Doing the Work of Afro-Latinidad: Defining Identity as a Defense Against Co-optation
By Eli Cytrynbaum
The mainstream visibility of Afro-Latinidad has increased by leaps and bounds in recent years, as is reflected in the increasing inclusion of Afro-Latinx identities in the censuses of many countries (López Oro 2016), the increasing usage of Afro-Latinx related hashtags on Instagram and Twitter, and even the increasing inclusion and visibility of Afro-Latinidad within academia, electoral politics, and pop-culture. However, as the visibility of the identity has grown, so have fears that it is being co-opted and distorted from its intended focus.
In Kai Green and Marquis Bey’s “Where Black Feminist Thought and Trans* Feminism Meet: A Conversation,” they discuss the difference between Blackness and transness as identities and as projects. Green and Bey discuss the fact that just because one identifies as queer, they are not automatically participating in activism or speaking against the gender binary. Just because one is Black does not mean one will do the work of pushing against the many manifestations of anti-Blackness such as colorism, or the preferencing of people within a racial category based on their perceived proximity to whiteness, and misogynoir, the specific discrimination faced by Black women. It should be noted that I use “work” here, as do Green and Bey, very loosely. This is not a specific project so much as a commitment to and centering of certain identities and analyses, which can manifest differently for different people even as they all are engaged in similarly oriented work. Defining Afro-Latinidad in terms of both an identity and a project can serve as an intervention to enable the re-centering of Blackness within Afro-Latinidad without creating yet more potential for the policing of the Blackness of Afro-Latinxs.
The term Afro-Latinidad was first mobilized in part to combat homogenizing notions of Latinidad and patterns of exclusion of Afro-Latinx people from both Blackness and Latinidad. These exclusions have long and violent histories dating back to the formation of Latin America as we know it and reflect efforts of white/light-skinned elites to maintain control within the emerging nations and also trying to create a place for these nations within the world order by claiming racial democracy and distinction from their European colonizers while simultaneously seeking to situate themselves as proximal to Europe –that is, as white, Christian, “civilized” nations. This has resulted in a disavowal of both Blackness and of historical mistreatment of Black people (Jones 2018) and has long ranging impacts in the lived experiences of Afro-Latin Americans and Afro-Latinxs in the U.S. These impacts include attempts to expel and kill Black people within Latin America in order to enact national projects of whitening (Busey and Cruz 2017). This project of mejorando la raza or blanqueamiento involved both encouraging immigration of Europeans to Latin America – part of the reason why both so many Romani and Jews made it to Latin America when no other countries would take them during the Holocaust (much of my family currently lives in Brazil and Argentina) at the same time that high ranking Nazis fled to these same places after the war was over – and oppression on a multitude of levels of Black and indigenous populations already present in the region. This erasure of Afro-Latinxs has also resulted in high poverty rates and alienation from both African American and Non-Black Latinx communities within the U.S. (Gosin 2017). By explicitly naming the identity “Afro-Latinidad,” people can more easily draw attention to the specific issues facing this population and try to foster unity and pride.
As Afro-Latinidad has received increasing mainstream attention, more and more people have been willing to claim it as an identity. In many ways, this is cause for celebration for those who seek to center Afro-Latinidad in more conversations, especially in light of the tendency among many Latinxs to deny their Blackness or African heritage. A result of this, though, has been what many perceive as a marginalization of darker-complexioned or otherwise more visibly Afro-descendent people within Afro-Latinidad. Many of the public faces of Afro-Latinidad today are people who are less visibly Black, reflecting trends in society at large in which those who face the least precarity are often the most centered due to their heightened palatability. This is not universally true (there are some darker-complexioned Afro-Latinx people who have gained mainstream popularity on somewhat more ‘democratized’ platforms such as Twitter). Even so, many commentators seem to cite examples of dark-complexioned Afro-Latinx people simply to use them to justify the position or actions of lighter skinned individuals, as one can see in Raquel Rivera’s naming of dark-skinned Afro-Latinxs in order to legitimize the presence of lighter-complexioned Latinxs in Hip Hop in her essay “Between Blackness and Latinidad in the Hip Hop Zone” (Rivera 2009).
This tendency risks once again marginalizing dark-skinned Latinx people and the specific discrimination they face both within Latin America and in the diaspora in the U.S. This conflict is perhaps best illustrated by Fat Joe’s controversial comments that all Latinx people have claims to Blackness, which he stated after being criticized for his use of a music sample invoking Santería – an Afro-Cuban religion also known as Regla de Ocha or the Lucumí religion with roots in Yoruba religious practices – in one of his own songs. While this perspective does acknowledge and celebrate the African influence on Latin America more than traditional narratives of mestizaje, it still risks creating a false homogeneity within Latinidad which could interfere with necessary conversations on the impacts of colorism and anti-Black racism. There are also examples of people like actor Gina Rodriguez, who use an identification with Afro-Latinidad to justify their anti-Blackness, further illustrating the dangers of the perceived fungibility of the term. In fact, Afro-Latinidad seems to be sometimes used to remove the Blackness from discussions of Black people akin to how people use the term people of color.
While Rodriguez has made such affirming posts as this one:
...her simultaneous refusal to directly refer to Black people, choosing instead to focus on People of Color in general, her use of the n-word, her complaints of lack of Latinx representation in response to Black Panther,
and claims that the following image is a representative cross-section of Latinas,
...all while seeming to claim that her support of (through posts such as the one above highlighting Laz Alonzo), or proximity to (through her father’s Afro-descendance), Afro-Latinidad gives her immunity to claims of Anti-Blackness or Black erasure. In both these examples, light-skinned celebrities who do not personally identify as Black are mobilizing narratives of Afro-Latinidad to again give an illusion of homogeneity to Latinidad, which in turn gives them claims to Blackness without needing to claim either the identity or work of Blackness.
There have been increasing attempts to re-center Blackness within Afro-Latinidad, but this proves to be a delicate task. Along with being excluded from Latinidad, many Afro-Latinx people face exclusion from Blackness, from Cardi B being referred to as non-Black to Amara La Negra being accused of being a white woman in blackface. Indeed, the majority of Google Scholar results when one types in the term ‘Afro-Latinidad’ relate to it being an intervention in Blackness rather than in Latinidad–focusing on how Afro-Latinxs have been excluded from Blackness rather than on their exclusion from Latinidad. The extent of this bias in coverage may partly be due to larger racist biases within academia such that articles referring to Blackness as exclusive receive more attention than articles discussing anti-Black racism. However, the combination of these external invalidations of Afro-Latinidad with the previously discussed denials of Blackness from within Latinx communities makes attempts at gate-keeping especially fraught.
This dynamic of confronting both erasure and appropriation at the same time is not at all unique to Afro-Latinidad and more reflects the nature of the settler-colonial, racial capitalist state which seeks power through the marginalization and the consumption of the ‘other'. Thus, we can see these same struggles over the ownership and focus of identities in a variety of communities. Many Indigenous groups in the U.S. have faced similar efforts at eradication and assimilation, ranging from California’s official campaign to kill all Indigenous people within the state in the mid-1800s, to Oregon’s termination of Indigenous status for most nations and individuals in the mid-1900s, to the current practices of forced sterilization of Indigenous women in Saskatchewan and state sanctioned kidnappings in the Dakotas. Simultaneously, there are so many people who seek to appropriate Indigeneity that a term exists specifically for those settlers who claim tribal status. While some have turned to blood quanta or even DNA testing to resolve the boundaries of these identities, others have argued for a perspective more based on community and investment in the identity.
Afro-Latinidad and Indigeneity are not entirely the same, but this framing of identity in terms of investment within that identity can potentially serve useful in the context of Afro-Latinidad as well, in part because both identities are in part based on genealogy, but in a complicated way due to state-sanctioned efforts at assimilation. To be clear, when saying that Afro-Latinidad and Indigeneity are not the same in terms of identities, I do not mean to imply that there is not intersection between these identities. There are many Afro-Indigenous people. In Massachusetts, where I am writing this post, Nipmuc Nation has substantial African ancestry and ties to local African American communities. Within the context of Afro-Latinidad, there are perhaps even more widely visible Afro-Indigenous people, such as Afro-Zapotec writer Alan Peláez López, or the Afro-Indigenous Garífuna peoples of the Caribbean coast of Central America.
In the U.S., these two identities operate fairly differently (though again, not always separately) in part due to differences of hyper- and hypo-descent. This roughly translates to the idea that Indigenous people are being exploited for their land, and so are racially constructed to disappear, while Black people are being exploited for their labor, and so are racially constructed to have no alternative to Blackness. In Latin America, the project of mestizaje among other factors has resulted in the position of Blackness and Indigeneity as being possibly more similar than they are in the U.S. context. Perhaps for this reason, these similar issues of group identity and fungibility are more central issues to both Indigeneity and Afro-Latinidad than they are to African American Blackness.
In other contexts, we see similar dynamics of erasure and co-optation with whatever populations are being subsumed by the state such that the state feels the need to lay claim to their legacy without their existence. Thus, these issues arise anywhere that a national identity is created at the expense of a minority, whether that be the Adivasi groups in South Asia, Saami of Scandinavia, or any number of other groups which are required by modern states to provide heritage and legitimacy to land claims, but are also required to not actually exist in order for these legacies to belong to the state rather than to these minoritized groups. Somewhat similar dynamics also exist with queerness and disability, where many people seek to claim these cultures while discriminating against the people and where people with varying proximity to the norm move through the world very differently but are often collapsed into a single group, leading to the overshadowing of those most in need of centering by those who are closest to societal standards of normativity.
Especially in the cases of Indigeneity and Afro-Latinidad, where there has been more intermarriage (consensual or otherwise) with members of the dominant group, resisting this co-optation can be very challenging. As Natasha Alford wrote in Oprah Magazine, “While some believe identifying as Afro-Latino is a personal choice, others argue it has more to do with a person's physical traits—skin color and hair texture, for instance. Black Latinos lack the privilege that lighter-skinned Latinos have, with an experience that's more akin to the racism and struggles of African-Americans.” This question of whether the identity is based on how others perceive you or on your self-identification becomes especially challenging.
Indeed, many have already taken up such definitions of Afro-Latinidad, as is illustrated in the following post by Melania-Luisa Marte:
Rather than define the bounds of Afro-Latinidad based on heritage or physical characteristics, Marte cites an investment in Blackness as the defining trait. Her argument is that in order to claim Afro-Latinidad, one must be willing to claim Blackness – in opposition to those who seek to separate these terms, and claiming Blackness she defines not only in terms of identifying/maneuvering the world/being racialized as Black, but also in terms of working “to create inclusivity for real life Negras who face erasure and violence every single day they exist on this Earth.” In this way, she both seeks to remove some of the perceived flexibility of the term Afro-Latinx (Afro-Latina= Black woman not woman of color) and ties the identity to the project (Afro-Latinidad as a willingness to work for Afro-Latinx liberation). This defining of Afro-Latinidad manages to avoid active policing of the boundaries of the identity while still reiterating the importance of the project of centering Black people (and specifically in her post, of centering Black women – it should be noted that much of the work which has been done in promoting the term Afro-Latinidad has been done specifically by Afro-Latinx women and non-binary people. If we are going to be talking about making sure that those who have the most at stake in the identity and have done the most work to advance it are centered, we really need to be including more of a gender analysis as well).
Martinez cites the cooptation of the term Afro-Latinx by various people “for capitalistic purposes, some to create a separate, not equal class of Black, and others to take up more space when they’ve already had space amidst the ‘majority,’” as her rationale for shifting more towards terms such as negra, Black Latina and Afro-descendent, to ensure that her identification is centering Blackness. Meanwhile, Moore cites a desire to center what they see as more meaningful connections with the Black diaspora rather than Latinidad. Moore writes, “Black Latinos don’t necessarily have the same experience as Latinos who are not Black. I, personally, do not identify as Latino because Latino means Latin and Latin, it means white. And I’m not white, so I just call myself Afro-Taíno ’cause that’s what I am.”
Of course, not everyone is ready to cancel Latinidad. Latinidad is itself historically a project of resistance, even as it has also become tied to projects of mestizaje. In the U.S., ideas of Latinidad were largely formulated as a way to form unity between various diasporic Latin American immigrant communities in the face of discrimination. Similarly, ideas of Latin American identity were largely formulated in the face of U.S. (and European) imperialism (Gobat 2013). While many of the definitions of Latinidad can be traced back to the colonizing powers as they sought to make a consumable region out of a vast diversity of individual nations and peoples, the term was also taken up by many resistance movements as they sought self-determination and liberation. However, this does not reduce the way in which even many of these movements have excluded and continue to exclude certain individuals, such as Afro-Latinxs.
As Martinez said in another article, “Latinidad just really just centers on the shared history and shared culture, but doesn’t necessarily, like, delve into all of those multifaceted identities, and for me, Latinidad ultimately serves white cis-gendered, straight, wealthy men. I am none of those things, so for me, I’m at the margins of this term.” Another writer, Yvette Modestín, founder and executive director of Encuentro Diaspora Afro sums it up in terms of the lack of benefits she gets from Latinidad. “As Black as I am, and as proudly Black identified as I am, and as proudly Black Panamanian as I am, [Latinidad] serves me nothing.”
In response to complaints that rejecting Latinidad breaks up potential Latinx solidarity, Alan Peláez López similarly points to the fact that this solidarity isn’t universally uplifting. “What I do get a lot publicly is the folk who want to give pushback who assume that all of the content that is created is being divisive. What am I dividing? What power can I possibly have as somebody who is Black from Mexico and in the spectrum of GNC (gender non-conforming)? What power do I possibly have over this global movement?”
They continue by saying that if “Latinidad had an end goal to address global anti-Blackness and to address mass amount of genocide of Indigenous people, queer and trans people, and women and different folk in the Americas, then that could be a Latinidad that could really transform not only Latin American people but the world…, But, right now, it seems that the goal of Latinidad is to be accepted by white United Statians as opposed to the goal of Latinidad existing to address global anti-Blackness, particularly because Latin America has the largest population of Black people outside of Africa.” Here, we return again to the idea of identity and work being somehow related, though now in the opposite configuration. Rather than demanding that people take on certain work in order to claim certain identities, the demand is that identities take on certain work in order to be claimed. Peláez López frames their choice to reject Latinidad as not because they don’t see themselves as having claim to the identity, but rather because the identity is not doing the work they see as necessary for it to be liberatory. There are those for whom Afro-Latinidad – and even Latinidad – does or does not meet their needs. If we want our identities to be doing liberatory work though, it is our job to try and consider how these terms and identities are affecting not just ourselves, but those who are most marginalized within our communities and society at large. This is part of why following the work of the many Black Latinx women and gender non-conforming people leading the conversations on Afro-Latinidad is so important—those who are both committed to doing the work and are targeted by so many of the intersecting systems of oppression which form the foundations of our repressive society. If our analysis and work cannot center silenced voices and our identities require their negation, then in what way are these terms liberatory? Or can we even say they are?
It should be noted from the outset that I am neither Black nor Latinx, let alone Afro-Latinx. I am writing this piece as an Ashkenazi Jewish/Irish (read: white American) student at Williams College, and lay no claims to experiential expertise. In this post, I attempt to gather together a range of theories and sources to create something which can be useful to others in the field, but acknowledge also the problematics of my writing this, especially in light of white people within the academy basing their scholarship off of claiming to be experts on the experiences and theories of marginalized peoples. I hope not to claim expertise, but rather enter into a very important dialogue and possibly help create space for future discussion in so doing.
Eli can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Kai M. Green and Marquis Bey. 2017. “Where Black Feminist Thought and Trans* Feminism Meet: A Conversation,” Souls, 19:4, (pgs. 438-454).
Paul Joseph López Oro. 2016. “’Ni de aquí, ni de allá’: Garífuna Subjectivities and the Politics of Diasporic Belonging” in Afro-Latin@s in Movement: Critical Approaches to Blackness and Transnationalism in the Americas (pgs. 61-84).
Jennifer Jones. 2018. “Afro-Latinos: Speaking Through Silences and Rethinking the Geographies of Blackness” in Afro-Latin American Studies: An Introduction (pgs. 569-614).
Christopher L. Busey and Bárbara C. Cruz. 2017. “Who is Afro-Latin@? Examining the Social Construction of Race and Négritude in Latin America and the Caribbean.” Social Education 81(1) (pgs. 37-42).
Monika Gosin. 2017. ‘‘’A Bitter Diversion’: Afro-Cuban Immigrants, Race, and Everyday Life Resistance.” Latino Studies (15): (pgs. 4-28).
Raquel Z. Rivera. 2009. “Between Blackness and Latinidad in the Hip Hop Zone” in A Companion to Latina/o Studies (pgs. 351-362).
Kimberle Crenshaw. 1989. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum, vol. 1989, no. 1, article 8 (pgs. 139-167).
Michel Gobat. 2013. “The Invention of Latin America: A Transnational History of Anti-Imperialism, Democracy, and Race,” The American Historical Review, Volume 118, Issue 5 (pgs. 1345–1375).