Latinos Explore & Grapple with Black Identity: Uruguay Parley Finds Racism All over the Americas

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Latinos Explore & Grapple with Black Identity: Uruguay Parley Finds. Racism all over the Americas

by Roberto Rodriguez

Last month, as Rosa Clemente was leaving a lecture by Henry Louis Gates Jr. at Siena College in New York, two young Black men stopped her and asked why she was wearing kente cloth.

Clemente, who is a counselor at State University of New York at Albany, told them she was a Black Puerto Rican, part of the diaspora. They objected and, she said, looked at her as though she was "crazy." The difference between us, she told them, is that "My enslaver was Spanish and yours was British."

Unswayed, they walked away.

"I'm a proud Black Puerto Rican," says Clemente, pointing out that some African Americans do not accept her as Black, and some Latinos do not accept her as Latina. "It happens every day of my life." In college, she was president of the Black Alliance at State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany and there, Latinos called her a "sellout."

Multiple Identity Struggle

Clemente isn't alone. Many Black Latinos struggle with issues of multiple racial and cultural identity in a society which tells them to choose between Black or brown.

Iris Ross, a Black Puerto Rican and director of the Afro-American Dance Company at Indiana University, says she, too, has encountered the problem: Some African Americans and Caucasians don't see her as a genuine Black, and some Latinos don't see her as a real Latina.

"People have difficulty understanding the diversity of Latinos, the mixture," she says.

That occurs due to a lack of consciousness of history, says Clemente. She and her husband have a dance/music troupe called "Sancocho," which is a Puerto Rican word for "a food with everything in it." The troupe teaches children the origins of the music and dance of the Americas. "It's very African," she says.

Many African Americans have only a "U.S. view" of Afro-American studies, Clemente says, adding that while she has researched U.S. African-American culture, much of her research interest lies outside of the continent of North America. "It depends on the chair. Many have an open mind."

Clemente thinks African American studies departments should expand their research interests to include Latin America.

A recent conference in Montevideo, Uruguay, may begin to change that. Organized by Mundo Afro, a Black organization in Uruguay, it was titled the "First Seminar on Racism and Xenophobia" and assessed the less-understood history of the African roots of Latin culture.

The conference, which also was supported by the World Council of Churches, Uruguay's ministries of education and foreign relations, the University of the (Uruguay) Republic and the Montevideo municipal authority, served notice on governments that issues concerning Blacks in the Americas -- such as poverty, racism, human rights abuses and the killing of street children -- must be given a new priority.

Race vs. Nationality

To be sure, not all African Americans reject Latin ties. Johnny Irizarry, director of the Taller Puertoriqueno in Philadelphia, says that African American activists in his city encourage Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and other Latinos to identify with their color, as opposed to their nationality.

For Latinos, the issue of identity is complex. Many Puerto Ricans, for example, don't identify themselves in racial terms exclusively, "because we're so mixed, even within our own families. We're a rainbow people. We also have to deal with issues of language and culture," says Irizarry.

Nelson Ramirez, director of El Centro, a social-service center in Lorain, OH, says Puerto Ricans there generally define themselves by nationality, rather than by race. But because Latinos are constantly bombarded by a white-Black media, some of the younger generations tend to identify as either Black or "white," he says. Not until the youth are adults do they revert to having a Puerto Rican identity, he adds. …