What is Afro-Latin America?

From Mexico to Brazil and beyond, Africans and people of African descent have fought in wars of independence, forged mixed race national identities, and contributed politically and culturally to the making of the Americas. Even though Latin America imported ten times as many slaves as the United States, only recently have scholars begun to highlight the role blacks and other people of African descent played in Latin American history. This course will explore the experiences of Afro-Latin Americans from slavery to the present, with a particular focus on Haiti, Cuba, Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia. We will also read some of the newest transnational scholarship to understand how conversations about ending racism and building “raceless” nations spread throughout the Americas and influenced the Civil Rights movement in the United States.

In doing so, the course seeks to answer questions such as: What does it mean to be black in Latin America? Why has racism persisted in Latin America despite political revolutions claiming to eliminate discrimination? How have differing conceptions of “race” and “nation” caused the rise and decline of transnational black alliances between U.S. blacks and Afro-Latin Americans?

Last Tuesday, I began my eighth year of university teaching, but my first day at my new institution – Davidson College. Feeling both like a newbie (I was still unpacking boxes of books last week) and like an old pro, I dove right into teaching two introductory courses—Afro-Latin America and History of the Caribbean—passing out the course description pasted above. Both of my courses were cross-listed with Africana and Latin American Studies and fell under my purview as the new professor of Afro-Latin America. Mine is a joint position and the first untenured new hire for both Africana and Latin American Studies. I was initially shocked when I saw the advertisement last summer and remain shocked in many ways that both Africana and Latin American Studies at Davidson were interested in hiring an Afro-Latin Americanist as their first faculty position (other than chair) in two relatively young departments.

Statue of Afro-Mexican leader Yanga
Statue of Afro-Mexican leader Yanga

Why was I surprised? First, because while historians of Latin America and the Caribbean had studied slavery since the 1970s, few of the initial Black Studies departments included blacks outside of the United States or Africa. With the turn to more transnational and diasporic departments in the 1990s, the newly renamed Africana Studies departments began to hire more scholars working on people of African descent outside of the major regions. However, even when they did make those hires, most departments only hired one non-U.S. person and it was certainly never the first hire. Secondly, even though my research and scholarship has sat at the intersection of Latin American history and Africana Studies since I began my dissertation project on Afro-Cuban experiences with the 1959 Cuban Revolution, when I first applied for faculty positions in 2007 and 2008, there were zero Afro-Latin American positions advertised.

Poster for 1st Transnational Afro-Latin American Symposium at Harvard 2015
Poster for 1st Transnational Afro-Latin American Symposium at Harvard 2015

Much of this changed as Africana Studies departments expanded to reflect the emphasis on the African Diaspora and transnational research occurring in graduate education. Henry Louis Gates’ 2011 PBS documentary series Black in Latin America opened other doors for the field. Shortly after it aired, more and more Africana Studies, Latino Studies, and even traditional departments (like history and anthropology) included Afro-Latin America in their course offerings. And in 2013, Harvard University launched the first Afro-Latin American Research Institute in the United States as a part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. In many ways, the growth of the field in the United States paralleled the rise of anti-racist movements in Latin America. In the 1980s and 1990s, afrodescendientes throughout the region publicly and visibly initiated social movements that named their existence (they had often been invisible in national rhetoric) and combated racism.

But, what is Afro-Latin America and why is it an important field of study? These are the questions I posed to my class at Davidson during the first week of the semester. Students eagerly shared their ideas during a silent chalk talk activity:

“It is part of the African Diaspora.”
“Afro-Latin Americans share a history of slavery and discrimination with African Americans.”
“It’s transnational.”

Not only did they try to define the category, my students also had questions about who was included in this region/category:

“How do you measure blackness in a mixed space?”
“What about tensions between African Americans and Afro-Latinos?”
“Will we talk about anti-black racism in Latin America?”
“Where do Afro-Indigenous groups fit?
“Do you have to speak Spanish to be Afro-Latino?”

Afro-Latin America encompasses peoples of African descent living in Latin America. Surprisingly to most North-Americans, only 4.4% of Africans forced into slavery in the Americas came to the United States. The rest went to Latin America and the Caribbean and forever changed the demographics of the region. Today its estimated that 30-50% of Colombia is black or mulato and somewhere between 73 and 100 million people of African descent live in Brazil.

Yet, any definition of Afro-Latin America also has to include places where people of African descent have contributed to the region’s cultures, politics, and economies even if their numbers are no longer significant, like Uruguay and Argentina where carnival celebrations reflect an African diasporic past despite being performed by dancers with mostly white skin.

Tatyana Ali
Tatyana Ali

To understand Afro-Latin America you also have to examine the experiences of Afro-Latin@s living in the Unites States, including many celebrities cast in African American roles on television, such as Laz Alonso (Jumping the Broom, 2011) and Tatyana Ali (Fresh Prince of Bel-Air). As one article demonstrated, many Afro-Latinos feel rejected by both the black and the Latino community. “It was always difficult because I was never Boricua or Black enough. Other Puerto Ricans didn’t accept me because I wasn’t a fluent Spanish speaker and too brown. I also wasn’t ‘dark’ enough to be Black.”

Despite these tensions, in areas like New York and South Florida, African Americans and Afro-Latinos have lived and worked together since the 19th century and studying those alliances and the moments when cooperation breaks down is an important aspect of Afro-Latin American Studies.

Afro-Colombian Hip Hop Group Choc Quib Town
Afro-Colombian Hip Hop Group Choc Quib Town

As the semester continues, my class and I will discuss these and many other themes, including contemporary topics such as hair (blacks and mulatos in Latin America also struggle with the terms good and bad hair), colorism, and transnational hip hop. In doing so, we will begin to see patterns about how blackness, race, and racism operate outside of the United States. Some things will be familiar like the ways Afro-Colombian youth use African American hip hop beats to protest their exclusion from employment opportunities and full citizenship rights. Other things may seem more foreign at first glance, such as the 136 terms used to describe skin color in Brazil.

In the end, I want my students to walk away with an understanding of the lived experience of race as a social construction. We all know race isn’t real, but studying how it works in another place makes that even clearer. The shape of race and racism shift depending on historical time period, geography, and context. To be black in Latin America isn’t the same thing as being black in the United States. But, neither is being black in the 19th century versus today. Moreover, in a day and age where police violence is (again) taking lives in both black and brown communities, it is finally time to talk (again) about alliances between African Americans and Latinos. Understanding the rich history, culture, and politics of Afro-Latin America is an excellent place to start those discussions. By the final week of the semester, I want my students to know and embody the hashtag #BlackLivesMatterEverywhere.

Devyn Spence Benson is an assistant professor of Africana & Latin American Studies at Davidson College. She is the author of Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution. Follow Professor Benson on Twitter @bensondevyn.

Share with a friend:
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.


Devyn Spence Benson

Devyn Spence Benson is an Associate Professor of Africana and Latin American Studies and Chair of the Africana Studies Department at Davidson College. She is the author of 'Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution' (UNC Press, 2016). Benson received her Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in the field of Latin American History, where her research focused on racial politics during the first three years of the Cuban revolution. Follow her on Twitter @BensonDevyn.

Comments on “What is Afro-Latin America?

  • Avatar

    Great work!

  • Avatar

    Powerful! What a wonderful contribution to a much-needed continual dialogue.

Comments are closed.