Black and Latino in the Americas

Dr. Henry Louis Gates
Dr. Henry Louis Gates-Black in Latin American

Black in Latin America – Most Americans can’t conceive of black and Latino being the same thing. Most African-Americans can’t conceive of slavery existing anywhere else other than the United States. In both cases, were all wrong. The slave trade worldwide was a massive undertaking. When most Americans think of slavery, we think of the obvious and long-lasting effects of slavery in the United States and relationships between the races. The truth is that the majority of slaves during the transatlantic slave trade ended up south of America’s borders, the Caribbean and all throughout South America.

Between 1502 in 1866 12.5 million African slaves were brought to the Americas. Of that number, only 450,000 were brought to the United States. The rest were scattered throughout the Caribbean and other parts of Latin America and the diaspora that has become the legacy of that tragic commerce. The remaining slaves were brought to other parts of Latin America;4.8 million were brought to Brazil alone. In fact, Brazil is home to the largest black population in the entire world, second only to the African continent. Today 120 million people of African descent live in Latin America.

Dr. Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard professor who became famous for his confrontation with a local policeman when trying to break into his own home has conducted extensive research on being black in Latin America. Dr. Gates travels have taken him to Brazil, Peru, Cuba and the Dominican Republic; conducting his research and writing his book, Black in Latin America.

What Dr. Gates found in his travels, is that race in Latin America is more of a subtle, yet complex social construct. Many of the governments throughout Latin America do not count race in their national census. Therefore they can explain away any racism that may or may not exist. Dr. Gates other findings was that most of those in Latin America are fleeing from their own sense of blackness. Many will tell you that they are mestizo, Indio but not negro (Spanish for black).

While race in Latin America is a much more subtle issue and is not as apparent as it is in the United States. There still seems to be a disparity between who is at the upper and lower ends of the economic spectrum in many of these societies in Latin America. Slavery ended in Brazil for example in 1888, slavery was abolished in Cuba in 1886 another generation after it had ended in the United States.

While none of the countries in Latin America had de jure segregation, as was the case in the United States, many have discriminatory (defacto) social customs and practices. Many of the governments in Latin America because they did not take race into account when they conduct a census, proclaimed that if there is no race then there is no racism. In the case of Brazil there are 134 different categories of who is black. For us American, that number is mind-boggling.

In the early part of the 20th century (1884-1939) the Brazilian government instituted a practice called “Branciamento.” This was an official policy of “whitening” the Brazilian population. During this period Brazil imported 4 million Europeans and 185,000 Japanese to help dilute the large black population in Brazil; a more subtle form of ethnic cleansing if you will. Obviously, it didn’t dilute the population given the huge black population.

What’s interesting is, in spite of the race mixing in Brazil, other parts of Latin America and the United States it’s hard to totally flee your blackness. For example, in researching the mitochondrial(maternal lineage)DNA of those of African descent both in Latin America and the United States that genealogy is traced back to a great, great, great, great grandmother who was an African woman. Mitochondrial DNA can trace maternal lineage back many generations or how it’s known in the scientific community as Mitochondrial Eve. However, the same cannot be true in tracing the Y DNA of paternal lineage. In 35% of the cases that were tested, that Y DNA was traced back to a white man. Obviously this was due to white plantation owners having their way with black women, which was a common practice, regardless of anti-miscegenation laws. Of course this wasn’t always the case. There were those who did have loving relationships, but because of racist laws could not marry.

Basically this research was conducted to test the admixture (African, European and Native-American bloodlines) of all the black subjects who were used. Dr. Gates insisted on various phenotypes (skin color and grades of hair) to conduct this research on admixture. He actually conducted this DNA research on Chris Rock and Don Cheadle, both who are dark complexioned. And the results were that their Y DNA was traced back to white men. Regardless of how dark skinned the African-Americans are or African Latinos there are no blacks in the Americas who are 100% African. These studies conclude that there is no such thing as racial purity and that we all are mixed with something else.

The de facto (social custom or practice) racism that existed in Latin America created a subtle social construct for race and how it was viewed. Because many in Latin American do not see themselves as black and in the absence of taking race into account in the census there is no binary opposition, black versus white as is seen in the United States. On the other hand, the de jure (mandated by law) form of racism in the United States was the law of the land, making race much more apparent.

In all of Dr. Gates travels, he concluded that the Dominican Republic was the most interesting. While close to 90% of the population would be viewed as what we would call black, they call themselves everything but black. Dr. Gates asked the question of one of the locals do you consider yourself a Negro? The response was no the Negro’s are in Haiti. A Dominican colleague of Dr. Gates jokingly stated to him that he found out he was black when he went to New York City. Obviously they both had a good laugh at that. Dr. Gates stated that there seems to be a cultural transformation as well as a transformation of identity when Dominicans travel to the United States. They are confronted with the reality that they are in fact black.

I happen to concur with Dr. Gates on his findings. As a Cuban-American I have traveled to the Dominican Republic on several occasions and have found his observation to be true. They are a warm and friendly people who see themselves as Dominicans and nothing else. And while traveling throughout the Dominican Republic, never felt any tension or uneasiness with the local population. The subject of race rarely ever comes up in conversation or acted out in any way that would make one feel uncomfortable.

In conclusion, the research conducted in the book written by Dr. Gates will be a valuable assistance as we analyze the prism of race and how it affects us in our daily lives here in the United States, Latin America and the world at large. African-Americans cannot claim any patent or monopoly on the legacy of the slave trade in our journey here to the Americas in the Diaspora. In the final analysis, race is a man-made social construct.

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