Monday, May 21, 2012

Undercover Afro-Latinos

Any one or more of these young men could be Latino, but how would you know if they keep their heritage private while assimilating into the African-American community?
Antonio, a long time friend from Central America is of African heritage, and of course, speaks fluent Spanish. He blends well with African-Americans; after all, he was married to one, and his children are totally assimilated into the African-American community. However, with my being an admirer of Afro-Latino cultures, it's quite evident to me how Antonio tends to minimize his Latino heritage in his communication with others, and even with other Latinos. 
One evening, for my birthday, he took me to see an Afro-Peruvian dance performance, and I, not him, was the one engaging with the Peruvians who were present. For this event, I was wearing a t-shirt reflecting Afro-Peruvian culture as a conversation piece while circulating among the crowd. It worked as Antonio simply observed me with fascination as I answered people's questions in Spanish who thought I myself might be Afro-Peruvian. He showed no interest in engaging with others, besides eavesdropping. 
I've always been outspoken about the African presence in Latin America at local black heritage events and in my Toastmasters meetings. I feel that a lot of African-Americans, and surprisingly many Latinos, need to be educated to the fact that we African-Americans are not the only black population in the western world. In fact, we are indeed a minority because an overwhelming majority of the slaves ships went to Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries almost 100 years before they started coming the U.S.
When Antonio and I first met, I asked him why he is so reluctant to assert the Latino side of his heritage. Antonio only gave me a vague answer, and to this day, I still do not understand. He is not the only person of Latin-American heritage who tries to keep it on the down-low. I've seen Latinos of all colors do it, and I'm wondering why. I brought this topic up in a forum of which I'm a member, and here are are some of their comments: 
Dora: Sometimes you just don't want to be the representative educator. It's exhausting, and other times, it still doesn't matter. Adults with narrow minds will continue to have it.  I don't always broadcast my background unless I need to. My mother does the same. I usually lay low in Spanish speaking establishments to see if they'd talk !@#$ about me.
Rob: It could be that she identifies more with just being “black” due to discrimination she may have experienced in her country. I've had Afro-Latinos friends who  say that they were treated as second class citizens and not welcomed as fellow Hispanics, so they just align more with being “black.” 

Carlos: In America, so-called Black Latinos have to assimilate. We don't have a choice. Like my man Laz Alonso said, he is Cuban inside his house and African American outside. Its just the way it is in the US. 

Ayana: My dad is from Dominica, and my mother from St. Lucia,raised in French Guiana. When I started grade school I went to a school where the kids were mostly South American and Eastern European. My best friend was Colombian and I do have distant Colombian heritage as well. I speak Spanish fluently. I was always treated equally among my peers. 

In the 5th grade I went to a different school that was predominantly African American, West Indian, and Puerto Rican. I was treated horribly by the African Americans for being "an Oreo," a "Spanish girl wannabe," and other interesting things. One time, I got kicked in the head and blacked out.
I was very sorry to hear about Latinos who were severely persecuted in their youth by their African-Americans peers who resented their being different. That brings to mind of a black Panamanian who grew up in the hood in West Oakland. He told me that keeping his Latino heritage on the down-low was about survival and fitting in. 

Rob's comment about Afro-Latinos not being welcomed by fellow Hispanics suddenly triggered my memory of Juan, from Venezuela, who could not get a job in Venezuela after finishing journalism school because of his color. He then told me how Spanish-speakers in the U.S. would often answer him in English because they could not relate to a black guy speaking Spanish. This, of course, drove him closer to African-Americans.

I've known Antonio for over 10 years, and he never mentioned any of the abuses, mistreatment, or discrimination stated above. In fact, he seldom discusses his experience as an Afro-Latino, although at times, I've heard him talk about his background as Garífuna, a descendant of escaped African slaves who assimilated with indigenous people of Central America. Even then, he keeps such discussions to a minimum, even with me knowing that I'm planning trips to a couple of Garífuna villages. 

As one member of the forum puts it, there are many things out there that influence people's decisions to downplay an aspect of their heritage. My feeling is that people need to be made aware of the diversity in the “black” community. Right here in the U.S., I've met blacks who speak English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Dutch; not to mention the various languages and dialects from the Caribbean and the African continent. My blog, African-American-Latino World, is only a minor contribution to promote this awareness.