For the past few weeks I’ve been tuning into the PBS series “Black in Latin-America” documenting the often complex history of the Black presence in Latin-America. The documentary is spearheaded and hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., and despite my personal issues with him, I must say I’ve been enjoying the series very much.

For starters, there is often a misconception that during the slave trade Black people were only brought to the U.S. or the Carribean. However there were millions of Black people taken to South America and parts of Central America. As Professor Gates explains:

“There were 11.2 million Africans that we can count who survived the Middle Passage …
and of that 11.2 million, only 450,000 came to the United States. Brazil got almost 5
million Africans. In part, this reflects our ignorance as Americans who don’t know that
much about the rest of the world. But also, it is in part the responsibility of the countries in
South America themselves — each of which underwent a period of whitening. In the hundred
year period between 1872 and 1975, Brazil received 5,435,735 immigrants from Europe and
the Middle East and this was a conscious policy after 1850 to “whiten” Brazil which was
such a black country. Brazil is the second blackest nation in the world. Brazil has the
second largest black population — black being defined by people of African descent in the
way that we would define them in this country. It’s second only to Nigeria.”

Each week the series focuses on a particular country. So far countries such as Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Peru have been featured. Most people may not think of places like Mexico or Peru as “Black” countries, however, Mexico and Peru together were populated by 700,000 Africans from the slave trade. I actually had the opportunity to travel to a small town in Mexico called Costa Chica, which is a made up of African descendants who are striving to find their roots and identity within a nation that wants to place all it’s citizens under the category of ‘Mexican,’ ignoring race or ethnicity. And, believe it or not, Mexico had a Black president before the U.S. His name was Vicente Guerrero (1829).

Despite our cultural differences, the show reveals that Black people throughout Latin America have long been enduring discrimination and fighting for justice, as we have here in the States. I’ve always had an interest in the plight of Black peoples in Cuba and loved that the island seemed to be a safe-haven for African-American revolutionaries throughout the Black Power Movement (shoutout to Assata!). And as Henry Louis Gates Jr. made his way through Cuba, I felt an even deeper connection to the struggles of our people there. Throughout their history, Black Cubans could not get equal jobs, stay in the same hotels, eat at the same restaurants, and even Samba music was banned at one point because it sounded too ethnic. Sounds familiar, right? And now, even though Cuba boasts the end of legal racism since the rise of Fidel Castro, many of the people interviewed said the law does not always translate to people’s hearts. So Black Cubans still suffer much discrimination, socially, that is swept under-the-table or considered taboo to speak about.

It’s also no secret that many Black people from Latin-America will deny or distance themselves from the title of ‘Black’; opting to identify by their nationality. There is this idea that a Spanish speaking Black person is some how Spanish. But if that’s the case, would Black people in America be considered English?

I once had a lab partner who was from the Dominican Republic–dark-skin, curly hair–yet he refused to be referred to or even thought of as Black. One day I jokingly said “If a racist cop pulls you over they’re not going to care what nationality you are, they will just see a Black face.” Yet he continued explaining to me why he is not Black. Then our White partner chimed in,“Well, what are you?” … point proven. Just as White superiority has been perpetuated and imposed on Blacks here, the same goes for our people in other countries as well. So unfortunately the same negative stereotypes and self-hatred exists among many Black Latinos as well.

Yet there are many Blacks in Latin-America who are very proud of their African ancestry. Brazil, in particular, has a very rich Black culture, which is expressed through their dance, music, fashion, speech, and cultural customs. It’s beautiful to see and learn more of our shared ancestry and the historical struggles of our people throughout Latin America. So I applaud PBS for broadcasting the series and Henry Louis Gates Jr. for bringing attention to the fullness of the African Diaspora; something that has been long overlooked.


*Be sure to tune in on Tuesday evenings or catch up on past episodes online.

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  • chanela

    yaaasss honey yaaasss i will definitely be watching this!! it should be mandatory cause i am so sick of people only seeing latin americans as eva longoria,jennifur lopez,and adriana lima!

    i’m a black american but i’ve been speaking spanish since i was little. i cannot tell you how annoyed i get when grown folks who dont speak english ask me “why do you speak spanish? you’re black” how are like 40 or 50 years old and coming straight from mexico and not knowing that there are black people who speak the same language,share the same culture,and are from teh same country as you? so ignorant!

  • AnonCA

    It is always hilarious to me how a lot of Americans, black or white, seem to think that a person of African descent who speaks Spanish or Portuguese is not black…yes, race is a social construct, but people who are “black” and in the Western Hemisphere are still descended from West Africans who were shipped across the ocean and it’s annoying that that part of history is overlooked.
    So many people think that an average Brazilian looks like Gisele Budchen, when she in fact represents a very small and very recent group of immigrants to Brazil.
    It’s also interesting to note that while laws may not have regulated the definition of black in Latin America, the RESULTS of racism and discrimination still impact the lives of those black people. Self-identification does not mitigate the effects of racism. I wish people would figure that out.

  • M.L.

    I don’t know what took so long; I’ve been thanklessly pointing these facts out to people for years.

    Denying Latin-American white supremacy isn’t limited to Latin-America by the way; the fact that white supremacy exists in Latin-America is denied in the United States as well.

    I’ve noticed that Black and mulatto Latin-Americans often seem to relish the fact that they are often perceived as ‘something other than black’ in the US; more like ‘white ethnics’ than ‘black ethnics’ (notice how the latter term is never used?).

    But there’s a flip side to this; many whites from Latin-America relish the fact that they are classified as ‘people of color’ in the US, which frees them of any sense of guilt over the past and present treatment of blacks and Indians while at the same time allowing them to benefit from Affirmative-Action and other programs aimed at ‘increasing diversity’.

    It seems to me there’s something WRONG about the fact that Latin white people benefitted from white supremacy in the US when it was chic and now that blatant white supremacy at least is no longer chic, they reap the benefits of being irrationally classified as ‘people of color’. Did you know that one of the most racist, white supremacist Jim Crow judges in the ‘Old South’ was a white Latino named Leander Perez? Yet if he were alive today he’d qualify as a ‘person of color’. *smacks forehead in frustration*

    A racist company that does not hire blacks can look ‘diverse’ on paper by hiring white Hispanics. In fact, discrimination against non-white Latinos is often rampant at companies owned and operated by white Latinos but goes undetected because as far as the bureaucrats are concerned, a company owned and operated by Hispanics is ‘diverse’ company; they don’t investigate discrimination within the Latino community.

    Nevertheless, this sort of idiocy will continue because pretending there are no white Hispanics is considered useful for coalition building. *sigh*

    Anyway, great review about a great documentary, one that must’ve taken a lot of courage for Gates to produce.

  • I didn’t watch the series because I come from the region. I just find this amazing that so many people don’t know much about our family from the African Diaspora who live in South and Central America. Being that I’m descended from the region I also find that many native born Americans of African descent often times refuse to relate to those who come from those countries and want them to identify as black.

    Our skin color may be the same but for many of us our cultural differences are totally different being that much of our African culture was not denied or discarded like it is here. Many people have no idea how much we can empower each other when we learn to build a bridge of economic prosperity for those within the regions.

    The empowerment of the African descendant in the USA has always been an inspiration to the family in the Americas. The seed has been planted among many of you who have no idea how those in power in this country perpetuate the ignorance and alienation among us so that they can go on with their missions of destroying the lives of our people from Colombia to Venezuela.

    Did Dr. Gates speak on the displacement that they suffer at the hands of the wealthy in Colombia and Brasil? Did he speak on the slave labor used in mining for gold in Colombia? Did he speak on the horrible conditions the Afro-Peruano’s often endure in Peru? The list can go on and on about the terrible and inhumane treatment that is still suffered by the African descendants who live in the Caribbean, South and Central America and everything isn’t postcard perfect.

    As my father often said, the slave ships didn’t just stop in the USA and we’re more than just Carnival. The biggest threat to the elites will be when the American black man offers a hand to his family within The Western Hemisphere. For now they don’t have to worry about it just as long as we continue to allow our cultural differences divide us and don’t see that we have the power to change the present situations in many of these countries, especially Haiti. Obrigado!