Black in Latin America

21 May
Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.

If you ever had any interest in seeing Henry Louis Gates Jr. gaze admiringly at statues of Latin American leaders, then the Black in Latin America series is for you (just see the image above for a representative example).

I admire the venerable professor, and have a longstanding interest in Latin American history, so I watched the series with interest, in order to broaden my knowledge of the black experience in Latin America.  The first episode was promising.  Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which share an island but have had a contentious history, were profiled.  I found it interesting to see why Haiti identified more strongly with its African heritage, but it did seem that the comparison between racial identity in the two countries was a little too pat.  Haitians=African and Dominicans=Spanish.  I think a more nuanced picture of Dominican racial identity could have been portrayed.

The more complicated racial histories of Cuba and Brazil are highlighted next in the series, and I was pleased that Cuba was shown neither as a racial paradise nor as a racial hellhole for its dark-skinned citizens.  The story is complicated, and I was glad that Gates talked with both veterans of the Cuban revolution and young Cubans who have known nothing but the current regime.  Brazil was also a fascinating study.  We always hear that Brazil is a diverse, rainbow society, but I was surprised to learn that the influx of European immigrants in the mid 20th century was the direct result of a government program to whiten the country.  It has only been fairly recently that the country has begun to embrace its diverse heritage.

Black in Latin America

Black in Latin America

The episode that left me the most puzzled was the last one, on Mexico and Peru. On the one hand, I thought it was the most necessary, because I’ll admit, though I am knowledgeable about Mexican history, I had no idea the extent of the African slave trade in Mexico, nor the African heritage of some of Mexico’s national heroes, such as Morelos and Guerrero.  The Mexican national narrative of “la raza cósmica”, the mixing of the Spanish and the indigenous, is thrown for a loop.  Looking at the faces of Mexicans featured in the show- everyday Mexicans, young and old, male and female- the discerning eye begins to see African features.

And yet it is in this episode that it is most glaringly obvious that Gates brings to the whole venture his own perspective as an African-American.  He looks at Mexican racial history through an American lens, and I admit that I winced when he called the residents of a mostly black town in Mexico “brother”.  The racial history of the U.S. is so different from that of Mexico that you can’t travel to one country with the perspective of another.

2 Responses to “Black in Latin America”


  1. Yes, You can be Black and Latino « The Lebanexican - September 27, 2011

    […] Combine this with the changing nomenclature for Americans who are descended from slaves, and you have some natural confusion as to people like actress Judy Reyes, pictured above. About the whole Americans descended from slaves thing- as ugly terms like negro and colored were left by the wayside of history, two terms cropped up to denote black Americans, black and African-American. Some people perceive the latter to be a nod to political correctness, but I think it is an accurate way to indicate that someone is a descendent of American slaves, since the word Black could refer to Jamaicans, Nigerians, or Brazilians, among others. For that reason, one can be African-American- like Donald Faison, the actor who played Turk on Scrubs, and also Black, while Judy Reyes is Black but not African-American. She is Black and Latina, like Alfonso Ribeiro, Christina Milian, and Rosie Perez. Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. covered this terrain in depth in his PBS series ‘Black in Latin America’. […]

  2. Yes, You Can Be Black and Latino | The Citizen Culture - October 28, 2013

    […] She is Black and Latina, like Alfonso Ribeiro, Christina Milian, and Rosie Perez. Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. covered this terrain in depth in his PBS series ‘Black in Latin America’. […]

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