Academic study and lived experience converged last night at the Afro−Latino Roundtable Forum, where an assembly of over 50 students, faculty and visiting speakers participated in a dialogue about the Afro−Latino experience in the United States.
The evening event was held in the Lincoln Filene Center. Associate Professor of Art and Art History Adriana Zavala explained that, although the event was originally planned to take place last year, last night’s event came at a good time, given increased discussion in recent months on the topics of race and ethnicity on campus.
“We’re incredibly happy it happened this semester, since we are in the midst of talking about activating race academically on campus,” she said.
The discussion took place on the heels of the release of The Afro−Latin@ Reader produced by Duke University, a collection of academic articles, poems, short stories, newspaper articles and personal testimonies about Afro−Latinos in the United States context. The Reader formed the base of last night’s discussion.
“The Reader is an attempt to document, at multiple levels, the history of African people of Latino descent in the United States,” Miriam Jimenez Román, executive director of the afro−latin@ forum and co−editor of the Reader, said
The Reader aims to look at historical racial hierarchy in the Afro−Latino community while unpacking the lived experiences of colorism — discrimination based on skin tone — according to James Jennings, contributing author of the Reader and Tufts professor of urban and environmental policy and planning.
The work draws its strength from its commitment to identifying experiences as lived histories, Zavala said.
“The experiential aspect of the Reader is important,” she said. “It gets people to locate themselves, and it builds a scholarly discourse.”
The pieces employ different historic and geographic lenses, including transnational migration and the inalienable realities of individually lived experiences, according to Juan Flores, professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University and co−editor of the Reader.
“The reason to do the Reader was not about celebrating our heroes. It gives you the idea that all these little stories are about community,” Román said. “You take these stories, another way of looking at U.S. history, black history, Latino history … as a way of looking at the people’s history, and those are the histories we’re not being taught.”
The evening conversation focused on a variety of topics, ranging from colorism — surrounding and within Afro−Latino communities — and the conflation of race and ethnicity.
“Cultural prejudice isn’t the same as racism,” Flores said. “The whole point is to question our exclusive possession of ideas. There are bigger issues involved about power and who gets to decides these things.”
Román shared a real−life example of how race and colorism works within power structures, especially in the context of employment.
“In the Carolinas, there are 35,000 Afro−Mexicans working in processing plants,” she said. “Most people don’t understand them as Afro−Mexicans, and they’re ‘passing’ for Puerto Ricans or Dominicans, because they’re dark enough.”
Even in the discourse within the Afro−Latino community, Flores explained that pervasive stereotyping exists, particularly of women.
“The hyper sexualizing of women, it’s demeaning women in so many ways,” Flores said. “There are problems. We have to try to be ahead of that, and keep the political and intellectual understanding to the foreground so it’s not taken over as a fad.”
When a student in the audience asked the speakers a question about the role of academic departments teaching about these topics, Román explained that academic institutions move slowly in venturing into new fields of study.
“The whole system [of academia] is structured in a way so that it reproduces itself,” she said. “Innovation is not part of the academy. It is something that happens after the fact. It’s our experiences that force the academy to do something different.”