On being Afro-Latino

afro-latinoJames Garrett, Jr, 4RM+ULA managing partner and architect responded to a question I asked him recently… whether he considered himself Latino or Black. I want to share the full content of his powerful response.

Having spent 10 years building my genealogy/family trees on both sides of my family, I learned that I do not have ‘Spanish blood’ but rather sangre from other european populations and former slave masters in a very similar combination to many of my Afro-Latino friends/family.

So from a technical standpoint, I do not consider myself Afro-Latino, however from a language and cultural standpoint, depending upon the context, I do feel very much Afto-Latino!

For example, when I’m with my in-laws from the Dominican Republic, they make me feel very much like the gringo in the family. But when I’m traveling through Latin America and the Caribbean on my own (except in Puerto Rico, but especially in the Dominican Republic) I feel very Afro-Latino and I am treated as such most of the time. When asked where I’m from and why I speak Spanish, appreciate a good sanchocho and love to dance bachata, people think I’m lying if i say I’m not Latino–and argue with me about being proud of my heritage and just admitting it.

However, I probably feel most ‘Latino’ when I’m around my African American friends–and constantly find myself linguistically and/or culturally translating Latin culture for them. I’m the black Latino guy that can explain and fix things for them; especially when I travel abroad into Latin America/Caribbean with them on vacations.

For example, as a 19-year-old college student changing planes in the Miami airport with my parents, I was pulled out of line by a frantic Latina to help her translate her concerns about her luggage with an English-speaking ticket agent. After helping her resolve her issue, she thanked me warmly and told me to hurry up or we would miss OUR flight back to Belize. When I explained to her that I was on my way back to St. Thomas, not her flight to Belize, she apologized profusely and said that she had just assumed I was Belizian and could help her because ‘everybody’ in her country looked just like me. She made me promise that one day, I would visit her country, which I did five years later. She had a point after all, I fit right in with the locals. It was an awesome trip!

Another example, I stepped out a bar a few years ago to take a call from one of my friends in Colombia. An African American guy I know stepped out around the same time to smoke a cigarette. When I finished my call and opened the door to go back in, he turned to me and said, “WOW! All this time, I thought you were one of US…” because surely i was a ‘foreigner’ if i was able to speak Spanish like that. Although partially true, I found his comment offensive and spent the next half-hour explaining the transatlantic slave trade and how ALL of our ancestors were on the same boats and enslaved by white Europeans that spoke one of five languages (Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French or English). It was really just the luck of the draw who ended up speaking which–and that we had all lost much of the African dialects our ancestors came here with–so there really is no US vs THEM when it comes to Black folks regardless of which part of the Americas we were born in!

So, I guess I see myself as a 21st century bridge. I’ve spent a lifetime researching, traveling and experiencing our various cultures, music and food. We are an amazing, beautiful and resilient group of people–not without our problems–but wow do I feel blessed to be able to travel amongst the African American Diaspora and communicate freely with 120+million English and Spanish speakers in the North American/Latin American/Caribbean region.

August 3, 2015
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