The documentary film series Afro-Latinos: The Untaught Story, developed by the independent production company, Creador Pictures, broadens our notions of movements and the experiences of blacks in the Americas. Afro-Latinos brings to fore the history, culture and contemporary challenges facing blacks in Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean.
Clearly, the team recognized that such an ambitious and important project could only be complimented by an incredible website. Afrolatinos.tv (designed by Magdalena Medio) is the perfect blend of style and substance. There you can learn the countries in Latin America and the Caribbean that received the enslaved Africans and from where in Africa they came. Each country the crew visited or plans to visit includes an historical and cultural overview of the African populations there. Also, you can share facts or stories with the team for a given country. You can also learn the personal perspectives of the creators, Renzo Devia, Alicia Anabel Santos, Camilo Mendoza and Leonardo Reales. There are several hours of their very intimate and personal reflections and conversations throughout the filming process.
I am so happy to have had the opportunity to speak with Alicia Anabel Santos, one of the series co-creators regarding the project. Alicia explains that this project represents not only a tribute to African ancestors and their descendants currently living in Latin America and the Caribbean, but a movement.
How did you become involved with the Afro-Latinos project? How did the idea for the project come about?
I became involved in the Afro-Latinos documentary after writing an article published in Urban Latino magazine entitled, “Two Cultures Marching to One Drum,” which honors the contributions of Africans in both the Black and Latino community, our shared history, and define what it means to be Afro-Latino—aiming to unite these two communities. Renzo and I were both on a journey of self-discovery searching for the answers to very specific questions– Why have Latinos rejected their African ancestry? Why are we denying our African roots?” Renzo invited me to join him on this investigation to learn more about Afro-Latinos throughout Latin America.
Let’s talk about the title. The full title of the documentary is Afro-Latinos, The Untaught Story. Why was it important for the project to be titled Afro-Latinos—a term many people criticize or do not take seriously?
The title AFRO-LATINOS is intentionally used to highlight a group of people that have barely been written about. We wanted to tell the untaught story of Afro-Latinos… to take people on a journey as we discover who Afro-Latinos are and how the African influence mixed with Spanish culture has made Latin America what it is today. In countries such as Mexico and Peru the focus has always been on the Indigenous and Spanish contributions in history… what about the African part. It was important for us that this story be told.
Why do you think the experiences and history of Afro-Latinos has received insufficient attention?
There are many reasons why the Afrolatino population has received NO attention. Some of it has to do with race, class, and economy, but mostly it has to do with education. There are many people who do not know where they come from. Countries throughout Latin America aren’t teaching a COMPLETE and INCLUSIVE history. Yet another reason Afro-Latinos are not acknowledged or seen has much to do with the color of their skin. There is a reason why most of these communities are still undeveloped and receive very little resources or economic attention and it has much to do with being black. Discrimination is alive and well throughout Latin America.
Covering a large span of time, the documentary includes a review of enslaved African uprisings. Why was it important to include enslaved African rebellions in the documentary?
We have found that in the history books throughout Latin America people are only being taught a particular version of a story… not the ENTIRE story. Not the TRUTH… there is something missing throughout Latin America a pride in their history and where that history started… most of the versions of history we are taught even in the United States about Latin America, is that “Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492” and that he came and saved us. But we were not taught about the millions of enslaved Africans that were taken against their will and brought to the Caribbean, Central and South America by force or how our people were brutally killed. We were not taught about the many rebellions throughout Latin America where men and women escaped and formed their own communities called Palenque’s… it was important to include these warriors so that afrolatinos understand who they really are and the rich history that lies in their blood.
I think it is great that you and Renzo are very honest and candid when sharing your personal reflections throughout the making of the documentary. You reflected a lot on identity—national, cultural and racial. What have you learned about your own identity? Has working on this project complicated earlier ideas you had about identity, in general?
Renzo and I would both agree that the MAIN gift we have gained throughout this journey is an appreciation of people, culture and differences… about my own identity I wouldn’t say that this discovery has complicated anything… but solidified who I am… I feel more grounded…more proud of my culture… I am still learning what identity means for me—but this journey has certainly brought me closer today than I ever was. I can identify myself as Afro-Latina, Afro-Dominicana, a label and title that I am proud to wear… Not only am I Latina, Dominican, Hispanic but I also share a bloodline with Africa and that only makes my identity stronger.
Race is considered, by some, a political identity. Outside of politics, however, is there any other connection you feel with people of African descent across the African Diaspora? Spiritual or personal, for example?
Besides race and history… the spiritual connection is incredible… religion is what connects us to Africa… our Santa Marta, Yemaya, I think people have a misconception about religions such as vudu or Santeria… some people get frightened believing that these religions are to cause harm when it is the total opposite when you go to a fiesta de palo event… you find that the music and rituals are to connect with the ancestors, to communicate to celebrate life and death… that cycle. My personal connection is not only racial and political but absolutely a spiritual one. This journey has brought us closer to the answers Renzo and I have been searching for…
Haiti was a profound experience for me. Mostly because I wanted to understand and see for myself what the other side of the island that my family is from was like. Haiti needs help. Haiti needs support. We did not visit the tourist areas, which we are told are breathtaking. We decided to stay near Port-au-Prince and learn about everyday life and what we discovered was that Haitians work incredibly hard yet incredibly poor. Renzo and I are looking forward to returning to Haiti and all of the countries we have visited to help DO MORE.
Why is the term African Diaspora important to you? What do you think the term African Diaspora captures that would be lost if we simply used terminology like “black populations in different countries,” for example?
The term African Diaspora is very important because it includes the descendants of Africans who were dispersed throughout the world. Using terms like “black population” puts people in a small group… it’s limiting and isolates a group of people. African Diaspora groups us with a larger more inclusive group and honors where we all come from.
What are examples of the changes you would like to see people working towards to improve the life changes of people of African descent in Latin America?
Renzo and I have discussed in great detail the importance of INDIVIDUAL involvement not just government agencies sending money, but regular people like you and I going into these communities and seeing for themselves what is needed and then they can determine what resources they can provide to assist us… we would like to see more people going to visit these countries and donating their TIME, teaching students skills, bringing educational resources, computers and books. Go see how your money is being used! If you own a construction company send family and friends to communities like… Haiti and the Dominican Republic to help build schools…
Activist to me means fighting for the rights of those who don’t know how to or are afraid to fight for themselves… to me it means being ACTIVE – – doing something… working with others towards change and for the greater good. Is this an activist project—ABSOLUTELY… but we see our selves as recruiters… Renzo and I need more people joining us to help these communities.
Anything else you want to share…
Lastly, I would add that THIS IS A MOVEMENT… the Afro-Latino’s documentary is a call to service. We are asking people to join us as we work towards educating and helping these communities. Please visit us at www.afrolatinos.tv.
After reading Alicia’s last comment, I considered e-mailing her to ask for clarification about what it means to “do more.” Now, however, I think this is something we should decide for ourselves. I’m reminded of poet Antonio Machado’s words: “Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar.” This line roughly translates to, “Traveler, there is no path; you make the path by walking.” No one can tell you the form your activism can take and no one can decide for you what activism isn’t.
The Afro-Latinos project shows that the challenges facing people of African descent across the world is global in scope, with a long and complex history.
Kathryn Buford is a second year PhD student.