On Friday, Feb. 26, 43 people in separate locations, who were mainly unbeknownst to each other, logged onto a WebEx call. The sound of the trumpet, drums and saxophone soared through each device’s speakers as Ismael Rivera’s 1979 song “Las Caras Lindas” was broadcast.
Chatter and energy filled the virtual air as participants waited for the event to begin. The event was a panel titled “Blackness and Latinidades” sponsored by Black Lives Matter at School (BLM @ School), which is a national coalition focused on fighting for equity in the education system. Last week was their week of action, filled with events and panels focused on equity, which concluded with this panel.
The mission of the space was to answer a question: what does Blackness within Latinidades mean in America? That is, what does it mean to be Black and to be Latin simultaneously at this moment in America?
The answer: it’s complex.
Panelists consisted of Denise Terrero, a third-year student studying Latin American & Caribbean Studies and Black Studies; Elizabeth Diuguid, assistant director of alumni relations; Dr. Cruz Bueno, an economist focused on gender violence and the political economy of race, gender and class as well as an assistant professor in the Black Studies department; Ethan Madarieta, an assistant professor of English and Caribbean & Latin American Studies. It was facilitated by Jessica Pabón, a Women’s Gender & Sexuality Studies professor.
One big, overarching topic that the panelists explored was the interconnectedness of Blackness and Latinidades.
Multiple members of the panel even articulated that they are so interconnected that they are part of each other. In a sense that’s true on a historical level.
“No matter what country you’re from in Latin America or the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, you are an Afro-descendant person,” one panelist said. “These were all slave-based, plantation-based societies where African-descendants shaped the history of the culture, the religion, the politics.”
But the interconnectedness is also true on a cultural level. The title of the panel even communicates that Blackness is part of Latinidades, although they are both unique, robust, multidimensional identities. Blackness undeniably lives within Latinidades and the two cultures are deeply intertwined but they are still unique.
Prof. Madarieta explained that the phrase “Latinidades” is crucial. Adding the -es to Latinidad represents turning “A whole or homogenous singularity into something that holds these multiple and often contesting identities,” he explained. “Adding the -es to Latinidades is inclusive of those multiple identities that are often times in contestation with each other. Again, we’re not thinking of a cohesive culture, cohesive ethnicities, cohesive racial identities or even language. So it has to have a framing that allows for that plurality.”
Some of the conflict in having a cultural background in both Blackness and Latinidades can come from the level of anti-Blackness that can be common within Latinidades cultures.
During the height of the 2020 civil rights movement this summer, prominent Latinx leaders (such as ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero, Hispanic Federation President Frankie Miranda and League of United Latin American Citizens CEO Sindy Benavides, to name a few) published a letter to the Latinidades community, calling for an end to anti-Black racism and colorism and urged the community to embrace Black people and Blackness itself.
The letter cites a Pew Research Center finding that 24% of Latinx people in the U.S. identify as Afro-Latino, Afro-Carribbean or as having Latin descent. “Many in our community benefit from the privilege or illusion of proximity to whiteness, without acknowledging the depth of our own African diaspora,” authors of the letter wrote.
“We have been raised in families who refer to blackness in the diminutive (morenita, negrita, prietita)… We have hated ourselves for our skin color, hair texture, our curves and our accents. Our faith traditions, the schools we attend, the families we love, the music we listen to are anchored in blackness and our indigenous roots, but we obscure that with whiteness.”
Some say that, while this is true, Latinidades culture isn’t to blame for the toxic pervasiveness of white supremacy.
“For Black Indigenous People of Color, identification with whiteness is kind of a coerced stance. Because the other end of that is the promise of violence. So there’s kind of a push not to identify with one’s other cultural, ethnic, racial identities,” Prof. Madarieta said.
They then referenced Toni Morrison’s 1993 short essay On the Backs of Blacks where Morrison uses images from the film America, America to illustrate a truth that non-Black newcomers of color are often not considered fully American until they portray a level of hatred toward Black people — almost as though anti-Black racism is part of the nation’s citizenship exam. She discusses that to be American one must be anti-Black.
When Madarieta explains why Latinx people often identify with whiteness over Blackness, they say, “Whiteness becomes equated with Americanness which then is a promise of privileges and rights under the law and citizenship. By simply identifying, one is given this false sense of hope. And they’re coerced because of whiteness, not because of inherent anti-Blackness in Latinx communities or in Black communities.”
There isn’t a community to fault for anti-Black racism other than the system of white supremacy.
There’s nuance in the ways that people choose to identify and there’s power in the language and the choice. But there’s also some harms that come from focusing too much on how to identify, according to some of the panelists. Dr. Bueno used differences in how people within her family identify to illustrate the complexity. Dr. Bueno identifies as a Black Latina, but her sister prefers Afro Latina, and her brother identifies as Afro Indigenous. Another panelist, Prof. Diugiud, identifies as an African Dominicana. But there’s also labels of Latinx, Chicano, Boricua and many others.
“So much of the language that we’re using has been imposed on us or is a response to oppression,” said Dr. Bueno says. “[Language can be] a distraction. How do you distract people long enough to get them to stop thinking about power? Because as soon as you can get them to do that, they cede power to the oppressor.”
Multiple panelists also described that they believed in the importance of centering Blackness in how they identify and in their activism efforts.
“One of the things that this country does on purpose is tell us in the US that we are a minority, that we are a small group of people. And that’s just not true. When you look at Black movements in Brazil, in Panama, in Cuba and Mexico, these are all diverse Black cultures but we are all Africans in the Americas,” she explained passionately. “Culture is a unifying factor. We have oppression in common. We also have power. There are more Black people in the Americas than there is white people. It’s about organizing about Black issues across these fictitious things called borders.”
By the conclusion of the presentation, it becomes clear how fitting it was to open with Rivera’s song “Las Caras Lindas” and in the power of his words as a Black Puerto Rican man.
“Las caras lindas de mi raza prieta, tienen de llanto, de pena y dolor, son las verdades que la vida reta, pero que llevan dentro mucho amor,” he sings lovingly.
The song is a love letter to the Black race from someone who understands anti-Blackness in Latinx culture. It translates: “The beautiful faces of my Black race. So much crying, pain and suffering. They are the challenges of life, but inside we carry so much love.”