After Notes from the AfroLatino Immigration Discussion

Jose VilsonRace, Short Notes18 Comments

Arturo Alfonso ShomburgYesterday afternoon, I attended a panel discussion entitled “Black, Latino, Both” sponsored by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (of which I am now a card carrying member) and el Museo del Barrio, and it took place at Harlem’s Schomburg Center. The panel featured Howard Jordan, Clarence Lusane, Yvette Modestin, Angela Perez, and Silvio Torres-Saillant, who I know from my Syracuse days. While I’m not inclined to discuss exactly who said what, I do have some notes I’d like to share on a rather excellent panel meeting. I’ll definitely have to go over some of these topics again during the week, but for now, these are only some of the great sub-discussions we had at the panel. (I’m trying to take a 2-hour discussion about a topic spanning 500 years into a few paragraphs. Fun.)

– Anyone who’s read my blog for a while or even took a look at my name can pretty much gather what my identity is. Yet, that’s a challenge if you’re simply taking me at face value. Honestly, people don’t know how to act when I reveal my ethnic make-up, and that works two ways: I have an identity I’ve self-developed and people have their own perceptions of what I am. Those are not mutually exclusive of each other. To the contrary, that’s the essence of understanding the race logic: race isn’t about what you see, it’s about what you think you see. And I’ll never be “Black” or “Latino” enough until people really understand what those terms truly mean.

Arturo Schomburg. Carlos Cooks. Felipe Luciano. Men who most people would associate with either Black or Latino, but in actuality, were Black Latinos like myself. I only knew of Felipe back in freshman year of college when I first got to meet him, and the rest of them I didn’t find out until yesterday. Unfortunately, that’s what happens when both communities fail to address AfroLatinos. The names of so many other AfroLatinos who fought for their communities were obscured by their own people, and that’s unfortunate. I know a Black Latino college student-activist back in the day who could have used those role models for community activism.

– People within a certain race are not a monolith. Definitions of what it means to be part of a race change vastly depending on place and time. For instance, Jews and Italians weren’t even considered to be White until decades after coming into this country. In the same way, Blacks and Latinos don’t just have one ideology, one perspective, or one religion. There are certain trends and connections amongst many of these groups, but we don’t all have the same interests at heart, either.

Felipe Luciano– A crucial point of discussion was the evolution of the ethnic make-up of baseball players. For the last decade or two, baseball has become an increasingly Latino sport, though it’s still marketed America’s favorite pastime. Gary Sheffield once said that, despite Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby’s efforts, there are more Latin players than Black players in baseball now because Latin players are easier to control. He elaborated by saying Latino players will get sent back to their countries if they don’t comply, so they have much more to lose. Of course, I agreed with the premise of the argument, as did many of his Latino teammates (those of whom already have their citizenships and paid the Republican Party some dues).

– In connection to that point, there was also a mention of Sammy Sosa, David Ortiz, and Manny Ramirez, men who in this country, most would identify as Black men, but when asked, they identify as Dominicansstrictly. While some people may take issue with their identification, I completely understand what these players are talking about. If you’re coming from a completely different racial paradigm than the country you’re visiting, then of course you’re going to strictly identify with your nation. As someone mentioned on the panel, it’s really easy for someone who identifies as a certain group to tell someone else what their race is, without even knowing where that person’s coming from. And that’s not always a good thing.

– Then there’s the issue of immigration, and how it relates to the American workforce. Vicente Fox once sad that Mexicans will take the jobs that Blacks don’t in this country. This is with the premise that either Blacks are lazy, incompetent, or acting too good for a broom and mop. The point disturbed me for a multitude of reasons. The government instills policies for migrant workers that makes them into nothing but rotating slaves. Corporations never have to worry about minimum wage, health benefits, pensions, or anything of that nature for workers who don’t have any rights in this country. Plus, the very people bringing those migrant workers here have agents working to tell working class communities here that immigrants from all around the world are here to take their jobs, so of course on the surface, it’s easy to diminish migrant workers as sub-human.

– Lastly, the one solution for many of our social ills is not through developing some sort of hegemony. Rather, change will come from a multicultural group of concerned citizens. I try to build those coalitions wherever I go, and the results have usually been nothing but positive.

jose, who loves to hear everyone’s opinions on these topics, not just my black or latino brethren

Comments 18

  1. Truth is, this race thing doesn’t exist at all, except in our minds and our social, political and economic constructs. Instead of trying to understand “race” better, we should just insist that white people stop using the word entirely, which would so rock their concepts of who they are and why they are better than us that it would change the course of American politics. It would put them on the defensive to insist, factually. that “race” simply doesn’t exist at all.

    “The word is biologically meaningless, we all agree. The anachronistic word and concept attempt to capture a group of people through a biological determinism that we all recognize simply doesn’t exist. We all know as a result of DNA tests that Thomas Jefferson has progeny who are part of the white “race” and progeny who are part of the Black “race,” which means that “race” has no biological meaning whatsoever. Its boundaries are too porous, too much based upon our social suppositions rather than our scientific observations, for it to have biological meaning. Even sociologically, we recognize that the word “race” is also part of a determination to place people in rigid categories rather than merely a recognition of rigid categories that already exist.”

    They Ride Our Backs Linguistically in Part Because We Kneel for Them

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    I have to disagree. I contend that if indeed it exists socially then it exists. We know it’s not sociological, because there’s too many complex characteristics to explain that. It’s definitely sociological because of that paradox of us developing our own identity based on it and at the same having others tell us what our race is. Now, these discussions exist BECAUSE it’s not something to just ignore, or else we’ll have those color-blind arguments that end up just benefiting the same group that’s in power anyways. Ignoring the race conversations is analogous to burying the n-word: if we don’t say the word, the policies behind it will still be reenacted.

  3. Dear Jose:

    I’m sorry I haven’t directly addressed the

    I think that we should stop using the words “race” and “racism” and “racist,” and instead describe with specificity what we mean, but using other words, to avoid the ambiguity that results from the historic and disproven belief that people are biologically different in a meaningful way based on their “race.”

    For example, I find that I can express myself just as well by saying “systemic color-associated denigration, subjugation, and exploitation” as by “racism.” That description covers for me what happens at the macro level, but I also see a “color-associated emotion, ideation and behavior disorder” in individuals. I think we need to study and look for solutions to both of these interrelated but different problems.

    This isn’t about “color-blindness.” It’s about disambiguation. Although you know what you mean when you say ” ‘race’ still exists,” white supremacists say the same thing while meaning something entirely different. When every story in the newspaper about Black people uses the word “race,” are they doing that to help us in the struggle to free ourselves, or are they doing it in a continuing effort to perpetuate the white supremacy that gave birth to the word “race” in the first place?

    If we describe the same concepts using unambiguous words that don’t risk conceding that “race” exists biologically, then we’ll find out what white people really mean when they use the word “race” and why they enjoy using the word “race” so much. I think we’ll find that this ambiguousness was serving them much more than it was serving us.

    Anyway, tell a white person to stop using the word “race” and to use the word “skin-color” instead. If he screams like a stuck pig, then you’ll know that you’re onto something.


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    @ mns: no problem. you should come round more often.

    @francis: I’ve already replied by e-mail, but this has been an interesting back-n-forth.

    @ latinopundit: there’s going to be a couple more. and now that i’m a card carrier of the schomburg, I’ll post events here for your pleasure.

    @ cero: my pleasure

  5. You went! Yay!

    Unfortunately I couldn’t make it, sorry about that… but deep down as exciting as it seemed on paper when I thought about it, I really didn’t want to go. And here is my reasoning: I struggled all throughout high school and especially throughout college with being Afro-Latina, especially an afro latina that is not fluent in ” the mother tongue” Now that I’m away from the identity crisis, not fitting in, feeling like an outsider, not knowing where I belonged… I felt all that pressure just disappear. I know who I am, I know where my parents and their parents come from. I don’t need to explain that to anyone. Yes, I’m not fluent, but that doesn’t change the exodus that my ancestors took, nor does it change the music or the food that is prevalent in my house. When I’m asked to identify I still put down Latina when I can’t check off both boxes, because that is the culture that I feel resonates the most with me. At the end of the day though, I’m still who I am, African. Black. Latino. Caribbean. Brown. It doesn’t matter… it’s just a shell, just a role that I picked in this lifetime.

  6. “…race isn’t about what you see, it’s about what you think you see.”

    This is key. Have you read Cecilia Valdes, the Cuban national romance? The narrator says that a European not concerned in daily life with slavery and racial ancestry would probably take Cecilia for white (and many characters confuse her with her white half sister, although they also refer to Cecilia as “bronze”) … but that a (Latin) American would have the “discerning eye” trained to notice her Afro-Hispanic difference.

    There’s also a Brazilian 19th century novel, O Mulato by Aluisio de Azevedo, where the character is Afro-Brazilian but does not know it. He lives in Europe as a white but when he gets back to Brazil does not understand why everyone reacts to him … differently.

    For what it’s worth. These books are my obsession of the evening.

  7. Overall, I think that this panel discussion was extremely important for many of us, especially today. As Latinos, we struggle to define what this concept means and we still do not have a clear definition even among ourselves. I find that we are very divided as a whole. We have tendencies to put labels upon one another depending on skin color, age (generation), location, accents, features, and general characterisitcs. The burning question for me is the following: “How can we expect for other groups to accept us when we, Latinos, still stuggle to embrace one another?” As I sat there and listened to the panelists, I realized even more so, how the “social hierarchy of color” and socio-economic factors have shaped the thinking among Latinos both “back home” and here.

    The abuse of immigrants in this country is tremendous. It is alarming to see how this has become an accepted “violation of human rights” in this country due to the political pulse and media. Many immigrants are being paid less than half of the minimum wage in this country. Of course people will hire them. Why not? They save tons of money in the following ways: do not pay federal and state taxes for these employees, no worker’s compesation fees, no medical & dental, insurance, no 401K plans, and no unemployment insurance. There are “immigrants” working for about $1.50 per hour and have to work double shifts in order to be able to put something on their tables to feed their families. Who are they going to complain to? They are not citizens and don’t even really speak the language. Who is going to listen to them? The conditions in which they work under are sometimes oppressive, but how many turn the other way? Many do, including ourselves. People come to this country seeking opportunities. Hunger and poverty do not have a color or an ethnic breakdown.

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    @ cero: thanks. I needed more reading material. HA! But seriously, thanks for your contributions.

    @ luz: of course we’re divided as a whole. our latinohood is dependent on so many factors. what it means to be one changes frequently depending on where you’re from and what you’ve been accustomed to as a latino. and the abuse of immigrants is insane. new age slaves.

  9. Dear Jose,

    I want to address myself more directly to the topic of your post. I used to manage non-profit immigration advocacy programs and advocate in the state capitals and Washington, DC against restrictive immigration laws, as well as training advocates to represent immigrants in deportation hearings.

    I have sat with weeping immigrants and families in my office, reviewing their alternatives, only to discover that for many of them the United States Government immigration policy did not offer any humane alternatives. Now that I have married an Afro-Brazilian woman, and I live in Brazil, I am an immigrant in Brazil and my wife and children would be immigrants in the United States, were we ever to go there.

    I am utterly disgusted with the increasing restrictiveness of Unite States Federal immigration laws, (some of which could prevent my wife from immigrating to the United States) as well as state and local efforts to penalize immigrants, and efforts to deny immigrants health care and other essential services. (I once had to threaten to sue a school department until they retracted a policy that denied all education to undocumented immigrant children, which is illegal but was happening nonetheless.)

    I feel you on this issue of discrimination against immigrants and the need to form and build alliances between American Blacks and Latin Americans. At the same time that ancestors of Latin American were being slaughtered or enslaved by invading Spanish and Portuguese, other white people were shipping Black people from Africa to the “New World” to live and work as slaves. Our histories are not the same, but we have far too much in common to ignore or oppose each others’ liberation struggles.

    We Black Americans need to take every opportunity to consult, strategize and collaborate with Latin American groups because, as far as I’m concerned, we all are fighting the same oppressors and oppressor groups. I am sensitive to your point that many Latin American who speak Spanish and Portuguese are Black, many with ancestors that arrived on slave ships, just as our Black American ancestors did.

    I have no patience whatever for resentful attitudes toward Latin American immigrants and immigration, perhaps because I just don’t understand these attitudes, except as expression of bigotry and ignorance. I cannot think of a single difficulty in my life that has been caused Latin American immigrants or by immigration, but I can think of a list an arm long that have been cause by America’s system of white male supremacy, like slavery, Jim Crow, profiling, job discrimination, and the Jena injustices.

    So, I say to Black America: Let’s keep the focus of our anger where it belongs – on our oppressors and not on our oppressors’ scapegoats.

  10. I missed that forum at the Schomburg, instead I attended one at Barnard College on Saturday on Building Bridges between African American and the immigrants. It was very informative. I am AfroPanamanian, and I hve noticed that there is great confusion at times about the identity of Afro latinos, by many, also including Afro Latinos. And I understand that Afro latinos culturally share the culture of the people of their nation, but we should also never forget that we also share a oneness with the African people of the Diaspora.It sadddens me when I encounter confused Afro Latinos who do not understand that.

    Latin American nations have never really left the colonial and oppressive state of the “Conquistadoes”. Many of these nations have denied the majority of their people-mestizos, blacks, and mulattos, real social justice.It was easy for Vicente Fox, then President of Mexico to say that Mexicans take jobs that African Americans don’t really want in a disdain manner. Fox is an Irishman, he is not really a Mexican. But the Mexicans cannot really see that. People looking like Fox do not come to the States illegally, they travel here first class by plane on a tourist or student visa. The real Mexicans are the ones who risk their lives to cross the borders, and would accept a meager job in the States, do not look like Fox.

    I love Latin America because I was born there, and it is home to Ernesto Che Guevara, Eduardo Galeano,Roberto Clemente,Rigoberta Menchu, Pablo Neruda and many, many more illustrious men and women. But what I do not like about Latinos is the fact thet they have an uncanny ability to fudge everything together and not see that within many latin american countries only a small elite group benefits from practically all of the policies and the majority of the people are usually left out of the loop. Since the majority of the people does not look like the ruling classes, that should be a serious cause of concern. This is why I believe that Latin American nations never really left the stage under the “Conquistadores”.

    Latin American nations are not really independent. There are some good news, and hopeful moments.Take for instance Venezuelan, President Hugo Chavez was elected by the majority of people who look just like him and who are fed up with being left out of all the decision making , and also on the receiving end of the policies. For the first time in the history of the Americas, we have an indigenous president. Yes, President Evo Morales was democratically elected by a majority Indigenous population in the sister country of Bolivia

    But until latinos change and emerge with the right eye to visualize the real picture, we will still have the confusion, and invisibility that still exist with the vast bunch of the non-elite population.

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    @ Ana: Of course we share a one-ness with the African Diaspora, or else I might not be as inclined to go to a meeting like that. I might just identify myself as Dominican and that’s it. Latin America is still in the throes of their own debt to other countries, including some of the countries that used to “conquer” them. There’s still a long way to go as far as unification, but it’s like I say: “The answers are simple but not easy.”

    I frankly believe that, because many of the countries are smaller and less complicated in their situations, they’re more politically aware and understand the politics behind the machine moreso than an America would. Unfortunately, this country’s citizens fear their government, whereas in Latin America, most of their citizens don’t, even in places where mass genocide occurs.

    Then again, some chapters have yet to be written, and we’re all still seeking to become one with the information and the dissemination thereof. Good comment.

  12. Thanks Jose for this post. I avidly follow your posts on racial issues. Although, personally, I rather use the word ‘identity’ than race. That’s why I love your sentence: “race isn’t about what you see, it’s about what you think you see”. That is so true.

    In the early ninetees I closely followed the events at the Balkans. I could not understand how in a multicultural city like Sarajevo, Croats, Serbs and Muslims could grow so far apart, and even kill their neighbours because of their ethnical background. Sadly, I now understand how such a thing can happen. Most people judge people because they are of a different religion or ethnicity. They forget that behind every face there is a person of flash and blood. In my city, people from different ethnical or religious background live in separate areas of the city. They never meet, but they do host hostile prejudices.

    As a social science teacher, I am struggeling to find ways to have my students think, really think, and not just vent their feelings about other people. I find it frightening how in most Western societies different groups in society are complete strangers to one another. I believe the only solution is to have students meet other students in real life. Only when they talk, work together and share lunch, they will see the image of G’d in the face of the other.

  13. Excellent post and comments, certainly a lot to digest. We in southern California are barely coming to grips with relationships with American blacks, so we are still in the infant stages of understanding the afro-latino experience. Our main awareness come from baseball players, otherwise we would still be in the dark (so to speak).
    My Chicana daughter lived in New York for several years and people would always ask her where she was from, code for “what the heck are you?”
    She reported back that New Yorkers would not believe her when she expalined her Mexican-American ethnicity, they would invariably puzzle over the fact she didn’t look like an indigenous Oaxacan, which apparently represent Mexicans to New Yorkers.
    What are you gonna do?

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