[excerpt from Introduction, The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States, Duke University Press, 2010]
Afro-Latin@? What's an Afro-Latin@? Who is an Afro-Latin@? The term befuddles us because we are accustomed to thinking of "Afro" and "Latin@" as distinct from each other and mutually exclusive: one is either Black or Latin@.
The short answer is that Afro-Latin@s belong to both groups. They are people of African descent in Mexico, Central and South America, and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, and by extension those of African descent in the United States whose origins are in Latin America and the Caribbean.
As straightforward as this definition would seem, the reality is that the term is not universally accepted and there is no consensus about what it means. The difficulties surrounding what we call ourselves reflect the complex histories of Africans and their descendants in the Americas.
And this brings us to the long answer. Broadly speaking, the word "Afro-Latin@" can be viewed as an expression of long-term transnational relations and of the world events that generated and were in turn affected by particular global social movements. Going back to the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth, Pan-Africanism signaled for the first time an explicit, organized identification with Africa and African descendants and more expansively of non-White peoples at a global level. Attendant to this process, concepts of Negritude and cultural movements like the Harlem Renaissance and Afrocubanismo gained increasing ground during the 1920’s and 1930’s.
The period from around mid-century and through the 1980’s saw the growth of African liberation movements as part of a global decolonization process, as well as the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in the United States. In Latin America the beginnings of antiracist organizations and the Congreso of the late 1970* introduced the first continental context for an assertive self-identification by people of African descent and a clearly articulated condemnation of anti-Black racism. Similar developments were occurring in the United States during those years, with increasing talk of "people of color" and the move from the terms "Negro" and "Colored" to Black to Afro-American or African American. With the explosive demographic increase of immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean, the notion of a Hispanic or Latin@ pan-ethnic identity was also gaining a foothold in the same period.
As of the 1980’s, spurred by the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, there has been a growing interest in the realities of racism on a global scale and the centrality of Africa for an understanding of this pressing political phenomenon. The concept of an African Diaspora, while implicit for decades in this long historical trajectory, comes to the fore during these years and serves as the guiding paradigm in our times. Most importantly for our purposes it acknowledges the historical and continuing linkages among the estimated 180 million people of African descent in the Americas. Along with the terms "Negro," "afrodescendiente," and "afrolatino-americano," the name Afro-Latin@ has served to identify the constituency of the many vibrant anti-racist movements and causes that have been gaining momentum throughout the hemisphere for over a generation and that attained international currency at the World Conference against Racism: Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance, which was convened by UNESCO in Durban, South Africa, in 2001.
The term "Afro-Latin@" thus was born and reared in this transnational crucible of struggle and self-affirmation, and until recent years it has primarily been used to refer to people of African descent in Latin America and the Caribbean as a whole, even as nation- and region-specific terminology continues to hold sway. For example, depending on context a Black woman in Ecuador can identify as afrolatina, afrodescendiente, afroecuatoriana, or choteña. Since the early 1990’s, however, in part as a result of the intellectual cross-fertilization between north and south, the term has gained increasing currency in the United States. Just as in Latin America, where the prefix Afro has been critical in challenging the homogenizing effects of national and regional constructs, so in the United States the term "Afro-Latin@" has surfaced as a way to signal racial, cultural, and socioeconomic contradictions within the overly vague idea of "Latin@." In addition to reinforcing those ever-active transnational ties, the Afro-Latin@ concept calls attention to the anti-Black racism within the Latin@ communities themselves. In the case of more recent immigrants these attitudes are brought over as ideological baggage from the home countries, while for the generations-long citizens of the United States they reflect the historical location of Blackness at the bottom of the racial hierarchy and the Latin@ propensity to uphold mestizaje (racial and cultural mixture) as an exceptionalist and wishful panacea. It is also a standing challenge to the African American and English-language monopoly over Blackness in the U.S. context, with obvious implications at a hemispheric level. Throughout the hemisphere, "afro" serves to link struggles and declare a community of experiences and interests. Most significantly, the prefix establishes the foundational historical and cultural connection to Africa, an affirmation that simultaneously defies the Eurocentric ideologies that have characterized Latin America and the Caribbean.
Thus, while we recognize the primacy and historical priority of the hemispheric usage of the term, in this volume our focus is on the strategically important but still largely understudied United States context of Afro-Latin@ experience. What then does Afro-Latin@ mean in that context? What are and who are United States Afro-Latinos?
Clearly the reference is to those whose numbers and historical trajectory have had the greatest significance in the United States. While recognizing the inextricable connections to the transnational movement or identity field ("ethno-scape") of the same name, there are conditions and meanings that are specific to the national framework of history and society in the United States. In some cases, transnational and domestic experiences may even run askew of each other and show greater discontinuity than parallels. Thus, for example, despite the crucial place of Brazil—the country with a Black population second in size only to that of Nigeria—within the Latin American context, the Brazilian presence in the United States has been relatively small and the Afro-Brazilian negligible. Similarly, despite the towering significance of the Haitian Revolution to hemispheric history and the parallels that can be drawn among all immigrant peoples of African descent, in the context of the United States Haitians have consistently been distinguished—and have often distinguished themselves—from Latinos. Unlike the case of Afro-Latin@s, Haitians are generally understood to be unambiguously Black.