National Hispanic Heritage Month Needs Afro-Latino Heroes

WWhen Arturo Schomburg, the hen of Puerto Rico’s 1880s was still a young child, his teacher told him once that Blacks had no history and achievements to be proud. Schomburg, the son of a Black mother with a German father, was incensed and motivated to prove his teacher wrong. He’d later refer to the erasure of Black Puerto Rican achievement as “a conspiracy of silence” and dedicated the rest of his life to documenting and preserving the histories of Black people across the diaspora—African Americans, Afro-Latinos, Africans, and more. Schomburg, a New York City teenager who moved to New York in 1891 as an adult, became an archivist. Schomburg is also a writer and known for being one of the fathers on Black history. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (founded in 1925) is located in Harlem.

However, Black Puerto Rican History is still much unexplored. An uncomfortable middle ground still exists between Black and Hispanic histories. Schomberg came up in my search for understanding my heritage as a Puerto Rican woman and a member of the African American community. My upbringing taught me to pride in Black American leaders I could look up to, such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Their images could be found in children’s books, shows, and songs that affirmed a love for my Blackness and the contributions of African American people. And yet, on the Puerto Rican side, the historical heroes I’d come to know were not people who looked like me, despite the key role of Africans in Puerto Rico’s national story.

Experts on race in Latin America say my experience isn’t an outlier. “There has been an erasure, and my own opinion is that it’s likely that much of it has been unintentional, but deleterious nevertheless,” says Tanya K. Hernández, professor of law at Fordham University and author of Racial Innocence: The Unmasking of Latino Anti-Blackness. “Within the media, fostered in many respects by Latino leaders themselves, there’s been this vision of what a Latino looks like and thus whose history matters. What are their representatives? This vision of Latinos depicts a person of white appearance. Afro-Latinos are not part of the narrative.”

Although 90% of Africans who were trafficked through the trans-Atlantic slavery trade ended up in Latin America, Latin America and/or the Caribbean, their history has been often ignored or simplified by public discourse. “Is usually circumscribed to ‘Okay, once upon a time there was this thing called slavery. And then it ended,’” says Hernández. “It not only erases the contemporary existence of Afro-Latinos, it also makes it look as if [that identity] is just sort of a historical artifact that has nothing to do with our contemporary realities.”

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This omission explains why, growing up, I had a hard time finding Afro-Latino heroes and changemakers in Latino Heritage celebrations—including the annual observance of National Hispanic Heritage Month, beginning Sept. 15—despite Afro-Latinos (or Black Latinos) making up significant populations at home and abroad. The Pew Research Center estimates that 6 million Afro-Latinos identify in the U.S. A few Afro-Latino icons, such as Roberto Clemente from Puerto Rico, Celia Cruz of Cuba, and Tego Calderon, a Puerto Rican reggaeton musician, did receive greater recognition. But Hernández says there are nuances to pay attention to when Afro-Latinos are only celebrated in an entertainment context.

Yout’s part of a dynamic [in which] Blackness is appropriate in its ‘proper’ place. Blacks are allowed to dance for you, to sing for you, to play sports for you,” she argues. “But their intellectual contributions are viewed as nil and unimportant.”

Untold tales of Afro-Latino pioneers in America’s history are told. They were forced to live in racially homogeneous societies with little recognition or distinction of their particular cultural roots.

Take, for example, Cresencia “Joyce” Garcia, a Black Puerto Rican woman who served in World War II, helping to save the lives of soldiers at various hospitals.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Garcia enlisted in the Army. Cresencia was sent to a segregated unit known as “Six Triple Eight“: the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. Because Garcia was a nurse before the war she worked as a hospital aide and medic tending to all kinds of wounded. As a member of the 6888th, she’d have the distinction of being in the only all-Black, all-women’s unit that went abroad during the war.

Garcia, despite her courage and dedication, felt the stings of racism within the Army just before her unit was sent to Europe. Garcia would have to test her resolve at Fort Des Moines (Iowa) and Fort Oglethorpe (Georgia).

“Having never been in the South before, all of a sudden she’s subject to the rules and laws there,” says Tara Garcia, her granddaughter. “It was being forced to eat outside in the back of the restaurant, being forced to give up her seat to white passengers, not being able to shop at certain places, everything. She was miserable.”

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Garcia was also sometimes feeling isolated as she is Afro-Latina. This made her feel not fully supported by both Black comrades and white Americans. It wasn’t until Garcia went abroad during the war, she told her family, that she was treated well—ironically, by non-Americans.

Cresencia Garcia wouldn’t tell the full story of her military service to her family until 2020 when, at nearly 100 years old, she fell ill with COVID-19. Garcia’s recovery from COVID-19 went public thanks to a tweet from CBS journalist David Begnaud. According to Oprah Daily, a retired Army colonel who’d produced a documentary about the 6888th, Edna Cummings, took notice. She Facebook-messaged Tara to inform her of the hidden history of her grandmother’s monumental service.

Since then Tara Garcia has been determined to keep her grandmother’s story alive, doing things like working with the U.S. Army Women’s Museum to feature her uniform. Cresencia Garcia won COVID-19. President Biden signed a bill, bipartisan in nature, to honour her and all the members of 6888th with Congressional Gold Medals.

“It’s vindication for my family. It’s vindication for her. It’s vindication for anyone who has had to walk a difficult path,” Tara Garcia says. Tara Garcia has a greater appreciation for Afro-Latino stories and the fact that her grandmother was a part of American history. “What do you do with that feeling, with that notion that you are different but can’t really grasp why? And when you can’t define that, you just have to walk in the world as is.”

Sylvia del Villard Moreno was an Afro Latina activist who faced the ugly reality of segregation in America. Del Villard, like Schomberg or Garcia was born in Puerto Rico and traveled to the United States on a scholarship. She studied sociology and anthropology, but the Jim Crow South was unwelcoming to her as a Black woman, and Del Villard opted to finish her education at the University of Puerto Rico, earning both a bachelor’s and master’s degree. After graduating, Del Villard returned to America and studied at City College of New York as well as the Met Opera. In the end, she was a successful actor and ballerina. Del Villard joined the Africa House troupe and was able trace her roots back to Nigeria’s Yoruba tribes.

She earned the moniker “La Majestad Negra” (Black Majesty) and went on to open multiple performing arts theaters, including the Teatro Afro-Boricua El Coquí and Luis Palés Matos Theater.

Notably, Del Villard celebrated and elevated her African roots as much as her Puerto Rican roots— but her Afro-centricity wasn’t always welcome in her native island of Puerto Rico.

After having the courage to condemn a popular blackface character—“Chianita,” played by actor Angela Mayer—she was blacklisted by local television shotcallers in the 1970s and bullied by neighbors who wanted her theater shut down for being “disruptive,” according to historian and academic Dr. Will Guzmán, who documented her life story.

“It’s a shame that her work in the arts still hasn’t received the recognition it deserves in her native Puerto Rico, while second and third-rate politicians are constantly being immortalized,” wrote journalist Juan A. Moreno-Velázquez, her nephew, in a tribute to Del Villard from 2018.

Shortly before she died from lung cancer in 1990, Del Villard would present a talk entitled “Racism in the Puerto Rican Nation” at—as fate would have it—the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Schomburg’s, Garcia’s, and Del Villard’s stories are only a small part of a larger narrative about Latino Heritage. It would be more true and richer if we recognized the contributions of Black Latinos to the United States and other countries. These individuals’ legacies are a challenge to us to go out and find more stories that are waiting to be told.

Natasha S. Alford, Vice President Digital Content and Senior Correspondent at theGrio is Natasha S. Alford. Additionally, she is the executive producer for the documentary Afro-Latinx Revolution: Puerto RicoThe author of the forthcoming memoir American Negra.

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