Latinx/a/o is not a racial category. It is an ethnic one. According to the United States Census, race and ethnicity are two separate categories; race is understood as a biologically inherited trait, while ethnicity is rooted in one’s cultural group. Under this logic, one can be of any race and still be Latinx/a/o or Hispanic. However, both race and ethnicity are socially constructed and highly contextual. They exist as a result of the human tendency to group and categorize, but are ultimately drawn along arbitrary and evolving lines. Moreover, the concepts of race and ethnicity vary markedly from culture to culture.
Hegemonic ideas concerning race the U.S. are, quite literally, black and white. Historically, U.S. racialization has been structured in a Black/White binary opposition that designates any person with traceable or observable African descent as Black. Referred to as hypodescent, or more colloquially as the “one-drop rule,” this racial paradigm has its roots in British colonial and early U.S. African enslavement and has continued to shape legal code as well as social understandings of blackness (Khanna, Davis, Hall). Furthermore, as with any hegemonic ideology, we see processes of negotiation involving this construction of blackness where, in order to reclaim their own racialized identities, African Americans have embraced this paradigm (Khanna 99). As such, hypodescent is not only the framework for dominant notions of
U.S. racialization, but has been incorporated into self-racialization practices within the African American community. Therefore, as a construct, it permeates all U.S. racial discourses, including individuals whose blackness originates outside of the country. In application this means, a person “of African descent has little choice but to identify as Black” (Davis 317).
When investigating the influence discourses of hypodescent and Black subjectivity have on those people of African descent who do not fit within the African American heritage narrative, it is important to note that blackness in the U.S. is based on assumptions of the essential Black subject who can trace a trajectory originating in enslavement. When dealing with Afro-Latinx racial negotiations, we should avoid the trappings of the one-drop rule which would place Afro-Latina/os as analogous to African Americans, as this could potentially erase the context of their blackness. For instance, those that argue that Dominicans suffer from a simple complex of refusing to acknowledge their “true” African descent de-historicize the Dominican subject. The potential result of this conflation could be the loss of the specific context and plight of Dominicans when they are mis-appropriated into U.S. blackness.
However, blackness itself is constructed in a relational manner. While historically this relation has been positioned in opposition to whiteness, it nonetheless is a fluid category that can and does bend. On reflecting on the work of Stuart Hall, who argues that race is not a fixed and essentialized category but instead a floating signifier, I see not only the potential for Afro-Latinx inclusion in constructions of blackness but also the inclusion of Black bodies in constructions of Latinx/a/o that have categorically excluded them. As such, the room for, and more accurately, the demand for negotiation becomes evident when Afro-Latina/os in the U.S. are forced to make sense of their racialization in a system that categorizes them within discourses of blackness. As a result, Latinx African descent is not necessarily denied, but it is qualified in relation to the blackness of African Americans and various notions of latinidad.
Latinidad and Blackness
Because Latina/os are a population that actively contest, by their very existence, binary systems of racial meaning within the U.S., they occupy an in-between status and are both ambiguous and hybrid (Ovalle 165). Latinx diversity uncovers the façade of what is, in fact, a fabricated visual system that arbitrarily associates physical characteristics—such as darkness of skin color, hair type, eye color, etc.—with either a perceived whiteness or blackness. The result of this is that “it’s no longer possible to talk about issues of race in exclusive black and white terms” (Davis 319).
Among the most salient concepts of identity, latinidad has emerged as a framework articulating Latinx subjectivity in the U.S. Deriving from an identification with the term Latino and its variants, latinidad can be conceptualized as the “processes where Latino/a identities and cultural practices are contested and created in media, discourse, and public space” (Guidotti-Hernandez 212). In application, latinidad becomes a flexible and ambivalent association with Latinx identity, culture, and community on a pan-ethnic level. Yet, there is not a singular or monolithic latinidad. Therefore, the more nuanced articulation of latinidades better acknowledges the diversity and hybridity among those commonly identified as Latina/o/x. Frances R. Aparicio and Susana Chávez-Silverman assert that latinidad is not an all-encompassing category including all things related to Latin America, but a far more complex notion that is “contestatory and contested, fluid, and relational” (15). It is through U.S. homogenizing pan-ethnic discourses that all those who would be categorized as Hispanic/Latino become consolidated into one identity category: an identity category that fundamentally ignores and erases ethnoracial, national, and cultural specificity. Consequently, there is not one singular umbrella latinidad, but rather multiple latinidades.
While latinidad by its very nature challenges racialized binary thinking in the US, afrolatinidad problematizes this thinking even further by complicating what becomes acceptably included within the boundaries of latinidad, blackness, and/or whiteness. Ultimately, what this speaks to is the contentious relationship between blackness and afrolatinidad that is rooted in colonialist history and a complicated relationship with African descent.
Popularly imagined as a homogenous “brown” race with a mixed Indigenous and Spanish ethnoracial heritage, the extreme diversity within the Latinx population is systematically flattened, ignored, and erased. Furthermore, regardless of the fact of significant African descent among many Latin American and Caribbean populations, blackness is obscured in multiple ways. A common phenomenon in the Spanish Caribbean is to suggest non-European features and heritage are not from African descent, but Indigenous. Examples would include the mestizaje based nationalistic discourse of la gran familia puertorriquena in Puerto Rico and how antihatianismo manifests in the Dominican Republic through those of African descent being referred to as indio (Rivero 13-15, Candelario 2, Sagás 35). In many countries of Central and South America, blackness tends to be rendered invisible through lack of acknowledgment altogether, or the suggestion that any population of African descent in their countries have their origins in immigrants from the Caribbean. Others, like Brazil or Cuba for instance, are politically celebratory of their African heritage, while in practice their claims of racelessness or racial democracy coverup the reality of anti-Black discrimination. Such heritages of anti-blackness do not disappear within a U.S. context, they merely enter into a dialogue with one another.
The result of internalization of U.S. racial ideology is a collective distancing among those in the pan-Latinx community from connections to blackness (Cruz-Janzen, Román & Flores). In application this means the Latinx community, and those who represent it, often implicitly reinforce anti-Black racism through their hesitance to acknowledge the Afro-Latina/os that make up part of their community. According to Marta I. Cruz-Janzen “The more Latinos become immersed in the racial ideology of the United States,…the more powerful is their need and desire to free themselves of any and all vestiges of African ancestry” (286). Without explicit acknowledgement and inclusion of Afro-Latina/os within the Latinx community, it is no surprise that, as standard political and representational practice in the U.S., Latina/os are consolidated under the label “Latino” and their heterogeneity masked by a generic representation. Pan-ethnic latinidad, while it has been beneficial in terms of alliance politics and solidarity, privileges certain experiences, representations, and identifications over others. Certainly, many Afro-Latina/os claim a Latino/Hispanic identification; however, this identification is more appropriative or assimilationist than organic. Their association with this identity category is more nuanced than current articulations of “Latino” allow for and results in a desire to qualify where they fit within this pan-ethnic conglomeration.
One particular manifestation of the complex relationship between latinidad and blackness is the prevalence of colorism. More generally, colorism is a system of hierarchizing and privileging lighter skin tones seen in many communities of color. In Latin America and the Spanish Caribbean, this often takes the form of what has been called blanqueamiento (whitening). While many claim that the result of ethnoracial hybridity is a kind of racial democracy, in reality, “Latin American and Caribbean countries continue to respect the color hierarchy implemented by the colonizers while simultaneously denying its currency. Thus, half-concealed in the social imaginary, this hierarchy regulates every aspect of social life, and it is (re)produced by all kinds of cultural expressions” (L. Vargas 162). The lighter one’s skin, the more legitimate the claim to latinidad. The manifold impact of colorism among Latina/os is the abjection and marginalization of dark-skinned Afro-Latina/os. Yet, Afrolatinidad is much more palatable, both within and outside the Latinx community, if it is subtle (i.e. an ambiguous brown skin tone, curly hair that has been relaxed or straightened, more “European” facial features, etc.). Furthermore, colorism swings the other way as well. Afro-Latina/os often have their blackness put into question among other groups of African descent (African Americans, Continental Africans, West Indians). For these groups, Afro-Latina/os are not Black enough. They are seen as culturally distinct and, therefore, are marginalized among Black communities as well.
Regardless of varied and hegemonic processes of symbolic annihilation, contestation, and acceptance of African descent, afrolatinidad not only exists, but is thriving. Afrolatinidad, like latinidad and latinidades, is about articulating identity and subjectivity. It is a way of both distinguishing and centering blackness within the Latinx imaginary. Its continued visibility actively works against the contradictions within amorphous constructs of “Latino” (Román & Flores 2). Influenced by the identity politics of Black Power and Afrocentrism, Afro-Latina/os have become increasingly vocal about and attentive to their African descent. Activists, scholars, artists, musicians, and everyday people are finding empowerment in not just acknowledging their blackness, but in understanding it as a weapon for post-colonial identification. For example, in his discussion of (Afro)Antillanismo, Juan Flores contends that what separates “caribeños” (those that situate their identities within the Spanish Caribbean) from Latinx pan-ethnicity is blackness and an Afro-Atlantic imaginary. His analysis suggests that people from the major Spanish Caribbean countries (Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic) engage with U.S. notions of blackness, nationally constructed racial ideologies, and constructions of race articulated through pan-Caribbean/Antillean discourses. Afro-Latina/o conferences, festivals, research institutes, websites, student groups, social media hashtags, etc. have become productive spaces to establish and enrich the “foundational historical and cultural connection to Africa, an affirmation that simultaneously defies the Eurocentric ideologies that have characterized Latin America and the Caribbean” (Román & Flores 2). While these phenomena are encouraging, they are not reflected in media representation.
Afro-Latina/os in the Media
With such a complex ethnoracial terrain to contend with, it should be a surprise to no one that inclusion, acknowledgement, and adequate representation of Afro-Latina/os and afrolatinidad in media is at best negligible. The politics of media representation has made one thing quite clear: “as far as the mainstream media are concerned, Latin@s are not black and Blacks are not Latin@” (Román & Flores 10). Due to a legacy of blackness “tainting” anything it mixes with, afrolatinidad is rendered invisible, even as Afro-Latina/os have long participated in the industry.
In a visual medium, the way actors look is not only important, but significantly influences the frameworks within which audiences interpret the characters they portray. And in a society where race matters, ethnoracial categorization is assigned based on what an actor appears to be. As blackness is not included within the parameters of the mediated “Latin look,” Afro-Latina/os rarely appear Latina/o to mainstream audiences. Even for audiences familiar with a star’s Afro-Latina/o background, their latinidad is made marginal in the presence of blackness. This not only limits Afro-Latina/os to roles already signified with blackness, but often prohibits them from portraying Latina/o characters all together. Actors like Christina Milian and Zoe Saldana have dark enough skin tones that casting them as African American seems appropriate, if not the only option. While Michelle Rodriguez, who can better embody a typical Latina look, can easily play a Chicana from Los Angeles. Casting agents therefore rely on dominant conceptions of racialization to construct a racial understanding of racially “ambiguous” actors (Warner 49). What becomes important is not how the actor self identifies, but how a mainstream audience would racialize them playing a given character. Essentially, do they have “the right look.”
Furthermore, the various U.S. English media avenues and industries mis- and under-represent Afro-Latina/os in a way that marginalizes their identities and shapes the way mainstream U.S. society reads their racialization. Representations of Afro-Latina/os are extremely rare in U.S. mass media and regularly limited to certain narrative locations (New York City for example). In Spanish-language media such representations, while sustaining a more visible presence, are secondary, limited, and “negative,” usually seen in their positioning as background characters or domestics in telenovelas, the trivializing of Spanish Caribbean interests in news coverage, and an almost total lack of cultural representation based in afrolatinidades (Román & Flores 10-11).
The phenomenon of invisible afrolatinidad in media is a historical and contemporary one. To demonstrate this, I will examine three Afro-Latina/o actors—Juano Hernández, Gina Torres, and Rosario Dawson—and the ways in which they have navigated a media industry that sees Black and Latina/o as mutually exclusive.
Juano Hernández (1896-1970)
Born in Puerto Rico, Juano Hernández was a boxer, circus acrobat, vaudeville performer, script writer, theater actor, and radio performer before 1949, when he was cast as Lucas Beauchamp in the major Hollywood film Intruder in the Dust (Brown)—a role that would earn him a Golden Globe nomination and BAFTA win. Hernández was among the first actors of African descent to be cast in a leading role along with big name white Hollywood stars, including Kirk Douglas, Steve McQueen, and Doris Day (Wartts). Along with actors like Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, the lesser remembered Hernández took part in a period of Hollywood history that dealt with changing racial politics by including “dignified” and “respectable” African American characters (Bastién, A. Vargas). In addition to a couple earlier 1930s “race films,” Hernández also appeared in a handful of Black-cast films in the 1950s and 60s with actors like Nat King Cole, Pearl Bailey, Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, and Eartha Kitt (Wartts).
Everyone knew Hernández was from Puerto Rico, but the ways in which his blackness was represented never affirmed his afrolatinidad. Instead, he was hailed as a great “Negro” actor. Brian Eugenio Herrera uses the term “Stealth Latinos” to refer to Latina/o actors whose latinidad was not denied, but also not reflected in the roles they played in film and television. While this usually manifested in the ability to play white characters, in Hernández’s case, this meant he was almost exclusively cast as either African American or African (Rodriguez, Herrera). Shortly before the release of The Breaking Point (Curtiz), a piece in Ebony magazine said of Hernández’s success: “It is a symbol of the changing pattern of race relations in motion pictures since in every role Hernandez has played a dignified, understanding Negro character” (“Hollywood’s ‘Hottest’ Negro Actor”). The fact that Hernández was so often written about in Ebony, a publication explicitly rooted in the African American experience and dedicated to a mission of Black racial uplift, is quite telling. It reveals just how extensive is the reach of hypodescent, as well as a hesitation to distinguish one form of blackness from another. In the same piece from Ebony, the film’s director, Michael Curtiz, is quoted as saying “Hernandez is the ‘new Negro’ in our movies. No longer do we have the janitors and shoe shine boys. Now we have a dignified, intelligent, big man” (ibid). Yet important to note for this film in particular is the fact that the character Hernández played, Wesley Park, was not originally written as a Black character (both in the source material of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not nor the original film script). As such, I believe it is an apt media text to discuss a little further.
The Breaking Point is a film noir style production that focuses on the moral challenges its protagonist, Harry Morgan (John Garfield), must navigate in order to support his business and family. Harry is a boat captain and Hernández’s Wesley is his firstmate. Wesley is the moral compass Harry turns to as he starts to head down a path of illegal activities and human smuggling. When things go wrong, Wesley is killed, to the horror of Harry. While the film shows a level of Black and white coexhistance that is still relatively anomolous for a film made during segregation America, it is nonetheless “emblematic of a recurring motif in liberal white films, which often recruited black partners to help white protagonists learn more about themselves” (Civille 9). The film ends in the bleak and tragic vein so common of film noir, with most of the main characters dead and hope destroyed. Poignantly, the last scene of the film shows Wesley’s son waiting on a pier for a father that will never return, completely unaware that his father has been killed and dumped in the ocean. A suitable metaphor for the devaluing of Black lives, as well as the lack of cultural memory of an early and well-respected Afro-Latino actor.
Finding more success in television than film, Gina Torres’ career exemplifies the contemporary invisibility of afrolatinidad within U.S. media. The Afro-Cuban Torres has been very candid about her experience as an Afro-Latina who is only cast as Black/African American characters. In the Mun2 (now NBC Universo) network’s short documentary Black and Latino, Torres says “When I became an actress, I quickly realized that the world liked their Latinas to look Italian, not like me. And so I wasn’t going up for Latina parts, I was going up for African American parts.” Torres’s blackness has affected her career the most in terms of role opportunities. In fact, many audiences are completely unaware of her Cuban heritage, even considering her Latinx surname. In many ways a cult star, Torres has starred in or been featured in many science-fiction and fantasy television shows. Known best for her roles in Cleopatra 2525 (2000-2001), Firefly (FOX, 2002–2003), Serenity (Whedon), and the last two installments of The Matrix trilogy in 2003 (Lana and Lilly Wachowski), she appeared in reoccurring roles in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Angel, 24, Alias, and Suits.
While her career has been mostly on television, she has been cast in a handful of African American Cinema films. Torres has played a Black/African American character in films like the Mo’Nique vehicle Hair Show (Small) and the Black-cast film Fair Game (Whaley). In the film I Think I Love My Wife, directed and staring Chris Rock, Torres plays Brenda Cooper, wife of Richard Cooper (Rock) who is caught between staying loyal to his wife and family and the seductive former crush Nikki (Kerry Washington). While not a film necessarily targeted towards the African American audience, race is far from invisible and the film does retain a watered-down version of Rock’s racial comedy sensibility. Brenda discusses a desire to find an African American “mocha mothers” support group and the narrative trades in discourses of middle-class African American politics of respectability. Torres’s casting does not raise any eyebrows and her afrolatinidad is rendered invisible in the process. When asked how she feels about playing African American characters, Torres told Latina magazine “I don’t feel like I’m living a lie, because the fact is the world sees me as an African American woman unless they ask the question. Therefore my experience in the world, outside of my family, is that of an African American woman” (Trivino). Not much has changed since the time of Juano Hernández. Appearance of blackness is enough to preclude any meaningful inclusion in representational latinidad.
The most mainstream successful of the three actors discussed in this chapter, Rosario Dawson is probably also the most racially ambiguous. Having Puerto-Rican, Afro-Cuban, Irish, and Native American heritages, Dawson’s racialization is often ambiguous and even flexible (Beltrán Latina/o Stars in U.S. Eyes, Hensley). Her mixed heritage is frequently credited for her good looks and is something she is asked repeatedly to comment on during interviews. Consequently, in the majority of her films and television shows, race must be implied by various markers, including: darkness of skin, presence of accent, language spoken, location of character origin, fashion and styling, and the ethnic quality of the character’s name (Beltrán “The Hollywood Latina Body as Site of Social Struggle,” Valdivia). Audiences’ ethnoracial readings of Dawson are highly context/narrative specific and, at times, reflect ideological challenges to normative racial thinking in the United States.
Unlike Hernández and Torres, Dawson’s career is marked by more casting flexibility; the characters she portrays are often racialized as either African American or Latina (Beltrán Latina/o Stars in U.S. Eyes). As an example, in the Adventures of Pluto Nash (Underwood), Dawson seems to be racialized as vaguely Black in relation to Eddie Murphy’s unquestioned racialization as African American. Beyond the pairing of Dawson with an African American leading man, a strategy that harkens back to the discomfort towards miscegenation for a U.S. audience, she is depicted as an R&B singer, a designation that, in turn, potentially races her as African American. Similarly, in Josie and the Pussy Cats (Elfont & Kaplan) Dawson portrays Valerie Brown, the African American band member of the Pussycats, based on the Archie Comics animated series character from the 1970s. As a continuation of a previously racialized character, her “café au lait” skin tone is read as light skinned African American. Furthermore, the character’s non-ethnic name distances Dawson from an alternative Latina reading. She is, additionally, regularly represented in this film with hairstyles that are associated with an African American aesthetic, such as “afro-puffs,” braids, and salon styled tight curls. Both these films represent Dawson as African American in a way that would rule out a connection to a Latina identity.
However, this racialization as African American is not as common in her other films. As the character of Mimi in the film Rent (Columbus), one of her most famous roles, Dawson is the epitome of the New York City Latina. She has a Nuyorican (New York Puerto Rican) accent, darker skin tone, long dark hair with some texture, and works as a stripper. In any other location outside of New York City, her racialization would be difficult to read, however, in the context of the city she is unmistakably Latina of Caribbean heritage. Similarly, in the film Side Streets (Gerber), a story that is meant to reflect the ethnic and racial diversity of the individual boroughs of New York City, the audience is presented with two couples of arguable Caribbean origin: one West Indian and one Puerto Rican. The West Indian couple in Brooklyn are of clear primary African descent and are therefore Black. However, the Latinx couple, Marisol (Dawson) and Ramon (John Ortiz), are generically depicted as Latinx. Here we see an overt depiction of a conceptualization of Spanish-speaking Caribbeans as not Black in comparison with more explicitly Black West Indians. In fact, Dawson’s African descent is downplayed in her character by placing her within a family of lighter skinned Latinas (her mother and sister) which helps negate a connection to African descent within her character. Moreover, the sub-narrative of the Bronx utilizes spoken Spanish to further mark Dawson as primarily Latina. While the sole use of English within the sub-narrative of Brooklyn suggests that the couple’s origin is from an island that was colonized by the British and therefore rules out any possible connection to the Spanish Caribbean. Admittedly, there might be an unspoken understanding that Puerto Ricans have varying degrees of African descent, yet the juxtaposition of Dawson’s character to those uncritically racialized as Black prevents a mainstream reading of her character from being anything but Latinx in general and maybe, more specifically, Puerto Rican for those who are familiar with the specific Latinx populations in New York City.
Re-Centering Blackness within Latinidad
One clear result of Latinx pan-ethnicity is the marginalizing of blackness within a system of representation that gives preference to Latinx whiteness. This is a representational cycle that must be broken, and not just by lighter-skinned and more ambiguous Afro-Latina/os like Rosario Dawson. While Afro-Latina/o actors are occasionally represented as Latina/o, that latinidad is a marginalized and contextualized one. Significantly, each actor’s public acknowledgment of their African descent negates the polarity of U.S. media racialization that attempts to place characters in an either/or construction, in this case either African American or Latinx. Afrolatinidad threatens to deconstruct long held racial ideologies, in both the U.S. and Latin America. Latinx African descent is not an outlier, it is just as central to latinidad as Spanish and Indigenous heritages. Consequently, a re-centering of blackness demonstrates the potential of Afro-Latina/o subjectivity to blur the boundaries of racial binary as well as pan-ethnic latinidad.
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