Hispanic Heritage Month: Celebrating Afro-Latinos

BY AMANDA MOSES

It’s National Hispanic Heritage Month, and from September 15th to October 15th, we celebrate generations of Hispanic and Latin Americans who have contributed to our history and culture. Historically, this commemoration was first observed in 1968 as a weeklong celebration enacted by President Lyndon Johnson. It was later expanded to a month-long tribute and was enacted into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1988. According to the Hispanic Heritage Month’s website (hosted by the Library of Congress), the celebration honors the history and culture of those whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. In addition, the month-long recognition begins on September 15th because it marks the independence anniversary of: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Also, September is significant to Latin culture because it is when Mexico (September 16th) and Chile (September 18th) received their independence.

Latinos come from diverse backgrounds, and in honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, the Spring Creek Sun has compiled a list of Afro-Latino trailblazers who embrace African and Latin ancestry. Many Hispanics can trace their family origins to different countries in Africa. For example, Puerto Ricans have Taino Indian, Spaniard, and African roots. Below is a list of Afro-Latinos who have paved the way for younger generations in the arts, science, entertainment, and literary history.

José Celso Barbosa (1857-1921) was the first Puerto Rican, and person of African descent, to earn a medical degree in the United States. He was a physician, sociologist, and political leader. He was born in Bayamón, Puerto Rico and later received his medical degree from the University of Michigan. Barbosa was often referred to as the “Father of the Statehood” for Puerto Rico movement because he continuously advocated for the island to become a state. He founded the Republican Park of Puerto Rico and was a member of the Senate from 1917 to 1921.

Celia Cruz (1925-2003) was hailed for being the “Queen of Salsa Music” and Latin Motown music. Her real name was Úrsula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso, but as she broke into stardom, she created the pseudonym, Celia Cruz. Her deep, soulful voice and bouncing Latin rhythm became iconic throughout her life, starting in the 1950s in Cuba when she sang Guarachas (a Cuban rapid style of singing and musical beat). The Afro-Cuban singer was also known for her infamous phrase, “Azucar,” which is Spanish for sugar. The phrase had a deeper meaning to the artist because it paid tribute to her African roots when slaves were forced onto the sugar plantations. She embraced her roots, and sang songs such as “La Negra
Tiene Tumba,” which means the beautiful, cool black girl.

Sylvia del Villard (1928-1990) was a choreographer, dancer, and activist who was the first Director of the Afro-Puerto Rican Affairs of the Puerto Rican Institute of Culture. After experiencing discrimination while studying at Fisk University in Tennessee, she moved to New York City where she joined a ballet troupe called the Africa House. In honor of her Nigerian roots (she learned she could trace her ancestry to the Yoruba people), Villard founded the Afro-Boricua El Coqui Theater. Throughout her life she was a steadfast activist for the rights of Afro-Latin artists.

Julia López (1936-present) is an Afro-Mexican artist known for her postwar and contemporary painting and sculptures. She is a self-taught artist whose work depicts her home in Costa Chica of Guerrero, Mexico. Her first exposure to the art world was when she moved to Mexico City, and then modeled for artists at the Escuela Nacional de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado, such as muralist like José Chávez Morado. López began exhibiting her work in 1958 and since then has been celebrated throughout the art world in the United States and Europe. She has even showcased and received
accolades from the Salón de la Plástica Mexicana.

Tessa Thompson (1983-present) is an Afro-Panamanian, European, and Mexican actress, whose roles have ranged from the Marvel Universe to a political activist. She starred as a Valkyrie warrior in Thor: Ragnarock and Avengers: End Game, and then as activist Diane Nash in Ava DuVernay’s Selma. She continues to take her roles to the next level and paving the way for more Afro-Latina artists to star in science fiction films.

Zoe Saldaña (1978 to present) is a well-known Dominican and Puerto Rican actress who has starred in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Gamora the alien assassin in Guardians of the Galaxy, and even stared as Nina Simone in the singer’s biopic. Her most popular role has been Neytiri in James Cameron’s film Avatar. Her wide range of roles has broken the mold of stereotypical characterization for Afro-Latin actresses, and showcased that she can star in action, drama, science fiction, and an assortment of movie genres.