8 Afro Latinas Past and Present Who’ve Broken Down Barriers
By now most of us have seen Amara La Negra’s Breakfast Club interview where she’s defending her Latin heritage as host Charlamagne pretends like he can’t comprehend how someone can be both Black and Latino. And surprise, surprise there is yet another 2016 interview of him feigning ignorance in an interview with Orange Is The New Black’s Dascha Polanco (skip to 7:25). I bring this up because even with stars like Amara, Polanco, and Cardi B saying “Hey, I’m both!” it still seems like people across the board are set on willingly ignoring, misunderstanding, and minimizing a cultural identity that exists in every Latin American country and includes millions of people.
The fact is, being Black in a Latin American country isn’t new or something that was just “discovered” in the Columbus sense. Afro-Latinos have always been here and have been pushing both Black and Latino culture forward in every way imaginable despite facing immense inequality, racism, and overall prejudice. It’s safe to say that Afro-Latinidad is national topic of debate and curiosity – and since Black history includes more than just the United States, here are eight Afro-Latinas who have broken down barriers in the past and present.
María Elena Moyano
Maria Elena Moyano sometimes called “Mother Courage” was a Peruvian social activist who stood up against the militant guerrilla group Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path), that sought to replace the “bourgeois democracy” with “New Democracy” and eventually pure communism. They terrorized, murdered and disappeared thousands of Peruvians in their quest to take over the government. And even though they were known for killing the people who spoke out against them, Moyano made it her mission to organize and speak out against them. At 25 she was elected sub-secretary general of the newly-created Federación Popular de Mujeres de Villa El Salvador, and two years later was elected its president. The group operated 800 communal kitchens across Peru and distributed powdered milk as a part of their Vaso de Leche program. She also mobilized community units to protect “pueblos jóvenes” (shanty towns) against Shining Path attacks. In 1990 she ran for deputy mayor of Villa El Salvador and won, but her position was short lived. On February 15, 1992 Shining Path forces marched into the town, shot her dead and then blew up her body with dynamite. But you can’t kill the revolution, Moyano’s legacy lives on and she remains a stunning example of the impact one woman can make.
Dr. Marta Moreno-Vega
Dr. Marta Moreno-Vega is an accomplished cultural studies scholar focusing on African Diasporic studies, cultural traditions and contributions. She is the founder of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI), she’s a co-founder of the Association of Hispanic Arts, the second director of El Museo del Barrio, and is currently an adjunct professor at NYU’s Department of Arts and Public Policy. Moreno-Vega is vocal about the importance of culturally inclusive and competent education, as well as the importance of knowing ones Afro-Latino heritage. In an interview with Ain’t I Latina she said “There is nothing better than to be proud to see yourself in your beauty and in your globalness, because through our veins run African blood, the Moors of Spain, the European, the Native American, the Asian – we represent the world and we bring the solution to the world.”
Victoria Santa Cruz
Victoria Santa Cruz was a choreographer, a composer and a student of Afro-Peruvian art and Peruvian folklore. Best known in the States for her Cumanana, “Me Gitaron Negra,” Santa Cruz dedicated her life to Afro-Peruvian artistic expression, inspiring conversations about Afro-Latinidad, increasing visibility of Afro-Latinos in Peru and all over the world. After studying theatre and choreography in France she founded the Theatre Company of Black Dances of Peru. She was in charge of the National Folklore Band of National Institute of Culture, she taught at Carnegie Mellon and held workshops in Russia, Israel, Argentina, Spain and Italy just to name a few. In an interview, Santa Cruz made it pretty clear that that she believed dance was an integral part of cultural pride, self reflection, and human empathy/understanding:
“I danced the Charleston since I was young, and little by little I began to discover the meaning of dance, the importance of dance and of African things. Human beings don’t know their origin. How is it that they criticize and despise one another so much? Whites despise Blacks. Blacks despise Blacks. And Indians despise Indians. So what does it mean? Human beings don’t know what they are. So when you start to understand, to discover it, you see. You say, “What am I doing? What is it to be Black? What is it to be white? What is it to be blond?” And we begin to discover life, and we start to understand many, many important things and to see that human beings don’t know where they are.”
AZUCAAAAR! What can be said about her that hasn’t already been said? Úrsula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso, aka “Queen of Salsa” aka “La Guarachera de Cuba” is without a doubt the most prolific Afro-Latina of our time. She earned twenty-three gold albums, in 1994 Bill Clinton awarded her the National Medal of Arts, and she traveled the world spreading Salsa. When Fidel Castro took power she was exiled she began living in the United States. In 1990 she was asked to perform at Guantánamo for American troops, it had been 30 years since she’d stepped foot on her homeland. She knelt, kissed the ground and said: “I have kissed the earth in name of all the Cubans in exile.” She’s buried with a jar of soil she collected on that day. Since her death in 2003, her songs, her image, and her voice continue to be a source of pride and inspiration world wide.
Veronica Chambers is a Panama-born Brooklyn raised critically acclaimed writer and editor best known for her memoir, Mama’s Girl. She’s know for her reflections on Afro-Latina heritage. She’s worked as an executive story editor on the show Girlfriends, she’s developed projects for the N and Fox. Chambers co-authored chef Marcus Samuelsson’s award-winning memoir Yes Chef as well as his young adult memoir Make It Messy. Chambers has collaborated on four New York Times best sellers, she has been a senior editor at the New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, Glamour and she’s written more than a dozen children books as well as a number of both fiction and non-fiction books.
Gwendolyn Ifill is one of the best and most distinguished television news anchor of all time. She was the longtime host of the PBS’ Washington Week and co-anchor of PBS NewsHour and she in 2004 she became the first Black woman to moderate a vice presidential debate, which she did again in 2008. Ifill covered six Presidential campaigns throughout her career, winning the George Peabody Award during the 2008 election for her live 10-city coverage, and she wrote the highly-acclaimed book, The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama. She received more than 20 honorary doctorates, was honored by the Radio and Television News Directors Association, Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center and the National Association of Black Journalists among others. Quite frankly she has too many accolades to mention here. Sadly, she died of cancer in 2016 at the age of 61.
Zulia Mena was Colombia’s first Afro-Colombian Congresswoman! She represents her hometown of Quibdó, one of the poorest regions. She has been pivotal voice in Afro-Colombian women’s rights, as well as the rights of all Afro and Indigenous Colombian Populations. Most notably she is responsible for helping develop Article 55 in the new constitution, that recognizes the rights of Afro-Colombians as well as their collective dominion over their territories and gives them two parliamentary seats.
Ilia Calderón is an acclaimed journalist who is breaking barriers and stereotypes. She is the first Afro-Latina to anchor a news desk on a national evening news Spanish language network, announcing back in November of last year that she would be taking the seat vacated by María Elena Salinas on Noticiero Univision. In 2017, Calderón’s dangerous and uncomfortable interview with a KKK Imperial Wizard was seen around the world further cementing Calderón as a fearless force to be reckoned with. Calderón began her career in 1994 anchoring a local newscast in Medellín where she became the first Black woman to ever host a national news program Noticiero CMI. She has received several recognitions during her professional career, including a National Emmy Award in 2002 and in 2005, she received the “Premio Orquídea” award for best international journalist of the year.