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Hispanic Heritage Month

Afro-Latinos Seek Recognition, And Accurate Census Count

Image: Nicholas Jones of US Census Bureau addressing the Afro-Latino Panel

Nicholas Jones of the US Census Bureau addresses the Afro-Latino Forum panel discussion in New York City, September 17, 2014 on Census categories, Afro-Latinos and race. Melissa M. Valle

NEW YORK, NY -- Hispanic Heritage Month is a time to recognize the contributions of Latinos in the U.S., yet one group often feels left out of the Hispanic community. Afro-Latinos say that they struggle with acceptance from both Latinos and African-Americans. Now they are seeking recognition, acceptance – and an accurate count of their numbers. As was discussed at a recent Afro-Latino Forum conference in New York City, Latino advocates and educators are working with the U.S. Census Bureau to help make it easier for mixed-race Hispanics to report their background on the 2020 Census.

The Census Bureau reports that in the 2010 Census, 2.5 percent of the 54 million Hispanics in the U.S. also identified as black – a figure that many say is an undercount. “I believe that what were hearing from the Afro-Latino community is that they do not believe that those numbers accurately illustrate the Afro-Latino community presence in the United States, and that’s the dialogue that we’re having,” said Nicholas Jones, chief of the Bureau’s Racial Statistics Branch.

The Bureau is currently weighing changes in how it asks about race and ethnicity. In the 2010 Census, while over half of Hispanics identified themselves as white, 36 percent checked “some other race.” The significant number of Latinos who did not see themselves in traditional racial categories has led the Bureau to consider offering a combined race/ethnicity question for 2020, offering “Hispanic/Latino/Spanish origin” as a choice.

The combined race/ethnicity approach is still controversial. Some Afro-Latinos support the idea because they believe it would make the Census more accurate. Others worry that it would encourage Hispanics to think of themselves as a separate race.

Pedro Noguera, Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University, believes that the Bureau’s idea to make “Latino/Hispanic” a category will likely be problematic.

“Latino identity just does not match the standard American configuration,” Noguera said. “A disproportionate number of Latinos will identify as white even though they are not treated as white. It is aspirational; they know that “white” is considered the prestige box.”

Noguera said Afro-Latinos still face discrimination from other Hispanics. “It tends to be that darker Latinos are less likely to get the better jobs, the best positions. The only profession where Afro-Latinos are really visible is athletics, like boxing and baseball.”

For many Afro-Latinos, daily life can come with conversations and explanations about their identity.

“The other day, I went out to a Mexican restaurant and the server looked bewildered when I spoke Spanish to him,” said Chandra Pitts, 37, whose mother is Mexican and whose father is African American. “He looked uncertain about responding to me, as though that sentence might be the only Spanish I know. People often assume I am black, and then ask me why I know Spanish.”

Pitts, the executive director of a non-profit educational company in Delaware, said that family members and former classmates at times have had a problem with her mixed heritage.

“Sometimes I feel that I am never black enough, never Hispanic enough, for other people. It is this feeling like not being allowed into the clique.” Still, Pitts has a strong sense of her cultural identity. “To some people, black-brown can be a double negative. Not to me. I tell people I am 100 percent Mexican, 100 percent African-American, and 100 percent woman!”

Miriam Jiménez Román, Executive Director of the Afro-Latin@ Forum in New York City, believes that it is important to raise Afro-Latino awareness.

“It is important because, for the most part, we are invisible," said Jiménez Román. We are invisible because when people speak of Latinos, they have in mind a particular stereotype of Latinos – physically, culturally, racially – and that doesn’t necessarily match our reality.”

Jiménez Román, editor of “The Afro-Latin@ Reader,” points to significant contributions by Afro-Latinos: The Schomburg Center in New York City, the premier center for African-American Studies in the U.S., is based on the library of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, a black Puerto Rican. Los Angeles was founded by Mexicans of African descent. And the Mendez v. Westminster case, which ended segregation in California public schools, centered on the children of a black Puerto Rican woman.

“When you speak of African-American history, you must look at Latin America,” said Jiménez Román. “And our Latino culture is filled with African influences. But we Latinos are a community that acknowledges its racial mixture, and at the same time denies its racial mixture.”

“Among Latinos, the idea of talking about mixed race can still be taboo,” said Ed Morales, adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. “It’s easier to say that you’re Dominican or Mexican, rather than delve into your racial background.” He attributes this to the traditional cultural forces at play in Hispanic culture. “In our own families, there is not a lot of discussion of being mixed race, there is not a lot of open acknowledgement of it.”

Victoria Arzu, 26, is on a mission to improve the visibility of Afro-Latinos. Together with her sister Sophia, she started Proyecto Más Color, a campaign seeking more depiction of Afro-Latinos on Spanish-language television. “The lack of knowledge of Afro-Latinos is due to our educational system, and to the media,” said Arzu, a law student in Atlanta. “I’ve been watching novellas since I was a little girl, and only rarely do you see someone who looks like me on those shows. I want to help change that.”

Arzu has been collecting signatures on an online petition and appearing in the media to educate people about Hispanic diversity. “People need to remember that Latinos are not a race,” she said. “Afro-Latino is still a new concept for some people, they cannot even conceive of the idea.”

“But I like to believe that there is good in everybody, and that people will recognize the existence and humanity of Afro-Latinos,” Arzu said. “We are here, we are beautiful, and we can contribute to Latino and American culture just like anybody else.”