“If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.” Those were the words of Carter G. Woodson, a prominent African American historian, author and journalist.
Black History Month or African American History Month is a celebration of achievements by African Americans and a time for recognizing their central role in U.S. history. It was not until 1976 that President Gerald Ford decreed Black History Month a national observance.
As we celebrate, there is one group of people that has been constantly and systemically ignored and marginalized in this country and in Latin America: Afro-Latinos. According to the U.S Census data, approximately 25% of U.S Latinos identify as Afro-Latino, Afro-Caribbean, or Latino with African descent.
I am fortunate to be surrounded by friends from all walks of life who enrich my own and teach me about different cultures, their contributions as well as their struggles. But my Afro-Latino friends are often ignored or not embraced by other groups.
To learn more, I reached out and listened to the stories of three Afro-Latinos in Greater Des Moines.
Aida Johnson, 33, originally from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, was raised in Des Moines since she was nearly two years old.
“Growing up I used the term Honduran or Catracha (nickname used for Hondurans) since I feel very connected to my Latino culture,” said Johnson. “A few years ago, I began to identify myself as an Afro-Latina when I learned about the term which best identifies my roots.”
Although Aida is very close to her Honduran mother and grew up with many Latinos around her, she feels that some Latinos never saw her as part of their community. She has some painful memories of not feeling included.
“Many in the community won’t consider me a Latina because I don’t speak Spanish, so I get a push back from them,”
As far as the African American community she often runs into, the general assumption that she is of mix black and white race, “so I never felt I could fit in nor fully be embraced by either group, but on the positive side I feel that I can find ways to relate to both sides.”
Finding a place has been difficult for Johnson.
“It is very important to have conversations about Afro-Latinos. Our community is under-served because nobody understands our needs, as Afro-Latina I feel that many times we are invisible, we don’t have a voice because it seems that there’s no room for us.”
Julio Alcazar, 38, originally from San Andres, Colombia, moved to the U.S. in 2012. He identifies himself as Afro-Caribeño or Afro-Caribbean. Julio told me that when he moved here, some thought he was African, and when talking to Central Americans, they did not know Colombia also included persons of African descent.
When discussing issues about marginalization and discrimination, he mentioned that on one occasion he went to a restaurant with his wife who is white and speaks Spanish. While at the establishment, Julio and his wife were speaking Spanish and a lady kept telling him to speak English because he was is in the U. S.
“The irony is that we were in a Mexican restaurant and this lady was upset because I was speaking Spanish,” Julio recalled.
He also said that when people see him and he introduces himself as Julio, they question why he has a Spanish name when he doesn’t “look” Latino.
“People from here think I am African American, and Latinos think that too,” he said of how people react to his skin color.
He also mentioned something about his homeland that made me extremely sad: “Colombians have told me that I improved the race (mejorar la raza) because I married a white woman.”
All this is part of what is called colorism, a discriminatory practice of favoring lighter skin over darker skin which can take place within any racial or ethnic group.
“Those are concepts and beliefs we inherited from colonization and that unfortunately are part of the popular culture in Colombia, yet many Colombians will say there’s no racism in there, only classism.”
Julio added that it is particularly important that the U.S. government identifies each community among minorities, so they know how to culturally connect, reach and serve them. Believing that all minorities can be served the same way complicates things. Just as important, he believes, is identifying lack of services and communication.
It is extremely important to gather data of specific communities essential in their representation in politics, health care, responding to natural disasters and a health crisis.
Lorena Alomia, 35, originally from Cali Colombia, moved to the U.S. five years ago and identifies herself as Afro-Latina. Lorena told me that many in the Latino community don’t consider her part of the community because she is not brown, and many in the African American community don’t consider her black because she has an accent.
“So, I become a minority among two minorities,” Lorena said. “It is challenging because you feel you don’t belong to any group. I’m just a human being and I feel that every time I am around those groups, I need to explain myself and my ethnicity.”
While she feels that as an Afro-Latina she is invisible among in the Latino and Black communities, Alomia added that once Caucasians learn about her ethnicity, she becomes the exotic token that needs to be shown as part of their “diverse” group of friends, without acknowledging her individuality as a human being.
“When I go to a Mexican store the staff is very pleasant with other Latinos, but once they see me, they change their demeanor because I am just a black lady, insisting on speaking English to me, even when I am speaking Spanish to them,” she added.
Lorena told me that Afro-Latinos are going to continue to be invisible unless we start talking about them, until other communities include them in the conversation and try to learn more about their mixed and incredibly rich culture, their contributions to society, and also their struggles as a community. Alomia also mentioned that Afro-Latinos carry the stereotypes that Latino and Black people are judged for all the time, like being poor, criminals, undocumented, causing a lack of opportunities and access to education and financial services.
Talking to these three resilient individuals makes my heart ache because I can sense their frustration and pain for being ignored and excluded for so long. I invite Iowans to embrace and acknowledge the multidimensional and multifaceted experience of Afro-Latinos. Let us not fall into the narrative of double marginalization, shaming or negative stereotypes that only cause division.
Afro-Latinos are in Iowa for the same reasons as most of us, to make it home, to make a life, work, contribute and pursue happiness. Let us celebrate Black History Month and every month by embracing Afro-Latinos, by including them with an open and genuine heart.
by Claudia Thrane
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