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The Forgotten Identity: When Afro-Latinos Pass For Black

Trina, 1998/photographer unknown

By Victoria Kabeya, VKY

All Rights Reserved

The title of the article must appear to some as being misleading. It is true that since the orchestrated BLM protests, Afro-Latinos took to social media to express their frustration regarding their lack of recognition as the Black Americans do not consider them as being their equal in racial experience. The African-Americans have a hard time understanding how triracial individuals with no visibly black parents can claim a connection to Africa. They cannot fathom that a white Cuban or white Dominican can have a significant portion of African ancestry and be a guardian of such culture for the US classify individuals depending on how they look, physically, when ancient Africans would not use skin color as an indicator of one’s heritage but rather referred to the ethnic background or lineage of a group.

The US racial classification is not only stupid and improbable (it was established to help the dominant white groups keep their privileges), but it goes against one real principle regarding immigration. As the people leave their original lands to find refuge in the US (or in any other part of the world where they move to), they create new identities which reflect the people who surround them. For this reason, new identity specificities can emerge. In Trinidad and Tobago, communities of Southeast Asians have been forced to settle there for economic reasons. Their descendants, though Indian, Indonesia or other are no longer purely Indians like their forefathers who came a few centuries prior, but have become Trinidadians, blending their culture with African and or Native traits and even at times, Portuguese. The Dominicans who migrated to French Guyana are no longer purely Dominicans but Dominicans from French Guyana. Why? As long as humans move somewhere else, they develop a new identity and such reality can also be easily applied to the Italian-Americans from New-York.

As Eurocentric authors always keep the privilege of studying immigration and adaptation for themselves (examples: the Italian or German migration to Argentina or Brazil) black groups are not given the same attention whenever they develop a new identity.

As the issue of Afro-Latinidad was more and more mentioned over the past decade, the activists often focused on their own identity, as sons and daughters of Latinized Caribbean, Central American immigrants in the USA. However, no one really studied the case of the many Afro-Latinos born and raised in the US who passed for and identify as Black Americans. Hip-hop is a sub-culture whose numerous performers and rappers have followed such path. Jim Jones, born to an Aruban mother and Puerto-Rican father, Lloyd Banks, Juelz Santana, Swizz Beats, Trina or Fabulous among others, are partially Latinized Caribbeans or simply Puerto-Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans who totally passed for Black Americans.

Samana Americans, descendants of Afro-Americans who settled in DR in the 18th and 19th centuries

In the same approach, some musicians who grew up in a Latinized Caribbean culture, whether Dominican, Cuban or Puerto-Rican have found through hip-hop a way to feel closer to the black American experience than to their original Caribbean/South American one. Angie Martinez and Fat Joe do represent such problematic. For the Latinized Caribbeans whose artists often mostly identified as black American, it was not until Big Pun systematically placed PR at the center of his music that the wave of Latin pride took off in the late 90s until the late 2000s. Indeed, contrary to Angie Martinez and Fat Joe who had been Americanized through the African-American experience, Big Pun was a mixed of African-American culture but had also been heavily influenced by his original Boricua heritage through music, language and customs.

Regarding the condition of the Afro-Latinos such as Trina or Jim Jones who passed for Black Americans, one notices that the Black American community did not reject nor did they insist upon making a difference between them and the Black Latin Caribbean performers. As they look Black American and have been contributing to Black American culture, they are not looked upon as different. However, it is much more difficult for the lighter skin and multiracial Latinos such as Fat Joe or Angie Martinez to be fully accepted within the black clan for not being visibly black.

How can one explain such paradigm, then?

Arturo Schomburg, date unknown

When thinking about this issue, one remarks that the artists aforementioned were all born around the same era. The children of the early 1970s, their surrounding was surely greatly shaped by the legacy of the Young Lords, based in Chicago but whose heritage had a long impact in activism regarding the relations between Blacks and Boricuas. They were, at the time of revolution, the fraction which represented the other “people of color”, or non-US Black Americans who stood up against oppression. Rather than asking for a separation between African-Americans and Latinized Caribbeans to allow the latter to preserve their privileges, they promoted the idea of unity as being bounded by history.

This heritage cemented the minds of those living in the East Coast. Yet, this union promoted by the Young Lords did not begin with them. Even throughout the 18th and 19th century, African-American slaves had found refuge in some parts of the Caribbean, such as the Oriental part of Cuba, or the region of Samana in the Dominican Republic. In Panama, Costa-Rica and Honduras, one finds many Central Americans with American names due to them being the partial descendants of Black Americans who left to settle there. The period of slavery never created static slaves as the latter always moved and revolted against their unfair treatment and for this reason, Afro-Cuban writers or politicians often displayed encouragement towards the Black Americans when times were hard.

And when it comes to the Young Lords, one of the very first men to have established a clear connection between the Afro-Latin Caribbean and Black American struggle was Arturo Schomburg during the Harlem Renaissance. Schomburg was one of the earliest scholars at the time to have documented, researched and written about the contribution of African-Americans and Afro-Latinos in Western history.

Rnb singer Aaron Hall (right) was born to a Puerto-Rican mother and black American father

Consequently, one realizes that the Puerto-Ricans were always a part of US Black history, and that Afro-Latinos also did contribute to the protection of the African-American body, either during the slave trade as the Blacks fled to the Caribbean, or in more recent times to show their support against oppression. Though presented as an anomaly or an ethnic group which greatly differs from the Black American experience for they did not have the same colonizers, the two ethnics actually spent more time communicating with one another than one could think of. This constant relationship could explain why the fluidity in exchanges allowed so many Puerto-Ricans born in the 1970s and prior to identify strongly through the African-American experience and Black Latinos to pass as Black Americans, fully.

In that sense, the US, whether in Miami, New-York or Louisiana often is a space of exportation where the Caribbean experience lives on. There, endless new identities form and blend with new groups as immigration grows and flourishes. Consequently, Latinized Caribbeans either still remain attached to African culture, thus Caribbean or rather assimilate and adopt the Black American culture to fit in better in the US racist structures or out of pure love.

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