Afro-Latin@s in the United States: Theoretical Coordinates

Juan Flores

Until recent years, the term Afro-Latin@ has primarily been used to refer to people of African descent in Latin America and the Caribbean. Along with “negro,” “afrodescendiente” and “afrolatinoamericano,” Afro-Latin@ served to name the constituency of the many vibrant anti-racist movements and causes that have been gaining momentum throughout the hemisphere for several generations, reaching global visibility at the UNESCO conference at Durban in 2001. Since the early 1990s, however, and in part as a result of intellectual cross-fertilization between North and South, the usage has gained increasing traction in the United States.

Considering the widespread counter-position of African Americans and Latin@s characterizing current racial discourse in the United States, Afro-Latin@s as individuals and as a group constitute a potential bridge across that ominous ethno-racial divide.

In Latin America the “afro-” prefix and other racial markers have long been of crucial importance in challenging the homogenizing obfuscations inherent in varied national and regional identity constructs. In the United States, too, “Afro-Latin@” has surfaced as a way of signaling the diversity encompassed within the overly vague idea of “Latin@” and of calling attention to the anti-Black racism within Latin@ communities themselves.

What does the term Afro-Latin@ mean in the U.S. context? Most obviously, Afro-Latin@ can refer to Latin@s of African descent. It is a group designation, the name for a community that historically has shied away from an explicitly racial identity but whose self-recognition has been gaining rapidly and whose past demonstrates a sense of tradition and shared socio-cultural realities. Since the European conquest, Blacks of Spanish-language backgrounds have built up a legacy—shared cultural values and expressions—traversing national particularities and differentiating itself from the group history of African Americans.

Even while focusing on the specific U.S. situation, however, the term Afro-Latin@ also applies to a transnational discourse or identity linking Black Latin Americans and U.S. Latin@s across national and regional lines. “Afro-Latin@” clearly signals what scholar Arjun Appadurai has termed a contemporary “ethnoscape” of global reach, because the real and potential interactions between African-descendant peoples in Latin America and Latin@s remain a central dimension of the Afro-Latin@ concept in the North American context. Indeed, it is thus increasingly important to resist the limitation of Afro-Latin@ to its supposedly national U.S. confines; the same could be said for the concept of “Latin@” itself, as well as African American.

What is perhaps most particular to the U.S. context is that here the Afro-Latin@ problematic, or “lo afro-Latin@,” also has to do with the cross-cultural relation between the Afro and the Latin@, which means, most saliently, the relation between Latin@s and African Americans. Moreover, Afro-Latin@ is at the personal level a unique and distinctive experience and identity, ranging as it does among and between Latin@, Black and North American dimensions of lived social reality. In their quest for a full sense of social identity, Afro-Latin@s are thus typically pulled in three directions at once and share a complex, multi-dimensional optic on contemporary society. In another essay, I have termed this three-pronged web of affiliations, taking my cue from W.E.B. Dubois, “triple-consciousness.”

I would suggest that an adequate conceptualization of the term Afro-Latin@ in the U.S. context needs to activate and encompass four theoretical coordinates: first, the group identity and cultural traditions of Afro-Latin@s themselves; second, the transnational discourse or ethnoscape linking U.S. Afro-Latin@s with their hemispheric counterparts; third, the historical and ongoing relation between Afro-Latin@s (and by extension all Latin@s) and African Americans; and, finally, the distinct lived experience of what it means to be Afro-Latin@ in the United States. This kind of analytical approach allows for a balanced understanding of the relation between the particularity and the generality of the U.S. Afro-Latin@ reality, as well as between the racial and cultural formations specific to U.S. society and those more characteristic of Latin American and Caribbean home countries.

If the rising interest in “lo Afro-Latino” in its U.S. manifestation signals the emergence of a new area of intellectual inquiry and political struggle, as seems to be the case, then navigating these complexities promises to be of paramount importance. Such a multidimensional and nuanced Afro-Latin@ concept poses a needed challenge to the overly circumscribed theoretical frameworks of both Latin@ and African American studies, as well as, more broadly, those prevailing in Latin American studies and even Diaspora studies. In the academic context, the challenge means that all of these fields and disciplines stand to be nourished and impelled in new directions by the sociological and cultural linkages implied in the study of the Afro-Latin@ experience.

At a more practical, grass-roots level, anti-racist organizing and coalition-building take on a new look and potential by the very situation of U.S. Afro-Latin@s as a collective human bridge between the two “largest minority groups” and between millions of African-descendant people throughout the hemisphere. Notably, in the ongoing immigrant struggles Latin@ immigrants and African Americans are often counter-posed against each other in adversarial terms; the social presence of Afro-Latin@s, though generally unacknowledged, is living evidence of the fallacy of that misleading and divisive assumption. For Afro-Latin@s demonstrate, especially when their bridging role is grasped in its full complexity, that many Latin@ immigrants are Black, and that many Black people in the United States today are Latin@s.

Juan Flores is a professor at NYU and CUNY. The present reflection is based on ideas I have developed over the past five years in my seminar on “Afro-Latino Culture and History” at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and which I first presented in an invited lecture, “Afro-Latinos on the Color Line,” in the Latino Cultures Seminar at Harvard University on April 14, 2003.


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