UNEARTHING (IN)VISIBILITIES: THE INTERACTION OF CARIBBEAN AFRO-LATIN@S WITH BLACKNESS
Yet this vacuum is not new to her. It has an edge; somewhere in the bottom lid is the distaste. She has seen it lurking in the eyes of all white people. So. The distaste must be for her, her blackness. All things in her are flux and anticipation. But her blackness is static and dread. And it is the blackness that accounts for, that creates, the vacuum edged with distaste in white eyes. -Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
The Afro-Latin@ racial identification has picked up momentum over the past two to three decades, but has remained a gray area often overlooked and stigmatized by the Latino community. With the increased use of this term by some, there has been a consequent trend of people choosing not to identify with this term. Reasons for this dissociation include but are not limited to animosity and bias from their communities, fear of social implications, and lack of clarity of who belongs in this category. This dissociation of Afro-Latin@s from their black roots has also been provoked and engrained into Caribbean societies through widespread theories, exemplified in the mobilization of mestizaje in Puerto Rico, which promotes the lack of racial difference and racism by considering the majority of population as “mixed.” Historical events, illustrated by Trujillo’s reign in the Dominican Republic resulting in the race-driven massacre of tens of thousands of Haitians, have also had huge impacts on the ways in which Afro-Latin@s identify with their blackness.
In an effort to understand the impact that the structure of the Caribbean has had on racial identification (by means of historical events, theory, widespread beliefs, and societal and institutional practices), I plan to research the detailed experiences that Afro-Latin@s have had with coping and identifying with blackness. I plan to conduct interviews, use digital archiving, and incorporate major themes from ethnographic research conducted in an elementary school in Puerto Rico to answer the question, “How do both self-identifying and non-identifying Afro-Latin@s interact with blackness?” as well as the follow up question of how these interactions informed by the history of the Caribbean.
BACKGROUND AND SIGNIFICANCE
This project is important to the field of Africana Studies because it is a thorough exploration of a specific part of the African Diaspora. Analyzing trends in the dissociation of Latin@s with their blackness may or may not go hand in hand with trends and reasons behind people of black and mixed race who choose not to identify with their blackness amongst different continents and countries.
History, especially regarding the topics of race relations and racism, has proven to be fluid and has repeated itself in isolated geographical locations. People of African descent have been unjustly discriminated against across the globe. Over a span of centuries, white supremacist societies have projected overwhelmingly biased definitions and descriptors onto people of African descent, turning them into “other.” The extension of various unsupported and racist meanings to “ethnic groups classified as black or even ‘nonwhite’ tends to dehumanize them, deprive them of their citizenship rights, and marginalize them socially, economically, and culturally.”
The close analysis of the identification of Afro-Latin@s with their blackness allows conversation to occur that may expose widespread forms of racial stigmatization promoted by Latino communities and institutions that parallel racial relations in other countries; e.g. white and black racial relations in the United States. Inquiring into the choices of racial identification made by Afro-Latin@s may also expose the qualitative psychological effects of “racist” historical events, institutional and societal constructs, and community attitudes on Latin@s of black descent. Since African descent was first introduced to the Caribbean by means of slavery, paralleling the United States, these findings could be useful in juxtaposing the effects of slavery and the Jim Crow Era on African Americans; these findings can serve as a tool for beginning to bridge the gap between Black and Latino communities.
Based on my experiences with Africana Studies courses at Williams College, I have witnessed a divide between Africana Studies and Latin@ Studies. This divide is understandable due to the complexities and differences in both topics, but this project is a means to find the commonalities between these two cultures. This project is an opportunity for me, as a person of Puerto Rican descent, to connect the many trends and concepts that I have learned while navigating the Africana Studies concentration to my personal knowledge and inquiries concerning Latino culture. I am personally aware of the mixture and adaptations of African culture into everyday Latino life due to my upbringing, and have constantly wondered why the greater Latino community chooses to dissociate or purposefully ignore black roots and contributions. I have also constantly pondered whether I could identify with being Afro-Latina or not, and why this notion always seemed irrational to the Latino community that surrounded me. This project will serve as an opportunity for self-reflection on my racial identity, which I consider an integral part of the life that one leads in this day and age.
Growing up, I have had much exposure to the way that Afro-Latin@s are treated due to interactions with my family as well as with larger Latino communities in Brooklyn, New York and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I have encountered prejudices within the Latin@ community that have been difficult to grapple with not been able to put theory and historical context behind. It was not until I came to Williams College that I gained more exposure to larger trends of these intraracial biases by speaking to other Latin@ and Afro-Latin@ students as well as through my coursework. By using these students who have expressed their connections to both black and Latino descent and cultures as the basis of my self-conducted research, I will be able to “put flesh” on the historical context of the relationships between Caribbean communities and blackness.
DESCRIPTION OF RESEARCH SITE/SETTING
I will be conducting all of my research on Williams College’s campus in Williamstown, Massachusetts where I have been a student for the past 3 years. The school has the following racial demographics as of October 15, 2014:
The school’s less than average student population as well as less than average level of ethnic diversity, compared to other colleges on a national scale, has allowed me to form closer relationships with a large number of ethnically “diverse” students, most specifically of black and Latin@ descent. I have chosen two informants from the student body that I know identify with black and Latino descent, but who I have not formed extremely strong bonds with in order to maximize validity and minimize bias. I conducted my first student interview on October 18, 2015. The other two interviews should take no longer than an hour each, and will be conducted at the convenience of the remaining two informants.
This location provides many positive aspects to my research, but also includes a few caveats including the lack of reach to the larger Latin@ and Afro-Latin@ community that exists in other states as well as in the Caribbean. For this reason, I have also chosen to resort to other methods of research aside from conducting interviews. The other method of research that I am using is digital archiving of tweets, from the social networking service Twitter, that revolve around opinions of and identification as Afro-Latin@s. This research will be conducted solely online, and will take much more time to sort through the multitude of blurbs as well as to ask for the consent of each individual who I plan to incorporate into my project. This method should ideally take two weeks of diligent work, but it’s duration is dependent on the turnover time of responses from prospective online informants.
THEORETICAL INTERLOCUTORS/LITERATURE REVIEW
The main texts that my project will be in conversation with are The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States as well as Caribbean Racisms: Connections and Complexities in the Racialization of the Caribbean Region.  These two texts speak to the two major halves that my project is composed of. The first half of this project involves grasping a well-informed definition (or definitions) of the term Afro-Latin@ and the multitude of ways in which Latino culture is connected to black culture. (I have added this as a priority of my research after my first informant becoming stumped when I asked them for their definition of the term Afro-Latin@.) The Afro-Latin@ Reader is a culmination of essays that describe the lives of Afro-Latin@s and the way in which they bridge Latino and black communities. The essays in this reader range from a historical background of Afro-Latin@s that begins with describing the lives of the “earliest Africans in North America” to juxtaposing various aspects of Latino and black culture including music, dances, and self-grooming routines like hairstyles and dress.
The second major half of my project is delving into historical texts and using first-hand accounts from my informants in order to determine the reasons why Afro-Latin@s may choose to or to not identify with this label when many aspects of Latino culture could arguably be defined as derivatives of African culture. In order to understand the discourse and opinions regarding the self-identification of Afro-Latin@s in the United States, I deemed it necessary to return to historical events and trending ideas regarding blackness in the Caribbean. Caribbean Racisms presents forms of racism that worked against Afro-Latin@s for the prevention of “darkening” the islands. The text includes excerpts on racial states in the post-emancipation Caribbean, the origins of mestizaje or mixing, and post-race contemporary thought in the Caribbean. It also offers an “evaluation on the prospects for anti-racism and the post racial.” These two texts will allow me to grasp the connections between Latino and Black communities, and will work alongside my research to find specific examples or trends in the reasoning behind Afro-Latin@’s conscious or unconscious separation of blackness from their Latino roots.
Qualitative research methods will be used for this project in order to highlight the importance of the detailed stories of informants as well as to compare and contrast the details of their perspectives and opinions with trends and historical events that may appear in existing texts on this topic. It is also extremely difficult to minimize error in quantitative data regarding a self-identifying racial title like “Afro-Latin@.” Afro-Latin@ is a fluid and relatively new term in regard to self-identification, particularly in the United States where I will be conducting virtually all of my research. Mostly driven by my desire to highlight the personal experiences of Afro-Latin@s, as well as to have these experiences drive the direction of the project, I will be conducting three interviews on Williams College’s campus, as well as by analyzing the Afro-Latin@ community on Twitter. For the purpose of supplementing my self-conducted research with a Caribbean-centered approach, I will use ethnographic research conducted in public elementary schools in Puerto Rico to intertwine trends, opinions, and historical findings.
I will be conducting formal interviews with ideally 3 people at Williams College who I believe will bring different dimensions to the topic of racial identification as Afro-Latino. It is necessary to put flesh on the bones of the trends that I have become aware of not only due to my personal experiences as a person of Puerto Rican descent, but also due to findings in literature as well as mass media. Two of the interviews that I will conduct will be of fellow Williams College students that identify with both Latino and black roots. I am unsure if they identify as Afro-Latin@, mixed, or totally dissociate with one of the races, but I am eager to explore the reasons behind their self-identification. These two interviews will help me put first-hand experiences to the historical readings I am doing, and may even divert from the trends that are mentioned in these literary works. These two interviews, in comparison, have the opportunity to show the similarities and differences of the methods and reasons people use to identify with their blackness. The main questions that I plan on asking in these interviews are:
- How do you define yourself racially? (What’s your race/nationality/ethnicity?)
- Would you identify as Afro-Latin@?
- Do you feel swayed towards identifying with your black roots or Latin@ roots? If so, what factors play a role in this racial self-identification?
- Do you feel swayed towards dissociating from your black roots or Latin@ roots? If so, what factors play a role in this racial dissociation?
The last of these three interviews will be conducted of a staff member of the Williams College Admissions Office. This interview will not serve the purpose of a first-hand narrative like the other two, but will be more informational and possibly quantitative depending on the information they choose to reveal to me. There are three concrete questions that I want to focus on in this interview:
- What are the specific numbers for black and Latino students currently on campus?
- Is there a cross listing for students who identify as two races, such as Afro-Latino? If not, why?
- What are matriculation and recruitment strategies for students of black and Latino descent?
I will also be conducting content searches via Twitter. Twitter has hundreds of thousands of short blurbs, and is a space where people are more likely to voice their opinion due to the comfort of the online presence. By searching “#Afrolatino,” I believe that I will encounter a mine of information from around the world. This is extremely important for my research because it will combat the bias that comes from solely interviewing informants from Williams College. I plan on conducting digital archiving that will bring clarity to trends of opinions about blackness from the Latin@ and Afro-Latin@ communities, the reasons why Afro-Latin@ people in this day and age may choose to identify or dissociate with their blackness, and the confusion that revolves around the Afro-Latin@ label. These trends may or may not speak to any historical texts regarding the perception of blackness in the Caribbean; I plan on adjusting the focus of my research accordingly so that these tweets, in conversation with the interviews, guide my focus.
The goal of this research project is to not only support a human perspective of Afro-Latin@ identification with historical and theoretical texts, but to ensure that these perspectives are wide in scope regarding the geographical location of informants. Conducting research solely at Williams College provides a level of bias that can be transcended by gaining perspectives from people from around the United States, as well as in the Caribbean.
In addition to subvert this bias by using tweets, I will incorporate aspects of ethnography. I will not be conducting my own ethnographic research, but will be paying much attention to ethnographic research conducted in elementary public schools in Puerto Rico. Based on the scope of the project, as well as the limitations on time and finances, it is most feasible to take this ethnography into consideration. It “explore[s] how school texts and practices silence, trivialize, and simplify the history of slavery.” This ethnography will add another layer to the viewpoints of Williams College and Twitter-based informants, by showing the experiences that Caribbean children may face when it comes to racial identification, and how their racial identity may be molded by societal and institutional structures as well as history.
- Personal relationships with the informants/similar racial background from many of the informants: These two relationships require me to distance myself when conducting research. It is necessary to make a conscious effort to interact with informants as a neutral party, and to not impose any of my personal experiences or beliefs onto their narratives.
- Narrow scope of the Afro-Latin@, Latin@, and black communities due to interviews being taken place in one location: I have attempted to minimize the bias that my small, relatively non-diverse location provides by incorporating information from the Afro-Latin@ community on Twitter, as well as from the ethnographic data conducted in a Puerto Rican elementary school.
- Each Caribbean island has different discourses about race and blackness for many different reasons: Each island in the Caribbean has different ways of coping with and dissociating from blackness. For instance, Puerto Rico promotes the mixed race of its people, which “serves to distance Afro-Latinos from blackness through the process of blanqueamiento, or ‘whitening.’” On the other hand, Afro-Latin@s in the Dominican Republic tend to identify as indios; “during the late nineteenth century… the Dominican people essentially dropped the words black and mulatto from their vocabulary and replaced them with the less traumatic and more socially desirable indio.” Therefore, I cannot say that Afro-Latin@s dissociate with blackness by referring to themselves as indios, because this term has only proven to apply to the Dominican Republic which includes an “I” for “indio” on its identification cards. Due to these differences, I plan on using the specific Latin@ identifications of my informants, and focusing on the context of blackness in those islands. I am also including the discourse in Puerto Rico for comparison, due to my personal interests, as well as the wealth of data that the ethnography in the Puerto Rican elementary school provides. The trends in each Caribbean island cannot be generalized by my research, but rather incorporated into a larger discourse about Afro-Latin@s and blackness by using specific examples.
Can my informants be discriminated against based on the blatant identification that my research calls for? I have chosen for the identity of my informants to be kept anonymous due to the complexity of self-identification and the stigma that is unfortunately attached to it in society. There are also aspects of their personal lives that may wish to keep private, like dissent towards the practices or leaders of their respective Caribbean homes or communities.
Based on my lack of knowledge about the Caribbean as a whole, I hypothesized that the Afro-Latin@ dissociation from blackness completely revolved around racist ideas that sprouted from slavery. Slavery, and the interactions between white traders and masters with black slaves does play a huge role in the way that blackness is perceived in these Caribbean societies, but there is a multitude of differing historical, theoretical, and even psychological reasons that explain why one may or may not choose to identify as Afro-Latin@.
Thus far, my readings of historical texts in conversation with the first interview that I have conducted has allowed me to get a first-hand view of a specific case of what would be considered an Afro-Latin@, based on The Afro-Latin@ Reader’s definition, not identifying with their Latino roots as opposed to their blackness. This first informant explained that their father, who was from the Dominican Republic, was extremely affected by Trujillo’s reign, and therefore raised the informant to not identify with their Latino roots and more with their black roots. Without interviewing this informant, I wouldn’t have been able to expose this case, which seems like a rarity in the scope of my project. The interview that was conducted with this informant exposed the possibility of Afro-Latin@s growing to resent the Caribbean’s white-washing tactics and dissociation with blackness, as opposed to forming these race-driven societal beliefs.
I expect my other interviews and the information that I extract from Twitter trends to provide a definition of Afro-Latin@ in this day and age that can be related to its definition during the terms emergence. After interpolating this definition, I plan on using these remaining methods to humanize and expose trends of identification with and/or dissociation from blackness by Afro-Latin@s that may or may not relate to historical texts.
Cobas, Jose, Jorge Duany, and Joe Feagin, eds. How the United States Racializes Latinos: White Hegemony and Its Consequences. Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2009.
Godreau, Isar P., Mariolga Reyes Cruz, Mariluz Franco Ortiz, and Sherry Cuadrado. “The Lessons Of Slavery: Discourses Of Slavery, and in An Elementary School In Puerto Rico.” American Ethnologist 35, no. 1 (2008): 115-35.
Jimenez Roman, Miriam, and Juan Flores, eds. The Afro-Latin@ Reader : History and Culture in the United States. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.
Nishida, Mieko. Slavery and Identity: Ethnicity, Gender, and Race in Salvador, Brazil, 1808-1888. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2003.
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Rodriguez-Silva, Ileana M. Silencing Race: Disentangling Blackness, Colonialism, and National Identities in Puerto Rico. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
Tate, Shirley Anne, and Ian Law. Caribbean Racisms: Connections and Complexities in the Racialization of the Caribbean Region. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
Usanna, Karin Weyland. “The Absence of an African Presence in Argentina and the Dominican Republic: Caught Between National Folklore and Myth.” Caribbean Studies 38, no. 1 (2010): 107-27. Accessed October 28, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27944577.
“Williams College 2014-15 Common Data Set.” May 14, 2015. Accessed November 2, 2015. http://provost.williams.edu/files/williams_cds_1415_v3.pdf.
 Nishida, Mieko. Slavery and Identity: Ethnicity, Gender, and Race in Salvador, Brazil, 1808-1888. 121.
 Godreau, Isar P., Mariolga Reyes Cruz, Mariluz Franco Ortiz, and Sherry Cuadrado. “The Lessons Of Slavery: Discourses Of Slavery, and in An Elementary School In Puerto Rico.” 116.
 Cobas, Jose, Jorge Duany, and Joe Feagin, eds. How the United States Racializes Latinos: White Hegemony and Its Consequences. 223.
 “Williams College 2014-15 Common Data Set.” 4.
 Jimenez Roman, Miriam, and Juan Flores, eds. The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States.
 Tate, Shirley Anne, and Ian Law. Caribbean Racisms: Connections and Complexities in the Racialization of the Caribbean Region.
 Jimenez Roman, Miriam, and Juan Flores, eds. The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States. 19.
 Tate, Shirley Anne, and Ian Law. Caribbean Racisms: Connections and Complexities in the Racialization of the Caribbean Region. 1.
 Godreau, Isar P., Mariolga Reyes Cruz, Mariluz Franco Ortiz, and Sherry Cuadrado. “The Lessons Of Slavery: Discourses Of Slavery, and in An Elementary School In Puerto Rico.” 115.
 Godreau, Isar P., Mariolga Reyes Cruz, Mariluz Franco Ortiz, and Sherry Cuadrado. “The Lessons Of Slavery: Discourses Of Slavery, and in An Elementary School In Puerto Rico.” 116.
 Cobas, Jose, Jorge Duany, and Joe Feagin, eds. How the United States Racializes Latinos: White Hegemony and Its Consequences. 216.
 “people of African descent in Mexico, Central and South America, and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, and by extension those of African descent in the United States whose origins are in Latin America and in the Caribbean” –Jimenez Roman, Miriam, and Juan Flores, eds. The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States. 1.