“Some people want to decide if you’re black or not, depending on your skin complexion, because they don’t understand Caribbean people or our culture. I hate when people try to take my roots from me.” So said Cardi B when discussing her ethnic heritage, a topic of much discussion since she exploded onto the music scene a couple years ago. With a Dominican father and Trinidadian mother, the Bronx native is typical of many Latinas with Caribbean roots in her refusal to deny part of her heritage just to fit American stereotypes of how race and culture work.
When we talk about Afro-Latinos, who do we mean? As Cardi B’s statement suggests, most American Afro-Latinos are of Caribbean descent, with Dominicans and Puerto Ricans making up the bulk of their numbers, but there are also Afro-Latinos with roots in Brazil, Venezuela, and the rest of South America. African influences in the New World go back as far as the arrival of the Spanish, with Africans in the ranks of the Conquistadores as well as enslaved to work in mines and on plantations. As Caribbean cultures developed, African influences were profound in food, music, and language.
Today in America, roughly 2.5% of the Latino population identifies as black, with that number increasing to about a quarter in northeastern states like New York and Massachusetts. However, this figure may be lower than the actual number of Afro-Latinos, since many Americans with roots in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean mark “other” instead of “black” on the census form’s racial classification.
Ironically, for several decades Afro-Latino was one of the few ways an American could actually legally acknowledge mixed heritage of any kind. Because Hispanic/Latino was considered an ethnic origin rather than a racial classification following its inclusion in the 1970 census, it was possible for an individual to mark both black and Latino…an opportunity to define oneself that other multiracial Americans would be denied until 2000. And thanks to the legacy of Jim Crow and “one drop” laws, culture tended to follow the legal precedent – with people of mixed heritage forced to commit 100% to one identity.
Fortunately, as America evolves into an increasingly multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society, the pressure to pick and choose among the parts of one’s identity is receding. Younger Americans in particular feel freer to navigate between cultures as they see fit, emphasizing different aspects of identity depending upon context without leaving any of them behind. There are many groups of Americans like Afro-Latinos, something we should all keep in mind whenever we make broad assumptions about cultural or ethnic categories, or expect people to conform to a particular image – stereotyping is pernicious whether we’re passing laws or making advertisements.