The word “Afro-latinx” isn’t in the dictionary. Despite accounting for 1.2 million citizens on United States soil, a quick search on Merriam Webster reveals that the term is woefully excluded, along with it the recognition of a population at a crossroads of culture and race. As we mourn the exclusion of the term, may we celebrate Black History Month and be reminded of the importance of Afro-latinx figures. Figures of the past, present and those who inspire us to take on the future.
Often unrecognized, these figures made strides by representing a unique intersection of identity, reminding us that the Latinx community is bright, colorful and diverse in its own right. From the medical contributions of Jose Celso Barbosa, to the sweet and lively music of Celia Cruz, and to the onscreen performance of trans actress MJ Rodriguez, Afro-latinx figures have had great impacts in the course of history and continue to remind audiences of the many faces that represent the Latinx identity.
In a time of revolutionary change, Vicente Guerrero (1782-1831) is the unsung hero of the Mexican War of Independence. Beginning his military career in 1810, Guerrero was an adept military commander and led guerrilla forces against the Spanish until 1821. Despite his success as a commander, he was less so skilled at political leadership and was unseated after a brief stint as Mexico’s president. Vicente Guerrero was of Afro-Mestizo descent and was executed by the then conservative government of Mexico.
On the other side of the Caribbean Sea, Jose Celso Barbosa (1857-1921) became known as the father of the Statehood for Puerto Rico movement in 1898. A physician and sociologist, he changed the nature of public health and initiated an early form of health insurance and was also the first person from Puerto Rico to receive a degree of medicine in the United States. At the end of his life, he served in the first senate of Puerto Rico and every July 27 is celebrated as “Jose Celso Barbosa Day.”
In the 1950s, we saw two great Afro-Latinx figures access the fields of entertainment through Cuban singer Celia Cruz (1925-2003) and Puerto Rican professional baseball player Roberto Clemente (1934-1972). Most recognized for her vibrant and eclectic mix of the salsa genre, Cruz’s songs “La vida es un carnaval” (2001) and “Quimbara” (1974) continue to be loved by generations long after their first release. A staple of the Latinx sound and flavor, Cruz is also recognized by her playful ¡Azucar! catchphrase during her performances and for being able to insert Latin music into the American mainstream as a two-time Grammy and four-time Latin Grammy Award winner.
Roberto Clemente, on the other hand, showed his athletic prowess as a Major League Baseball player for the Pittsburgh Pirates, playing a total of 18 seasons, an All-Star for 12 seasons, and playing in two World Series Championships. Clemente unfortunately died in a plane crash at the age of 38 on his way to deliver relief aid to Nicaragua. He was then inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973 and his jersey number was retired from the Pirates.
Following their footsteps in entertainment, Gwen Ifill put her voice and face out there as a journalist and news anchor for PBS’s Washington Week in Review. Alongside her previous work in the New York Times and The Washington Post, Ifill believed in the power of the voice and said, “Your necessary voice can invest in the power of possibility.” Ifill, who was born to Panamanian and Barbadian parents, sadly passed away in 2016 due to breast and endometrial cancer.
The legacy of these individuals set the path for a new generation of Afro-latinx youth to take the stage on television, in front of the mic, and in our hearts. From their contributions to politics, history, and entertainment, we are seeing a new set of empowered Afro-latinx individuals bring light to their experiences and represent themselves confidently and boldly through new mediums.
Among the most successful and recognizable, Bruno Mars, born in Honolulu, Hawaii, started his singing career performing Elvis Presley songs for tourists. Born to a Puerto Rican father and Filipina mother, Mars has performed hits such as “Grenade,” “Just the Way You Are” and “Uptown Funk.” Among his achievements, Mars has performed at the Super Bowl Halftime Show twice and has won ten Grammy Awards. He has also collaborated with artist Cardi B who has Dominincan and Trinidadian roots on the song “Finesse.”
On the screen, FX’s Pose breakout star MJ Rodriguez is a proud New Jersey native and LGBT icon as a transgender actress alongside co-starts Billy Porter and Indya Moore. Born to an African-American mother and Puerto Rican father, Rodriguez transitioned during her teen years and found community in the ballroom scene. In Pose, she is part of the largest cast of trans actors and believes that the show displays the intersectionality between race, gender, and sexuality.
Alongside Rodriguez, Indya Moore is part of Pose’s cast and plays Angel Evangelista on the series. A Bronx native, Moore has Haitian, Puerto Rican and Dominican ancestry and is a non-binary individual. Finding their start in the modeling industry, Moore grew up in the foster care system and was cast in Pose with the largest number of transgender actors in a series (about 50). Due to her difficult upbringing, Moore works consistently in advancing trans and people of color rights, saying at the start of her career, “I knew I had a chance to teach the world something that would help more people to be safe.” Moore has also voiced the character Shep in the Steven Universe Future series who is also a non-binary character.
Last but not least, Julissa Calderon is the newest face but is still very well-recognized through her work on Buzzfeed’s “Pero Like” Youtube Channel and will now be featured in the new Netflix series, Gentefied, which is to premiere on Feb. 21. In the show, she plays fellow Afro-latinx character Yessika Flores and brings in some of her experience with her Dominican background. Julissa is the next in a long line of Afro-latinx icons we should look out for and keep supporting as they bring a new perspective and embody inclusivity heading forward.