Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 – Oct. 15), like Black History Month, doesn’t do justice to the history of an entire people. And one group feels this slight from two different directions—members of the Afro-Latinx community, individuals whose race is Black and whose ethnicity is Latinx.
The Defender spoke to four local Afro-Latinx members to get their perspective on their group’s Houston reality.
WORDS THAT DESCRIBE HOUSTON’S AFRO-LATINX COMMUNITY
“The first words I thought of when I arrived in Houston were “Where is it,” because I couldn’t see it,” said Raúl Orlando Edwards, a native of Panama and founder of the non-profit Foundation for Latin American Arts (F-LAMARTS), a foundation that hosts an annual music festival and events throughout the year. Edwards is also the founder/owner of Strictly Street Salsa, Houston’s first salsa studio.
Dr. Will Guzmán, a professor of history at Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU) mentioned “diverse, proud and growing” to describe Houston’s Afro-Latinx community.
However, poet/author and educator Jasminne Mendez, a Dominican American, had a different take.
“Unfortunately, ignored and overlooked are the first words that come to mind,” said Mendez.
“For so long, when it came to things like Hispanic (or Latinx) Heritage Month or even Black History Month, so much of our experiences and stories we’re just not a part of the conversation.”
WHAT COUNTRIES ARE REPRESENTED IN HOUSTON
According to Guzmán, most Afro-Latinx in the US hail from the Caribbean, particularly The Dominican Republic, Cuba, Haiti and Puerto Rico.
“Currently, there are nearly three million people in the U.S. who self-identify as Afro-Latinx, and some suspect the numbers are much higher particularly in places such as Afro-Brazilians in the Ironbound section of Newark, NJ, Afro-Mexicans in California and North Carolina, Afro-Puerto Ricans in Kissimmee and Orlando, Florida, and Afro-Dominicans in Washington Heights, Boston and Orlando.”
Guzmán, Edwards and Mendez concurred that Honduras, Colombia, Venezuela and Panama are the countries of origin for most of Houston’s Afro-Latinx residents.
CONNECTION TO THE COMMUNITY
However, even with the many countries represented, not all Afro-Latinx feel welcomed.
Liliana Castrillon, a longtime community activist and Afro-Colombian, says though she proudly identifies as Afro-Latina, neither the Afro-Latinx community nor the larger society see her as such.
“In my case, I don’t fit the profile to be seen as Afro-Latina,” said Castrillon. “I would have to look different. I would have to be darker.”
“Colorism and white supremacy are very real and very present in our Afro-Latinx communities.”
Castrillon also believes other reasons why some Afro-Latinx members remain disconnected is because they’re so spread out and many, because of the negativity associated with being Black, refuse to identify as Afro-Latinx.”
WHERE & HOW CAN PRESENCE BE FELT THE MOST
That said,Edwards says the local Afro-Latinx cultural presence can be felt in many ways, including through foods introduced to Houston and several festivals highlighting various Latin American and Caribbean countries including Cuba, Puerto Rico and Colombia.
He also sees organizations like his Strictly Street Salsa and F-LAMARTS as being powerful ambassadors for the Afro-Latinx community. Edwards says the inspiration for F-LAMARTS came when he was a K-12 teacher and was asked to create a Hispanic Heritage Month program that celebrated all things Mexico.
“And I said, ‘Can we do something else? It’s not Mexican Heritage Month. There are over 15 other countries in Latin America. Why do we only have to showcase Mexico?’”
Edwards said the experience revealed how bad Houstonians needed education and exposure to Afro-Latinx reality.
“The fact that I speak fluent Spanish is usually a shock. People say, ‘Oh, you speak Spanish?’ I’m like, “Yes, this is my first language. And there’s millions of us Blacks throughout Latin America.”
For the poet/author/educator Mendez, the Afro-Latinx presence can be seen and felt throughout her work on the job and at home.
“I’m very intentional in my writing, especially, to indicate that my characters, if I’m writing fiction, are Afro-Latinx. Because growing up, I didn’t have any representation of myself and my stories and experience in any of the books I read,” said Mendez whose debut picture book Josefina’s Habichuelas (Arte Público Press) coming out in October spotlights an Afro-Latinx little girl and her family.
“I worked together with the artist to make sure like this little girl specifically is dark-skinned and her family shows a myriad of complexions. I don’t want this sort of whitewashed version of our reality. We come in all shades.”
“And as a mom, I’m intentional about what I expose my daughter to, in the books that she reads and the media that she sees, in the stories that I tell her.”
While Guzmán appreciates the arts and food aspect of the Afro-Latinx experience being celebrated, he wants people to realize there’s so much more.
“Afro-Latinx are in the fields of education, government, business and medicine—areas that people overlook when thinking of the Afro-Latinx community. Too often, Afro-Latinx are stereotyped as criminal, exotic or racially ambiguous. Yet, the reality is much more complex,” he said.
BIGGEST ISSUES IMPACTING THE COMMUNITY
Everyone interviewed mentioned racism and white supremacy as big issues, both experiencing it in America and more specifically, within the global and local Afro-Latinx communities.
“Talk about racism, Mexico is very good at it,” shared Edwards. “They’ve had an Afro Mexican population for years that they didn’t even recognize until just recently. And they’re over five million of them. If you live in South America, it’s the same thing, even in my country (Panama).”
Mendez concurred with Edwards, but added issues that impact all Black people in America, whether Latinx or not.
“Interactions with authority like police, ICE, immigration officers or border patrol are problematic because we have the added layer of our blackness. We can get treated even worse at times.”
Mendez and Castrillon again mentioned colorism as a huge issue within the Afro-Latinx world.
“You are too dark for some communities and too light for others. You’re profiled by every single community, the light-skinned community, Latino community, the white community and even the Black community,” said Castrillon. “For an Afro-Latinx, it’s very hard to find a job if you’re very dark. So, you’re profiled by white supremacists via racism and your own people via colorism. I don’t think the community in general or the African-American community realize how hard it is for an Afro-Latinx to fit into a society where you are not really seen or treated with respect and dignity.”
Guzmán sees a myriad of issues, including lack of economic access, cultural and language barriers, and institutional racism.
“Unfortunately, mainstream groups would rather acknowledge the presence of Afro-Latinx groups through what some scholars deem as ‘foods, fashion and festivals,’ which of course is fine. However, these superficial acts must be accompanied with power-sharing and substantive, equitable roles in corporations, banking and finance, and the public sector. Short of this, then so-called Hispanic Heritage Month will become shallow and another example to perpetuate the culture of our oppressors: Europeans (the Portuguese, Spaniards, and the French).”
VISIONS FOR COMMUNITY MOVING FORWARD
LILIANA CASTRILLON: That’s a really hard question. That’s very hard. I would like for the Afro-Latina community and the Latino community in general, to be united. And I would love for the community to be able to work with the Black community and in general, without the colorism and prejudice and everything that we experience. Just to get those communities working together, it will be wonderful. Imagine if the Black community and the Latino/Hispanic community worked together, we would not be the minorities anymore.
DR. WILL GUZMÁN: To continue to appreciate and advance Pan-Africanism, racial consciousness, and a form of Blackness that is rooted in West Africa with a focus on “lifting as we climb.” In other words, as Afro-Latinx increase their political visibility, economic mobility, and social status in the metropoles of the West (U.S., Canada, and Europe), that we continue to have a commitment to our brethren back home—both here in the U.S. and throughout the African diaspora.
JASMINNE MENDEZ: I think my vision is that there is just more awareness and inclusion of our experiences in the narrative, both in and beyond Latinx Heritage Month and in and beyond Black History Month. That we’re included as part of the history that’s learned and that’s taught outside of baseball for Dominicans or outside of Celia Cruz. She’s wonderful. Don’t get me wrong, but there are other influential, prominent Afro-Latinx folks out there that have existed that I think should be taught and should be learned about. And I do think that there should be more awareness that we’re seen, that we’re included and more community. That we find ways to come together. There’s strength in numbers, as they say. So, if we can get ourselves organized in some way and share our cultures and our histories and our backgrounds, just like there’s parades for Mexican Independence Day, et cetera, there should also be something that celebrates the Afro-Latinx experience as well. That’s what I’m hoping for.
THE JOE HORN INCIDENT: AFRO-LATINX (BLACK) LIVES MATTER TOO
Activist Liliana Castrillon said it was the killing of two Afro-Colombians that inspired her to get involved in local social justice issues. Ironically, it was that tragedy that awakened her to the presence, though scattered, of Houston’s Afro-Latinx community.
In November of 2007, Pasadena, TX resident Joe Horn saw two men pry into his neighbor’s house with a crowbar. Horn called 911 to report a burglary in progress. However, not satisfied with the police response time, Horn put down the phone where he was still communicating with a police dispatcher, loaded his shotgun, left his home to confront the men and then shot them dead.
Horn, told the dispatcher that he was not going to let the suspects “get away with this.” The 911 dispatcher told Horn repeatedly that he should not leave his home, and he should definitely not confront the suspects, even telling Horn, “Property’s not worth killing someone over.”
Yet, Horn went outside and confronted Miguel DeJesus, 38, and Diego Ortiz, 30, and shot them in the back. Both men, who had small-time criminal records, died from their wounds. Still, what Horn did was clearly against the law, yet a Texas grand jury refused to indict him.
Discussing Houston’s Afro-Latinx community brought this painful memory back up for Castrillon. She says it serves as the perfect example of how little society respects the humanity of members of the Afro-Latinx community.
Castrillon believes the two men who were from her home country, regardless of their reported criminal activities, still should have been afforded humane treatment. However, it was the lack of an indictment of Horn that solidified for Castrillon the idea that a white man could shoot any Afro-Latinx they wanted and walk away scot free.
“I’m not saying these guys were angels; they were not,” said Castrillon. “They were into some bad things. And I’m not using this as an excuse, but they come from the poorest of the poor parts of Colombia, Buenaventura. A part of Colombia notorious for murders, corruption and poverty like you would not believe.”
Castrillon said Buenaventure is well-known in Colombia as a dumping ground for dead bodies and body parts, and that the poverty there is equal to or worse than the poorest communities anywhere in the world.
Acknowledging that DeJesus and Ortiz, if Horn’s 911 call description of those November 2007 events is to be believed, were involved in illegal activity, Castrillon believes they should have been held accountable by authorities rather than gunned down by a shotgun-toting citizen.
“So, these guys weren’t perfect. But the fact that Joe Horn ignored what the police told him to do and then shot them in the back and killed them, and then went free and was celebrated as a hero shows you how Afro-Latinx lives are seen as worth less than dirt. And when Black activists went to Joe Horn’s neighborhood to march in protest, they were run out of the neighborhood by a mob.”
For Castrillon, this 2007 incident served as a personal awakening and a constant reminder of the work still needed to be done where “justice for all” is more than words on paper.
“This case has haunted me since, because Horn was not held accountable for his actions. Again, it’s like our lives don’t matter to police, media and many everyday citizens,” she added.