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‘Racism that knocks you out’: a conversation with an Afro Latina about identity

Encuentro Diaspora Afro
Members of Encuentro Diaspora Afro hold signs in support of Black Lives Matter

The Latino community in the United States is very diverse. According to a Pew Research Center study, nearly a quarter of Hispanics consider themselves of African descent. But although they are a large part of the Latino population, many Afro-Latino people do not feel accepted within their own community.

Yvette Modestin, born in Colon, Panama, is a writer and activist who focuses on the Afro-descendant experience in Latin America. She is the founder of Encuentro Diaspora Afro in Boston.

She says there is entrenched racism within the Latino community and forgetfulness from African Americans about Afro-Latinos.

A new narrative of racism

Black History Month is important for everyone. But Modestin says for Latinos it should have a special meaning.

“Immigrant Latinos are walking in this country free and with rights [because] of the African American civil movement,” she said.

But that history is rarely celebrated by Hispanics. “Afro-Latinos” is a term barely known in the Latino community because of its rejection of Blackness. Modestin said Latinos often forget this population is a part of the community.

But the exclusion is not only from Latinos. Some African Americans also see Afro-Latinx people as outsiders. Modestin says last year, during the Black Lives Matter protests, Afro-Latinos felt displaced from the cause. Some didn’t embrace it because they didn’t recognize their own Black life.

“We feel left out of conversations about race in the United States. We have to constantly present ourselves, so they hear this new story, this new narrative [of] racism,” said Modestin.

A cultural shock

When Modestin arrived in Boston from Panama for college, she was shocked by the way Latinos rejected their roots. She said some Black Latinos think of themselves as white Latinos and they live in two conflicting worlds.

”It hasn't been easier for me to say that I am Afro-Latino because Latinos themselves don't accept the term Afro-Latino. Because we do not accept that we are Afro-descendants,” she said.

When Modestin enters an African American space, they tell her: “I am surprised that you recognize yourself as Black because I have seen Latinos who do not identify themselves as Black.”

She says, “The way Latinos are seen in this country is from a white point, from a white gaze that does not recognize a Black history.”

“I have stood in front of Latinos, and they are the ones who question me the most,” Modestin said. “Racism within the Latino community is such a painful thing,”

Encuentro Diaspora Afro was born because of that discrepancy. Afro-Latinos needed a safe space to have conversations about what it means to be Black, but it is still uncomfortable.

Modestin works with some young people whose families tell them to not present themselves as Black so people don’t mistreat them. Many do not recognize themselves as Afro-Latino for fear of being treated poorly.

For many, saying they are just Latinos is protection against anti-Blackness and racism.

 Yvette Modestin
Yvette Modestin

They want to see themselves

If Afro-Latinos are not recognized within their own community, it is difficult to be recognized in mainstream TV and films. Modestin says there are many actors and actresses who can play the part of Afro-Latinos, but they rarely do.

Last year Lin-Manuel Miranda apologized for the alleged colorism and lack of racial representation in the film In the Heights, which portrays the Latino community in a part of New York City.

For Modestin, that apology is just the tip of the iceberg. “Hollywood only sees Latinos from the version of Lin Manuel [Miranda],” she said.

A shift of mentality

Modestin said there was a time when people wanted to have conversations about race in Latin America but usually, they quickly went silent. There was a fear to talk about race.

“I have colleagues who have died for health reasons, for fighting this fight, threatened for speaking this truth, and who have been killed for speaking this truth,” she said.

But times are changing and small shifts in mentality are occurring. There is Epsy Campbell, a woman of Jamaican descent who is now the vice president of Costa Rica, and Francia Marqués who is running for president of Colombia.

But as in the rest of the U.S, Modestin said, in New England, there is still ignorance, even if the states are allegedly progressive. “There is racism that knocks you out because you don't see it when it comes to you.”

A snap of “Afro-Latinidad”

Modestin advises those who do not know how to identify yet to not surrender their power and learn more about their deep story of pain, livelihood, and rights. She shared one of her poems with NHPR, which we translated from Spanish:

Mangú, mofongo, the drum, the sauce, the bembé.

Héctor Lavoe and Willie Colón, they sang, they dance it in Venezuela, they dance it in Panama, this rhythm is African and wherever it is going to end up, ché ché colé.

This is Africa in Latin America, the transatlantic slave trade was our history, it is our history!

To learn more about Afro Latino history  you can find a list of book recommendations here.

Gabriela Lozada is a Report for America corps member. Her focus is on Latinx community with original reporting done in Spanish for ¿Qué hay de Nuevo NH?.

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