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African Americans and Afro Latinos: Expressions of BLACKNESS part I

African Americans and Afro Latinos have a shared history that begins with the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade. However; there are significant differences in the expressions of Blackness between the African American community and the Afro Latino community. Also, there is a range of that expression within the various Afro Latino communities in the Caribbean, South and Central America. As larger groups of Afro Latinos enter the United States and coexist with African Americans, often questions on where these Latinos fall within the historical, social and cultural binary racial definition of Whiteness and Blackness come up.

When I was younger, and I first came across what I thought were “Black people” like myself, with names like Hernandez, Perez, Garcia, Torres and Gonzalez; who spoke Spanish and ate some very different foods than what we did at my home, I was confused a bit. They would say they were Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, etc. and that the were not like me, “Black.” Some would respond nicely, others as if they were offended at the very supposition that they were “Black.” Some even told me that they were “White,” which confused me more as they looked a lot like some of my lighter skinned relatives who I knew were “Black.”

As I grew into my teens, and my understanding of the world widened, I began to understand that these friends of mine came from different countries. I even came across some who defined themselves as Black. My first understanding of my connection with them was a conversation I had with one of my Puerto Rican friends’ mothers. She had just chastised us. We were breakdancing (yes, I am that old) and one of the lighter skinned Puerto Rican kids called me a “nigger” and she overheard him. She promptly sat the group of us down and explained that Puerto Ricans had African ancestry like I had, and that we were cousins because of that. She was very knowledgeable about her own African ancestry and explained that slave ships from West Africa had brought our shared slave ancestors to what would become the United States, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica and all over Central and South America all the way down to Brazil. She explained these slave ships in the Caribbean, Central and South America were Spanish, Portuguese and French for the most part. It was interesting to hear these stories, I knew very little about Africa from my own family, aside that my ancestors were slaves from West Africa, so this spurred me to learn more.

When I entered my twenties and had left U of I Chicago to join the Marines, and had gone through my militant Blackness phase (Public Enemy, X-Clan, KRS One, etc. phase), I was often confused as to why the Afro Latinos I had come to know in Chicago, New York, etc., seemed to not be on board with their “Blackness?” From my time going to Pan American, Puerto Rican, Cuban and Caribbean festivals I could clearly see that these groups not only had clear West African influences in their art, music and culture; yet they were also hard coded in their identities as Latinos and their sub groupings by nationality. They were very proud of being Cubans, Puerto Ricans. Dominicans, etc. We as African Americans at that time (post Malcolm X, Dr. King, etc.) were clear that Europeans were our oppressors, the names we had came from our slave masters and our culture was predominately European and we had no real connection to Africa.

Because of that, there was and still is some clear resentment to the European slave traders from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and France by African Americans. Yet these Afro Latinos embraced their Spanish and Portuguese last names, the names of the conquerors and oppressors, and in some cases identified with Spain and Portugal and embraced what the Spanish and Portuguese imparted on their culture and their blood lines. It wasn’t until later in my graduate studies of history that I began to get a better understanding of some stark cultural and historical differences between African Americana and our Afro Latino brothers and sisters. There were some key differences in the realities of slavery in the rest of the Americas outside the United States. This is not to dismiss the brutality, oppression and exploitation experienced by African slaves or in some cases outright genocide of various Amerindian societies; but to outline the historical distinctions that facilitated the evolution different cultural views of African Americans and Afro Latinos regarding the idea of race and specifically the dichotomy of Blackness and Whiteness.

The first point that is often understated is the Amerindian ancestry that Afro Latinos share with Latinos in general. Rather it is Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico or Cuba, etc. the Amerindian ancestry is central to Latino identity. Whereas, even though African Americans have varying degrees of Native American ancestry, it is not central to African American identity.

“The average African-American genome, for example, is 73.2% African, 24% European, and 0.8% Native American”[1]

Afro Latinos have similar genetics to African Americans, but Latinos in general have a higher Amerindian percentage of DNA than the average African American. This speaks to the overall identity of Latinos, because no matter how little or much Amerindian ancestry, this ancestry is central to many Latinos regarding their various nationalities and how define and relate to each other. For example: “The average Puerto Rican individual carries 12% Native American, 65% West Eurasian (Mediterranean, Northern European and/or Middle Eastern) and 20% Sub-Saharan African DNA.”[2] In contrast, while people from Mexico are “Mestizo, meaning they have a mixture of indigenous, European, and African ancestry” and unlike Puerto Rico that was home to the Taino Indians, “Mexico contains 65 different indigenous ethnic groups.”[3] So even comparing different Latino groups to one another can be a serious lesson in variation itself. Also, it must be noted, because nationality is more central than binary race in many Latin American countries, we are comparing ancestry of total populations in Latin American countries to the small group of African Americans within the United States, not just specifically African Americans to Afro Latinos. Looking at the 2010 Census regarding Puerto Ricans: “75.8% of Puerto Ricans identify as white, 12.4% identify as black, 0.5% as Amerindian, 0.2% as Asian, and 11.1% as "mixed or other.”[4] That 12.4% is almost the same percentage as those who identify as Black in the United States. Whereas according to the 2015 Intercensus estimate, 1.2% of Mexico's population has significant African ancestry, with 1.38 million self-recognized as Afro or Black Mexicans. Which brings us to the next point, how Latinos relate to Spain and their Spanish ancestry in comparison to how African Americans relate to their European ancestry.

Latino countries generally have Spanish or Portuguese as the primary language of those nations. And Spanish and Portuguese culture is evident in those nations as the English culture is in the United States. One of the primary differences I found in my studies was that the African slaves in Latin American countries were able to maintain some degree of their art, culture, language, food and music; whereas, during the slave trade in North American this was not the case. In what would become the United States African slaves were forbidden to maintain any of the culture from the various West African people groups they were taken from. This allowed for a mixture of culture to happen in the Americas outside of what would become the United States.

“In the Caribbean, Central and South America, African Slaves were imported in larger numbers to supplement indigenous laborers, and the recover of the Amerindian population from epidemic diseases all promoted great racial and ethnic diversity. European rule had destroyed indigenous and African culture in the Indies, instead they had become ‘mutually entangled’.” [5]

As stated, this is often evident in the food, art and culture of Latin American countries and embraced. In many cases Afro Latinos and Latinos in general have a greater understanding of and connection to their West African heritage than African Americans. Yet at the same time have a very different range in commitment to the idea of Blackness that African Americans have embraced. Yet with the growth of the Pan African movement in the United States and Latin America, it seems that African Americans and Afro Latinos have an opportunity to learn from each other.


[1] Wade, Lizzie. “Genetic study reveals surprising ancestry of many Americans.” Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Dec. 18, 2014,

[2] Vilar, Miguel. “Genographic Project DNA Results Reveal Details of Puerto Rican History.” Changing Planet, National Geographic Blog, July 25, 2014,

[3] Wade, Lizzie. “Genetic study reveals surprising ancestry of many Americans.” Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Jun. 12, 2014,

[4] U.S. Census Bureau Delivers Puerto Rico's 2010 Census Population Totals, Including First Look at Race and Hispanic Origin Data for Legislative Redistricting". US Census Bureau (Press release). March 24, 2011.

[5] Greene, Jack P. Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal. (Oxford: University Press, 2011), 64

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