• April 12, 2024

The Scholar Who Chronicled the Afro-Latino Experience

In the early two-thousands, Miriam Jiménez Román set out to produce the book that she had yearned for in her youth. As a Black Puerto Rican growing up in Harlem, in the nineteen-sixties, she saw a degree of diversity among Black folk unknown to many. She began to think of Blackness in terms of a diaspora, encompassing, but not limited to, the African-American, Dominican, and Nuyorican cultures that surrounded her. Inspired by the values and ideas that sprung from the civil-rights and Black-liberation movements, Jiménez Román understood her identity to be as much a question of skin color as a condition within an economic, social, and political hierarchy. Yet, as a student of sociology at Binghamton University, she recognized a disjuncture between her own experience and the literature of the time. Scholarly writings conformed to a binary paradigm of race, but Jiménez Román felt her identity being pulled in three different directions: Latina, African, and American. While much had been said about the experiences of Afro-Latinos in the Americas, where a hundred and thirty million of them reside, their presence in the United States had been altogether disregarded. Jiménez Román was keen on disentangling what she thought of as “three souls, three thoughts, three unreconciled strivings; three warring ideals in one dark body.”

“Miriam had an unwavering commitment to bringing Afro-Latinos to the fore,” Yamila Sterling-Baker, a close friend of hers, says. After graduating from Binghamton, Jiménez Román returned to New York and was drawn to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where she oversaw exhibitions and also coördinated the Scholars-in-Residence Program. Arturo Alfonso Schomburg had moved to New York from Puerto Rico six decades prior to Jiménez Román. Lured by José Martí’s commitment to color-blind nationalism, he surrounded himself with Cuban and Puerto Rican activists calling for Cuba’s independence from Spain. Schomburg later turned his focus to Pan-Africanism and amassed a collection of historical documents and books detailing the prowess of Black writers, composers, and painters all around the world. In a famed address from 1913, he denounced a notable omission in the telling of history. “Whenever the Negro is mentioned in the text-books, it dwindles down to a footnote,” he said. “Where is our historian to give us our side view?” During her time at the Schomburg Center, Jiménez Román taught her first course on the African presence in the Americas and also met her longtime partner, Juan Flores. A faculty member at Hunter College, Flores was looking into the African roots of Puerto Rican identity, and he, too, believed in the need to erase the divide between Black and Latino studies. Together, Flores and Jiménez Román kept coming back to the same question: What about the people who identify as both?

At the time, Blackness and Latinidad were perceived to be mutually exclusive. There was virtually no awareness that the arrival of Afro-Latinos in the United States had predated both the first English settlements and the nation’s founding. Nor that the community numbered in the millions. “Do Black Latinos really exist?” scholars would ask Jiménez Román and Flores. In the nineties, the pair’s insistence on establishing a field of Afro-Latino studies in its own right was met with disbelief. “It was almost as if you had to prove the existence of people,” Flores recalled, in a 2011 panel discussion. The problem wasn’t just that Latinidad was seen as non-Black—many contended that it was also anti-Black. As the number of Latinos in the country grew, predictions of a clash among minorities became increasingly common. Ahead of the 2000 census, Latinos were cast as “the nation’s largest minority”; analysts described them as on a “collision course” with African-Americans, and started theorizing about their “unspoken conflict.” Jiménez Román wasn’t oblivious to the existing racial tensions, but she was a firm believer in alliances, and saw Afro-Latinos as the bridge between the two communities. “Miriam was always ahead of her time,” Nancy Raquel Mirabal, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, says. “She was what we now call a public intellectual.”

When the idea of a book on Afro-Latinidad arose, Jiménez Román told Flores she wanted it to be the volume that had been missing when her younger self was looking for answers. She brought together sixty-seven contributors to grapple with all of her questions, those of their own, and many more. Some writers focussed on history, others on music, identity, class, and theology. Jiménez Román hosted hours-long deliberations with contributors and scholars in her home in Brooklyn, where she housed a vast library and enjoyed treating guests to Creole specialties. “The Afro-Latin@ Reader,” which Jiménez Román edited alongside Flores, was published in 2010, by Duke University Press. The nearly six-hundred-page book tells the story of a triple consciousness—a term inspired by W. E. B. Du Bois’s “The Souls of Black Folk.” The Reader traces the origins of a community that set foot in what is now the United States more than five hundred years ago, with the arrival of Spanish explorers. “As buffers and cannon fodder, as reconnaissance scouts and militiamen, as intermediaries, and of course as attendants and slaves, Afro-Latin@s have been implicated in the forging of the North American story,” Jiménez Román and Flores write, in the Reader’s introduction. The authors follow the Afro-Latino footprint with the passing of time, detailing the group’s role in everything from the Mexican-American War to the booming cigar-making industry of Southern Florida at the turn of the nineteenth century. “We have always been here,” Jiménez Román observed years later. “Invisible, but always there.”

Beyond its remarkable breadth, the beauty of the Reader lies in its suffusion of personal and historical accounts. The book shines a light on pivotal moments of communion, such as Schomburg’s role in the Harlem Renaissance; the creation, in the nineteen-sixties, of the Young Lords Party, which belonged to the Black Panthers’ Rainbow Coalition; and the birth of hip-hop as a genre jointly derived from the Jamaican, Puerto Rican, and African-American cultures. The Reader also recounts the contradictions inherent in the process of “negotiating among invisibilities,” as the author Vielka Cecilia Hoy describes it. For some, that process entailed keeping the Black community at a distance. Evelio Grillo, the son of Afro-Cuban cigar makers, writes about overcoming his own family’s fear of and prejudice against Black people. Unlike his parents, many members of his generation embraced the African-American community and its culture. “Our choices became clear: to swim in black American society or drown in the Latin ghettoes of New York City, never to be an integral part of American life,” he recalls. From Jim Crow to the present, the plight of Afro-Latinos converged with that of Blacks. As Jiménez Román and Flores argue in their book, “Identifying with and becoming part of the African American community turned out to be their most ready access to society in the United States, as well as their most evident recourse in the face of racist rejection by other Latin@s.”

For years in Latin America, the myth of “racial democracy” inhibited necessary debates around race. The notion that the peoples of the Americas were mixed concealed a preference for whiteness and a worship of European ancestry. Jiménez Román saw those biases play out in the United States as well. “Latin@s have been allocated an ambiguous racial middle ground that invisibilizes those too dark to conform to the mestizo ideal, while simultaneously distancing them from other communities of color, particularly African Americans,” she writes, in an essay published in 2010. It was her lifework not to let Afro-Latinos fall between the cracks in race studies—a task that required her to look within and outside the confines of the academy. In the years leading up to the publication of the Reader, Jiménez Román and Flores founded the Afrolatin@ Forum, a space for the community to come together and straddle the worlds of public policy and academia. Over the years, many generations of scholars, activists, and artists contributed to the Forum, which lives on as a testament to the intellectual vibrancy of Afro-Latinidad.

With the 2010 census approaching, Jiménez Román worried that Afro-Latinos would once again be undercounted, and she launched a campaign calling on the community to “Check Both” on the census form. One of the videos released by the Forum features a group of Black teen-agers casually playing on the street. A boy peeks out from his window, and is called on by the other kids to join them. Soon enough, his grandmother takes his place at the window and orders him back into the house. “You know I don’t like it when you play with Black kids,” the grandmother, performed by Jiménez Román, says. “But, Grandma, those Blacks are Latino,” the grandchild responds indignantly. Then, a single question surfaces on the screen: “Are you Afro-Latino?” Images of people identifying as both Latino and Black on the census follow. “We are Latinos and we are Black,” Jiménez Román states, looking straight into the camera with a strong nod. “Miriam’s generation focussed on visibility,” Zaire Dinzey-Flores, a member of the Forum and a professor of sociology at Rutgers, says. She credits Jiménez Román with having transformed the field of Afro-Latino studies, giving it a place that it didn’t previously hold. “Now the question is: How do we move forward?”

In the course of her life, Jiménez Román taught many classes on race, ethnicity, and gender in Latin America at Binghamton, Brown, and Columbia. Along the way, she discovered and nurtured countless younger scholars, some of whom she found through their work as undergraduates, others whom she tracked down after reading letters to the editor that they wrote in newspapers. She developed a reputation for always pushing others to go deeper and never settle—the kind of mentor who would even red-pencil works that had already been published. “Don’t think you can get away with less than the best-quality work, because people are looking at you differently,” Hoy, a contributor to the Reader, recalls Jiménez Román saying. Another of her mentees, the sociologist Jomaira Salas Pujols, speaks of the “double erasure” that she and other Afro-Latina scholars have had to overcome. Her work now focusses on “disrupting the idea that Latinos don’t know they’re Black,” and on closely following the experiences of Afro-Latina girls. Back in the nineteen-nineties, when Jiménez Román and Flores began holding workshops in schools, many children looked at them with befuddlement, and asked if they had invented the term Afro-Latino. The share of U.S. Latinos who identify as Black has since grown from three per cent to more than a quarter. It is not just the population of Afro-Latinos in the country that is growing but also people’s readiness to identify as such.

Only a month after the Reader marked its tenth anniversary, Jiménez Román died, in Cabo Rojo, a coastal town on the south shore of Puerto Rico. At sixty-nine, she had been battling cancer for years, and had decided to spend her last days in a house by the ocean that she had built. “Miriam always identified with Puerto Rico,” Awilda Camacho, a longtime friend, says. “She cleared the way for all of us to take the debate further.” Days after Jiménez Román’s passing, many of her friends and colleagues gathered virtually for a convite, a small feast in her honor. In the course of four hours, they shared memories of the “Boricua Angela Davis,” the friend, sister, and tía who had shaped their lives in a lasting way. One of her mentees, Michael López, Jr., pulled out a letter he had written when he learned that she was leaving New York for Cabo Rojo, but which he had never managed to deliver. The letter quoted Maya Angelou, who once described courage as “the most important of all virtues.” His voice breaking, López said, “Miriam, your life will always be a practice of courage.”

His words brought to mind a conversation that I had had with Jiménez Román last June, while reporting on the painful debate and protest that engulfed the country after the killing of George Floyd. Many Latino leaders were calling on the community to face the issues of ingrained racism and colorism, but Jiménez Román saw that as only the first step. “Until we understand and recognize that we have our own biases, our own prejudices, our own hierarchy, and our own issues with white supremacy, we really can’t address those other issues that affect all of us,” she told me. “All lives matter, yes. But if you don’t talk about the lives that seem to receive the least attention, the lives that have no value, those who have been told they’re basically worthless—until we give value to the worthless, nobody has any worth.”

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