Rethinking Afro-Latin America: A Collective Reflection

José Alves de Olinda, “Eshus’s Barge,” from wood, vegetal fiber and metal. Figures of two dozen Yoruban divinities, armed, have taken charge of a miniature slave ship. Credit: Museu Afro Brasil.

We wanted to foster conversations to examine the encounters between mobile and non-mobile people in Afro-Latin America at different historical moments. We also wanted to explore the extent to which our research might prove instructive to expand our understanding of the African Diaspora and to think about practices to combat racism. Our goal was to have collective conversations to disrupt racist narratives about the past and to begin imagining alternative futures.

We showcase the result of those conversations in two parts. The first part highlights the major takeaways of the course to show how several systems of racial classification, stratification, or exploitation coexist in the region and the lessons that we can draw from them. The second explores some converging insights that emanated from the projects undertaken in this site.


  • For people of African descent in Latin America, racial identity is both an embodied concept related to phenotype and a cultural concept based on heritage either from Africa or the shared trauma of slavery.
  • We must write the histories of Afro-Latin America with a broader understanding of the African diaspora as a global phenomenon that both includes the exploitation of African slaves as a colonial project and recognizes that Afro-Diasporic identities are modern social formations.
  • The outward projection of Europe as the engine of early modern conquest and colonization in the New World belies the complex set of human relations spawned by early encounters across the Atlantic World. Black conquistadors and pirates participated actively in the transformation of the Americas. Their histories speak to both the complex role enslaved and freed Africans had in the emergence of a new global order and how their actions are buried deeply in narratives of European overseas discovery and expansion.
  • The African slave trade to the Americas not only led to one of the most significant demographic transformations in world history, but it also changed the urban landscape of cities and created new forms of labor exploitation.
  • Afro-Caribbean migrants who engaged in a transatlantic exchange of ideas about rights and freedom had a significant role in shaping the cultural and political values of the United States. Though many people acknowledge the significant economic impact of slavery in producing wealth in the United States, a serious discussion of the making of American democracy must include the influence of Afro-Caribbean migrants in the United States.
  • In Latin America, paying attention to the possibilities and the limitations contained in narratives of racial democracy is essential for understanding how political and social institutions have minimized racism and how people of African descent have struggled to undermine it.


Blacks in the New World Frontier

One blog posts examined black conquistadors and another black pirates. Both of these topics reveal some of the hidden histories of the European expansion to the New World. Until recently, the impact and accomplishments of Africans, especially black conquistadors and pirates, have been consistently overlooked by historians. Also disregarded from historical accounts are “black counter-conquistadors,” Africans who did not comply with the societal norms of how blacks were supposedly less than white Europeans. Ultimately, some blacks conquistadors and pirates were able to carve a space of their own, whether violently, struggling, or settling down in the Americas.

Hidden Histories

Our blog posts on Argentina and the Dominican Republic speak to the denial of African influences in their history and the subsequent persecution of Afro-Latin American descent people within those contexts. It became our job to look at the history of historical narratives to discover why these Latin American countries have rewritten and silenced their past. How can racism be dealt with if it is not even acknowledged? Every nation, including the United States, has a racial past that remains unacknowledged, that needs to be reckoned with. Both of our blog posts facilitate that reckoning. Interestingly, the racial history in both countries isn’t only suppressed by a ruling class that self-identifies as white, but sometimes is reinforced by groups of people that have African ancestry. This is an important part of the history of the African diaspora in Latin America because it shows how prejudice and discrimination affect its victims on a socio-economic scale and in a more insidious way. In both cases, the state has sanctioned ethnic cleansing against groups deemed less European than its ruling class. However, the rewriting of history about race and racism has played an essential role in these countries’ reluctance to reckon with their historical heritage.

Caribbean Migrants and Cross-Fertilization

Afro-Latin Americans have played a consistent role in forming the cultural and political identity of the United States since its inception. The Harlem Renaissance drew on the transcultural identities of the neighborhood’s black Caribbean residents to create a melting pot for music, literature, and art. Afro-Caribbean influences in jazz music, for example, shaped Harlem’s vibrant nightlife. As a musical frenzy, jazz wasn’t just about partying; it transformed the culture of New York and the entire country. Much like music, Afro-Caribbean influences in the law impacted democracy in the United States. Unfortunately, the voices of black Caribbean lawmakers are often overlooked or ignored in shaping concepts of equality, rights, and discrimination. U.S. citizens are taught how Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and many other white male founding fathers brought back political and cultural ideas from Europe that shaped the U.S. This national narrative should be expanded to include those Afro-Caribbean Americans who also participated in this transatlantic exchange and helped form the uniquely American cultural and political landscape that exists today.

Heroes and Legends

Cuban independence hero Antonio Maceo and Puerto Rican baseball legend Roberto Clemente and are powerful examples of how the racial identities of historical figures are produced, manipulated, and remembered. Maceo is commonly remembered with heavy symbolism connecting him to classical heroic role models. As a mythic figure, his memory is referenced today all over Afro-Latin America to exalt nationalistic sentiments or racial pride. Among baseball fans in the United States, Clemente is remembered for his skill and how he helped open the door for ballplayers of Latino and African heritage. In Latin America and Latinx communities, his Puertoricaness and support for fellow Latin Americans are just as important. Today twenty-five percent of the MLB is from Latin America. The memory of Maceo and Clemente, with their multiple overlapping identities, are examples of the complicated and multi-cultural nature of the Afro-Latin America world.

New Urban and Labor Formations

The blogs on the architecture of slavery in Brazil and Chinese indentured servants in Cuba deal with seemingly unrelated topics. However, they examine how slavery shaped Rio de Janeiro’s changing built environment and how a crisis in the slave system in Cuba brought Chinese indentured workers to the island. Today, both countries are grappling with the legacies of that past, either through the urban renewal project of the Valongo slave market in Rio or through the inclusion of Chinese people in Cuba’s national history.

Seeking Racial Justice

Since the late 2010s, the Black Lives Matter movement in Brazil has gained momentum. However, neither police brutality against Afro-Brazilians nor the mobilization against racial discrimination and violence has been a recent phenomenon. In the 1970s and 80s, amid a repressive dictatorship, the Movimento Negro Unificado emerged in Brazil to combat racial injustice. Beatriz Nascimento, one of the key figures of this movement, introduced a revolutionary perspective on black feminism in Brazil. Nascimento’s conceptualization of quilombos as a non-geographic space where blackness thrives emphasized the need for more representation for blackness in intellectual and physical spaces. Taken together, the blogs on Nascimento and the Black Lives Matter movement, draw a line of continuity between the two moments of increased mass mobilization. In both movements, there is a concrete attempt to construct a category of negro that includes all people of African descent to oppose the ways in which the ideology of racial harmony minimizes racism. Our goal is to raise awareness of the particular ways racism is experienced in Brazil and how Afro-Brazilians and their allies organize to fight it.