Say It Loud: Acknowledging the “Afro” in Afro-Latino Identity and Literature

Back in the day, I had no clue that Black Americans and Latinos have common African roots. Growing up in North Carolina, we were used to people/places/things being defined as “Black”, “White”, or “other”.  American history was as deep as our Board of Education deemed it to be (which was, to say, quite shallow), so pesky things like slavery were glossed over–never mind  how the major cultures of this rock we call Earth are intertwined.

[sidebar: “Latino” is not to be used interchangeably with “Hispanic”, which indicates origins in Spain]

I remember sitting in freshman year Biology, chatting with a fellow freshman named Mercedes from New Jersey. The conversation took an interesting turn when Mercedes commented, “…when my parents came from Cuba…”

I blinked. And blinked again. Mercedes’ gorgeous mahogany skin tone was a few shades darker than mine, and her hair was neatly relaxed to her shoulders, like most of the (American) black female students.  She had no discernible accent  or mannerisms that would peg her as anything other than  regular ol’ American Black, to my untrained ears and eyes. As I alluded earlier, my relatively sheltered upbringing caused me to be quite ignorant of many things. My first thought upon hearing Mercedes’s comment was, “There are black people in Cuba?”

Fast forward years later, and I read  Explicit Content by Black Artemis (also known as Sofia Quintero). The book chronicles the rise and fall (and rise) of two unlikely friends turned rappers: Cassandra, a sheltered Trinidadian-American black girl and  Leila, a street-smart Puerto Rican girl. During an argument with her lover, Leila schools him about Africa’s indelible (and often overlooked) stamp on Puerto Rican history, from the origin of the popular dancing style of bomba y plena, to breakdancing. Even though it was a fiction novel, that one passage was eye-opening and I remember Mercedes’ random comment so many years ago. Since then, other novelists have included the African origins of Latinos in their works, such as Good Peoples by Marcus Major. Quintero continued this theme in her adult novel Divas Don’t Yield, which has an Afro-Cuban woman as one of its main ensemble characters.

Divas Dont Yield Quintero

explicit content black artemis      Good Peoples Marcus Major

As an adult, I started reading about the transatlantic slave trade and its impact on not just the West Indies (Jamaica, St. Lucia, etc.), but also Cuba and Puerto Rico. African slaves were dropped off at all of those islands, and it went without saying that bloodlines were intermingled.  Quintero started a personal literary interest that continues to this day: Afro-Latino literature.

Daughters of the Stone by Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa continues the Afro-Latino trend. The novel weaves a multigenerational tale of women who lived in Puerto Rico, and who are descendants of an African slave named Fela. What intrigued me about this novel was not so much the lyrical writing, but that Llanos-Figueroa weaved a Latino tale that constantly had its roots in Africa.

Daughters of the Stone D. Llanos Figueroa



What sealed the deal for me was the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz

Oscar Wao J Diaz front coverRiverhead books  1996 Junie Lee

Diaz first caught my attention with his first book, Drown, a collection of short stories. In  Oscar Wao,  Diaz tells a tale that connects a modern-day geek in New Jersey to the Rafael Trujillo regime in Diaz’s birthplace of the Dominican Republic. Then, as now, skin tone and hair texture are still arbiters of social standing, made all the more prominent by DR’s proximity to Haiti, its next-door neighbor and cohabitant of the island of Hispanola. It was mindblowing to read about the same types of physical classification issues occurring in countries I’d only heard of. Here’s a hint: what you see on the tourist board commercials and websites are watered-down (dare I say, whitewashed?) in the name of tourism.

While the term “Black” is still in flux in the current America, it is important to note that it is so much bigger than originally anticipated. Instead of being used as a divisive tool, “Black” should be seen as a way to bring together the many people of color both here in the United States and worldwide, since science has proven that every human on this planet shares a common ancestor in Africa.  Indeed, the very issues that plague American Blacks has been shown to replicate themselves among those of African descent in other countries.

Quintero, Diaz, Llanos-Figueroa, Alisa Valdes (The Dirty Girls Social Club, The Feminist and the Cowboy) and Julia Alvarez ( How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, In the Time of the Butterflies) are just a few members of group of talented writers who are Latinos of African descent. By virtue of identity in both worlds, the publishing world sees them belonging to neither (at least, for the purposes of genre classification and number-crunching).  This is especially true when it comes to authors of African descent, or Black authors: all too often, Afro-Latino authors are not given a place at the African Diaspora writing table. It’s as if the Latino part negates the African part in the eyes of those who have a more singularly categorical identity. It’s a travesty that this is so; the binary racial classification system with which I grew up is slowly morphing into multiculturalism. If the U.S. Census form can keep up with multiple self-identification, surely the publishing industry can as well. The purpose of literature is to educate as well as entertain; relegating a group of authors because they don’t fit into a neat, little box, or aren’t “black” enough, does a disservice to both readers and other writers.

Thanks for stopping by.