Afro-Latin America, and What You Need to Know
What is Afro-Latin America?
Afro-Latin America comprises the regions of Latin America where significant groups of people of known African ancestry are found. This includes the regions of America that contain nations that were colonized by Spain and Portugal.
See below for a short video overview, or read below for a written summary.
Who is Afro-Latinx?
People identified as Afro-Latin are descendants of Africans that live in Latin America. Some of their ancestors were immigrants (like Jamaican workers that immigrated to Costa Rica and Cuba), and the vast majority were enslaved Africans brought to Spanish and Portuguese colonies to be forced laborers. The commonality in all Afro-Latin American societies is that plantation agriculture and the enslavement of Africans contributed to their creation.
Ten times as many Africans were brought to Spanish and Portuguese America (5.7 million) as to the US (560,000). Keep in mind, enslaved Africans were brought to the New World after native populations had been significantly decreased due to disease and murder.
An Afro-Latin country is deemed so when 5-10 percent of the national population is African descendant. This is the the level at which “blackness” becomes a visible element in the systems of social stratification and inequality, and at which African-based culture becomes a visible part of national life. (Andrews, George Reid. Afro-latin America, 1800-2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
How can I identity an Afro-Latinx person?
It is important to understand how language is used to talk about identity in terms of race, ethnicity, and nationality. Many representations of identity exist on the Latin American content where all three of these components intersect.
Let’s define the terms:
Race - based on physical characteristics and biological traits that society deems to be socially significant; meaning that race can be the basis of group of people that share those traits to be treated differently that those that do not
Ethnicity - representative of a common cultural background
Nationality - representative of the political state that someone belongs to
With an understanding these terms, it is possible that someone identifies as a Black Jewish Cuban, or any other infinite combination at the intersection of racial, ethnic, and national identities.
Also, be aware of words often used to describe people assumed to be Latinx, although they differ in meaning:
Hispanic - A person of Spanish-speaking ancestry
Latino - A person of Latin American ancestry
Latinx - Gender neutral alternative to Latino that acknowledges intersecting identities of gender and ethnicity, it is a way to reclaim identity for those that do not ascribe the the binary (m/f) and the rebel against the patriarchy inherent in the Spanish language.
What does Afro-Latin America look like today?
During the time shortly after the Trans-Atlantic slave trade ended in many countries, people of African descent (enslaved and freed) in the New World outnumbered white, native, and mestizo populations. Over time, their population decreased due to higher death rates and lower life expectancy compared to their white counterparts. In addition, national governments provided incentives, and relaxed immigration policies to encourage European immigration. This is known as Whitening. Another reason why their populations decreased is because their descendants stopped identifying as Black. In Latin America, racial identifiers are not always conclusive, and self-identification as other than Black is a reflection of the negative attributes associated with the Black identity.
Contributions of African traditions to Latin American cultures have been nationalized. For instance, most people are unaware that Cuban jazz has deep African roots that stem out of the rhythms and instrumentation created by enslaved Africans. At one time, this music was forbidden. Now it is a national symbol and internationally recognized. In another instance, salsa is known to have been birthed in Cali, Colombia. But few people know that the physical movements and style associated with this dance are Black in origin. The nationalization of these intrinsically Black expressions is a form of whitening that contributes to the erasure of the Black identity.
To authentically experience these art forms, seek out their roots in the communities where they came from. Get away from the staged performances, and look to local festivals and civic organizations (places of worship, youth groups, dance troupes) that work to keep the essence of these traditions alive.
What does it look like to learn about Afro-Latin American communities through travel?
I’ve witnessed that Afro-Latin communities are often marginalized; both physically, by being relinquished to less arable land, and having their ancestral lands confiscated; and mentally in the minds of their white counterparts, in that their history is often not acknowledged in the national canon, nor recognized with the gravity as white history.
Due to this marginalization, Black communities in Latin America are often more difficult to access. They are harder to track down on the ground. For instance, when in search of an Afro-mestizo community in Veracruz, Mexico, I spent a full two days scouring a local city to find someone that could help me find a way to get to the Black communities. Not even a representative from the local tourism board could provide concrete information. Ultimately, I was able to get there after I approached a lady that had racially Black features. It turns out that her family was from Yanga, a nearby town named after a slave that went on to found the first freed town in the area. That chance encounter put me on the path to visit the local Afro-descendant communities. Even after I arrived there, I was underwhelmed. I had made the assumption that the town plaza would be full of Black folks. It wasn’t. There were people that looked very Latinx. They were brown. And when I went back six months later, a towns person described himself as marron (brown), rather than Black. This could be due to the prevalence of negative connotation of blackness; including impoverished, uneducated, hypersexualized, etc.
How do I engage with Afro-Latin communities?
Researching Afro-descendant communities before you take a trip to one is the key to gaining understanding and finding out where they are located. Since I often make travel decisions based on airfare deals, I usually identify a sale flight to a major Latin American city, then do research on whether there is Black population nearby.
These communities are often harder to find, and less likely to have the adequate resources, arable land, and the services that the majority of citizens do. Don’t let this discourage you from visiting. I’ve experienced extreme welcome and hospitality in the most humble conditions.
While some countries have populations that are recognizably Black (such as Cuba, Colombia, D.R.), others look differently. They may be brown, and acknowledge their nationality first, or mix ancestry over their African ancestry. That is OK. It is our job as aware and thoughtful travelers to understand historical context, while allowing people/communities to tell their own narrative. Cultural sensitivity and understanding local concepts of race and identity is important when seeking to engage with vulnerable populations.
How can I join one of your trips to Afro-Latin America?
Individuals or groups with an interest in having up-close, and authentic experiences with Black communities in Latin America are welcome to join and AfroBuenaventura Transformative Travel itinerary. The company offers expertly planned trips that feature balanced itineraries in support of sustainable travel throughout the region.
The next trip will happen February 26 - March 4 to Cartagena & Barranquilla, along Colombia’s Caribbean coast. It will be an incredible excursion in a tropical setting. Stops on the itinerary include San Basilio, a town founded by escaped enslaved Africans that trace their ancestry to present-day Congo, and to dance in the streets during Carnival in nearby Barranquilla. If you’d like to learn more, set up a call with me, and get trip details at www.afrobuenaventura.com/cartagena.
My trips focus on engaging with Afro-descendant communities in sustainable ways: by hiring local guides and facilitators that identify as Afro-descendant, and whom have direct access to those communities; something that most tourism companies do not. I also encourage my clients to invest in those communities by purchasing locally made items, and patronizing local businesses.
It is important to become aware of the history, and current realities of African descendant, or Afro-Latin communities in order to fully understand their story.
Be precise with your language when talking about and to people that identify as Afro-Latinx.
Dig deeper and seek local, grassroots approaches at preserving and remembering the Black identity in Latin America. Seek local guides and community members that can facilitate authentic experiences in their own community.
Suspend your assumptions and allow Afro-Latinx people to tell their own narratives.