It’s no secret, history lessons aren’t as complete as we’ve been taught to believe. Entire nations have been erased, battles and revolts rewritten, and communities left out by design. For Afro-Latinxs, it’s taken a lot of digging to unearth our history both within the U.S. as well as across Latin America and the Caribbean.
Afro-Boricua scholar and activist Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, Cuban poet and political activist Nicolás Guillén, and Major League Baseball player Roberto Clemente, among others, are often recognized during Black History Month or Latino Heritage Month, but our rich histories and figures deserve to be acknowledged all year round within history books. Not always mentioned,
Afro-Latinas have played a pivotal role in shaping our history throughout global movements. While there are many in entertainment, the arts, activism and beyond that have defined history, here are 12 Afro-Latina game changers who’ve made a lasting impact across the globe:
Sylvia del Villard, February 28, 1928 – February 28, 1990
An outspoken activist, actress and dancer, Sylvia del Villard became the first and only director of the office of the Afro-Puerto Rican affairs of the Puerto Rican Institute of Culture. Born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, she studied at Fisk University in Tennessee, where she encountered the discrimination and anti-Blackness of the south, later returning to Puerto Rico. Upon her return to New York City, the artist connected with her roots, joining a ballet group called the Africa House and tracing her roots to the Yoruba people of Nigeria. She went on to establish the Afro-Boricua El Coqui Theater, which the Panamerican Association of the New World Festival named “as the most important authority of Black Puerto Rican culture.” del Villard fought for equal rights for Afro-Puerto Rican artists.
Sara Gómez, (November 8, 1942 – June 2, 1974)
Sara Gómez hailed from the Havana neighborhood of Guanabacoa, which is traditionally known as one of the epicenters of Afro-Cuban pop culture. After working as a journalist, she joined the newly-established Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC) in 1961 and was one of only two black filmmakers at the time, and for several years its only woman director.
There the Afro-Cuban director worked with Jorge Fraga and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, as well as visiting French director Agnès Varda. She directed several short documentaries that brought a critical perspective toward Cuban revolutionary society, specifically the position of women and Afro-Cubans, and introduced important cinematic conversations. With her debut film, Iré a Santiago, she became the first female film director in Cuba. She created several shorts and before she could complete her first feature De cierta manera, she died at the young age of 31. The film was completed posthumously by Gutiérrez Alea and Julio García Espinosa.
Dominga Cruz Becerril (1909-circa 1970s)
Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, Dominga Cruz Becerril is known as the “One Who Picked up the Flag” for her heroic act of “rescuing” the Puerto Rican flag that was left on the ground during the Ponce Massacre of 1937. She became a lectora at a tobacco factory, where she was inspired by her reading of Latin America freedom movements to join the Nationalist Party in the 1930s. Cruz Becerril rebuilt the women’s sector of the movement into trained fighters.
When she testified that she picked up the flag, in the midst of danger, she said “because Maestro [Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos] taught me that the flag of the homeland should never fall on the ground.” Due to government persecution, she lived the majority of her remaining years in Cuba.
Mamá Tingó (November 8, 1921 – November 3, 1974)
Florinda Soriano Muñoz, better known as Mamá Tingó, fought for land rights in the Dominican Republic. Mama Tingó was a farmer, activist and defender of the rural farming community in the DR, and despite her age she participated heavily in directing the farmworkers movement. Sadly, she was killed at the age of 52 while defending her land.
Clara Ledesma (March 5, 1924 – May 25, 1999)
One of the first women to attend the School of National Fine Arts, Clara Ledesma was born in Santiago in the Dominican Republic. The award-winning artist opened a studio in 1951 where she had her first solo exhibition, and four years later she was named vice director of the National School of Fine Arts. Ledesma had numerous international solo exhibitions, including events in Madrid, Mexico City and New York City, and participated in group exhibitions in Brazil, Spain, Cuba, Haiti, Venezuela, Argentina and Puerto Rico.
Pura Belpré (February 2, 1899 – July 1, 1982)
An activist, storyteller, librarian, and folklorist, Pura Belpré revolutionized the library experience for the Spanish-speaking community in New York City. Belpré became the first Puerto Rican librarian at the New York Public Library in 1921, and began instituting bilingual story hours, implementing Spanish-language books and programs based on traditional holidays like Three Kings Day. After not being able to find any books for children in Spanish, she wrote Perez y Martina, a tale of a romance between a cockroach and a mouse. It was published in 1932, becoming the first Spanish language book for children published by a mainstream U.S. press.
Xica da Silva (1732 – 1796)
Despite being born into slavery, Xica da Silva, also known as Francisca da Silva de Oliveira or Chica da Silva, became one of the richest and most influential Brazilians of the 18th century. Although many facts surrounding her life are unclear, Xica became the property of a wealthy diamond mine owner named João Fernandes da Oliveira, later becoming his “unofficial” wife and having 13 children with him. When Fernandes returned to Portugal, he reportedly left her with his New World wealth, which included several slaves. She became a member of a number of prestigious social clubs, and was buried in a cemetery reserved for the white colonial elite.
Maria Firmina dos Reis (October 11, 1825 – November 11, 1917)
Born in São Luís, Maranhão in Brazil, Maria Firmina dos Reis is an abolitionist, author and poet. Her 1859 novel Úrsula was a depiction of life for Afro-Brazilians under slavery.
Virginia Brindis de Salas (September 18, 1908–April 6, 1958)
Known as a poet of the Afro-Uruguayan community, Virginia Brindis de Salas was born in Montevideo, Uruguay. As the country’s leading Black woman poet, Brindis de Salas was considered “the most militant among Afro-Uruguayan writers.” She was an active contributor to the black artistic journal Nuestra Raza and her work made her, along with fellow Afro-Uruguayan Pilar Barrios, one of the few published Uruguayan women poets.
Julia López (1936 -)
A self-taught Mexican painter, Julia López was born to African and Amuzgo heritage parents in a small village near the town of Ometepec on the Costa Chica of Guerrero. She moved to Mexico City early in life, and began in the artist scene as a model, posing for well-known artists such as José Chávez Morado, Vlady and Diego Rivera, which morphed into drawing and painting. López began exhibiting in 1958 and since then has exhibited individually and collectively in Mexico, the United States and Europe. Her work has been recognized with awards and membership in the Salón de la Plástica Mexicana.
María Elena Moyano Delgado (November 29, 1958 – February 15, 1992)
María Elena Moyano is a Peruvian feminist, community organizer and activist of Afro-Peruvian descent. Born in the (Barranco district of) Lima, Peru, her activism began in her teens and only grew stronger with age. At the age of 25, she was elected president of the Federación Popular de Mujeres de Villa El Salvador (Fepomuves), a federation of women from Villa El Salvador. Under Moyano’s leadership, the organization grew to include public kitchens, health committees, the Vaso de Leche program (which supplied children with milk), income-generating projects, and committees for basic education. Moyano left her position in Fepomuves in 1990 and shortly thereafter was elected deputy mayor of the municipality of Villa El Salvador. As an outspoken leader, she faced pushback and even death threats. Unfortunately, she was assassinated on February 15, 1992, which resulted in a public outcry.
Victoria Santa Cruz (October 27, 1922 – August 30, 2014)
An Afro-Peruvian choreographer, composer, and activist, Victoria Eugenia Santa Cruz Gamarra is referred to as “the mother of Afro-Peruvian dance and theatre.” Born in Lima, she founded the dance company Teatro y Danzas Negras del Perú, with whom she presented numerous shows in national theaters and television. The group represented Peru in the festivities for the Olympic Games in Mexico, 1968 where they received a medal and diploma for their work. Santa Cruz has won several awards and recognized for her work. Her poem “Me Gritaron Negra” (“They Called Me Black”) has gone viral in recent years.