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.