Bomba dancers of Puerto Rico
This past Martin Luther King, Jr. Day I made my way to the San Francisco Museum of the African Diaspora. It is something I enjoy every year, and I try to go there during Black History month as well as throughout the year. I love the Museum of the African Diaspora because it highlights how we all interconnect globally as a society of many different cultures, as well as how African populations have dispersed into all corners of the earth. It shows how the African influence on culture has been displayed throughout the world! It is fascinating!! I love to see people of all cultures celebrating Black History, and enjoying the sights, sounds, expressions, and rich art that comes from Africa. While at this museum affectionately known as MOAD, I also wear my Puerto Rican flag necklace. I want to celebrate my experience within the Diaspora as well being a Latina who also has strong African influences in her life, coupled with being a citizen of the world, showing my sisterhood to women across all cultures.
Recently there was a documentary called “Black in Latin America.” It showcased race and identity within Latin America. There are many fascinating facts about the African Diaspora and how it has affected Latin America. One sad, yet fascinating fact is that more African slaves came to Latin America, (especially to Mexico and Peru) than to the United States. I remember having a discussion with someone who said I did not understand slavery because I was of Puerto Rican descent. I said that while my family may have only gotten to the mainland in the 1950’s, Puerto Rico and much of Latin America also had the sting and horror of slavery. One (out of countless) horrifying facts, is that slaves in Puerto Rico were often branded on the foreheads so they could be identified if they ran away.
Whether in the United States or in various countries in Latin America or around the world, slavery and its effects were/are horrendous and the damage still exists to this day. It affects everyone to differing degrees, some more than others. There are many reasons that these facts are often overlooked, but many times, people do not teach it because they do not know. Sometimes they do not teach it because they are ashamed or because of racial prejudice and bias.
When I was in Puerto Rico I scoured the museums and art galleries for snippets of stories of the “trinity” of Black, Native and Spanish expressions, art and history. I was on a quest to learn even more about my heritage beyond the obvious. I was fascinated and equally horrified at times what I found. In some museums I saw actual slave chains and head harnesses with spikes, slave trading posters written in Spanish selling and buying slaves in the Caribbean. I also found Taino (native) artifacts, and Spanish regalia from far off shores. I found art of images of jibaritos (peasants) in the fields and of beautiful Black figurines, dancing traditional Bomba (Afro-Puerto Rican) dances with their flowing dresses, and white headdresses. They were dancing for freedom. Dancing for life. Dancing for hope.
I thought to myself, “I am this. This is me. My ancestors. Part slave “owner”, part enslaved. “ African, Spanish and Taino. A Caribbean Creole of sorts. It made my heart heavy and it made me ponder. How can you own a person? You cannot. You cannot own their spirits! Yet slavery was/is very real. Very horrific. It still exists today in many different forms. It made my heart break and yet I thought of the strength they had to survive. I learned a little of how to dance Bomba years ago and this experience a few years ago drives me to want to learn more, to pass it on to my children, and then to others as well. To keep that expression alive, to dance for life, for hope, for freedom.
What we are seeing now is a movement likened to the awareness of the 70’s, an awakening if you will, to say “ I am beautiful” no matter a person’s background, and in however they define “beautiful” to be.
“Black in Latin America” is just one of many of these awakening movements. Others are the Latinegr@s Project, The Black Latina Project, and the Black Latina play. There are many others forming, people across the African Diaspora learning about the history and how Latin America fits into the puzzle. People from many different cultures are learning about each other, and how we all interconnect as human beings on this journey called life. Last year, I was blessed to be able to search my DNA. I was able to trace back my mother’s maternal side. It detailed where in the world we come from, what our genetic markers are, and the lineage of our family based on geographic locations and genetic markings.
It was fascinating to see that it could tell how curly my hair would be, if I could taste bitter, and what parts of Europe and Africa my family came from hundreds of years ago. I had an awakening, and unveiling, an “aha moment.” It is as if for years there were many unanswered questions. There still are questions, of course, but to see the breakdown and to see the DNA of our oldest living ancestor from generations back was fascinating. I would like to one day do my father’s side and my grandfather’s side as well to get a clearer picture.
Through the DNA project similar to what is found in the documentary “African American Lives,” my husband was able to trace back his line to over 80% Nigerian. That was amazing because he is African-American and did not know where his family was from prior to the United States. I am looking forward to knowing more about it also.
In closing, I thought I would share some African influences on Latino culture in our celebration of Black History Month. As a mixed family, I teach my children about African-American History and Latino/Puerto Rican History. I am a very multi-cultural loving person so I enjoy all kinds of History all year round! Here are a few fascinating tidbits to enjoy. These are just a few, there are countless to list. If you need resources let me know.
Spanish words of African origin:
Some Latin Dances/Music with strong African Roots:
Great follow-up links:
Great web article featuring A Rising Voice: Afro-Latin Americans http://www.miamiherald.com/multimedia/news/afrolatin/
Black in Latin America
Black Latina Movement
Black and Latino in America
A couple of extra links
I am a proud Latina of Puerto Rican Hertitage, and enjoy celebrating my culture as a Latina, as an American and as a Latina who has obvious mixed African ancestry. Ever since I can remember I was always "Latina" or "Hispanic" or "Puerto Rican" and I grew up with the rich rhythms, language and cultural traditions that many Latinas grow up with. I never questioned what " I was" I just...was. I never had to answer questions about being "mixed, black, brown" or whatever, that is until we moved back to California and I got a little older.
"What are YOU mixed with?" " What is your heritage?" That was a common question I got and I wasn't sure how to answer it. I simply did not know, because it never was an issue or a question that I had been asked. I remember distinctly this happening on a playground once and answering to the young anglo male who asked me this question. " I am Puerto Rican", I answered. His response was "Yeah, right. Look at your HAIR! Your parents must have lied to you." This was a pivital point in my life, and I walked away from that situation wondering what he meant and why he would say that. I am Black and Latina at the same time. That us what I identify with and always will.
As time went on, these questions seemed to bombard me every day. It seemed as wherever I went, people wanted to know "what I was mixed with." I went to ask my mother " What do I say when they ask me what is my heritage?"
So I learned to adapt in order to avoid the questions, the conflict, and the confusion. ( I will cover that more in part 2 of this post) I was still very be proud of being Puerto Rican, but I was in a world that did not fully understand what that meant. Many of the Latinos around me did not look like me so I found myself often caught between two worlds, trying to navigate through explaining my "Latina-ness" to non-Latinos and trying to "prove" my "Latina-ness" to some Latinos who felt I did not fit in to be a part of their group.
I became frustrated by answering questions at such a young age. I found myself constantly, almost daily,giving a history lesson of the colonization of Puerto Rico. I did this as an attempt to explain to those that did not know what Puerto Ricans are why I look the way that I do. I did not have this problem on the East Coast, but on the West Coast during the 1980's and 1990's and even still today it comes up. As a Latina, I feel all Latinos are my brothers and sisters regardless of their skin tone, background, or hair texture. As an American, I feel that we should be united as one country. As a Black woman I see and live many injustices that non-Black Latinos may not experience. Unfortunately there are ugly stereotypes, biases, and perceptions that people still have that tear away at this unity.
There are some who say to me " Why must you say that you are proud of your Afro-Latina roots? We are ALL Latinos, no matter what color!" To that person I say yes, I agree we are, and I love that.Yet there is still a stigma attached in some circles in having anything to do with African ancestry. There are still people bleaching their skin, in an attempt to be "more beautiful". There are still those with a darker complexion or "afro-kinky hair" who do not see their faces represented in the mainstream. There is still an entire ancestral line that for many of us remains distant, hidden and unaccesible. People are now, more than before, beginning to express interest, pride and unity among exploring what it means to be Latino and including the effect of the African Diaspora on Latino cultures around the world.
I am loving how many new documentaries, articles, blogs and conversations are coming out around celebrating Afro-Latinos. I do not think it is divisive, but unifying. It is important to celebrate ALL of our ethnic heritage as Latinos and explore how the mixtures of races and ethnic groups add to the beauty that lies within the Latino culture. We are now showcasing diverse faces and associating them with beauty and not shame. More people are now, for the first time in their lives able to hold a head of kinky curls high and full of pride. We are making strides to highlight and add beauty to part of us that has been hidden,denied, or even ridiculed for many years. There is an awakening to celebrating the beauty across the spectrum of what is Latino and including all shades and colors, hair textures, bodies, and facial features.This, my friends, is not divisive. It is beautiful. It helps all of us to go "Pa'lante", so that no one gets left behind, written out of history, shut out, or hidden for the color of their skin, or the texture of their hair. We need each other! Let's celebrate together- in unity,understanding and peace!
I am both Latina and Black and proud to be!
~Vanessa Magali Oden