By Petra Rivera-Rideau, Omaris Z. Zamora, Sandy Plácido, and Dixa Ramirez
In recognizing and remembering the ongoing legacy of Black and Latinx feminisms we begin with a question: where can we talk about Afro-Latinx feminisms? In making a contribution to the dialogue on women of color feminisms we believe it’s important to also recognize, remember, and give visibility to the ways that Afro-latinx women experience, create, and theorize their own experiences. Hence, we respond to the question: What do Afro-Latinx Feminisms add to the conversation about the connections between Black and Latinx Feminisms?
I remember when I first found Angela Jorge’s “The Black Puerto Rican Woman in Contemporary American Society,” tucked in the back of the second edition of Edna Acosta-Belén’s volume, The Puerto Rican Woman: Perspectives on Culture, History, and Society.[i] As a young Puerto Rican woman committed to combatting racism in my own community, this essay seemed profound. And yet, I hadn’t encountered it in any of my classes dealing with Black or Latinx feminist theory, which tended to focus on the experiences of either African-Americans or mestiza Latinas. Even now, as I peruse sample syllabi on Black and Latinx feminism in preparation to teach my own course this spring, I rarely encounter Jorge or other Afro-Latinx writers despite their focus on blackness, Latinidad, and gender – questions at the very heart of these fields. But I am also not surprised. The very same issues that Jorge brings up around the invisibility of black Puerto Rican women ironically (or maybe not so ironically) appear to have relegated writings by women like Angela Jorge to the margins of our discussions about Latinx feminisms.
Like the work of many other Black and Latinx feminists, Angela Jorge’s “The Black Puerto Rican Woman in Contemporary American Society” criticizes the racism within mainstream feminist movements that overlook the experiences and discrimination faced by women of color, but she calls out Puerto Rican feminists in particular for ignoring the persistence of racism within Puerto Rican communities. Jorge recounts stories of family pressures to “adelantar la raza” [improve the race] or navigate Eurocentric beauty standards. Jorge’s stories are not unique; several other Afro-Puerto Rican women have all detailed issues related to family life, romantic relationships, and beauty politics (among others) that impact individual women, and maintain antiblack racism within Puerto Rico and its diaspora.[ii]
Consequently, Jorge argues that the feminist movement must tackle the issue of racism within the Puerto Rican community. She writes,
The black Puerto Rican woman is in a unique position since her oppression is threefold. She is oppressed because of her sex, cultural identity, and color. One would think that this three-sided oppression is sufficient; however, she is further oppressed by the act of omission or absence of literature addressing her needs. She is an endangered species which has attracted little attention or outcry from a concerned Puerto Rican professional community.[iii]
For Jorge, at stake in this erasure is the “genocide” of black Puerto Rican women who may “assimilate” into African American communities, and thus no longer be connected “socially and emotionally with the Puerto Rican community.”[iv] While her argument may seem extreme, Jorge’s underlying point – that the black Puerto Rican woman must “integrate the parts of herself – black, Puerto Rican, and woman – into a meaningful whole” – cogently demonstrates how antiblackness not only hinders the women’s movement, but also Puerto Rican communities.
Angela Jorge’s insistence on the recognition of racism within Latinx communities as critical to women’s movements cannot be ignored. In fact, discussions of racism within Latinx communities are often fraught, something Jorge acknowledges: “For many, the title of this chapter will be unacceptable, since it will be perceived as divisive precisely at a time when the Puerto Rican people need to be united. However, it seems to me that nothing can be more obviously divisive than the exclusion of this topic in particular and of the question of color in general from the debate on Puerto Rican identity on the mainland.”[v] Like many places in Latin America, Puerto Rico’s national identity is defined in part by race mixture. “La gran familia puertorriqueña”, or the Great Puerto Rican Family, supposedly descends from African, Taíno, and Spanish ancestors who have allegedly co-existed without racial discrimination. This ideology carries over into Puerto Rican communities in the United States, where Latinidad more generally has been constructed as racially mixed and distinct from blackness.
I choose to have my own commentary summarize Jorge’s work in order to lay bare the way her work has been too often excluded. Just as Jorge argued that black Puerto Rican women have been left out of feminist movements, our conversations about Latinx feminisms too often exclude the work of Jorge and other Afro-Puerto Rican feminist theorists. Moreover, this issue is also not unique to Puerto Ricans. Black communities have a long history throughout Latin America, where they face similar discourses of mestizaje that reproduce antiblack racism. In this context, the invisibility of Afro-Latinx feminist writers is hardly surprising. Oftentimes, calling attention to antiblack racism within Latinx communities has been met with accusations that one is imposing U.S. ideas about race into otherwise “racially harmonious” societies. However, Afro-Latinx feminisms are not necessarily copying African Americans; rather, they are writing from their own experiences and positionalities as black women within Latinx communities mired by the same global antiblackness that affects African American feminists. The fact that antiblack racism persists within many Latinx communities means that a feminist practice that advocates for all women cannot ignore racism within its midst. For me, Afro-Latinx feminisms ensure that combatting racism in all forms, including within Latinx communities, is part and parcel of feminist actions for social justice.
Omaris Z. Zamora:
Black and Chicanx or Latinx women reclaim a feminist theory that re-centers the racialized woman’s body, or as Cherrí Moraga describes, “a theory in the flesh”.[vi] A feminist theory in the flesh formed from the margins that highlights lived experience—from and through the body—and challenges the homeplace of racialized women is a political necessity. This is to say that, phenomenology and the body become a place from which to theorize.
But what bodies are accounted for? Which are not? To further extend our knowledge of these feminisms and the bodies from which its theories emerge when thinking specifically about issues of transnationalism, African diaspora, and the fluidity of identities: Where can we locate the AfroLatina body?[vii] If we take this question as a point of departure, one would think it possible to refer to Black or Chicano feminist thought as theoretical framework to locate ourselves. Nonetheless, these frameworks have their limits or empty spaces where as AfroLatina women, we cannot locate ourselves. Chicano feminist thought—which has become a hegemonic feminist Latino thought— does not take black women into account outside of ways that are parenthetical or invoke a discourse of racial harmony. Meanwhile, trying to find ourselves within Black feminist thought is a complicated task due to its essentializing of blackness that does not open itself to the vast inclusion of afro-descendants outside the United States. It concentrates on a racial construction in the United States that complicates how we can understand AfroLatinx identity. Afro-Dominican writer and scholar Ana Maurine Lara highlights this perspective when she argues that:
The spaces that Afro-Latinas in the United States occupy are undefined spaces that result from the ways in which race has been constructed in U.S. society. Because of these constructions, and the institutions built around them, many Afro-Latinas are often not seen by Black American nor by other Latinos. We must in turn push to be seen.[viii]
Lara presents the invisibility and the identity negotiations that AfroLatina women must employ and, in specific, how they have yet to be recognized as an essential part of understanding the complexity of Latinx and Black identities. To locate an Afro-Latinx feminist thought we must obtain a fluid positionality that recognizes and articulates the many transformations that Afro-Latina women experience. AfroLatinx feminisms juxtapose Black and Latinx feminist scholarship by challenging the homogeneity of Black and Latinx identities as well as highlighting a transnational context that centers the African diaspora.
First-generation, working-class, or transnational AfroLatinas enter unchartered territory as black Latina women who do not fit the presumed mold of blackness or latinidad. Hence, it is central for us to acknowledge the necessary fluidity that our subjectivities rely on for survival and recognition. Being fluid means that you also recognize that blackness is not just African American. Recognizing fluidity means that the existence of the African diaspora or Afro-descendants throughout the world challenges our limited understanding of blackness. It means being black and being Dominican is possible. Being black and Brazilian is possible. It means that “Latino” is not a race. It means that we have to sit and think through dislocation, displacement, and the ongoing movement of our bodies and our identities. What would it mean and look like to theorize from a black Latinx woman’s flesh? I suggest that we, AfroLatinas, continue and contribute to the legacy of our Black and Latinx feminist genealogies and theorize from the flesh centering our experiences of transformation, transnational, and transient subjectivities that are in continuous transition from place to place.
AfroLatinx feminisms that recognize the complexity of black subjectivities can be a model that facilitate and further challenge Black and Latinx scholars to critically engage with discourses on nation and the multiplicities of blackness, gender, and sexuality. Employing these methods of literary, cultural, historical, and political analyses that are theorized from the flesh by centralizing the body can create a space within feminist scholarship that critically wrestles with rupture from within and beyond borders and challenges us to look closely at the archives that our racialized bodies create.
I define Afro-Latinx Feminisms as the intellectual and physical work that women who are of African and also Latin American descent do to increase their political power. Afro-Latinx Feminist genealogies have developed not only in the Americas, but around the world. In the simplest terms, Afro-Latinx feminists bring the histories and experiences of Latinxs and Latin Americans into spaces defined as Black, and they bring the histories and experiences of Blacks and Afro-descendants into spaces defined as Latinx. This statement is complicated by the fact that Blackness and Latinidad in the Americas have always been diverse, and so I would add that more than anything, Afro-Latinx feminists, and Afro-Latinxs in general, reveal the intersectional and global realities that have existed in Black and Latinx communities all along.
Afro-Latinidad is not simply a recent trend that adds nuance and detail to Black and Latinx histories and experiences. Afro-Latinidad is the foundation for Blackness and Latinidad in the Americas. The Afro-Latin@ Reader edited by Miriam Jiménez Román and Juan Flores includes several examples of Spanish-speaking Africans who traveled alongside Europeans to the Americas soon after Columbus landed in the Caribbean. There is the case of Esteban, a Spanish-speaking African who traveled with Cabeza de Vaca to Florida in the early 1500s, eventually making his way to what is now Mexico and the southwestern United States. Thus, the roots of contemporary Latinx communities in the United States are Black, and the roots of Black communities throughout the Americas are Spanish-speaking.
Turning to Afro-Latinx identity and its implications for political work today, Afro-Latinidad shifts depending on the situation, and is marked by multiplicity, simultaneity, and fluidity. As such, when Afro-Latinx feminists join movements and discussions that address the demands and experiences of Black or Latinx feminists, they may choose to mute or amplify their Afro-Latinidad. Although Afro-Latinidad has emerged as a political identity that captures the diverse roots of Afro-Latin American descendants around the world, it is worth noting that at times, one may identify simultaneously with the labels Afro-Latinx, Black, and Latinx, with only one or two of these terms, or with none of them at all.[ix]
My research on Dr. Ana Livia Cordero, a physician and activist who promoted Puerto Rican liberation during the Cold War, is an example of an Afro-Latinx feminist who shifted her identity strategically depending on the movement space she inhabited. After the African American activist, Vicki Garvin, failed to invite Cordero to a reunion of African Americans who had lived in Ghana in the early 1960s, Cordero wrote a letter to Garvin objecting to the exclusion of “all of us Afro-Americans from the Caribbean.” Meanwhile, in the organizing materials that Cordero developed in Puerto Rico from the late 1960s to the 1980s, Cordero used different terms. She emphasized that she and her people were not only Puerto Rican, but also mulato and Caribbean, and she pushed members of the group to remember their African roots, as well as their connection to the African diaspora in the United States. Cordero advocated for these affiliations not only as a corrective to a white-washed Puerto Rican history, but in order to strengthen ties between Puerto Ricans and liberation movements around the world. Interestingly, Cordero did all of this as a white-presenting person herself. Thus, Afro-Latinx feminism pushes Black Feminism to be more expansive and inclusive in terms of location, language, but also color. Although colorism is absolutely real, with darker-skinned people bearing the brunt of global racial capitalism, Afro-Latinx Feminists make demands as, and on behalf of, lighter skinned black people who are deeply connected to the African diaspora historically and culturally.
While an expansive Black feminism matters at a strategic level, Afro-Latinx Feminisms must center the experiences of darker-skinned Afro-Latinxs, who push back on a Latinx community across the Americas that is steeped in white supremacy. This white supremacy is not only expressed by the lack of, whitening of, or caricaturization of black people in mainstream Latin American and Caribbean media, but also by the extreme structural violence faced by visibly black people in places such as the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Colombia, and every other country in Latin America and the Caribbean. Thus, Afro-Latinx Feminists work in dangerous and hostile circumstances to highlight the very obvious presence, contributions, and humanity of black people in Latin America and Latinx communities.
Afro-Latinxs draw from cultures and histories forged in Africa, Latin America, and in mixed, migrant communities around the world. As we move forward with an Afro-Latinx agenda, we must recognize that Afro-Latinx communities reside not only in the Americas, but in Europe and other parts of the world too. Afro-Latinx Feminism can lead the way as we determine how to navigate this intersectional and international organizing, because Afro-Latinx feminists have already been doing the work of negotiating and creating different axes of solidarity. I want to add that Black and Latinx Feminisms have not been oblivious to this intersectionality and the importance of a non-United States centered approach. Prominent Black Feminist leaders such as Audre Lorde, June Jordan, and Claudia Jones had roots in the Caribbean and traveled widely, and Latinx feminists such as Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga—in addition to being conscious of indigenous histories and experiences—also included the voices of Caribbean women and African Americans in their anthology, This Bridge Called My Back. However, the goal is to make the contributions of Afro-Latinx Feminists, past and present, as recognizable as those of the Black and Latinx activists and intellectuals I just mentioned. Nancy Raquel Mirabal’s new book, Suspect Freedoms: The Racial and Sexual Politics of Cubanidad in New York, 1823-1957, introduced me to pioneering figures such as Africa Céspedes and Melba Alvarado that should be a part of not just our Afro-Latinx canon, but our feminist canon. As you read this, there are Afro-Latinx feminists working for justice around the world. We must acknowledge them, listen to them, and give them their rightful place in our histories and futures.
I often wonder how it has been possible for so much scholarship about the Americas, including American studies, Latinx and Latin American studies, and African diaspora studies, to proceed without attention to the experiences, contributions, or even existence of black Latinx subjects. But what excites me most about black Latinx studies, and especially the work driven by Afro-Latinx feminisms, is what there is after, before, or beyond representation.
Most of us concerned with Afro-Latinx feminisms would probably agree that representation matters, especially because black Latinas have been erased, whitewashed, or celebrated for specific cultural contributions without accompanying political and historical inclusion. However, as Peggy Phelan cautions, “while there is a deeply ethical appeal in the desire for a more inclusive representational landscape and certainly under-represented communities can be empowered by an enhanced visibility, the terms of this visibility often enervate the putative power of these identities.”[x] Heeding this warning, how do we satiate our thirst for stories of influential black Latinx subjects while also producing the more radical work that the framework of Afro-Latinx feminisms inspires? Can we remain attentive to the Dominican Studies Center’s research about Jan Rodriguez, a 17th century “mulatto” from Hispaniola and the first non-native settler in Manhattan, as well Jack Forbes’s work on the black Latinxs who founded the first California missions, without perpetuating patriarchal, Eurocentric frameworks? While these cases subvert paradigms in which only white men propel history, they also propagate phallocentric definitions of civilization and progress as tied to land partition, labor, and capital accumulation.
There are varied responses to this dilemma, as the other responses in this roundtable demonstrate. It can include, for instance, a return to the work of ignored black Latina scholars who illuminate the exclusion of blackness in nationalist contexts (Rivera-Rideau); a reconsideration of how Afro-Latinx feminism can illuminate corners darkened even within Latinx feminist work (Zamora); and the pan-Africanist efforts of a white-presenting Latina activist such as Ana Livia Cordero (Plácido). In my forthcoming book, Colonial Phantoms: Belonging and Refusal in the Dominican Americas, from the 19th century to the Present, I chew over the question of how the very erasure of certain forms of blackness, specifically Dominican blackness, structures the Americas. That is, this erasure itself forms part of the scaffolding of this hemisphere. To inquire what it means to be American, Latin American, Latinx, Puerto Rican—and concomitantly, what it means to be a citizen versus stateless, a refugee versus an undocumented immigrant, a “protected” female body versus a female body that can be violated with impunity (and for profit)—and so on, is to already get at questions beyond representation. When we point out that the world as we know it was shaped by black Latinx subjects as settlers (in all their problematic glory), merchants, writers, artists, and in every possible subject and labor category, we are also rejecting Western ideals of who is fully human. Considering the violent costs of dehumanization, how can we not desire to do so?
And yet, inspired by the work of Afro-Latinx feminisms and other branches of African diasporic thought, I find myself wondering about those spaces beyond (or before, underneath, after?) representation. I am excited by the work of Afro-Latinx artists and scholars, and others working in this field, who engage with issues of subterfuge, surveillance, and various forms of visibility. I think of the women I write about in Colonial Phantoms, including the nineteenth-century poet Salomé Ureña and the present-day authors and performers Chiqui Vicioso, Amara la Negra, and Maluca Mala. I also think of the incredible interventions of Afro-Dominican artist Firelei Báez, whose pieces centralize how blackness and femininity intersect with canonical Western (patriarchal and Eurocentric) imaginaries.
For about a year, I have been grappling with a large cache of early twentieth-century photographs that portray Dominicans in strange, almost nonsensical ways. These images and their captions nudge me away from searching for what I can clearly articulate, see, and understand. Perhaps my question is not so much “what is there beyond representation?” but, instead, “how do black Latinx subjects elide hardened racial and ethnic categories?” Reid-Pharr writes: “Thus enslaved and colonized people must remain particularly attentive to the art of dissimulation, the art produced from within the lie of an always already deadened human subjectivity.”[xi]Terms such as dissimulation, subterfuge, and elision subtly reveal what I am trying to get at. What is the value of representation when black Latinx subjects have a history of dissimulation in order to slip away from white supremacist surveillance? As such, I am not rejecting projects of representation and visibility, per se, but expressing a hunger for what is difficult to articulate. What if we look beyond the “commonsense” of identifying important “firsts,” and embrace the nonsense that might not even be recognizable human, or, more to the point Human (as in the Enlightenment model of Manhood)? Might this line of inquiry lead us towards an “ecumenically human [that is, homo sapiens] interpretation,” to cite Sylvia Wynter, that, in our current moment, might help save us from total environmental and political catastrophe?[xii]Can we afford to move away from the work of redress and representation and think much more broadly about what it means to be human? Can we afford not to, considering the impending environmental and political catastrophes that face us? On the other hand, in this era of anti-Latinx immigration, Black Lives Matter, white domestic terrorism, and the Trump administration, I’m just not sure. As the conversation in this roundtable demonstrates, the two impulses are likely entangled.
[i] See The Puerto Rican Woman: Perspectives on Culture, History, and Society, ed. Edna Acosta-Belén, 180-187. 2nd edition. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1986.
[ii] See Lillian Comas-Díaz, “LatiNegra: Mental Health Issues of African Latinas,” Journal of Feminist Family Therapy 5.3-4 (1994): 35-74; Marta I. Cruz-Janzen, “Latinegras: Desired Women: Undesirable Mothers, Daughters, Sisters, and Wives.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies 22.3 (2001): 168-183; Maritza. Quiñones Rivera, “From Trigueñita to Afro-Puerto Rican: Intersections of the Racialized, Gendered, and Sexualized Body in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Mainland.” Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism 7.1 (2006): 162-182.
[iii] Jorge, “The Black Puerto Rican Woman,” 183.
[iv] Ibid., 182.
[v] Ibid., 181.
[vi] Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, eds. This Bridge Called My Back (Watertown: Persephone Press, 1981), 23.
[vii] The lack of the hyphen here is intentional for AfroLatinx to convey that blackness should always be considered as part of Latinidad. Specifically, for my own positionality our blackness should not be separate from our Latinidad.
[viii] Ana Lara, “Bodies and Memories: Afro-Latina Identities in Motion,” Women Warriors of the Afro-Latina Diaspora, eds. Marta Moreno Vega, M. Alba, and Y. Modestin (Houston: Arte Público Press, 2012), 23.
[ix] For more on how individuals shift and negotiate their identities in different settings, see Gayatri Spivak’s work on “strategic essentialism.”
[x] Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (London: Routledge, 1996), 7.
[xi] Reid-Pharr, in Archives of Flesh: African America, Spain, and Post-Humanist Critique (New York: New York University Press, 2016), 78, emphasis mine.
[xii] Wynter, “1492: A New World View,” in Race, Discourse, and the Origin of the Americas: A New World View, edited by Vera Lawrence Hyatt and Rex Nettleford (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995), 38.