Book Review: Comparative Perspectives on Afro-Latin America edited by Kwame Dixon and John Burdick

By The Afrolatin@ Project | April 26, 2013
  • Author: The Afrolatin@ Project
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When asked to describe the experiences of Blacks in Latin America, I often respond that their struggles today are similar to that of African Americans’ in the United States during the 1960′s civil rights period. While not entirely novel, Afro-Latin American calls for human rights have been reinvigorated and their social movements have gained momentum since the 2001 World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa. Comparative Perspectives on Afro-Latin America examines several crucial aspects of the Afro-Latin American experience from social, cultural, and political perspectives. This anthology provides a well-rounded discussion of many of the issues which people of African descent in Latin America have faced and continue to face, by contributors who appear genuinely immersed not just in the scholarship but also in the activism.


The book is divided into three sections, “Blackness and Cultural Differences,” “Afro Social Movements and Mobilization,” and “State Responses”. Each section gives insight into contemporary Afro-Latin American socio-economic, political and cultural challenges.  There is a commendable gender balance among the contributors which broadens the perspectives presented on these critical issues. Comparative Perspectives on Afro-Latin America has a broad geographical sweep and encompasses the experiences of Afro Latin Americans in at least nine countries throughout the region.

A particularly strong element of the anthology is the reliance of many of the contributors upon interviews with members of various Afro Latin American communities as their primary source material lending a powerful authenticity to their analysis.    For example, in “The Black Movement’s Foot Soldiers: Black Women and Neighborhood Struggles for Land Rights in Brazil,” Keisha-Khan Y Perry provides a nuanced gender analysis of history of urban displacement when discussing the experiences of  an Afro-Brazilian female civil rights activist who fights against various state and private interests who the seek to forcefully remove her from her home. Perry shows this struggle for urban land and housing rights in the face of such forced displacement is often grounded in the historic connections of many Afro-Brazilians to their lands through “quilombo” communities (the lands escaped slaves occupied and defended as early as the 1600′s) and the leadership role women have played in these communities.


Perry is not singular in pointing out the significant contributions of women to the success of Afro Latin American social movements. As Judith Morrison notes, in “Social Movements in Latin America: The Power of Regional and National Networks” that “…[t]he  unique position of black women at the intersection of race and gender has given black women leaders the unique ability to negotiate space within both the black movement and labor movement.” (pp250) The important role that women play in Afro-Latin American activism and mobilization as well as the ways in which they deal with various state actors is well documented throughout the anthology. While the contributors’ extensive use of primary source interviews with activists was evident, to the extent possible, future anthologies should encompass more contributions from Afro-Latin Americans working inside their respective countries to avoid the appearance of recycling a North-South hegemonic framework.


The chapters by Ernesto Sagas (“Black but not Haitian: Color, Class and Ethnicity in the Dominican Republic”) and Juliet Hooker (“Negotiating Blackness within the Multicultural State”) discuss the complexities of race and ethnicity that exist throughout Latin America, using Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic as case studies. Hooker states, “…the dominant way Creoles [in Nicaragua] have understood and portrayed their group identity has not necessarily been in terms of blackness.” (pp 271) The desire to self-identify in terms of blackness or “negritude” varies among the many diverse Afro-Latin American communities and is influenced greatly by the social, cultural and geo-political contexts in which they are surrounded. The experiences of English speaking Afro-Nicaraguans and Central American Garifuna  include calls for social, economic and political inclusion as well as territorial autonomy that draw on indigenous strategies for collective action .  In contrast, English-speaking West Indian Costa Ricans and Panamanians have used affirmations of black identity or negritude in asserting citizenship rights with less emphasis on territorial autonomy.


The complexities and contrasts of these strategic approaches often due to geographic considerations are evident throughout much of Afro-Latin America and is further demonstrated in Heidi Carolyn Feldman’s piece, “Strategies of the Black Pacific: Music and Diasporic Identity in Peru”, which explores Afro-Peruvian identity formation on the Pacific coast which, due to their distance from Atlantic coast slave ports differed from black identity formation often seen on the Atlantic coast of Central and South America.  Sagas’ discussion of the Dominican Republic, illuminates an interesting phenomenon wherein rather than embrace a racial or ethnic identity, many instead embrace a national identity of  “Dominican”.


Although it is not uncommon throughout Latin America for nationality to supersede other forms of constructed identification, this perspective is still greatly embraced in the Dominican Republic. While many of the Afro-Latin American social movements deem nationality important but insufficient in the face of societal inequities that disproportionately affect Afro-Latin Americans. Sagas attributes the causes of this non-black identification to the historical geopolitical elements of colonialism, revolution, and foreign occupation including by Haitian and US economic and military interests. This in turn raises many questions worthy of further exploration such as how US interests, “gunboat diplomacy,” and more recently the 40 year “War on Drugs” have affected Afro-Latin American identity formation and the extent of social inclusion of  Afro-Latin Americans.


Comparative Perspectives on Afro-Latin America also includes chapters  on the influences of African religions on black identity formation in Bahia, Brazil ( written by Patricia de Santana Pinho) and the legislative and political advances made in Colombia and Ecuador to redress racial inequality and discrimination (written by Peter Wade and Jean Muteba Rahier respectively). Other  chapters provide unique insight into the historical and contemporary importance of artistic representations and expressions in Peru, Cuba and Venezuela.


For example, Sujatha Fernandes’ chapter on hip-hop, entitled “Maleandro Negro: Gangsta Rap and the Politics of Exclusion in Venezuela ” discusses  the use of the genre to express the extent of the political, economic and social exclusion blacks experience in Venezuela. Fernandes compares contemporary Venezuelan and US hip-hop which have both faced accusations of glorifying violence and misogyny, arguing that they often reflect the frustrations of marginalized racialized urban communities. Fernandes also provides an interesting contrast between Venezuelan hip hop and hip hop in  Brazil, Cuba or Colombia which she argues tends to be more progressive and socially conscious.


One problem this book has which unfortunately undermines the gender balance among the contributors is the selection of an inappropriate cover.  In fact, in one chapter entitled “Performing the African Diaspora in Mexico”,  author, Angela Castaneda, in discussing the image used for the cover provides us with the exact reason why the cover should not have been selected. The image is from a poster used to promote the Afro-Caribbean Festival in Veracruz, Mexico in 2001. It portrays  a hyper-sexualized woman with a bandana on her head which Castaneda criticizes.  She describes how the local Veracruz government and elites, together with the national Mexican governments have successfully co-opted  the Afro-Caribbean Festival and through it, promote a romanticized imagery of the people of Mexico’s Caribbean coast that capitalizes on a growing cultural tourism industry.


Castaneda makes clear that the image “…both sexualizes the female body and relegates her to the domestic sphere, symbolized by the bandana on her head that is reminiscent of a “mammy” role. “ (pp. 105) Given the concerns that many of the anthology’s contributors express about (mis)representation, racism, and stereotypes, the use of  this hyper-sexualized imagery seems contradictory, if not gratuitous. Despite this critique of the cover image, which sometimes authors and editors do not control, I still recommend this book as an important contribution to the discussion. It has an accessible and understandable tone, diverse subject matter and was thematically well organized. For  those unfamiliar with the challenges facing the nearly 200 million people who are Afro-Latin American, they will learn more about their history, struggles, and social movements.  For those with greater familiarity, the book provides additional resources and affirms some of the existing theories about how Afro-Latin Americans negotiate their presence within the complexities and prevailing ideologies of the region.


© 2013 The Afrolatin@ Project



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