S1: This is a war, a podcast from Slate. I’m your host, Jason Johnson, it’s Hispanic Heritage Month, and depending on how you count, Latinos have emerged as the largest minority group in the United States. But pop culture in the media often overlooked the diversity among Latinos themselves, including a significant population that defines itself as black.
S2: Afro-Latinos are opening up their mouths and getting a little bit more public space to be able to have an authentic interaction about what their experiences have been.
S1: The Afro-Latinos experience coming up on a word with me Jason Johnson. Stay with us. Welcome to a World, a podcast from Slate about race and politics and everything else. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. The recent census revealed that a growing number of Americans who identify as Latino also identify as black, but historically many American Latinos have shunned any connection with their African heritage. Even when that choice divides communities and families, someone who’s fighting for recognition of the Afro-Latinos experience is Tanya Hernández. She’s a law professor at Fordham University and also the author of the forthcoming book Racial Innocence Unmasking Latino anti-Black Bias from Beacon Press and Professor Tanya Hernández joins us now. Welcome to a word.
S2: Thank you. It’s lovely to be here.
S1: Let’s talk about terms. And this is something I think a lot of people don’t understand Latin or Latino or Hispanic. What are your thoughts on what terms should be used and why when describing people who I guess at their core, draw their heritage from a Spanish speaking country?
S2: Certainly. I mean, I think there’s obviously very personal to individuals. Hispanic is a term that the U.S. government formulated in order to gather data about the presence of people immigrating from Latin American and Caribbean Spanish spanish-speaking areas. Latino is a term that is meant to more readily embrace the ways in which we are not just from Spain, that we are from a multiple ancestry, indigenous and African as well. Newer generations now have wanted to disrupt the gender binary and add the suffix X or E. I prefer to use a Spanish language usage of an app or an. But I have no problem with what other people’s personal preferences are. I think what’s problematic is when we are being policed by others about what terms we use for ourselves. More often than not, it’s an Anglo white person who’s telling me to use an ex to describe myself. So I find that highly problematic.
S1: Here’s something else, Professor Hernández, that I think a lot of people who I guess didn’t grow up around a lot of Latino Americans or Latin Americans or Hispanic Americans, they don’t necessarily understand these notions of being a black or a white Latino. Right? I remember, you know, seven or eight years ago pointing out that George Zimmerman was actually a white Latino. A lot of people don’t talk about that and the role that that played and how he looked at Trayvon Martin. Can you tell us a little bit about how this idea of white versus black? How has that evolved over the last 15 or 20 years?
S2: Well, I think the very first thing to keep in mind is that Latinos are descendants of African slaves. And in point of fact, the African slave trade was much more of a presence in Latin America and the Caribbean than it was in the United States. So just to throw out some numbers very quickly, over 65 percent of the approximately ten point seven million enslaved Africans were brought to Latin America and the Caribbean were in contrast, only six percent were brought to what we call the United States today. So when you put that into perspective, the legacy of slavery and the indigenous presence as well in Latin America in the Caribbean is much stronger than even that the United States, the existence of people who look phenotypic Lee African, phenotypically European and white, and then the mixture in between. We have all of that in Latin America and the Caribbean, just as you do in the United States. Now there is also a very complicated way in which racial oppression has manifested in Latin America in the Caribbean. And part of that story is trying to tell people, nation states, very particularly telling people there are no black and white people here. We’re all a mixture. We are just our nation state identity. We’re Cuban, we’re Venezuelan, we’re Peruvian, et cetera. At the same time that this language of what we say in Spanish missed this, I hear that is racial mixture. All that is existing at the same time that are very entrenched. Racial hierarchy is in place. Everyone knows it. Everybody understands it. Black people know that they’re supposed to stay in their place or otherwise be policed and beat down. So with in Latin America, there is an understanding of blackness and whiteness. We just don’t like to talk about it.
S1: You’ve talked about how anti-Blackness in the Latino community affects people in their closest relationships with darker skinned children facing slurs from their lighter skinned relatives. How have you seen that play out in your work or even in your own family? I mean, did you have any childhood experiences with anti-Blackness that affected your education, your career or how you saw yourself?
S2: I actually feel like I was born into the trauma that comes from anti-Blackness within Latino families themselves. This is because my own mother was threatened with being given away because when she was born, she favored my grandfather, who was a descendant of slaves. And so the family was unhappy with how dark she looked to them, and they wanted her to be adopted out, and they were looking for a African-American family to give her away, too. And why do I know about this, like, you know, so many decades later, because it was a constant presence within her family? You know, the idea of you’re acting out, we should give you away now. We didn’t do it before, but maybe now’s the moment was always a reference to being unwanted because of her blackness. And you know, this left a real wound for her. It was something that she shared with me because it was so painful to her. And so I sort of enter into the world already knowing some of these problems with anti-Blackness within the Latino community. And I’ve continued to see it time and time again. You know, all the Latino memoirs about feelings of rejection from family members or when people are trying to form intimate relationships with other partners and the partners family rejects them because of their dark skin. This is unfortunately a very deep and problematic aspect of the Latino race dynamic.
S1: We’re going to take a short break when we come back more on Afro-Latinos identity. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. This is Jason Johnson, host of a word Slate’s podcast about race and politics and everything else, I want to take a moment to welcome our new listeners. If you’ve discovered a word and like what you hear. Please subscribe rate and review wherever you listen to podcasts and let us know what you think by writing us at a word at Slate.com. Thank you. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today. We’re talking about Afro-Latinos identity with Professor Tanya Hernández. I think about all the oftentimes white liberals and uninformed black progressives who for years and years and years used to like, praise Cuba. So you look at Cuba, all the great things. But when you actually started listening to Afro-Cuban voices, there are actually no like there’s just as much racism here. There’s anti-Black racism in Cuba. You know, whether it’s under Castro, whether it was under his brother. And so if you could just talk a little bit about the specific anti-blackness that occurs in the Latino community and how does that manifest itself sometimes within politics? I mean, you know, is it easier to run as a light skinned or a white Latino than it is, you know, to run as a black Latino? How does that sort of play out in day to day life for four Latin Americans?
S2: Well, within Latin America and the Caribbean itself, there is a pigment accuracy that is to say a skin shade hierarchy so that the lighter you are, the greater you are able to ascend on the socioeconomic status calendar. Or I should say latter. And so the ability to get jobs, you know, people look at your photograph on your resume in many Latin American countries or job advertisements for the longest time used to include this phrase that went up audiencia. What that means a good appearance, which everyone understands is the proxy for, say, white or light. If you don’t, you know you do not need to apply. And so the ability to have this sort of firm understanding within the racial pathologies of Latin America and the Caribbean about what the inherent stereotyped competence and intellect of people are just based on how pronounced their African ancestry is in appearance. This is a very disturbing and strong legacy from our years of slavery that has remained undisturbed. So to circle back just for a second to your Cuba example, when Fidel Castro came in, he by edict declared that there would no longer be racism. He attributed all the racism to the Batista era and before, and some things improved. But the things that improved were putting greater economic access to public schooling to housing, giving, you know, creating these public spaces that were race neutral, so to speak, but were now no longer race bars. But what was left untouched were all the ways in which people still had very strong ideas about who was smart and who was capable based on race. And that was my challenge because now talking about race was taboo. The idea was we got rid of racism, doesn’t shut up and don’t talk about it anymore. You bring up race. You’re the racist. That kind of silencing that censoring has enabled racism to sustain itself and then be brought over into the United States by Latinos here in the U.S..
S1: In the broader black community, right, broader African-American community, there is usually a hesitancy about describing yourself as multicultural, right? We all remember Tiger Woods saying, I’m Kabul and Asian and people from the South always claiming that they have some sort of heritage to, you know, the Native Americans. Look, sometimes these things are true. Sometimes they’re being used as a way to distance oneself from being a Black American right because of all the the pathology and violence and discrimination placed upon us. What are those cross pressures like for people in the Latino community? Because it’s like, Yeah, I can be black and Dominican, I can be black and Cuban. And, you know, sometimes people may react to that as if I’m trying to distance myself, but I’m really just saying what my actual identity is.
S2: Well, interestingly enough, the cultural pressures play themselves out a slightly differently within the Latin American and Caribbean context within Latin America in the Caribbean. The notion is the latter you are the better, and it’s more polite if you are friendly with someone to never mention their African ancestry to simply say, you know, Oh, they’re just, you know, have a little touch of coffee with sugar in there in their appearance. Now, if they’re not friends, if they’re strangers, you can talk trash about them with all the same virulent denigrating terms that you hear in the U.S., but translate them into Spanish and then we get some extra spice. And so the cultural pressure is not to reference any of your African ancestry or even indigenous ancestry that by doing so, you are being divisive. Right now, the cultural pressures once we’re in the United States are very interesting as well. This census, the 2020 census, it is being taken at the very same time of the aftermath of George Floyd, his death. All the protests and Afro-Latinos raising up their voice to say Black Lives Matter in Spanish as well. I mean, we have skin in the game. This is about us as well. And Latinos who learn light skin or, as others say, white appearing but not necessarily self-identifying as white. They resist that implication that they are part of the problem. And what you have is a result that the 2020 Census 22, excuse me, the 2020 Census has this huge landslide of Latinos who previously had check white on the 2010 census and in the 2000 census into some other race category and the and mixed race categories, meaning before they were perfectly happy. Check White. Afro-Latinos are opening up their mouths and getting a little bit more public space to be able to have an authentic interaction about what their experiences have been and what they currently are as racialize Latinos. And all of a sudden these white Latinas are wanting to say, Oh, I’m not, I’m not white, I’m a mixture of all these other things. And so the person at the pronouncement of, you know, personal racial identity is very complicated at the same time, but it’s not so complicated. What I mean by that is that it is very much enmeshed in trying to deny any kind of accountability for our continued racial stereotypes. By the way, in which Latinos are racist against one another. So, you know, in my own research, what I have seen are cases after case in which a Latino landlord is the one shutting the door in the face of a dark skinned Latino or a Latino supervisor is the one that is racially harassing and Afro-Latinos. I can go on and on and, you know, every sphere where anti-discrimination law steps in. There are cases of Latinos who are the agents of anti-Black bias against other Latinos.
S1: Politically, there has been, again, I think, a rather naive belief that, hey, there’s this growing demographic majority that’s going to end up helping Democrats. My thought has been, if you have a large number of Latinos that decide to identify themselves as white or want to be white adjacent, that increasing population doesn’t necessarily help Democrats because they made up the same nativist anti-Black policies as the now diminishing white majority. Do you think that’s what we’re going to see happening? I mean, to me, what I see happening with the Latino community is what we saw 80 years ago with the Irish and the Italians suddenly saying, Now I’m white now, I hate everybody else. What are your thoughts?
S2: Well, I mean, you know, the sociologist and wonderful Negras Silva, he’s famous for, you know, all the research about racism without racists, but he’s also very well known within academic circles for this idea that we are moving towards the idea of honorary whites. Right? That is to say, Latinos may not be fully accepted as whites, but with the aim black being black or at least there are those who can pass or at least pass ish. So those will be Cory will be able to carve out a little bit more space. Many of us believe I. I’m in with there with Eduardo Silva in believing that the way in which our patterns of allocating a little more space to white identity in order to maintain white supremacy. This is an old game that has been played for a very long time in the United States. And I think now Latinos are being sort of positioned to be able to do that. I say all that to say this. What’s important for people who care about racial progress and equality and liberation is to be very attentive to the ways in which you cannot just rely on demography. You cannot get away from the hard work of actually engaging people about their racial ideologies. You know, you have to like talk to Latino people about these issues as opposed to presuming that because we call them people of color, that that in of itself is going to put the votes in the right place towards racial liberation.
S1: We’re going to take a short break when we come back more on Afro-Latinos identity with Professor Tanya Hernández. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson. Today, we’re talking about the Afro-Latino experience with Professor Tanya Hernández. Professor Hernández So this always excites me because I love talking about pop culture stuff. So you had this this this big thing over the summer with Lin-Manuel Miranda makes the heights, and lots of people were excited about it. And then the movie comes out, and then there were complaints that it eliminated or raised, you know, Afro-Latinos people, and that it wasn’t really reflective of the community. Where are we in Hollywood, in your opinion about presentations of Afro-Latinos? I mean, the fact of the matter is there aren’t that many Latinos Latinx people who are in TV shows and movies anyway. You know, you have your four or five famous actors. You have your several Latino women who always pair with white guys sort of situation, but you don’t have a lot of you don’t have a lot of sort of Afro-Latinos. Is that something being pushed for or is that sort of being subsumed into we just need to get more Hispanic people in first, then we can worry about the Afro-Latinos later.
S2: Well, you know, the way I look at it is that in some respects it, it echoes some of the ways in which African-Americans have experienced the Hollywood venue or space. So maybe it’s a better way to put it. The industry is, they like to call it. Why do I say that? Because at first we were all just super excited or our ancestors were super excited about. There was some black people in a movie. All right. But notice they were all light-skinned where you could go, movie after movie at movie. And it’s like light and bright and practically white. And maybe sometimes only we could tell that they were actually of African ancestry. We try not to make too much noise because we were just thankful that we were in a movie here and there as time has gone by. All right. Civil rights movements, et cetera, and more of an attention to colorism. That is to say, we may all be of African ancestry, but some of us, let’s get real, have light skin privilege. And there’s a greater acceptance of us who have got to find features in the hair that lays down or what have you. And so the very same battles in some respects that are Dark-skinned brothers and sisters have had to launch in order to be included within the inclusion of Hollywood is what we’re seeing now with Afro-Latinos and Afro-Latinos within Hollywood as well. Even the smaller space for actors and actresses of Latino ancestry. And so, you know, it is a uncomfortable space, I think, to talk about this. And I think that’s why a lot of the actors and actresses you may have noticed if you were following this really didn’t speak out to the audience that spoke out, but not the actors and actresses why they need jobs and there aren’t that many spaces. So if they start coming out and talking trash about Lin-Manuel Miranda or anyone else, you know their own livelihoods are at stake. Or at least I speculate that that’s part of what accounts for the very muted response and sometimes absolute silence. It’s like crickets. When this went down.
S1: If you were to jump ahead, say, 15 years from now, where do you think this conversation about Afro-Latinos identity will be? Do you think that it’ll be regional, that if your Afro-Latinos, it’ll be something that matters if you’re coming out of Philly in New York, but the Southwest is just going to be dominated by sort of white presenting Latinos. Where do you see the sort of demographic change taking us politically over the next 15 years?
S2: Well, you know, what’s very interesting to me is to observe the way in which, you know, within the last 10, 15, 20 years, we have seen more. Members of the Latino Caucus also asked to be part of the Black Caucus because they’re Afro-Latinos Afro-Latinos and also at state levels as well. And so at the very same time, we have sort of this white identified Republican sort of space within a Latino caucus. You also have a more blue state, if you will, democratic presence of Afro-Latinos Will bridging both spaces. So you know that that gives me a little more sense of like hope that there will be a more tempered discourse because of the presence of people who are Latino but also are of African descent. The other thing that gives me some sense of hope is actually the social media. The podcasts of the world. Meaning there is much greater access now for getting out the information. You no longer have just be living coastal states to know things about a fuller array and diversity of people and of cultures. And with that, the Afro-Latinos presence is, you know, it’s young and it’s very active on Twitter and all other social media platforms. And so that’s my hope that or at least signs of encouragement, maybe that it doesn’t have to stay the same, that our young people are much more attuned and also concerned and animated about social change and becoming racially literate themselves. You know, that’s what I often hear from our young people in the audience. You know that they didn’t know about this, that they’re glad to know about it. They wish they’d known. But now that they know they can’t unknow it and they want to do more.
S1: Professor Tanya Hernández is the author of Multiracial and Civil Rights Mixed Race Stories of Discrimination. Thank you so much for joining us today. In a word,
S2: it is my pleasure.
S1: And that’s a word for this week. The show’s email is a word at Slate.com. This episode was produced by Ahyiana Angel and Jasmine Ellis Asha. Saluja is the managing producer of podcast Slate. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for Audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of Podcasts at Slate. June Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast Network. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for word.