By Karen Juanita Carrillo
At just about this same time last year, Congressional representatives Charles Rangel (D-NY) and John Conyers (D-MI) introduced an important new resolution, designed to aid the increasingly vocal communities of Blacks in Latin America.
In February 2003 Rangel and Conyers introduced House Resolution 47, a motion that would have the United States formally recognize the fact that there are some 80 to 150 million Blacks living in Latin American and Caribbean nations.
Termed an Afro-Latino Resolution, the decree would acknowledge that Latinos of African descent are, as Rangel has stated, our brothers and sisters through the slave trade and, like us, they are suffering from similar problems. The resolution was announced last February, during Black History Month, to help expose African Americans and U.S. residents in general to an expanded view of what it means to be Black in the Americas.
House Resolution 47 asserts that U.S. funding to Latin American countries should come with a provision recognizing the direct economic and social conditions of Afro-Latinos.
But although the Afro-Latino Resolution makes no monetary demands upon the U.S. or other nations, and even though it already has 49 co-sponsors among them members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), Congress International Relations committee still has not even brought the resolution up for review.
The offices of Conyers and Rangel are planning a Feb. 20th press conference in conjunction with the Hunter College-based Global Afro-Latino and Caribbean Initiative (GALCI), to encourage people to contact their Congressional representatives and press them to vote on this resolution. If the Afro-Latino Resolution is not passed by the end of February, it may have to sit for another entire year before being reviewed.
As CBC representatives, both Conyers and Rangel have met with delegations of Black Latinos attending the CBC Foundations annual legislative conference. These groups have now made it a requirement to visit CBC representatives and remind them that while there are 3.9 million Afro-Latinos in the U.S., even more are trying to survive in the rest of the Americas.
Its very much like the feelings that arose during the Civil Rights Movement here in the U.S, notes Dr. Marta Moreno Vega, the director of New Yorks Caribbean Cultural Center, who is also a member of GALCI. As in the U.S., Latin America has a legacy of slavery, of colonialism, and of Afro-Latinos fighting for civil rights. We were enslaved and forcibly put into coastal areas. But now since these are prime real estate areas, governments want to take these lands away from us. So its a land issue thats translating into a civil rights issue.
Dr. Mischa Thompson, who currently works as the foreign policy legislative assistant to Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), drafted the Afro-Latino Resolution in Feb. 2002 when she was a congressional fellow in Rangels office. Thompson pointed out that in countries like Honduras and Colombia, Blacks are organizing to keep ancestral lands theyve lived on since enslavement, while in the U.S., African Americans are still trying to get their 40 acres and a mule.
But while many Afro-Latinos have land, they dont have collective political or economic power a fact that is placing their communities in jeopardy. One of the easiest connections to see is between us and Afro-Colombians; specifically we can see it in the drug war, Thompson reflects: A lot of the drug trafficking that takes place goes through Afro-Colombian communities, where the only jobs available are those with the drug runners. So its interesting to see the parallels with African Americans. Colombias on-going civil war has frequently led to fighting on the traditional lands of Afro-Colombians. But even when Afro-Colombian farmers arent being driven from arable lands by military incursions, they wind up leaving because of the coca-spraying programs the Colombian government has instituted under the U.S. funded anti-drug program, Plan Colombia. Our people in Colombia are impoverished, Thompson says, but if they werent they wouldnt have to end up working in the drug trade. Were fighting some of those same problems here: a lot of times we dont realize that there is a chain that connects us all.
Afro-Latinos have a long and varied history that includes civil rights movements, armed rebellions against slavery and resistance to discrimination. While African Americans recall the efforts of Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Gabriel Prosser, and Denmark Vesey to end enslavement in the U.S., Afro-Brazilians have patterned their Black rights struggles after the efforts of Filippa Maria Aranha, who ruled Brazils Amazonia and of Zumbi, who led some 30,000 Blacks in guerrilla warfare against the Portuguese in Brazils Quilombo dos Palmares, a three-walled city that became the largest community of self-emancipated Africans in the Americas.
Panamanians have Bayano, who led Blacks and Indians in eastern Panama on raids against Spanish colonialists. Afro-Venezuelans have Juan Adresote, who fought off the Spanish; Afro-Mexicans have the Nigerian-born Yanga who, in 1609, negotiated a truce with Spanish colonialists whod spent 38 years trying to capture him. Yanga established the village of San Lorenzo de los Negros in Mexico's gulf coast state of Veracruz a village that was renamed Yanga in 1932 to honor its founder. In Peru, Francisco Congo organized the palenque of Huachipa and Blacks in Colombia speak of Benkos Bioho who led Blacks to the establishment in 1603 of San Basilio de Palenque, possibly the first self-liberated community of Blacks in the Americas.
But since emancipation from slavery, Latin Americas Blacks have suffered from policies of benign neglect: laws that fail to advance the educational aims, social mobility or economic stability of Afro-Latinos. A 1995 Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) study of nine countries found that Afro-Latinos are faced with racism, tend to live in isolated, extremely poor communities, receive the least governmental services and are functionally invisible because few of their countrymen and even less folks in the rest of the world acknowledge their existence.
And then there are the Afro-Latinos who dont even acknowledge their African heritage. Dr. Thompson notes that, You could use the same argument about some Black people here: we still have issues about what we want to be called, Black, African American, an American who happens to be Black, Negro, or whatever.
Identity movements take a long time, Thompson adds, race politics take a long time. But if you just look at the situation you can see the disparities: in most of these countries the darker you are, the poorer you are. As long as you know what it means to be Black and how that correlates, you can try to help. The identity issue is important, but there are things we can do to make it easier for people to have that discussion in their own space.
Recently, Afro-Latinos have made their own strives to unite and fight for social justice. At the First Afro-Colombian Institutional Conference this past July 31-Aug. 2, 2003, Blacks in Colombia announced their formation of a Colombian Congressional Black Caucus. On Nov. 21, 2003 the 1st Conference of Afro-Descendant Legislators in the Americas and the Caribbean convened in Brazil and adopted the Charter of Brasilia, which seeks to create both a Black Parliament of the Americas and a Network of Afro-Descendant Legislators. And the Third AFROAMERICA XXI conference took place from Nov. 24 through 29 in Tela, Honduras. Now the organizing efforts of Afro-Latinos are helping to win them greater exposure in the United States.
The ships that brought us to the U.S. could have just as easily taken us to the Dominican Republic, Colombia, or Brazil. Our history is their history. Our problems are their problems, Rangel says in a statement about the Afro-Latino Resolution.
Countries like Brazil are just getting affirmative action. Recognizing Afro-descendants is a way of remembering our history and understanding our strengths. Globalization and free trade are inevitably bringing our communities closer together. Working together, the foundations of these unions could be of great strength. I introduced this resolution as a reminder of our common history and the need to work together to address our common problems.
First Published February 5, 2004
About the Author:
Karen Juanita Carrillo is a Brooklyn, NY-based writer and photographer. In 2002, she was awarded the National Newspapers Publishers Association's "Perspective Reporting Award: For human-interest coverage of the impact of September 11th, highlighting diverse perspectives in African American communities." In 2003, she was a New California Media Awards winner in the "Civil Liberties" reporting category. Her articles and photographs have appeared in: The Amsterdam News, The Village Voice, The City Sun and La Mano/La Esperanza newspapers; Ford Foundations Report, EMERGE, Latingirl, Cineaste, Black Filmmaker, Latingirl, City Limits, and THIRD FORCE magazines; the Hispanic Opportunity in Higher Education journal; the Quarterly Black Review of Books; and on-line with SeeingBlack.com, FordFound.org, MundoAfroLatino.com, and TheDiasporaMagazine.com.