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AFROLATINOS: Tracing the Link

As the number of Latinos continues to grow in the United States, a new documentary explores their heritage and their link to Africa.

Interview: Marjua Estevez

“We got a lil’ bit of Black in us!” is what the Puerto Ricans that I grew up around in the South Bronx used to joke. I never understood the statement and it never meant much to me. But the older I got, the more I realized how prevalent those African roots were in my Dominican culture. Why my hair wasn’t straight or why my cousins ranged from porcelain white all the way to midnight chocolate… “It’s a brown thing, baby”, my aunt once told me. “And Black is beautiful.”

Being Latino is complex enough. With all the cultures, religions, traditions, geographical properties, ancestral roots and color schemes encompassed, it’s easy for Latinos to find it hard to define themselves, and damn near impossible for someone on the outside to entirely comprehend. What a Latino really is could, and often times, gets lost in translation. (Is it Latino or Hispanic anyway? What’s the difference?) Now add “Afro” in front of “Latino” and the whole world stops. They will stare at you, your hair, your physical features, your skin-color. At that point, the task of answering the questions that might arise is endless.

Thankfully, Afrolatinos: The Untaught Story, a new documentary from Creador Pictures explores this topic and puts many misconceptions to bed. Writer and co-producer Alicia Anabel Santos lends insight into the soon-to-be released project and what it all means.

Why did Creador Pictures feel the need to produce this film? What is the point you are trying to make?

You know what, I was having this conversation with a sister-friend of mine and she so happens to be African-American. I expressed to her one day that I’d like to write for Essence magazine. She basically told me, “How dare you want to write for a Black magazine?” She felt that this wasn’t my place and asked why I didn’t write for Latina instead. So I began a journey of self-discovery to figure out what that really means to me—you know—what is my place? I’d begun this journey, not only to discover that it is my place, but also my right—to write about being Black and Latina.

The reason we’re doing this project that we’ve been working on for three years now, is that we want to tell the story of the 150 million Afro-descendents that currently exist and live in Latin America, tell the story—the untaught story of the contributions of the enslaved Africans when they arrived to Latin America. We believe that this is a project that’s incredibly important and we’re very excited to tell the story and share it.

How do you feel about Afro-Latinos being somewhat secluded or ostracized within the Latino community?

We feel that their needs to be an equality. Their rights are being violated. We believe their governments should be doing more for this community of people that are being ignored and being pushed so far out into the outskirts of society—where it might be difficult for them to find jobs, or if they are looking for jobs and if they do move to the larger cities, they are discriminated against based on their color. Afrolatinos brings out these topics. It’s a seven-part series where we start with the contributions of the Africans who arrived with slavery and everything that’s happened since. So it’s history, religion, music, dance, food, women’s roles, social issues. We start off with education, but the end result is solution, which is the biggest segment—because we want to see change. We want to affect change. We need to set this dialogue, and it’s not just about having this documentary more than it is about telling the story and seeing things change within these communities.

Is there a difference between the term “Hispanic” and “Latino”?

I think that the terms and labels “Hispanic” and “Latino” —we understand them to be political and social constructs. So “Latino” and “Hispanic” I think becomes something of a preference; It can be debated. “Hispanic” became a category, what we checked off in a box for the Census. “Hispanic” means you speak Spanish. “Latino” refers to all the Latin countries. But if you go to Colombia they don’t say “I’m Latino”, they say “I’m Colombian”. All of these labels, Afro-Latino included, I think is a personal choice. In terms of which is more appropriate—it’s a personal choice. As for me, I’m all of it. I’m Hispanic. I’m Latino. I’m Afro— soy Dominicana. For me, I use these labels as ways to identify myself. I have very clear in mind que soy Latina: I am Afro-Latina, I am Afro-Dominican.

What role does skin color play a role within Latino culture, and Latin America specifically?

Well, discrimination exists. Racism exists. And it’s based on color. The difference between Latin America and the United States of America is that in the US we have laws that protect people’s individual rights and against discrimination. We’ve had the Civil Rights Movement and what not. We have those laws in place. Whether or not they are utilized all the time and for everyone, is another story. But we have them. Latin America, on the other hand, has yet to have an Afro-Latino movement. It’s starting, but it’s slow in coming. So yes, color does play a part. For example: in most Latin-American countries you have to include your photo on your resume, and if you happen to have a Black image on that photo, the majority of these people will not get the job and that has absolutely to do with the color of their skin—being Black.

How relevant do you think African roots are or should be within the Latino culture?

The African contribution has been incredibly significant in our history, especially as far as our music and traditions and religion and our language goes. I mean, it’s been incredibly important and I think that for a long time, in the story that has been passed down, it has been more about that Latinos are indigenous and Spanish; we claim more of our Indian and European roots. But the African root has always been shunned or pushed to the side, so in that way it’s too important that this be discussed and included in the textbooks and the stories.

We need to learn about the Cimarrones and the palenques that were formed, and the rebellions and all of the kings and queens and their inheritance, which is Africa; and what the effects of the enslaved Africans left behind in these countries—
an incredible amount of beauty, a story that hasn’t been told… In Cuba, they still practice the Yoruba traditions [a West African community], and in Colombia they have a town called San Basilio de Palenque where they’re still holding on to their African dialects; they’re very much about preserving their culture. All this is important and should be passed down.

What are your thoughts on eroticism revolving around Brown and Black women being so prevalent?

I think what we’re talking about here is this idea of the Latina, the Latin woman being sensual and sexual, and being seen as this sex object. I think that what we have to understand and recognize is that we’re talking about patriarchal societies and for the most part, women are not seen and not respected as equals. I know for myself, in my own experience, traveling to these Latin American countries, I would conduct an interview and the interviewee would not direct his answers at me, but to my cameraman because he was a man. And he would rather have this conversation with him because he wasn’t seeing me, and in some ways, it’s just very disrespectful toward me as a woman. To talk about this in depth is to talk about yet another story, I think. An important one, too.

Can the two ethnicities, African and Latino, be considered parallel or adjacent?

We are not crediting Africa for the Latino culture. What we [Creador Pictures] are saying, and what we [people] fail to acknowledge, is that Africa has contributed a tremendous amount to our Latino culture. We should be clear and proud that we are Latino. With our history of colonization and the Europeans coming in and everything that happened, we should be proud of our language and our culture, but we need to point out and also be very proud of our African roots, of the African contribution in our nations.

What do you hope to accomplish with your film?

Our aim, our mission, our vision has always been to educate, to tell a story—a beautiful story of an untaught story; to really give voice to the silence of the 150 million Afro-descendants who currently live in these countries and to just really pay homage. We really want to elevate this community of people and show the beauty of this history, so that the children know about their African roots when they look in the mirror and can see themselves in a different way.

We want to try to do away with self-hate and the negation of all things Black—This Black denial that happens in Latin America. We want to help empower, educate and inspire the youth to be proud of who they are and where they come from and to have this dialogue. To talk about it. To demand change. To demand that textbooks be changed. To demand that they learn about the Afro-Latino roots—the African roots in the classrooms at the college level, the high school level, the elementary level. That’s what we hope.

We want to see these communities receive the same benefits lighter or fairer-skinned people in Latin America receive. The same rights, same respect. We’re hoping for a movement. That Americans join this movement and help provide the resources to Latin America. It’s as simple as providing maps or textbooks; if you’re a doctor, provide some help. A lot of these communities, the darker-skinned communities, suffer from poverty and malnutrition; they have no water system—for engineers to join this movement! That’s what we’re hoping.

For more information about AfroLatinos, visit their site, here.

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