It took a while for people – including Latinos – to accept, embrace, and fully understand the term Afro-Latino(a). Racial identity in our community is especially complex, due in large part to our Spanish colonial history. For centuries Latinos were conditioned to embrace their European ancestry and deny their African and indigenous roots, which makes such a big part of who we are, not just DNA wise but culturally too.
The term Afro-Latino(a) refers to a Latino(a) of African descent and it’s also not exclusive to Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans. According to Pew Research, there are Afro-Latinos throughout Latin America including in Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, and Ecuador, with much smaller percentages in remaining countries in Central and South America.
It’s only been in recent years that we’ve really digested the term, which is why there’s still so much pain and ignorance around it. So of course, there are even more questions surrounding a more recent term Latinas are currently using as an identifier: Afro-Indigenous Latin(o)a.
Unless you live in NYC, you probably don’t hear it often, and even there, it’s only every now and again, spoken normally amongst very politically and socially-conscious young Latinxs. But what does it mean?
“I think Afro-Indigenous and Latina might be mutually exclusive, politically speaking. But, let’s consider the implications of putting these three political locations (identities) together,” says Dr. Ana-Maurine Laura, an anthropology and Latino studies professor and author of Erzulie’s Skirt.
“What we might be referring to is the desire to identify the ways in which people are of African descent, indigenous descent (from the first nations/peoples of the Americas), and from places and geographies that were established through Spanish and Portuguese imperialism, this is why I say it might be that Afro-Indigenous and Latina are mutually exclusive,” she adds. “Often times, if you are oriented toward your indigenous identity, you are less likely to identify with the imperial/colonial powers that shape our collective history.”
We all learned in Latin history that before the Spanish colonized what is now Latin America, there were the Indigenous communities that consisted of the Aztecs, the Incas, and the Tainos. The Spanish also eventually brought with them slaves from countries in Western Africa. So it’s not unusual to meet a Latino(a) from South America especially, that’s mixed with European, African, and Indigenous ancestry. In fact, it’s quite common. But is it accurate to identify as Afro-Indigenous Latina if you come from a country in the Caribbean like Cuba, Dominican Republic, or Puerto Rico where a large percentage of Tainos were either killed off by the Spanish or died due to European disease spread? Apparently, the answer isn’t simple.
For starters, Dr. Laura confirms that Afro-Indigenous communities exist all throughout Latin America.
“When I am thinking of Afro-Indigeneous Latinas, I am not just thinking about the Caribbean. I am thinking about ALL of Latino America and the Caribbean,” she says. “There are many, many Afro-Indigenous communities throughout the Americas, including the Garifuna people of Central America, and the Afro-Indigenous communities of Costa Chica in Mexico and Zambo (Afro-Indigenous communities of the Caribbean), not to mention folks in Colombia, Bolivia, Brazil and Peru.”
But the confusion of identity in the Caribbean is a lot more politically involved than one would think.
“This question of indigenous presence and extinction is contentious for so many reasons, the least of which is who has had the power to tell history. In most of the Hispano-Caribbean, the power of history-making has rested with intellectual elite,” Dr. Laura says. “In the Dominican Republic, the Trujillato (the government governed by dictator Rafael Trujillo) had a very strong impact on the way in which history was re-imagined. In Puerto Rico, the U.S. colonization of Puerto Rico has shaped both narratives of Indigenous extinctions and of resurgence movements. In Cuba, the Revolution both made space and silenced particular narratives of differences.”
What a lot of people don’t know or realize is how long the enslavement of Indigenous people existed in the Caribbean. Dr. Laura explains how it continued in Puerto Rico and Cuba well into the 19th century and in the Dominican Republic until the late 18th century.
“What indigeneity looks like in the context of Caribbean colonization is also markedly different from what it looks like on the mainland, specifically because of how Indigenous and Afro-descent people allied themselves to ensure their mutual survival – into the present day,” she adds. “Their socio-political organization, language, political and social systems were devastated – that is true – and driven into the ground. But where we see Indigenous memory and survival is in Caribbean agricultural practices, cultural and spiritual beliefs and practices, and in some communities – the articulation of an Indigenous self-identification and consciousness.”
It’s the Indigenous and African memory of Latin America that inspired Ysanet Batista and Merelis Catalina Ortiz to create Woke Foods, a food business that makes vegan dishes inspired by their Dominican roots. Both Women identify as Afro-Indigenous Dominicanas.
“Identifying as an Afro-Indigenous Dominicana is embracing and claiming all parts of me. My identity includes my African, indigenous, specifically the Taino people, my Spanish ancestors, as well as my ethnic background,” says Ortiz. “To be Afro-Indigenous Dominican is to remember my roots, which is very important to me; to recognize the gifts, the wisdom of the Indigenous and African people of Kiskeya, the Taino word to describe the island of what is today Dominican Republic and Haiti.”
Ortiz and Batista embrace the Indigenous practices of growing their own vegetables, preparing their own foods, and using it to heal their bodies. It is one of the ways they honor this part of their heritage.
“This wisdom includes using plants and food as medicine, the passing down of recipes like casaba, a crispy flatbread made of cassava, that was made by the Taino peoples and the sancocho, which is a soup-like stew that the enslaved African peoples made with whatever foods were leftover and available to them,” adds Ortiz.
“It is important to claim this identity because it is our herstory and while it is a story that comes with hurt, pain, genocide, and rape, it also has resistance, culture, and unity,” says Batista. “I am proud of my African and Indigenous ancestry and love all the food, music, tradition, and melanin that I have inherited.”
Dr. Laura also makes one last important point. The Afro-Indigenous Latina identifying movement is not to be confused with the erasure of blackness in Latin America through a romanticized claim to indigeneity. That is not what’s happening here, though it has happened in the past.
“There are many examples of Indigenous-Afro solidarity across many spheres,” she adds. “And there are many examples, too, of people claiming indigeneity or whiteness to erase blackness/Afro-descent but it is important to distinguish these examples from the very work that is happening from Afro-Indigeneous people in the Caribbean and Latin America in their efforts to make space and to counter the ongoing, damaging efforts of colonial history, processes, and societies.”