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Afro Latinos: everywhere, yet invisible

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

The Garifuna are found primarily in Central America along the Caribbean coast in Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras, and are descendants of shipwrecked slaves who intermarried with the Carib Indians on the island of St. Vincent.

Both the British and French tried to colonize the island, but were initially rebuffed by the inhabitants. By 1796, however, the British were victorious in gaining control and shipped Black-looking Caribs to Roatán, an island off the coast of Honduras. Only about 2,500 survived the voyage.

Because the island was too small and infertile to support their population, the Garifuna, originally called the Garinagu, petitioned the Spanish authorities to be allowed to settle on the mainland.

New York has the largest Garifuna population, heavily dominated by Hondurans, Guatemalans and Belizeans. Los Angeles ranks second and is populated by the Belizean Garifuna.

The City of Angels is also home to a growing number of Afro Mexicans who have both a contemporary and historical space in the city.

According to Alva Stevenson, program coordinator with the UCLA Department of Special Collections, who has spent the last 12 years researching and lecturing about Afro Mexicans, there were some Afro Mexicans in California in the early days prior to statehood, including the Pico family.

Two of the most prominent members of the Pico clan, Pio and Andres were intimately involved in the development of the region and the state. Both were businessmen who amassed fortunes from their various ventures, including a hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

Both also served as key political figures--Pio as the last Mexican governor of California and Andres as a member of the Assembly once California gained statehood. Reminders of their presence today include a major thoroughfare, Pico Boulevard, named in honor of Pio.

Their paternal grandmother, María Jacinta de la Bastida, was listed in the 1790 census as mulata.
Stevenson said what is important to note is that the Pico family originated from a town in Mexico, Sinaloa, where two-thirds of the inhabitants were of African descent. And that sort of mixing was not unusual.

"In fact, a professor did a DNA study (in the last 20 years) in Northern Mexico and found that two-thirds of the people living in the region have African ancestry," Stevenson said.

Sinaloa was also one of the areas where the 44 Mexican settlers who helped found Los Angeles came from. About half of those pobladores, as they were called, were of African descent.

Contemporary Afro Mexicans have migrated to the Pasadena area. Trying economic times have also prompted many younger Afro Mexicans to migrate northward to the U.S. seeking work, and Stevenson said they have landed in locations like Santa Ana in Orange County and the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., region.

Jimenez Roman adds that while Afro Latinos are everywhere in the United States, there are larger pockets in regions like California's Bay Area, Louisiana (helping rebuild New Orleans), Florida, Detroit, Chicago, other parts of the Midwest and the Carolinas.

"There is a small community of Afro Mexicans who migrated across the border and are now working in processing plants in the Carolinas," said Jimenez Roman pointing out there are African-descended people from Colombia, Panama, Guatemala and Brazil in the United States.