In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month – which runs through October 15th – EBONY interviewed African-Americans and Hispanics about the challenges, complexities and collaborations between these two groups.
“The Census suggested a competition,” says Miriam Jimenez-Roman, Executive Director of the [email protected]: a research and resource center focusing on Black Latinos and Latinas in the United States. “And it ignored a history of, not only just collaboration, but inclusion within the rubric of Blackness. We are not in competition with the African-American community. They have been at the vanguard, in terms of assuring civil rights in this country. And for that reason, all of the privileges that we have as Latinos in this country owe so much to the African-American struggle.”
The New York-born Puerto Rican, who also co-edited the book, The Afro-Latin@ Reader, also points out that there are many Hispanics of visible African descent. “Many African-Americans don’t realize that the majority of Black people in the Americas are in Latin America and the Caribbean,” she states. “Ninety five percent of all the enslaved Africans landed in those places. There are 150 million people of African descent in Latin America.”
“The greatest coalition between Blacks and Latinos is in New York City,” says poet and former news reporter Felipe Luciano, another New York-born, Puerto Rican who was a member of the legendary sixties group, The Last Poets; he was also a founding member of the Young Lords, a revolutionary political party that resembled the Black Panthers.
“I came out of jail in ’66,” Luciano recalled. “And I’m told by a poet, Victor Hernandez-Cruz, that there was a group called The Last Poets, and they were looking for a poet. I didn’t even think about it! I was raised in Black gangs…And my thing was, I’m Black! My daddy raised me that way. [In the group] I was reading Spanish without translation. We were undergoing a revolutionary consciousness back then. And we began to affect an entire population of young people in the sixties.”
Buoyed by his success in the Last Poets, Luciano took the next step in his Afro-Latin evolution. “I was in a group called La Sociedad de Pedro Albizu Campos (a Puerto Rican freedom fighter),” he says. “In Chicago, Fred Hampton of the Black Panthers was in jail with the leader of a gang called the Young Lords named Cha Cha Jimenez, and he schools Cha Cha: 'Why are you guys killing each other? Can’t you see that’s what the Man wants you to do?' Cha-Cha was so impressed that when he came out of jail, he changed the Young Lords from a gang to a social organization. We heard about it, sent a group out there, and started a chapter in New York. I was elected chairman, and we became a political party. We had Afros. We wore Dashikis. We were friends with Muslims. And one third of the party was African-American! So this notion that we can’t celebrate each other’s culture, or fight in each other’s revolution is false.”
Writer/blogger Michael Gonzales is another New Yorker who represents a different perspective of African-American–Hispanic experience. “My real father’s last name was Dixon. He and my mom broke up when I was young,” he says. “And she married a Puerto Rican, named Carlos Gonzales, and I called him 'Pop.' He was really the only father I really had. He hung around Black people, worked in a famous barbershop called the Shalimar on Seventh Avenue, and opened a restaurant. But he never spoke Spanish that much around me; he thought it was disrespectful to me and my mom because we only spoke English.”
Gonzalez grew up in the sixties and seventies, a generation later than Luciano, and by that time, the Blacks and Latinos had formed closer unions. “Growing up in New York I was around Puerto Ricans, Dominicans; one of the kids in my class was Ecuadorian,” Gonzalez says “We were all friends growing up in the neighborhood. These people were like family, just as much as any Black family would be.”
Texas offers its own complex interplay between African-Americans and Hispanics. Ramona Houston President and CEO of Kalirah Inc., an Atlanta-based educational consulting company, grew up in Brownwood, a small town in central Texas. The daughter of African-American educators, Houston was so immersed with Mexican culture, that she celebrated her fifteenth birthday with a Quinceañera – a, debutante-like, coming-of-age party for girls held throughout Latin America.
“The African-American and Mexican-American communities were next to each other, and they often overlapped,” say Houston. “I grew up with my family having close social, political and economic ties with Mexican-Americans. My parents taught me the importance of building bicultural relationships with different communities. Because African-Americans and Mexican-Americans have so many social issues in common – segregation, unequal access to education and health care, and over-representation in the penal system – we could be much more effective, if we worked together to redress social concerns.”
Houston, who earned her Ph.D in American history, insists that each group must put its own socio-cultural house in order before they can work together. “As a scholar studying the two communities, I feel that we need to have hard, internal discussions about stereotypes we have about each other. Until we have those conversations, it will be difficult to be effective in coalition building.”
Perhaps the ultimate coalition project between African-Americans and Hispanics will take place at the DNA level. The life of Chandra Pitts boldly demonstrates this. A child of a Mexican-born mother and an African-American father, Pitts –a Wilmington, Delaware-based entrepreneur and Founder/Executive Director of One Village Alliance; a non-profit, 501 [c] 3 organization created to uplift Black and Hispanic children and their families through educational excellence – has experienced, along with her seven brothers and sisters, all of the complexities of race and ethnicity growing up in a non-multicultural part of New Jersey.
“Because we were biracial, we weren’t considered Black from kindergarten to the eighth grade, Pitts recalled. “My skin color was different. My hair was different .And there was racial hatred from the Whites. But we never got that from the Black community. I coped with it with a strong sense of cultural pride. My mother used to come to school with her big sombrero and poncho … She celebrated Cinco de Mayo, Hispanic Heritage Month, and Mexican Independence Day with the students in my school, and she opened the first Mexican food store in Bridgeton, New Jersey.
My father took us to Philadelphia, and we definitely felt the love from the African-American/Afrocentric community there. So, the most important intervention in my life was being able to accept everything that my parents were giving me, with regards to having a strong sense of self and cultural pride in who I was; as a woman, as a girl, as a Mexican and as a African-American.”
The great Afro-Cuban anthropologist/musicologist Fernando Ortiz (he coined the term “Afro-Cuban”) posited a theory called transculturation: a process that describes how different peoples go from conflict to intermarriage and create a new hybrid people. Perhaps Chandra Pitts represents the final stage of that profound process that may someday herald the birth of a new nation.
“People ask me what I’m mixed with. And I tell them, I’m one hundred percent Mexican, and I’m one hundred percent African-American, and I’m one hundred percent woman!”