Afro-Latin@ is a relatively new term based on a foundation of racial relations and histories that are centuries old. Each country and island has it’s own history and perception of blackness, and when Afro-Latinidad is incorporated into the “melting pot” of the United States, things get a little trickier.
Below is a recounting and analysis of racialization in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. It also includes dynamics amongst and between Puerto Ricans and Dominicans.
The precarious status of Haitians in the Dominican Republic and of Dominicans in Puerto Rico is primarily due to their racialization. The public perception of both groups as black hampers their full socioeconomic incorporation and externalizes racial prejudice and discrimination to foreign ‘others’.
In the Caribbean islands, blackness has been and continues to be perceived as a “minor component in the islands’ demographic histories and contemporary cultures.” This has been highlighted and analyzed in “The lessons of slavery,” an ethnographic study that showed the ways in which teachings of slavery and about African culture promoted the ignorance of African contributions to Puerto-Rican culture as well as the distancing from blackness. There are two major concepts that play a huge role in the distancing of Afro-Latin@s from blackness: mestizaje and blanqueamiento.
Mestizaje is the concept of racial mixing between Spaniard, Native, and African. The belief of this racial blending, as well as prevailing narratives of heroic Spaniards and Natives in comparison with mystical and exotic Africans, allows for people to choose what they identify with more. 9 times out of 10 (not kidding, 80-90% of Puerto Ricans) Latin@s are identifying as white as opposed to black. A study on ethnic identity and self esteem has shown that a strong sense of identification with one’s ethnic culture is likely to act as a positive influence on well-being by providing a sense of belonging and serving as a buffer against the negative impact of prejudice and discrimination. It makes sense that people who acknowledge that they are mixed with “African blood” identify as white. It provides their sense of belonging, especially when blackness is depicted in such an outlandish and non-prevalent way.
Blanqueamiento is the concept of whitening. Contemporarily, it exists in dating and marriage practices in the Latin@ community. The goal is to adelantar la raza, or push “the race” forward by only marrying people of lighter complexion (associated with a higher level of whiteness). It is believed that the “African blood” would be eventually mixed out of the population and left behind.
The Dominican Republic, which both of my interviewees are from, has a history that has definitely affected the ways that Afro-Dominicans interact with their blackness. They were under the reign of dictator Rafael Trujillo for 30 years. He “killed a lot of Haitian Dominicans or dark-skinned Dominicans” explained HIM, my male interviewee. The climax of antihaitianismo was the 1937 massacre of at least 15,000 Haitians along the Dominican border by Trujillo’s military forces. Devastating events like this led to the elimination of blackness from Dominican culture. The Dominican people stopped identifying with being black and mulatto and replaced these words with the less traumatic and more socially desirable indio (literally, “Indians”; figurately, brown-skinned).
The reign of Trujillo was so devastating to my male interviewee’s father, that he actually chose to distance himself from his Dominican side; something that I did not expect.
Over the course of Trujillo’s reign, the term indio became a Dominican marker. It was converted into the racial description for the majority of Dominicans. Haitians, who are not racially categorized as Latinos, are the only people in the Dominican Republic who are “branded” as black, negr@s (black in Spanish), or morad@s (purple in Spanish). Indians were the aspect of mestizaje that the Dominican Republic needed; indio represented non-whiteness as well as non-blackness. This term accommodated the racial “in-betweenness” of the Dominican mulatto, making sure that Haitians were the only people who were forced to identify as black. The popular use of indio has served to mask the pervasiveness of dark-skinned Dominicans of African or mixed origin (Afro-Latinos), who would otherwise be practically indistinguishable from the despised Haitians. I for indio is so widely embraced that it is used on identification cards.
Indio has provided a conceptual alternative to reconcile anti-black feelings with the racially mixed heritage of much of the Dominican population.
Paralleling the anti-black feelings of Dominicans are anti-Dominican attitudes and practices in Puerto Rico. Not only were Puerto Ricans distancing themselves from blackness, but they were distancing themselves from “blacker” Latin@s.
Many Dominicans believe that Haitians are “savage, ugly, violent, and bloodthirsty” because of their African ancestry, just as many Puerto Ricans feel that Dominicans are “strange, dangerous, criminal, and sexually obsessed” largely because of their physical portrayals of blackness. In both cases, many local people assume that they can identify foreigners based on their visible physical characteristics, such as skin color, hair texture, facial features, and even head shape.
The “imagined” differences in physical appearance between “natives” and “foreigners” (especially between Puerto Ricans and Dominicans) are most likely greater than the “real” ones, given their shared history of African slavery and racial mixture.
The main issue is that blackness is constructed and represented outside the dominant discourses of national identity… The foreigners are“usually shunned as black ‘others’ who threaten the presumed whiteness of the receiving societies.”
Puerto Ricans often depict Dominicans as darker, and underline their “Negroid features”, while Dominicans highlight their Caucasian similarities as compared to Haitians. The 2000 Census of Puerto Rico confirmed this discrepancy in racial self-perceptions, with 81.3 percent of Puerto Ricans classifying themselves as white, compared to only 36.2 percent of Dominicans. There is basically a constant argument between Puerto Ricans and Dominicans over who is higher up on the totem pole, where white is on the top and black is on the bottom. I found that there arose a sense of comfort with knowing that there was someone “blacker” below you. Puerto Rican folklore even ridiculed Dominicans based on their foreign accents and their physical appearances.
Both of these Caribbean groups construct their racial meanings, not around being white, but being whiter than another group. Racial meanings are assigned to a group’s intellectual, emotional, and behavioral characteristics. As a result, groups are treated as if such characteristics were part of their essence and existence – “inherent, immutable, and fixed by nature… the basic purpose of racialization is to legitimate the treatment of ‘inferior’ groups while maintaining an ideology that buttresses the supremacy of the white elite.” So, by identifying with the “afro” in Afro-Latin@, people are subjecting themselves to the biased views of their respective islands. Why wouldn’t they stick with being a mezcla or being indio?
There is also another side of this dynamic that begins to rear it’s head in the United States. People, mainly with darker skin or blacker physical attributes, having to prove how Hispanic you are when admitting that they are Afro-Latin@. Both of my interviewees who were of darker complexion explained their experiences with this. Some people don’t want to bother with this and just identify as being black.
There is so much more to be explored: racial dynamics in Mexico, Central American, and South American countries, African influences on food, music, and dance, and an in depth view of what it is like to be Afro-Latin@ in the United States.
The exact definition of Afro-Latinidad is not clear to me yet. This research has taught me that in order to remove the stigma from blackness in these communities, it is necessary to start from the ground up. Many anti-black ideologies in Latin@ spaces are starting in schools. The way that my two interviewees identify now is highly reflective of what their parents have instilled in them. Until we start teaching young Latin@ children about the positive aspects and influences of blackness, they will continue to be afraid, or even worse, ashamed to identify as an Afro-Latin@.
Cobas, Jose, Jorge Duany, and Joe Feagin, eds. How the United States Racializes Latinos: White Hegemony and Its Consequences. Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2009.