Why We Shouldn't Forget This Community When Talking About #BlackLivesMatter

Photo: Redens Desrosiers for New Visual Collective.
Dominican singer Maluca during the 2016 New York City Afro-Latino Festival earlier this month.
What does it mean to be Afro-Latino in the time of Black Lives Matter?

This community is often overlooked when we discuss race in the United States, almost as if being Black and being Latino were mutually exclusive. But you probably recognize the names of celebrities such as Zoe Saldana, Rosario Dawson, and Joan Smalls, even if you never knew that they were Afro-Latinos. They’re some examples of the scope and influence of this community across the U.S.

Black Latinos make up almost a quarter of the Latinos in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center, and through different initiatives are fighting the invisibility they face.

"Not everyone identifies as Afro-Latino. People use [terms such as] Black Latina, Latinegra, Afrodescendants," Janel Martínez, founder and editor-in-chief of Ain't I Latina?, told Refinery29. "But what all of them mean is that you're a descendant of Latin America by way of Africa. Or, you've a parent who's African-American and one who's Latino. It's a way of recognizing our Black roots."

The Honduran-American and daughter of parents who are part of the Garifuna community — a mixed race minority in Central America — started identifying as "Afro-Latina" in college.

You may not see their names in the headlines, but there are Afro-Latinos within the movement who are doing the work.

Janel Martínez, Aint I Latina? editor-in-chief
"People questioned me because I was a Black woman, but my last name is Martínez and I spoke Garifuna," she said. "And I embraced that term."

Earlier this month, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed in by police. For Angelique Crawford, a 29-year-old New Yorker of Costa Rican descent, the New York City Afro-Latino Festival provided a safe haven.

"Being here is healing, it's an experience full of love. It's everything I needed after the most horrendous week I've experienced in 2016," she told Refinery29. "I'm absolutely at all times a Black woman from a Latin [American] country, embracing that."

Martínez also has a strong sense of what her roots are. She believes, too, that the Afro-Latino community and the #BlackLivesMatter movement are inevitably intertwined.

"You may not see their names in the headlines, but there are Afro-Latinos within the movement who are doing the work," said Martínez.
Photo: Mario Rubén Carrión.
The panel #BlackLivesMatter Beyond Borders: Race, Space & Consciousness in the International Decade of Afrodescendants Part II was held at New York City's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in early July.

It isn't the first collaborative movement led by Blacks and Latinos together. For example, Martínez pointed out that the Puerto Rican Young Lords organization, a nationalist group based in the U.S., had strong ties to the Black Panthers Party and the Black Power movement in the 1960s.

That hasn’t stopped the Latino community from being left out of the conversation about Blackness, not only in the U.S., but in Latin American countries, as well, according to Yvette Modestin, a Panamanian immigrant and the coordinator of the Black Latinas network, Red de Mujeres Afrolatinoamericanas, Afrocaribeñas y de la Diáspora.

She said her life experiences as a Black Latina and the life experiences of those who have been killed by the police or who have died in their custody in the States are interconnected. But this fact is not part of the mainstream conversation.

"I am Sandra Bland," she said during the panel #BlackLivesMatter Beyond Borders: Race, Space & Consciousness in the International Decade of Afrodescendants Part II. "Michael Brown could have been Panamanian."

Today, about 130 million people of African descent live in Latin America, according to the Project on Ethnicity and Race in Latin America at Princeton University.

The healing is not gonna happen with how they see us. The healing is gonna happen with how we see ourselves.

Yvette Modestin, Black Latina activist
However, this community's presence is often overlooked. For example, in Mexico, it wasn't an option to identify oneself as Black in the national census until last year. Other countries, such as Costa Rica and Venezuela, share this problem. In Puerto Rico, people say that it’s possible to "mejorar la raza" — improve the race — through interracial marriages.

Modestin said explaining what it means to be Black and Latino can be uncomfortable for others. But it's still a conversation that people must have inside and outside of the Latino communities.

"This is about colorism within us. This is about classicism within us," Modestin said. "The healing is not gonna happen with how they see us. The healing is gonna happen with how we see ourselves."

For Martínez, educating the Latino community about the Blackness within it and educating the mainstream is crucial to change the way Afro-Latinos are perceived. She believes it's a conversation that's not only necessary among adults, but one that needs to happen with the younger generations. A conversation that emphasizes the beauty of their identity.

She said, "Be proud that you're Black. Be proud that you're Latino. That's a beautiful thing."

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