Black Latinos, Stand Up

By Special Correspondent Nadra Kareem

Ever have a conversation that seems normal enough and then takes a weird turn? This happened to me not long ago during a discussion about when L.A. Dodger Manny Ramirez would return to baseball.

All of a sudden the person I was speaking to asked, “What is he—black or Latino?”

To me, the answer was obvious. I mean, Manny Ramirez is caramel colored with coarse dreadlocks. He’s clearly black but his Spanish surname made the person I was talking to question this.

In fact, Ramirez was born in the Dominican Republic, the nation where the largest number of black Hispanics in America originate. Cuba, Puerto Rico and Panama round out the top places from where Afro-Latinos in the U.S. hail, according to Census data.

Although there are an estimated 1.7 million black Hispanics in this country, some people seem to have a hard time recognizing the existence of such individuals. Within days of being asked about Manny Ramirez’s ethnicity, I encountered people questioning actress Zoe Saldana’s. Like Ramirez, Saldana is also a black Dominican.

I had my third recent experience with someone clueless about the existence of black Hispanics when I wrote a story featuring a black Puerto Rican character. I received a note from a reader “informing” me that he didn’t think there were black Puerto Ricans, even the “really dark ones.” Seriously?

What’s behind the confusion? Why is it difficult for people to grasp the concept that one can be both black and Hispanic? I’m sure much of it stems from the idea that all Hispanics are mestizo, or Spanish and Indian. There’s also ignorance about how slave traders brought Africans all over the Americas and not just to the United States. And because many Latin Americans don’t classify citizens by race and black heritage isn’t exactly coveted in the region, some black Latinos may not openly identify as black despite the evidence in their hair texture and skin color. (Cuban Marianne Pearl is a case in point.) Complicating matters is that in film and television, black Hispanics are often cast as African Americans rather than Afro-Latinos, adding to the group’s low-profile.

But it’s not just whites and African Americans who seem baffled by the existence of black Latinos. In Los Angeles, a black Puerto Rican friend of mine reports being given the side-eye by Mexican Americans when she speaks Spanish to her fair-skinned mother. I’ve also seen this play out when I lived in El Paso, Texas, and a Chicano coworker remarked that a black Panamanian woman we knew spoke beautiful Spanish. Well, why wouldn’t she speak the language flawlessly? She grew up in a Spanish-speaking country.

Next year, the Census bureau predicts that the Hispanic population in the U.S. will soar to 47.8 million, up from 35.3 million in 2000. As the number of Hispanics continues to grow, hopefully more Americans will recognize that the “Hispanic” category includes people of all races, including black. It’s time for folks like Jon Secada, Gina Torres and Veronica Chambers to be counted.