Anti-Blackness in the Latinx Community
by Maria Alejandra Torres
“Don’t forget to put on sunscreen,” my mother always urges me before I step out of the house into the humid Jersey heat. I know she means well and does not want her daughter to get skin cancer but I almost always “forget” as a form of rebellion because the following statement ensues: “No quiero que te negrees” (I don’t want you to get darker). Before we quickly accuse my mother of perpetuating racist rhetoric we have to understand the culture from which she comes. A culture from which I come, and that I adore.
Unfortunately, however, in some ways, systemic racism is worse in Latin America because it is internalized and its existence denied. Indeed, many Latin American countries claim to be colorblind, a euphemism for the absence of sociopolitical racial discussions. My mother is no racist but her mode of thinking is a reflection of a “social lesson” taught in her community: a darker complexion has a negative connotation. Anti-Black sentiments in a cultural community that boasts unity has, sadly, been prevalent for centuries. This article is as much a brief historical timeline of Anti-Black discourse as it is a call to action: for Latinx to transform their ethnic solidarity into a multi-racial one that transcends color, class and language.
Before tracing the history of racist discourse in my community, it is important to note that Latinidad itself is not a racial category. Latinidad is an ethnic marker; a category that embraces the geopolitical complexity, and transnational and historical fluidity of its demographic. Within Latinidad, one can find different racial categories, and even these are as dynamic as the ethnic classification. There are white Latinx (descendants of Europeans), Afro-Latinx (descendants of Africans), Indigenous Latinx (descendants of aboriginals), mestizx (descendants of a European-aboriginal union), mulattx (descendants of a European-African union), zambx (descendants of an African-aboriginal union), and numerous more. In fact, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, Brazil has a total of 134 racial terms.
A brief discussion of Latinidad warrants an explanation of the stark difference between the term Latinx and the term Hispanic. Latinx is a more encompassing word that challenges the concept of the Latin community as a monolithic and homogenous demographic. The term pays homage to the complex racial, geographical, linguistic and religious diversity that colonization, (im)migration and miscegenation has brought to the region (Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America). While Hispanic is a direct reference to the colonizer, Spain (or ancient Hispania), it also recognizes Spanish as the only spoken language. On the other hand, Latinx recognizes the other languages spoken in the geographical and ideological region, such as Portuguese and French. Latinx acknowledges more than just white Latinx. It is easy to conflate the two ethnic categories as the U.S. Census does (that is another heated topic), or to conflate either with racial categories, but it is crucial to remember the not so nuanced differences.
As is the case with the United States, the introduction of Anti-Black rhetoric arrived with the first shipment of African slaves to the Latin American region. However, African slaves forcibly arrived in Latin America long before they landed on U.S. soil. In 1502, Spain started importing African slaves to Latin America’s Haiti and Dominican Republic (“Slavery in Latin America: a Chronology”), while the Dutch imported the first African slaves to Virginia in 1619 (“Slavery in America”). In fact, the city of Cartagena in my country, Colombia, was a major port destination for slave ships through which Africans entered Nueva Grenada (modern-day Colombia, Panama, and parts of Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua) (“Slavery in Latin America,” Runnymede).
Perhaps the best illustration of the legacy of colonization in developing Anti-Black sentiments can be seen through colonial Mexico’s casta paintings. When miscegenation could no longer be controlled, casta paintings were created by European artists and disseminated through colonial Mexico to remind colonial subjects of their place in society. Spain’s emphasis on social heterogeneity in colonial Mexico was a thinly-veiled attempt to maintain an ordered, hierarchical society where socioeconomic positionality was defined by race (Sánchez, Alberto, “La Pintura De Castas”). I would argue that this social heterogeneity translates to the colorblindness or mestizaje (mestiçagem in Portuguese, and métissage in French) that many Latin Americans adopt today.
The series of paintings always began with the “pure race,” that is, the Spaniards, and as the families became more racially mixed, that is, darker, their social status diminished.
Given this history, why is the Latin community more Anti-Black than Anti-Indigenous? Recall that a major part of Spanish colonization was the conversion of “savages” to Christianity so that they could be “saved.” As such, the Spanish Crown believed Latin aboriginals were more deserving of protection because they were destined to collectively become “New Christians,” (Sánchez, Alberto, “La Pintura De Castas”), whereas African slaves were foreign and would remain so.
Colonization instituted the hegemonic ideology of limpieza de sangre (purity of blood) which I contend still exists in Latin America today, albeit much more covertly. Indeed today, many Afro-Dominicans claim to be Indigenous not Black (Gates, Henry, “Dominicans In Denial”). Because to be Afro-Latinx is to be subject to poor housing, poor health, poor education, and unemployment. The desire to be “pure,” and therefore not dark, is exacerbated by the media. Telenovelas more often than not have pale-skinned, sometimes light-colored eye actors/actresses. Most of those who hold office are pale-skinned. In the Latinx community, the darker-skinned countries, mostly found in the Caribbean are the ones with the worst reputations: loud and lazy. The same is said of Costeñx (from Cartagena for example) in Colombia, many of whom are Afro-Colombian.
Having been raised in the U.S., I have frustratingly observed U.S. Latinx, in their struggle for assimilation, stress that although they are a minority, they are not like that minority. They are Latinx, not Black, completely dispelling their Afro-Latinx counterparts. This discourse is dangerous because it not only creates dissonance between a unified ethnic community, pitting individuals against each other, which reiterates the “good immigrant versus bad immigrant” conversation, it also further thickens the line of separation between different minority groups.
In a time where both black and brown bodies are seen as disposable, are frequently accused of the same crimes, over-policed and selectively targeted, we should stand together in solidarity, not perpetuate Anti-Blackness in order to be seen as “purer” U.S. minorities. We should not look for acceptance or assimilation from Anglo-Americans by beating down on our darker brothers and sisters, especially knowing we have so many within our own community. In fact, that should compel us to fight for justice for our U.S. Black folks even more.
We should question why we do not see more Afro-Latinx in the media, in office, in higher societal positions in our home countries (for those of us in the U.S.); and not just take class and educational differences as the reasons, when these very reasons are products of institutionalized racism.
I believe it is necessary for our community to stop pretending it is colorblind, to stop pretending there is social homogeneity through individualist heterogeneity; and instead, focus on having actual racial discussions because by pretending to be something we are not, we are no better than others who claim to be postracial. Instead of ignoring the consequences of the past, we should face them, because the scars of colonization need to be healed, not just haphazardly bandaged.