By Nicole Akoukou Thompson
The Dominican Republic has a saying, “We’re black behind the ears.” And in Mexico, “there’s a black grandma in the closet.” Both statements refer to a long hidden history of African heritage, blackness, intermarriage and interbreeding.
Discrimination in Latin America is invisible; but it’s present and often insidious. Yet, if you bring up race or racism to those in/from Latin America, they will respond with statements about class, and how it is the “predominate stratifying principle in Latin America,” according to Melissa M. Valle, a doctoral student at Colombia University. She recently discussed the unfailing issue of non-Afro Latinos’ lacking recognition in the U.S. and Latin America.
“We’re all mixed” or “what is race?” is often asserted by many Latinos. However, race is apparent to those who are at the receiving end of disadvantage. This was something that was illuminated by scholars, activists and cultural representatives from Latino grassroots organizations gathered at the three-day AfroLatin@s Now: Race Counts! Conference, which took place at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in late October.
The Black-Brown divide was the prime point of discussion, and show-runners made proposals to unify Latinos across the race/color spectrum in order to deal with the racism against Black Latinos and cultural discrimination. To remove the stigma associated with black identity and to combat undercounting Afro-Latinos, one must look to the long history of blackness in Latin America.
“Black in Latin America,” the important four-part special which aired four years ago on PBS, showcased the lives and history of individuals of African descent living in various Latin American nations. The unmatched mini-series teaches history that’s rarely presented during years of formal education, particularly within schools attended by disadvantaged, multicultural youth.
Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, developed and hosted the “Black in Latin America,” which premiered nationally on April 19, 2011.
Europe and Africa helped to influence the rich and plush heritages and cultures of Latin America and the Caribbean nations, marking inhabitants of Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Mexico with African and European roots, due to slavery and colonialism. Professor Gates touched upon the experience of black lives in Latin lives and he carefully scrutinized Latin American nations, exposing African and European traditions in Latin art, music and religion.
Eleven million Africans survived the Middle Passage and landed in the New World. Only 450,000 arrived to the U.S., and the rest went south of Miami, into the isles and mainland of Latin America. Mexico and Peru received more slaves during the 16th and 17th centuries than the United States during the same period, and the descendants of those slaves created a place for themselves in Vera Cruz on the Gulf of Mexico, the Costa Chica region on the Pacific, and in and around Lima, Peru.
Five million went to Brazil, several million were taken to Venezuela and hundreds of thousands where spread among many other nations. Brazil became the second “blackest” nation in the world, second only to Nigeria. Brazil, then, underwent mass “whitening,” receiving 5,435,735 immigrants from Europe and the Middle East. The conscious policy was instituted in each nation Professor Gates visited except for Haiti. And the goal was to blend or bury African roots, creating racial heritage that was “blackish,” at best.
Brazil has 136 variations of blackness, Haiti has 98 and Mexico has 16. Everyone is able to track racial classification and skin color as if everyone possesses a color meter. Caboclo, Moreno, Negro and many other identifiers, the color categorization system is so intricate that it’s difficult for many Americans, particularly African Americans, to understand. This is primarily due to the U.S. being the only country in the world to have a “one-drop rule.”
Nonetheless, many in Brazil and Mexico continue to celebrate their multiculturalism and variable degrees of blackness, yet there’s inarguable evidence that darker skinned individuals with African features are overwhelming cemented into the lower class. Brazil’s upper class was, and continues to be, almost completely white. And the same can be said in Peru and DR. Brazil’s façade of ‘rainbow nation’ and bubbling Carnival nature is upturned if one were to inspect the nation’s legacy as the world’s largest slave economy.
When Professor Gates went to DR, he inspected social construction, centuries of inter-marriage and the nation’s long troubled history with Haiti. During the episode titled “Haiti and the Dominican Republic: An Island Divided,” he told the double-edged tale of slaves battling for liberation over Napoleon Bonaparte’s French Empire, and the birth of the first-ever black republic. On the episode “Cuba: The Next Revolution,” he spoke about Cuba receiving 800,000 slaves, and how their slave labor history was inextricably linked to religion, culture, politics and music, and it was driven by the hugely profitable sugar industry during the 19th century.
“Everyone knows about black people from Africa, everyone knows about the black American community. But surprisingly, and this is why the series is so important, not many people realize how ‘black’ South America is. So of all the things I’ve done it was the most difficult to get funded and it is one of the most rewarding because it is so counter-intuitive, it’s so full of surprises,” Professor Gates said during a Q&A with PBS.
Within only four hours of broadcasting for the series countless little known facts were revealed about blackness in Latin America: DR and Haiti were revealed to be two sides of the same coin, two nations that created their identities together, in opposition. DR is Spanish, white and Catholic. The other is African, black and voodoo, but they are connected.
In Cuba, 50 percent of the Cuban Army of Independence was black, and two of its leaders were black generals, including Antonio Maceo. In Mexico, viewers discovered that the first black president in the New World was not Barack Obama. Instead, it was a “mulatto,” Vicente Guerrero, who was elected as the first President of Mexico in 1829. These facts and many others illustrate the hidden black identity that’s prevalent throughout Latin America.
In the United States, less than 3% of all Latinos identify as racially Black, though statistically many have African ancestry. The Census Bureau doesn’t reflect this because it works to erase diversity in order to better slot the entire raza into one group. But, racial visibility is also important. Exposing the histories and backgrounds of individual group creates recognition when it comes to faith, race, language and nationalities. Multiculturalism must be honored, not ignored.
Latinos who look Zoe Saldana, Carmelo Anthony or Alex Rodriguez should be just as accepted in national conversations about Latism as fairer Latinos, who like George Lopez or Sofia Vergara. Respecting skin color and diversity disempowers racial hierarchy that exists in the U.S., Latin America and the Caribbean.
Nicole Akoukou Thompson is a U.S.-based sociologist and journalist who focuses on issues of immigrants with African descent in North and South America. She is the director of Africa Resurrection and Restoration Ministries in New York.