How Afro-Latino Communities are Reclaiming Their History

By Dana Preston, HIP Program Manager for Gender-Focused Initiatives

“In Puerto Rico we are fed negative history. In school, we are taught that Puerto Rico is an island with no natural resources. In history books, black people are only ever shown as slaves.”

This reflection, from an Afro-Puerto Rican woman in her early twenties who I met in Puerto Rico in early January, highlights a sad reality: the history of Black people is often hidden or overlooked in Latin American countries (just as it often is in the U.S.).

The truth, of course, is different. For one, the first Africans that arrived alongside Spaniards on the island were actually free, not slaves. Later, as the African slave trade developed, it boomed in Latin America, where it was about 15 times bigger than it was in the U.S. Today, about a quarter of Latin America’s population is of African descent.

The history and existence of Afro-Latino communities often comes as a surprise to the general public. The idea of a Spanish-speaking black person can go against our narrow understanding of race, geography, language, and history. Today, the stain of slavery in the Americas often manifests through the denial and/or negative portrayal of Afro roots in Latin American countries, which can result in poor life outcomes, a negative sense of identity, and, sometimes, internalized oppression.

This is one of the reasons that in January 2017 HIP, the Puerto Rico Community Foundation (PRCF), and A Philanthropic Partnership for Black Communities (ABFE) organized a two-day study trip to Puerto Rico for foundation professionals to talk about Afro-Latino communities. The population of Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, is nearly half of African descent. It was the ideal setting to learn about the challenges facing Afro-Latinos on the tiny island of 3.5 million people, and to discuss the opportunities for philanthropy to invest in improving the lives of this community bound by extreme marginalization.

Our group of funders on the study trip

On the second day of our trip, we visited three nonprofits in the community of Loíza, about 45 minutes outside of the Puerto Rican capital San Juan. Loíza is the heart of Afro culture on the island; 64 percent of its population is Black. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most vulnerable communities on the island, known for high levels of poverty, police brutality, and gang violence, especially among its young men and boys.

However, several incredible nonprofits are working to reverse these trends (and HIP and the PRCF are partnering to support some of these efforts). Corporacion Piñones Se Integra (COPI) is one of the nonprofits whose efforts are yielding success.

COPI is a Loíza nonprofit that promotes local culture and resources as a way to empower its residents. These activities facilitate reflection on definitions of culture and “blackness” to address the structural inequality faced by the community. By reclaiming and celebrating Loíza’s rich Afro roots, such as its traditional Bomba dance, COPI promotes pride and identity in the Loiza community.

Bomba dancers in Loiza

The difficulties facing Afro-Latino communities are complex, and there’s no easy one-shot answer for how philanthropy should provide the most effective support. But, as our recent trip brought to light, one powerful way is by supporting organizations that highlight and celebrate Afro roots and history among Latinxs. As our guest speaker Dr. Marta Moreno said, “If we don’t know how to talk about ourselves, we can’t improve ourselves.”

Afro-Latino communities face a unique set of prejudices and barriers to happy and healthy lives because they are rooted in two races that have been historically exploited and oppressed. Philanthropy has the ability to support efforts that most governments cannot: the reclaiming of Afro history and knowledge.

So let philanthropy be a progressive actor by finding ways to invest in efforts that seek to recover and celebrate marginalized identities. In this way, philanthropy can also promote and facilitate racial healing which, instead of denying painful histories like slavery, tries to reconcile that past.

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