May 11, 2011

Black in Latin America-what did we learn?

Post by Jean Damu, BAJI Steering Committee Member

Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s groundbreaking documentary, Black in Latin America, concluded lat night with forays into Mexico and Peru.

In Mexico Gates visited the town of Yanga, considered by many scholars the first town in the Western Hemisphere founded and administered by free blacks. Also he briefly examined Mexico’s national ideology of “mestizaje,” that body of thought that claims Mexicans have “solar blood,” or that Mexicans are a mixed race people.

Mestizaje equates closely to Brazil’s Lusotropicalism, ideologies that while on one hand argue for racial democracy, on the other hand deny the existence of racism and serve to make blacks invisible.

What was fascinating in Gate’s journey through Mexico was his encounters with adults who had no idea they were black until traveling outside Mexico; in one woman’s case to Cuba. It was there she made the connections between her families culture and African culture.

In Mexico, Gates discovered, there are plenty of remnants of African culture but only in small pockets are actual cultural holdovers in the form of music and dance still existent.

To this degree Mestizaje has almost totally erased positive images and forms of black culture and thus Mexico is the only Latin nation that has developed a truly national culture. All others, including and especially Cuba and Brazil, have folk cultures, which is why “Africanisms” (for lack of a better term) remain so strong there.

Gates, of course, doesn’t go into any of this and its complexity is beyond this brief review-but Gates should have made stronger connections between Mestizaje inMexico and Gilberto Freyre’s Lusotropicalism in Brazil.

Finally Gates took us to Peru, a center of Black culture almost totally isolated from the rest of the hemisphere.

Gates informs us that during the era of colonization, the population of Lima, Peru’s capital, was nearly 40% black. Today large pockets of blacks are scattered throughout the mountainous nation, and usually blacks are employed in industries that historically were reserved for enslaved Africans.

Gates encountered black women who were picking cotton. “It’s very hard work, but we have to do it,” said one. How much do they make? Five dollars a week.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we were introduced to Monica Corillos, head of Lima’s Lundu organization, an organization dedicated to combating racism in Peru. Of all the personalities Gates interviewed in his four part series apart from Brazil’s aging Abdas Nascimento, Corrillos, who appears to still be in her twenties or very early thirties, was the most vociferous voice against racism encountered by Gates in Latin America.

“I think Peru is the most racist country in Latin America,” she said.

But Peru is the only Latin country that has apologized for its racist treatment of Blacks. Doesn’t that mean something?

Corrillos countered, “It’s not enough to apologize.” Policies must be implemented to give blacks access to jobs, education and material means, she said.

The encounter with Corrillos raises fundamental questions, but questions unasked by Gates, regarding race and racial identity in Latin America.

Why, for instance, has there never been in Latin America an organization similar in size and scope to the NAACP?

And finally returning to the question of questions, why do blacks in Latin America, consider themselves Latins who happen to be black, while African Americans consider themselves blacks who happen to be Americans? This question goes to the heart of the matter of racial formation in the Western Hemisphere, a question I have attempted to address in the attached article.

Gates should be congratulated for this documentary series on race. It was a courageous and highly insightful contribution to a most important gobal conversation.


Jean Damu is the former western regional representative for N’COBRA, National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, and a former member of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, taught Black Studies at the University of New Mexico, has traveled and written extensively in Cuba and Africa and currently serves as a member of the Steering Committee of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.

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