Latino culture is Mestizo and European and Indian, and Black people don't belong," said the race and ethnicity professor about how many Latin American countries think about themselves. In fact, Latinos of African descent have been in many countries for at least 200 years.

If they do acknowledge their Black citizens, Jimenez Roman said officials will say "they all live on the coast."

"This isolates them. Or in Bolivia, for example, there are Black communities in the mountains. They are totally isolated and ignored."

But in reality, Afro Latinos are everywhere in Latin America as they are in the United States, says the head of the AfroLatin@ Forum.

In Los Angeles, there is large community of Garifuna people and many Afro Mexicans in Pasadena.