This content is part of The Latin Times' first-ever Special Thematic Week focusing on the rise of Afro Latinos, an identity that represents 10% of all Hispanics and Latinos who live in the U.S., according to figures from Pew Research Center. Discover more articles and interviews we've prepared that explore Afrolatinidad, an idea that sits on the frontier of two minorities (Latinos and African Americans) with all the richness, possibilities and challenges that entails.

Alejandro Villapando about Afro Latinos in the U.S.
Professor Alejandro Villapando: "There's been little recognition of the unique contributions of Afro-Latinos" Courtesy of Alejandro Villapando

Alejandro Villalpando is an assistant professor in the Department of Pan-African Studies and the Latin American Studies program at California State University, whose work lies at the intersections of Black, Indigenous, and Central American studies.

Villalpando's connection with Afrolatinidad traces back to his childhood. "I consider myself indigenous. My mother is maya quiché from Guatemala, but I grew up in South Central Los Angeles, in a predominantly black American community, where many of my teachers or their parents fought in the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s and 70s," he remembers.

He adds: "So I learned about the United States through the experience of black Americans. It's an experience of fertile resistance, about never accepting inhumanity in a world that won't take care of humanity. And to me, as a little kid, I thought that was like superhero stuff, honestly."

"I soon noticed that many neighbors, people who would be placed phenotypically as Black Americans, were from Belize, Haití, or Honduras. They spoke other languages, including Garinagu or Spanish, or English with a Caribbean accent. These drew me to the study of blackness or Africanism in the Americas," Villapando states.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity purposes.

What significance do you believe the term 'Afro Latino' holds today?

It has been important to expand our understanding about the diversity and the expansiveness of the people that have contributed to the development of the Western Hemisphere, socially, politically, economically and culturally. I think the importance is specificity to some degree, an acknowledgment of a past that is violent, but has also contributed so much of the joy and vivaciousness to Latin American and Caribbean countries, and certainly to the United States.

Alejandro Villalpando, professor at California State University
Alejandro Villalpando is an assistant professor in the Department of Pan African Studies and the Latin American Studies program at California State University. Courtesy of Alejandro Villapando

What are the problems of being Afro Latino in the U.S.?
The challenge is that there's very little space crafted to recognize the unique contributions, and the distinct challenges these communities face. You look at the Grammys and whatever award show is just out and people are asking why congratulating certain Latinx people for representing Latinx people and not recognizing that someone like Colman Domingo is very much rooted in Latin America, specifically Central America, like America Ferrera (both with Guatemalan heritage). They probably share a lot of cultural similarities because of the impact of Afro indigenous people like the Garifuna, who survive in multiple nation states in Central America and also in a place like South Central Los Angeles. So, we're missing such a rich opportunity for those of us who are non-black to learn about the complexities of challenges and the triumphs of our collective people.

And then for Afro Latinx people, it's the feeling of maybe not belonging in certain spaces or feeling like having to choose whether you're black American or black Latin American. And then the feeling of black Latin Americans who don't speak Spanish, feeling like they can never identify as Latinx or being pushed out from that community, right? And maybe being a kid of immigrants pushes you out from an African American context. So there's just not a lot of space to articulate for Afro Latinx people, and address kind of collective solutions to imagining Latinidad out as more expansive and full of possibility versus reduced to kind of simplistic stories.

Garifuna People
The Garifuna are an ethnic group descended from Africans and Carib and Arawak indigenous peoples, originating from various regions of the Caribbean. Alvaro Dia/Wikipedia Commons

There seems to be this idea that people in Latin America are not black. I know it's really complex, but as an academic in the Pan African and Latin American departments, could you briefly describe how the African diaspora was in Latin America?

The history of Africans being dispersed into diaspora in the modern sense begins with the human trafficking and kidnaping project that is known as the "Transatlantic Slave Trade." Millions and millions upon millions of Africans were stolen from all parts of Africa, oftentimes walking on a trail of tears from the middle of the continent to the edge on the main coast, that were dominated predominantly by the Portuguese and by other imperial powers during the age of conquest. Out of the people that were stolen from Africa, only about 5%, were brought to what is now known as the United States. And about 95% were stolen and brought to the Caribbean and what is now known as the Americas or Latin America.

What was the difference between the U.S. and Latin America?
It is complex, but the U.S. operated on a kind of idea of white supremacy as racial purity. So they alleged they wanted to keep the white race pure. That becomes a central policy to the development of the U.S.. The mixing happened anyway, obviously for terrible reasons, and it was very violent. But it wasn't as out in the open as it was in the Americas. Because, in Latin America, the colonizer did not come with families from Spain and Portuguese, like the pilgrims, or the families that were coming from the Anglo colonizers.

So, the reduction and the invisibilization of African contributions to Latin America comes in large part from that political conversations around 'mestizaje' as a unifying kind of identity that, depending on the region, seeks to muzzle and cage blackness and Africanism as perpetually foreign or disruptive, and that can only be accepted when it is mediated or filtered through what it offers everyone else, like music or dance. For example, in Guatemala, the national instrument is the 'marimba,' which comes from West Africa.

And what happened to African contributions in Latin America?
African people have collected their history, and they've pushed. So now you're seeing the push materialize into a recognition, but also because now there are resources, right? So now nation states are starting to see it as a valuable opportunity, for example, to get more funding. If you look at Colombia's census records from around 1970, there's very little Afro Colombians. But then, there's a lot of money on a global scale from groups like UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), and all of a sudden the census shows an increase of 20% of Afro Colombians, from one census to the next. Weird. Did they just come out of nowhere?

That's a long, convoluted history, but I think it was intentional. The history of African influence and impact on the Americas has intentionally been occluded and obscured because it highlights a lot of the contradictions that are fundamental to the development of these nation states. And so then that begs new questions: what are these folks owed, right? We owe them education, public health, social services for all that they contributed and have forgotten. And, by extension, we owe indigenous people in these locations, right? That's what opens up when we start to learn this complex history.

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