Hispanic Heritage Month: The African contribution

KIM HAAS | 9/19/2013, 5:14 p.m.

Hispanic Heritage Month, Sept. 15-Oct. 15, offers an opportunity to illuminate what is too often overlooked—the African influence and tradition in Hispanic culture. Today, approximately 150 million Latin Americans have some African ancestry.

For more than 500 years, Africans and their descendents richly contributed to the fabric of Latin American society. During the Middle Passage, an estimated 12 million enslaved Africans were shipped to the Americas. Of this group, less than 10 percent were brought to the United States. The overwhelming majority were transported to the Caribbean and Latin America, where they provided free labor under exceptionally brutal conditions. They worked on cattle ranches in Brazil, in mines in Colombia, on sugar plantations in Ecuador and in other areas throughout the region.

From the pre-Columbian era to the colonial period through independence from Spain, Africans have been present in Latin America. Juan Garrido, born in Africa, traveled to the Americas in the 1500s, participating in the conquest of Mexico.

In 1829, a newly formed Mexico was governed by its second president, Vicente Guerrero, whose paternal lineage was traced to enslaved Africans. Antonio Maceo, the son of an Afro-Cuban mother, known as “The Bronze Titan,” was considered one of the greatest commanders in Cuba’s fight for independence.

Latin Americans of African descent, often referred to as Afro-Latinos, synchronized their African traditions with Latin culture, creating enduring African roots throughout Latin America. For example, Cuba’s Santeria religious tradition traces its roots to Nigeria’s Yoruba. Mofongo, Puerto Rico’s savory fried plantain dish, is of West African origin. And the Dominican Republic’s signature sound, merengue, developed from strong African rhythms.

Enslaved Afro-Peruvians repurposed the cajon, a box whose original purpose was to transport fruit, into a musical instrument with incredible tone and texture that has become the symbol of Peruvian music. It’s incomprehensible to imagine Brazil without its iconic musical genre, samba. Its genesis is tied to Afro-Brazilians living in impoverished conditions. Brazil’s neighbor, Uruguay, enjoys an annual carnival celebration, renowned for its hypnotic Afro-Uruguayan drum rhythms.

While Africans of Latino descent have resided in the Americas for centuries, one Afro-Latino is credited with being the first immigrant to settle in New York City. His name was Juan Rodriguez, described as an African or mulatto. Trading one island for another, he emigrated from Hispaniola (Dominican Republic) to Manhattan, arriving in New York City in 1613.

Today, New York City is the home of most of the United States’ 4 million Afro-Latinos. In addition to being the center of Puerto Rican and Dominican culture in the country, New York City is also where Afro-Latinos from throughout the Diaspora reside. It’s a true melting pot of Afro-Costa Ricans, Afro-Ecuadorians, Afro-Panamanians and Garifunas, people of African descent from Honduras, Belize, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

Whether in New York City or throughout Latin America, Afro-Latinos have deep roots in the Americas, forming the heart and soul of much of what is prized throughout the region.