The theater at the Studio Museum was so packed for this past weekend’s Target Free Sundays event, that security guards were reluctant to let more people enter.
The scheduled “Black and Latino Literary Salon: Exploring the Afro-Latin@ Experience” had enticed African-Americans, Afro Latinos, Afro Caribbeans and various others out to attend a talk about the lives of Latinos of African descent.
The salon featured Juan Flores and Miriam Jimenez Roman–editors of “The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States”–being interviewed by Celeste Headlee, co-host of the WNYC radio morning news program “The Takeaway.”
The interview made reference to sections of the book that looked at how Black Latinos have forged their way in U.S. society, dealing with issues of race, class and the constant questioning of their cultural heritage.
Jimenez Roman told about when the Afro-Cuban jazz singer Graciela arrived in New York City in 1943. Graciela went straight to Harlem, where the bandleader Mario Bauza had rented an apartment. Bauza’s place was too small for the both of them. But the only way they could obtain another rental unit was to get the white wife of a friend to pose as if she wanted to rent a two-bedroom. Once she qualified for the space, Bauza and Graciela were able to move in.
“She knew she was as Black here as she was in Cuba,” Jimenez commented, “and that her community would be with African-Americans.”
Graciela’s experiences of racism in New York were only geographically different from what she had experienced in Havana, Cuba.
As in all Latino cultures, Cuba was formed by the massive influence of forced African migration. Flores and Jimenez noted that because people of African descent and the indigenous were the majority in many Spanish-based countries, “You could not institutionalize racism, but you could create systems to keep people down.”
With European descent glamorized and African and indigenous descent methodically devalued, there was little room for acceptance of popular traditions or cultures that tended to be African-based.
“This is part of the problem,” Jimenez said: “When we think about many Latino cultures we reference the Black experience and influence. There would be references to other cultures as well, but Africans were the creative energies in most of our countries.”
This negation of the Black influence on Latin culture has translated into a negation of the possibility of Latinos being Black. “The Afro-Latin@ Reader” looks at how Afro Latinos have adjusted to life in the United States and the ways they have been able to remain both Black and Latino.
The next book presentation and signing for “The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States,” edited by Juan Flores and Miriam Jimenez Roman (Duke University Press, 2010) will take place on Thursday, December 2 at 5 p.m. at City College.