The Struggle For Afro-Latinx Visibility in Media Still Exists

Getty / Stefanie Keenan / Natasha Campos / Rich Polk / Alberto E. Rodriguez and Photo Illustration by Michelle Alfonso

As famed Afro-Peruvian activist, choreographer, and poet Victoria Santa Cruz once said, “We need to recover our history, tell our own stories, and sing our own songs.”

It is this sentiment that I live by when discussing Afrolatinidad. Afrolatinidad is not a new concept or idea. As a people and culture, Afro-Latinxs have been fighting for centuries to be seen, heard, acknowledged, and respected for their contributions to larger society. The term Afrolatinidad is used to describe the cultural identity and heritage of Black people from Latin America and Latin Americans of African descent, whose ancestors had undergone the experience of chattel slavery. Clarity is important here because there has been so much confusion about who is or isn’t considered Afro-Latinx.

The confusion around Afro-Latinidad and who gets to claim it can be traced back to the complex history of mestizaje and racism in Latin America. Mestizaje refers to the mixing of Indigenous, African, and European peoples that occurred during the colonial period in Latin America. Lighter-skinned individuals are often privileged over those with darker skin, so Afro-Latinx people face discrimination and exclusion from their own communities.

In Hollywood, this has translated into a preference for Latinx actors who meet a particular “mestizo” look that is associated with lighter skin and European features. This has meant that Afro-Latinx actors are consistently overlooked for roles that are specifically written for Latinx characters, perpetuating the erasure of their experiences and contributions to Latinx culture overall. In addition to the lack of representation in the entertainment industry, Afro-Latinx talent also faces challenges in the press. Latinx media outlets often perpetuate harmful stereotypes and there is a lack of representation in newsrooms and editorial positions, which limits the diversity of perspectives and stories covered.

Afro-Latinx people have contributed significantly to every industry, religion, language, and local dialect across Latin America and beyond. According to the Pew Research Center, over six million U.S. adults identify as Afro-Latino and according to The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Afro-descendants make up around 30 percent of Latin America’s population or approximately 150 million people. This community is significant, not only in numbers, but in culture, history, and political relevance.

From music to sports, literature, and politics, notable Afro-Latinxs have left their mark on history. The list of famous Afro-Latinxs is extensive and diverse, ranging from Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa, to baseball legend Roberto Clemente, and the second highest-grossing actress of all time – Zoe Saldaña.

Despite the challenges and discrimination the Afro-Latinx community faces, they have continued to contribute and shape the cultural landscape of Latin America and the world.

The Afro-Latinx community is a mosaic of diverse languages, religions, and cultural practices. Members of the community speak various languages, including Spanish, Portuguese, French, English, and Dutch, as well as numerous local dialects. Religious practices are also diverse, with followers of Christianity, Islam, and various African diasporic religions. Despite the challenges and discrimination the Afro-Latinx community faces, they have continued to contribute and shape the cultural landscape of Latin America and the world. The community’s resilience and vibrancy are a testament to the enduring legacy of African culture in the Americas.

Recently, there have been attempts to pour resources into this historically underserved community. However, Afro-Latinx people have always existed. The community has just been largely overlooked for centuries. Afro-Latinx people have been present in media for decades, but are often mislabeled as African Americans, which contributes to the idea that Latinx people cannot be Black. This phenomenon occurs because Black Latinx people are stripped of their Latinidad, due to racism, colorism, and the pressure to assimilate into American culture. Despite this erasure, many of history’s most prominent pop culture and business figures have been Afro-Latinx, but their contributions were celebrated as African Americans instead.

An example of this erasure can be seen in the life and legacy of Juano Hernandez, an Afro-Puerto Rican actor, and writer, who worked alongside film titans such as Oscar Micheaux, Paul Robeson, and even the late Sidney Poitier. Despite being proud of his Puerto Rican heritage, he was often labeled as African American, obscuring the barriers he broke for Afro-Latinx people, in the entertainment industry. In 1951, he earned a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of Lucas Beauchamp, a poor farmer falsely accused of murdering a white man in a Mississippi town. However, due to his labeling as African American, many were unaware of his identity as an Afro-Puerto Rican and the significance of his accomplishments for the Afro-Latinx community.

During this time the term “African American” was used to refer to all individuals of African descent and any victory achieved by one Black person was considered a victory for the entire community. Black immigrants have been able to benefit from the efforts of African Americans in the United States, including advancements in voting rights, access to education and employment opportunities, and legal protections against discrimination. In the past, Afro-Latinx individuals may have experienced the advantages of being classified as African American without any opposition, which led to a form of self-erasure because it was more advantageous to be considered African American.

Another example of how racism strips Afro-Latinx people of their heritage and identity is Ursula Burns, who was long celebrated as the first African American woman to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. However, she is actually Panamanian, and her parents immigrated to the US. Burns was raised in Brooklyn, NY, within a Panamanian community, and she is technically also the first Latina to hold that title. Despite this fact, her Panamanian heritage and identity have been largely ignored by Latinx media due to racism.

Shoshana Johnson, the first Black woman and second Latina POW in Afghanistan, is often labeled as an African American woman, erasing her Panamanian heritage. In her book “I’m Still Standing: From Captive U.S. Soldier to Free Citizen – My Journey Home,” she shares her experience of being held captive for 22 days.

“I remembered we were in Germany and they [African Americans] didn’t understand how we live. They’re Black and they’re from the US and they assumed we all eat chitlins, we all eat collard greens, but I didn’t know what that was,” Johnson tells POPSUGAR. “This was senior year of High School, I was talking about Thanksgiving and I said something about pumpkin pie, and they’re like, girl, what you mean? Sweet potato pie! But, I’m assimilating what I see in popular culture, not what I do at home. We don’t have Thanksgiving in Panama.”

These instances may seem trivial to some, but this is how Afro-Latinx history and contributions get erased and why Afro-Latinx communities become invisible. The dangers of invisibility are great. Invisible people don’t have value, invisible people’s struggles are questioned because there are no Black people in Latin America anyway, right? And if there are, the number must be so insignificant that any issues people are facing are small in numbers and not worthy of being addressed. But this is false.

Other times, the reason Afro-Latinx people aren’t acknowledged is because they want to fly under the radar and are working hard to assimilate into American culture. This is often done for safety reasons, to hide their Latinidad to fit in African American spaces, in fear of isolation or conflict. One of the reasons they are able to do this is because African American communities are generally accepting of all Black identities due to the history of Pan-Africanism, which emphasizes the unity and solidarity of all people of African descent. Daniel Morales-Armstrong, a Ph.D. student studying Africana Studies and History, writes:

“There were times, especially in high school in the early 2000s, when other young men assumed that I was African American (“man, you’re one of us”) in ways that were at once loving/welcoming and worked to erase my specific identities. Most often, I’d respond with humor in some variation of ‘I appreciate the sentiment, but we’ve known each other for how long and you still don’t know I’m Puerto Rican when I talk about it all the time?'”

TeAnjulee Leon, a DEI Plan Manager in Washington, recalls her experiences in college and says: “I’ve never felt the need to hide it, but I’ve felt the need to downplay it. I remember when I started more openly identifying as Afro-Boricua in college, my boyfriend’s brother (they’re both Black) said about me, “She’s Black or Puerto Rican when it’s convenient. Like she’s always bringing up one or the other,'” Leon says. “Basically saying that depending on the context, I switch it up, but I’m never both. Which is so far from true. I was always Black and Puerto Rican. Now that I’m older and understand more, I’m a Black Boricua.”

Many Americans don’t learn about the effects of colonization and slavery outside of the US and are often surprised to hear that chattel slavery didn’t end until 1888 in Latin America. Even then, slavery persisted illegally since governments in Latin America did nothing to support free persons of color. Often former slave owners were compensated for their “loss of property” and even given special taxes exemptions. In an excerpt from “The Masters and the Slaves: A Study in the Development of Brazilian Civilization,” Gilberto Freyre, a white Brazilian sociologist, and anthropologist, writes:

“The state’s compensation to the slave-owner included, for every slave he freed, an annuity proportional to the worker’s age; the payment of the corresponding price if the owner wished to transfer the slave to another state or to another country; and, to all those who continued in the rural enterprise, a reduction of one half in their property taxes for twenty years.” (Freyre, 1986, p. 421)

In 2018, a report published by the Brazilian government’s National Commission for the Eradication of Slave Labor (CONATRAE)documented over 1,000 cases of modern-day slavery in Brazil between 2013 and 2017. Many of the cases involved workers who were subjected to forced labor conditions in rural areas. These workers were often from marginalized communities, including Indigenous peoples, Afro-Brazilians, and migrants.

We must recognize that Afro-Latinx history is American history.

We must recognize that Afro-Latinx history is American history. The ties between Afro-Latinxs from countries like the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Panama, Haiti, Brazil, and the US are rooted in a shared history of colonization and resource extraction. We cannot fully understand the American story without taking into account their experiences.

Moreover, the contributions of numerous Afro-Latinx figures in American pop culture, music, and politics, among other areas, cannot be ignored. From Sammy Davis Jr. (Cuban singer) to Esteban Hotesse (Dominican-born Tuskegee airman) and Big Pun (Afro-Boricua rapper), these individuals have left deeply rooted marks on the fabric of American history. We must engage with the Afro-Latinx community without erasing their culture and their many contributions to society, which we may not have fully recognized until now.

The Afro-Latinx community is slowly but surely making waves in various industries, taking matters into their own hands and initiating change. One such initiative is the Platano Pipeline that I founded in 2022, which supports Afro-Latinx and Caribbean professionals in Hollywood. Its aim is to increase representation and diversity in the entertainment industry. Additionally, The Afro-Latino Festival is a NYC-based, two-day celebration of people, music, and films central to the issues facing the Afro-Latinx community. Musical acts have included Amara La Negra, Goyo, and even current Colombian Vice President Francia Márquez has attended the festival as a speaking guest.

Also, there is a rising wave of new Black Latinx talent making waves in film and television, playing authentic Afro-Latinx characters. Actors like Julissa Calderon, Rome Flynn, Sarunas Jackson, and Ariana DeBose, who won an Oscar for her performance in West Side Story, among others, are breaking barriers and leading the charge for greater diversity, representation, and inclusion, acting-wise. Directors Diana Peralta and Reinaldo Marcus Green are breaking barriers for young Black Latinx talent behind the camera. HBO bought Peralta’s film, “De Lo Mio,” and Green’s latest film, “King,” starring Will Smith, was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

To conclude, the Afro-Latinx community is taking action to change the world and create a more inclusive and representative society. Through initiatives like the Platano Pipeline, events like the Afro-Latino Festival, and the rising talent both in front of and behind the camera, the Afro-Latinx community is making strides toward greater visibility and recognition.

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