The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Latino Studies, Media Archive, United States on 2012-08-06 22:52Z by Steven

The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States (review)

Volume 35, Number 2, Spring 2012
pages 548-551
DOI: 10.1353/cal.2012.0030

Daynali Flores-Rodriguez, Adjunct Professor of Spanish
Inter-American University of Puerto Rico

Jiménez Román, Miriam, and Juan Flores, eds. The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States. Durham: Duke UP, 2010.

Published a year before the United Nations declared 2011 the International Year for People of African Descent, The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States, takes a deeper look into the complex world of ethnic and race relations in America. Miriam Jiménez Román, the executive director of Afro-Latino Forum, a research and resource center for Black Latinos in the US, and Juan Flores, Director of Latino Studies at NYU, engage Afro-Latin@s as a population that “bridge various communities even as they constitute a community in their own right” (xiii). Similar to Henry Louis Gates’s Black in Latin America (2011) a four-part documentary series shown earlier this year on PBS that explores the influence of African descent in Latin America, The Afro-Latin@ Reader focuses “on the strategically important but still largely understudied United States context of Afro-Latin@ experience” (3). Both are proof of an emerging interest in transnational relations of race as a way to challenge the homogenizing effects of national and regional constructs of identity.

The complex history of ethnic and racial movements in the United States is traditionally framed within a socially-progressive agenda intended to reveal and denounce hidden histories of racialization, colonization, exploitation and social mobilization still experienced by many. In their zeal to be acknowledged and recognized as equals in mainstream society, ethnic and racial groups often articulate identity in terms that foster the same practices of cultural disenfranchisement these groups were denouncing in the first place.

Likewise, in Latin America, the myth of racial democracy based on “mestizaje” or mixed race, is still touted as one of the most defining traits of a pan-ethnic cultural identity. Since slavery was a systematic practice brought upon Latin America by European colonizers and later adopted and asserted by the United States (considered the ideological and practical heir of Europe), racial discrimination and prejudice is considered a foreign problem that attests to the immorality of imperialist and colonial practices and a strategic attempt to distract and divide Latin Americans from their common goal to resist these advances. Indigenous and black identities are accepted (in that order) as long as they do not compromise the traditional discourse of racial harmony that makes Latin Americans stand strong against the neocolonial threat, represented by the United States.

The editors of The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States make a compelling effort to reveal the subtle and complex negotiations of social identity that take place when these two paradigms clash. While oral narratives and testimonies are a common point of departure for historians and social scientists alike, the material included in the collection demonstrates an innovative approach that encourages readers to keep reflecting on the contributions made by Afro-Latin@s, far beyond the strict academic setting that so strongly divides experience from theory. Voices of the past acquire a new meaning for our own times. Arturo Alfonso Schomburg’s plea for the establishment of a Chair of Negro History in 1913 demonstrates his relevance as a pioneer for Black Studies and resonates stronger nowadays, where ethnic studies (specifically Latin@ and Chican@ studies) are threatened amidst accusations of reverse racism and/or the false premises of a post-racial America heightened by Barack Obama’s election in 2008. The essays by Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof and Evelyne Laurent-Perrault not only describe the world of tense racial coalitions and segregation Schomburg inhabited but how his legacy is kept alive and still facilitates the conversation about what it means to be an Afro-Latin@.

The strength of this collection is the diverse array of materials suitable for those reflecting comparatively on issues of race, ethnicity, and identity, whether for the first time or for the hundredth. The Afro-Latin@ Reader uses academic essays, memoirs, poetry, literature, interviews, Census statistics, short stories, music, film, and popular culture to establish a much needed conversation on the social othering of Latin@s…

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