- The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States ed. by Miriam Jiménez Román and Juan Flores
To be Afro-Latina/o is to be invisible. As Afro-Dominican author Ana M. Lara writes, “[Afro-Latina/os] are so invisibilized as citizens that we don’t even appear as a sector in statistical data, because the data is not segregated by ethnic composition, which creates the assumption of the inexistence of our race” (303). For centuries, transcultural ethnocentrism and racism have erased Afro-Latina/os: their history does not appear in books, their experiences are consistently dismissed, and their identities do not exist. The Afro-Latin@ Reader is an impressive collection of accessible primary and secondary texts that moves the struggles and contributions of Afro-Latina/os from the margins of African American, Latina/o, and American studies to the center.
The collection’s first section, “Historical Background Before 1900,” begins the work of redressing this erasure by reading the presence of Afro-Latina/os into early US history. Scholars such as Peter H. Wood, Susan D. Greenbaum, and Virginia Meacham Gould uncover an Afro-Latina/o presence—Spanish Africans in North America, Afro-Cubans in Tampa, and Afro-Latina/os in Texas, California, and Louisiana—in early recorded accounts and statistics. They show that Afro-Latina/os have long maintained a substantial presence in the United States and that these early populations intermingled.
While these historical essays help to recover Afro-Latina/o legacies, the following nine sections revolve around this collection’s primary undertaking: to authorize this term and its variations (Black Latinidad, Latinegra/o, AfroLatinidad) as a critical concept. Miriam Jiménez Román and Juan Flores use this volume to define Afro-Latina/o. More specifically, this anthology reiterates that Afro-Latina/o refers to being “both African and Latin American” (13). This understanding disrupts the US racial formation that sets African Americans, Americans, and Latina/os as distinct populations with no overlap; it rejects the commonplace that “Latin@s are not black and Blacks are not Latin@” (10–11). [End Page 171]
Exposing the effects of racial oppression is central to the project of defining the Afro-Latina/o. The impact of racism takes multiple forms: the shame of being too dark; the pressure to marry someone with lighter skin and mejorando la raza (improve the race); the disputing of identity (“you don’t look Puerto Rican!”); and the different terms for different skin colors, knowing nonetheless that black is always bad. The pain and the pleasure of living as a black-appearing person in America resonate powerfully in this collection. What these pages reveal complicates many of our assumptions about race and ethnicity.
The complicated notion of Afro-Latina/o identity can be clearly seen in the second section, which focuses on the accomplishments of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg. Schomburg’s legendary contribution to African American studies is well known to African Americanists, but in this same context, his Puerto Rican ethnicity is often expunged (consider the fact that most scholars spell his name as Arthur, an Americanized spelling, not as Arturo, his given Latin name). Schomburg’s restored biography, that of an Afro-Puerto Rican who was deeply committed to the development of African diasporic studies, proves that the Afro-Latina/o does not have to choose between either group.
One forte of this anthology is its use of first-person narrative. With selections from novels, autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories, it charts various iterations of Afro-Latina/o identity and shows how conceptions of this identity have changed over time. Afro-Latina/o experiences transformed in response to African American cultural/identity shifts while also continually being shaped by intra-ethnic racism within Latina/o communities. Throughout the twentieth century, identities changed in relation to the rise of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, the Women’s Movement, and the development of hip...