Arturo Alfonso Schomburg Credit - Puerto Rican Institute of Culture/Wiki Commons
When Arturo Schomburg was a child in Puerto Rico in the 1880s, a teacher once told him that Black people had no real history or achievements worth noting. Incensed but motivated, Schomburg, the child of a Black mother and white German father, set out to prove his so-called educator wrong. He’d later refer to the erasure of Black Puerto Rican achievement as “a conspiracy of silence” and dedicated the rest of his life to documenting and preserving the histories of Black people across the diaspora—African Americans, Afro-Latinos, Africans, and more. After moving to New York City as a teenager in 1891, Schomburg eventually became an archivist and writer known as one of the fathers of Black history. Today, a stunning structure of brick and glass in Harlem, N.Y., bears his name, as home to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which he founded in 1925.
Yet even now, Black Puerto Rican history remains in many senses unexplored. The intersection of Black and Hispanic history still tends to occupy an uncomfortable middle ground. In my own quest to better understand my roots as a woman of Puerto Rican and African American heritage, I learned about Schomberg while researching the latter. I had been raised to take pride in Black American heroes I could look to for inspiration, like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth. Their images could be found in children’s books, shows, and songs that affirmed a love for my Blackness and the contributions of African American people. And yet, on the Puerto Rican side, the historical heroes I’d come to know were not people who looked like me, despite the key role of Africans in Puerto Rico’s national story.
Experts on race in Latin America say my experience isn’t an outlier. “There has been an erasure, and my own opinion is that it’s likely that much of it has been unintentional, but deleterious nevertheless,” says Tanya K. Hernández, professor of law at Fordham University and author of Racial Innocence: Unmasking Latino Anti-Blackness and the Struggle for Equality. “Within the media, fostered in many respects by Latino leaders themselves, there’s been this vision of what a Latino looks like and thus whose history matters. Who are the representatives that matter? And that vision of Latinos is of a white-appearing individual. Afro-Latinos are not part of the narrative.”
Despite an estimated 90% of Africans trafficked by the trans-Atlantic slave trade having been taken to Latin America and the Caribbean, the history of their descendants has often been omitted or oversimplified in public discourse. “Is usually circumscribed to ‘Okay, once upon a time there was this thing called slavery. And then it ended,’” says Hernández. “It not only erases the contemporary existence of Afro-Latinos, it also makes it look as if [that identity] is just sort of a historical artifact that has nothing to do with our contemporary realities.”
This omission explains why, growing up, I had a hard time finding Afro-Latino heroes and changemakers in Latino Heritage celebrations—including the annual observance of National Hispanic Heritage Month, beginning Sept. 15—despite Afro-Latinos (or Black Latinos) making up significant populations at home and abroad. In the U.S. alone, about 6 million people identify as Afro-Latino, according to the Pew Research Center. Some Afro-Latino figures such as Puerto Rican athlete Roberto Clemente, Cuban singer Celia Cruz, or Puerto Rican reggaeton artist Tego Calderon did get wider recognition. But Hernández says there are nuances to pay attention to when Afro-Latinos are only celebrated in an entertainment context.
“It’s part of a dynamic [in which] Blackness is appropriate in its ‘proper’ place. Blacks are allowed to dance for you, to sing for you, to play sports for you,” she argues. “But their intellectual contributions are viewed as nil and unimportant.”
In the United States, there are untold stories of unique Afro-Latino history-makers who were thrust into a racially segregated society that made little distinction or recognition of their specific cultural origins.
Take, for example, Cresencia “Joyce” Garcia, a Black Puerto Rican woman who served in World War II, helping to save the lives of soldiers at various hospitals.
In the wake of the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack, Garcia decided to join the Army. Cresencia was sent to a segregated unit known as “Six Triple Eight“: the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. Fairer-skinned Puerto Ricans went off to white units.Because Garcia had been in nursing school prior to the war, she became a medic and hospital aide, tending to the wounded of all races. As a member of the 6888th, she’d have the distinction of being in the only all-Black, all-women’s unit that went abroad during the war.
Despite her dedication and courage, Garcia felt the sting of racism in the Army before her unit left to serve in Europe. Training at Fort Des Moines in Iowa and Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia would test her will.
“Having never been in the South before, all of a sudden she’s subject to the rules and laws there,” says Tara Garcia, her granddaughter. “It was being forced to eat outside in the back of the restaurant, being forced to give up her seat to white passengers, not being able to shop at certain places, everything. She was miserable.”
Garcia also felt isolated at times because she was Afro-Latina, feeling not fully embraced by all of her Black comrades, nor by white Americans. It wasn’t until Garcia went abroad during the war, she told her family, that she was treated well—ironically, by non-Americans.
Cresencia Garcia wouldn’t tell the full story of her military service to her family until 2020 when, at nearly 100 years old, she fell ill with COVID-19. Garcia’s recovery from COVID-19 went public thanks to a tweet from CBS journalist David Begnaud. According to Oprah Daily, a retired Army colonel who’d produced a documentary about the 6888th, Edna Cummings, took notice. She Facebook-messaged Tara to inform her of the hidden history of her grandmother’s monumental service.
Since then Tara Garcia has been determined to keep her grandmother’s story alive, doing things like working with the U.S. Army Women’s Museum to feature her uniform. Not only did Cresencia Garcia beat COVID-19, but President Biden signed a bipartisan-proposed bill in March to honor her and the other members of the 6888th with Congressional Gold Medals.
“It’s vindication for my family. It’s vindication for her. It’s vindication for anyone who has had to walk a difficult path,” Tara Garcia says. Learning that her grandmother held a place in American history has given Tara a deeper sense of appreciation for telling Afro-Latino stories. “What do you do with that feeling, with that notion that you are different but can’t really grasp why? And when you can’t define that, you just have to walk in the world as is.”
Another Afro-Latina who confronted the ugliness of racial segregation in the U.S. was performing artist, activist, and orator Sylvia del Villard-Moreno. Like Schomberg and Garcia, Del Villard was born in Puerto Rico but traveled to the continental United States to attend the HBCU Fisk University in Nashville on a government scholarship from Puerto Rico. She studied sociology and anthropology, but the Jim Crow South was unwelcoming to her as a Black woman, and Del Villard opted to finish her education at the University of Puerto Rico, earning both a bachelor’s and master’s degree. Del Villard would return to the states after graduation, studying at City College of New York and the Met Opera. She eventually found success as a ballerina and actor. After joining the troupe Africa House, Del Villard was able to trace her ancestry back to the Yoruba and Igbo tribes in Nigeria.
She earned the moniker “La Majestad Negra” (Black Majesty) and went on to open multiple performing arts theaters, including the Teatro Afro-Boricua El Coquí and Luis Palés Matos Theater.
Notably, Del Villard celebrated and elevated her African roots as much as her Puerto Rican roots— but her Afro-centricity wasn’t always welcome in her native island of Puerto Rico.
After having the courage to condemn a popular blackface character—“Chianita,” played by actor Angela Mayer—she was blacklisted by local television shotcallers in the 1970s and bullied by neighbors who wanted her theater shut down for being “disruptive,” according to historian and academic Dr. Will Guzmán, who documented her life story.
“It’s a shame that her work in the arts still hasn’t received the recognition it deserves in her native Puerto Rico, while second and third-rate politicians are constantly being immortalized,” wrote journalist Juan A. Moreno-Velázquez, her nephew, in a tribute to Del Villard from 2018.
Shortly before she died from lung cancer in 1990, Del Villard would present a talk entitled “Racism in the Puerto Rican Nation” at—as fate would have it—the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
The stories of Schomburg, Garcia, and Del Villard are just the tip of the iceberg in a narrative of Latino Heritage that would be truer and richer for recognizing what Black Latinos have contributed to their respective countries, the United States, and the world. These individuals’ legacies are a challenge to us to go out and find more stories that are waiting to be told.
Natasha S. Alford is a Vice President of Digital Content and a Senior Correspondent for theGrio. She is also executive producer of the documentary Afro-Latinx Revolution: Puerto Rico and author of the forthcoming memoir American Negra.