In a million years, I would never have thought to teach young students about their African heritage—especially as a white teacher.
One of the big roadblocks I’ve always had with students from Latin America (especially the Dominican Republic, where most of my kids are from) is recognizing their complex racial composition. All too often, it’s a matter of observation: a scan of faces instantly shows the African blood permeating through almost all of them. From other students, particularly from Mexico or Central and South America, one can notice the strong indigenous nature of their complexion.
Yet when this racial complexity is noted and explained by me, even as someone of Hispanic origin myself, it is met with pushback, denial and outright hostility. “I’m Dominican, not some ugly Black!” or “I’m no dirty Indian!” is the common response.
(The former statement, by the way, is from a student whose skin is darker than that of the Black students in our school.)
Yesterday, I saw the first part of a 4-part PBS documentary that helped shed light on the complex nature of race in Latin America. Hosted by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—a scholar who has lately become PBS’ veritable point man on race and ethnicity—Black in Latin America highlights four areas of the hemisphere that have been shaped by African influences. The first part was of particular importance to me, as it concerned the tense relationship between the two countries of Hispaniola: the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
The difference couldn’t be more startling: on one side, a multiracial society that shuns its African roots and embraces European identity. On the other lies a society that openly acknowledges and respects its African heritage, and has paid an agonizing price for it.
The Dominican Republic (previously the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo), the oldest Spanish possession in the New World, was also the first to import enslaved Africans as a labor force, especially in the sugar trade. Yet sugar quickly proved unprofitable, and the economy moved towards cattle ranching. On the range, the distinctions between enslaved and enslaver slowly dissipated, as intermarriage and cultural intermingling created a society that associated itself primarily as landowners, hence the magnetism towards Spain.
Gates points out the heroes and patriots that grace the squares of Santo Domingo—almost all are white Europeans, and the mulattos (or mixed-race persons) had their features Anglicized according to local prejudices. Although 90% of Dominicans have some African ancestry, it is an ancestry pushed to the background in the name of national identity and consciousness. It is only recently that many Dominicans have even begun to discover and analyze their African roots.
This “whitewashing” of Dominican identity was also influenced by its relations to its western neighbor. Haiti occupied Santo Domingo for 22 years, attempting to Francify the population. Upon independence in 1844, Dominican identity crystallized: anything Haitian, Creole, even African was considered low and inferior. When sugar was re-established as a commodity in the late 19th century, it was migrant Haitians who did the cane-cutting. Dominicans looked on these newcomers with derision, a hatred that resulted in the horrific massacre of over 15,000 Haitians in 1937.
Haiti seems almost the exact opposite. Even amongst the rubble and poverty of Port-au-Prince, the statues of Haitian heroes are almost all Black. Haitian culture, language and music pay open homage to Africa, whereas Dominican culture only tacitly recognized its African antecedents. Though both countries are Roman Catholic, Haiti also is a center for voodoo, a religion based on African and Catholic influences—a religion that helped united Blacks from various parts of Africa to begin the unthinkable: a large-scale slave revolt.
Haiti, a former French colony (Saint-Domengue, once the richest in the New World), was born not out of a struggle against its neighbor, but out of a slave rebellion that had far-reaching influence. Starting in 1791, the enslaved Africans of Saint-Domengue revolted against their French masters in the first successful slave rebellion in the Americas. One gruesome after-effect of the revolt—the massacre of the French masters on the island—made sure that even with many mixed-race Haitians, the culture of the country would focus not towards Europe, but towards Africa.
This independent spirit just could not stand, according to the slaveholding powers of France, Great Britain and especially the United States. Through embargoes, economic strangulation and outright military intervention, Haiti has paid a dear price for daring to exist as an independent nation of Africans. Political instability, poverty, corruption—these are but a sampling of the abuses suffered by Haitians since independence. Yet through all these hardships, Haitians are still immensely proud of who they are, and especially where they came from.
The show is extremely important to educators who teach multiracial classrooms, especially those with Latin American immigrants. While the episodes are a little too short (I really wished for two hours to really go in-depth), the first episode gives an important synopsis of how race affects societies in the New World. Thus, it also gives a window on how students view their own racial identity, and why they treat their ancestry in such complex ways.
Going back to my classroom, my Dominican students came from a culture where race was not confronted head-on, as it is in the United States. Their identity is based on their nationality, which was based on ties to former colonial powers and shunning of more “Africanized” neighbors. Yet it is important for them to see the complete picture of themselves, which may be very uncomfortable given their ingrained prejudices.
Race, or racial identity, often needs to be taught outright in order to be recognized. As Dominicans, these kids may have given lip service to Africans of the past, but nothing more. As Americans, it is important for them to acknowledge and embrace a culture that is theirs, whether they like it or not.
There is no shame in being of African descent.
Whether or not that sentiment can permeate the wall of Dominican identity remains to be seen.
Review of PBS’ “Black in Latin America”: Mexico/Peru
An 18th Century Casta Painting from Mexico, showing different racial combinations.
In my mother’s home country of Ecuador, there’s a province that is unlike any other.
Where the majority of the population is of either pure indigenous or mestizo (mixed white-indigenous) extraction, Esmeraldas appears as a stark contrast to the norm. The province, located on the northern coast abutting Colombia, appears better suited to the Caribbean than to an Andean country. Even with large white and native populations, Esmeraldas is dominated by Africans imported during the Spanish conquest of the 16th Century. Its culture and traditions point farther east than the Andes, towards the coasts of West Africa from which their ancestors were taken.
Athletes from Esmeraldas are especially successful. A glance at Ecuador’s soccer team would have one think they were from Cuba, Trinidad or Jamaica—anything but a South American mountain republic.
There are enclaves like Esmeraldas in many countries in Central and South America. In the last chapter of PBS’ Black in Latin America, Henry Louis Gates looks at two such areas: the black peoples of Veracruz and the Costa Chica in Mexico and the enclave outside Lima, Peru.
Unlike the Caribbean, Central and South America’s native population was too vast and too concentrated to be wiped out. The cultures of these areas, thus, carried a more Amerindian hue. The exception is the Southern Cone, where marginal native populations, as well as Africans, were absorbed into large European immigrant communities.
Yet according to Gates, the African influence is much larger than we realize—especially as African influences were absorbed or subsumed into the larger Hispano-Amerindian community.
More Africans were imported into Mexico and Peru than the United States. Almost half of all enslaved Africans imported to Spanish America came to Mexico. Cities such as Lima and Veracruz contained a distinct African hue, in contrast to the Spanish-native hybrid culture that surrounds them. Many Mexicans and Peruvians contain some African blood, even those that look mestizo. Furthermore, cultural aspects such as music, dance, and food contained as much African influence as from Europe and the Americas.
So apart from a few enclaves, where did all the Africans go?
In Mexico, the slave boom was early and brief, through the 17th century, and emancipation came sooner (in 1829). Blacks intermarried earlier and more vigorously, and by the 1920s it was difficult to even tell who was of African descent. Officially, scholars and politicians extolled the multi-racial “brownness” of Mexico’s people—a homogenization of all cultures that pushed black identity into the background.
A similar pattern occurred in Peru and other South American nations. Although emancipation was more gradual in South America, the overwhelming native and mestizo populations mixed just as vigorously into African families, creating a similar “brownness” to the Mexican experience.
The most dramatic—and tragic—example is on the Rio de la Plata in Argentina, where black populations were almost entirely integrated into either mestizo or, more commonly, European immigrant populations. In effect, this did in fact wipe out the African influence on the Southern Cone, with the exception of Uruguay, where blacks and mulattos from neighboring Brazil buttress their own communities.
So in looking at these groups, and the series in a whole, I’m left with one question: Is racial intermingling and color-blindness necessarily a good thing?
A common theme in this chapter, and in the series, is the mistaken benevolence of color-blindness. For many in Latin America, especially places like the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Brazil, it was thought that the mixing of races would create a new pan-racial harmony that transcended labels and heritage. Gates himself points out that this benevolent “openness” is in itself a form of racism, in that it refuses to deal with the realities of culture and especially domestic social problems.
To be honest, Gates has a point. People are not ingredients in a soup, where different flavors and textures get blended together to make one uniform concoction. There will always be shades of color among us, and whenever there is difference, there is usually some form of discrimination be it overt or subtle. Otherwise, the enclaves of Afro-Latin Americans in Esmeraldas, Veracruz, Lima and the Costa Chica would not exist.
Yet I also get a sense—and I think Gates feels it also—that even though it may be merely a pipe dream, “racial democracy” is something worth striving for. There is hope that in the future there can be a time where all people are treated equally and fairly—while at the same time acknowledging and celebrating the different cultures that have shaped the American continent.
That hope was seen in the universities in Brazil, among young people in the Dominican Republic, in the activists striving in the Costa Chica in Mexico, and even the underground rappers and artists in Cuba that fight for their identity even when official policy condemns them as treasonous.
Whatever the future holds, this much is certain: the cultures of Latin America would not be the same if it weren’t for the millions of Africans kidnapped and brought to these shores. They gave far more than they ever got in return.
In acknowledging their contributions, it goes a small way to repaying that debt.
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