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Afro Latinos' Mixed Identity Can Leave Them Out of the Mix

Image: New York City filmmaker Dash Harris, left, and journalist Jefferson Asprilla, served as moderators to a panel at a forum "Afro Latinos in the Diaspora"

New York City filmmaker Dash Harris, left, and journalist Jefferson Asprilla, introduced members to a panel at a forum "Afro Latinos in the Diaspora" held Feb. 18 in Washington, D.C., which was co-sponsored by the Mayor's Office on Latino Affairs. JH Flores

Afro Latino Marco Davis laughed when he recalled the lengths he went to keep in touch with black and Latino alumni groups when he graduated from Yale University.

“One year I would put down that I was Hispanic so I could keep in touch with the Latino groups on campus that I was involved with, and another year I would put down black, so I could get their information. I would alternate because I wasn’t able to put down that I belonged to both," said Davis, 43, who has a Jamaican father and a Mexican mother. "The university said they didn’t have it built in to their computers to check off more than one box at a time, and I had to do just one.”

Like Davis, other Afro Latino Americans feel they straddle two communities, each with a distinct heritage and history celebrated in the U.S. eight months apart. Black History Month comes to a close Friday and Hispanic Heritage Month begins in mid-September.

Black Latinos say there is little understanding of their mixed heritage, and little knowledge of the history of the importation of slaves by Spanish-speaking countries of which many, though not all, are descendants.

Yet growing racial pride and a move to a more multiracial society with changing demographics are helping this group stake a claim to being both black and Latino.

Davis, now working in the Obama administration in Washington, D.C., grew up in a predominantly African American neighborhood in New York.

"We weren’t Puerto Rican (the majority Latino population in New York), and people never heard of people like us,” explained Davis. “The black people knew we spoke Spanish but they didn’t make the connection to the Hispanic community, and the Latinos didn’t quite get it, and others just assumed I was black and that’s it.”

But he attended Mass at a Mexican church two towns over, and spent summers visiting relatives in his mother’s hometown of Guadalajara, Mexico. In college, he joined a historically black fraternity while also becoming involved with Latino groups on campus.

“It really opened my eyes. I felt connected to both, but I remember being asked what would my loyalty be if there was ever a problem, and I would think, why do I have to choose? I navigate both worlds. I don’t have a choice. It’s who I am.”

That is the fundamental challenge of being an Afro Latino in the United States, said Davis. “I walk down the street and people assume I am a black man and nothing more. The story of the Afro Latinos is a chapter in our society that hasn’t been well written. It’s a story that still needs to be told. We are of both worlds. It’s not either or, and people don’t get that.”

Some of that history will be discussed Thursday night in Washington, D.C. at a symposium on Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, held by the Smithsonian Latino Center and the Schomburg Center.

A writer, historian and activist, Schomburg is the namesake of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, part of the New York Public Library system. Schomburg’s research collection laid the foundation for the study of black history and culture, according to the library.

But many may not know that in addition to being a black man, Schomburg was Puerto Rican and self-identified as afroborinqueño. Puerto Rico was known as Borinquen before the arrival of the Spanish.

"He pioneered the concept of an African Diaspora -- that black people around the world are connected," said Ranald Woodaman, Smithsonian Latino Center director. Schomburg was also involved in fighting for the independence of Cuba and Puerto Rico. Woodman said it is important for Latinos to claim his "Latinidad" as well, and make sure he is part of the Latino Pantheon.

Last week, the Washington, D.C. Mayor's Office on Latino Affairs, with the Afro Latino Alliance, held a two-day forum and gala devoted to recognizing dual Afro Latino identity. Organizers deliberately chose Black History Month for the event and plans are being made for an event in September.

“Afro Latinos have a right to celebrate Black History Month,” said Roland Roebuck, 66, a D.C. government retiree who advises the Afro Latino Alliance in Washington, D.C.

Roebuck said an “invisibility” exists, which often keeps Afro Latinos “out of the mix.”

Born in New York and raised in Puerto Rico, Roebuck said when he first moved to Washington in the early 1970s, after serving in the U.S. Air Force, he was told by African Americans, “you’re not a full-time brother.”

“The African American community may find it strange, but the only difference between us is the language, and the geography. It’s about where the slave ships landed,” Roebuck said.

Howard University history lecturer J. Santiago Mauer, who also uses the pen name Msomi Santiago Moor, said black people don’t just speak English, but he did not know that growing up in Ohio as an African American.

Afro Latinos, he said, “need to be unapologetically black. It’s okay to be black and speak Spanish.”

About 3 percent of the 51 million people who identified as Hispanic or Latino on the 2010 Census also identified as black.

Filmmaker Dash Harris, who is of Panamanian descent, hopes to bring more exposure to the Afro Latino experience though a documentary series, Negro. Harris said the work grew from her own frustrations.

“I was exhausted trying to explain who I am,” Harris said. “I’m not here to convince anyone about their African ancestry because that’s a fact. It’s about educating the next generation.”

Afro Latina Sarita Copeland Singh, a Washington lawyer married to a Trinidadian with Indian roots, said she sees change afoot.

“We definitely need to hear and learn more about Afro Latinos so that it won’t seem so unusual,” said Singh, 30, who is of Panamanian descent. “My young daughter already moves easily between both worlds.”