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Here Are Some Of The Most Important Afro-Latino Figures Who Have Changed And Are Changing The World

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This Black History Month, we celebrate every single Black person who has created more space for the generations behind them. From Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King Jr., the country’s effort to focus on Black contributions and civil rights history is something, but it’s not everything.

Many people in the Latino community still willfully ignore the contributions made by Afro-Latinos. Sometimes the mere emphasis on their true identity is what has paved the way for their existence to be celebrated in the Latino community. Here are some Afro-Latinos who have made waves and paved ways for other people who exist in the duality of being Black and Latino.

Celia Cruz

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Cuban legend Celia Cruz is probably the most famous Afro-Latino of the world. She received the National Medal of Arts from Bill Clinton in 1994 for her contribution in spreading the sounds of salsa music to the U.S. and the world.

Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez

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Méndez is the first person of African heritage to travel into space. He was born in Cuba and orphaned as an infant and went from shining shoes to traveling in Earth’s orbit. That’s something to be proud of.

Adriano Espaillat

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Espaillat is the first formerly undocumented immigrant to ever serve in Congress. The Dominican-American now serves as the U.S. Representative for New York’s 13th Congressional District and is an unwavering champion of immigrant rights in the process.

Amara La Negra

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Amara La Negra brought the topic of Afro-Latinidad to public discourse after Young Hollywood criticized her afro during a business meeting on “Love & Hip Hop: Miami.” You can tell from the Dominicana’s stage name that she’s fiercely Afro-Latina. She is forcing us to have conversations about accepting Black identity withint hte Latino community.

MJ Rodriguez

@PoseOnFX / Twitter

She’s the first trans Afro-Latina starring actress to be on a television series drama, and she’s crushing it. The Puerto Rican star has skyrocketed to fame playing Blanca Evangelista on FX’s “Pose” and her star is not coming down any time soon.

Roberto Clemente

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Roberto Clemente is a Puerto Rican legend. Clemente was the first Latin American and Caribbean player to be enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and is remembered for his tireless and selfless commitment to helping the world. He died in a plane crash while taking supplies to Nicaragua following a devastating earthquake.

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg

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Schomburg was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico in 1874 to a freed slave, Mary Joseph Alfonso and Carlos Schomburg, a German merchant living in Puerto Rico. When Schomburg was in elementary school, one of his teachers claimed that Black people had no history, heroes or accomplishments. He became determined to prove her wrong and went on to become a Black historian and major intellectual figure during the Harlem Renaissance. Today, The New York Public Library Harlem branch has an entire Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, made up of his own collection of slave narratives and other books.

Felipe Luciano

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Luciano was the founder of the Young Lords New York Branch (which was like the Puerto Rican version of the Black Panther Party). He’s also known for his poetry and his membership in the Original Last Poets.

José Celso Barbosa

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Barbosa was the first Afro-Latino to earn a medical degree in the United States. After accomplishing that major feat, he went on to join the first Puerto Rican Senate and advocated for statehood.

Soledad O’Brien

@soledadobrien / Twitter

O’Brien has become one of the top names in journalism with a slew of awards and her own show to prove it. The ACLU asked O’Brien’s parents, an Afro-Cubana and Australian, to be the couple that would test the ban on interracial marriage. Her parents had to marry in D.C. where the laws were less restrictive at the time.

Gwen Ifill

@michele_norris / Twitter

Ifill was one of the first Black women to host a national public affairs program in the United States and the first to moderate a vice presidential debate. The Panamanian journalist paved the way for many others and Afro-Latino journalists today have Ifill to thank for the path she blazed.

Princess Nokia

@princessnokia / Instagram

Puerto Rican artist Princess Nokia is known for rapping her feminist agenda with no apology. She’s speaking truth to words in a way that is uniquely relatable to Afro-Latinas. She is not holding back when she stands up for herself anf her fellow Afro-Latinas.

Judy Reyes

@itisijudyreyes1 / Instagram

While we mostly think of current icons, Amara La Negra and Cardi B, actress Judy Reyes has been paving the way for much longer.

“I would get really positive reactions at auditions for both African-American and Latino parts. But, I didn’t look Latino enough because of the curly hair, and the freckles, and the nose and all that stuff,” she told NBCUniverso.

Sylvia del Villard

@blogdiva / Twitter

San Juan-born Sylvia de Villard grew up around dance, but it wasn’t until she moved to NYC where she committed her life to it. She joined the ballet group Africa House and went on to create the Afro-Boricua El Coqui Theater.

Julia de Burgos

@gaychickendad / Twitter

Burgos is a Puerto Rican poet and journalist who’s known for her work in the women’s branch of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. The celebration of her blackness has influenced many Afro-Caribbean writers that have come after her. Her lasting legacy is something to be admired.

Miriam Jiménez Román

@LatinaRAS / Twitter

Jiménez is one of the foremost leading thinkers on Afro-Latinos in the U.S., known for her book “The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States.” She’s helped create space for Black Puerto Ricans and Afro-Latinos like her and she’s not slowing down.

Laz Alonso

@MeettheBlacks / Twitter

“You’re not one or the other. You’re both. And you should be proud to be both and not be embarrassed or ashamed of it. There’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Alonso said in the NBCUniverso documentary “Black and Latino.”

Piri Thomas

@REMEZCLA / Twitter

Thomas paved a path for Afro-Latino voices with his memoir “Down These Mean Streets.” His life is as full as it is nuanced, with a nine-year stint in prison, feeling neglected by his father for his lighter-skinned siblings, and eventually becoming a community organizer for Afro-Latino youth in Harlem. The Cuban-Puerto Rican poet is a legend.

Breena Nuñez Peralta

@theafrolatindiaspora / Twitter

Afro-Salvadorian-Guatemalan cartoonist Peralta is working to draw Afro-Latinos into existence via cartoons. She’s creating space for young Afro-Latinxs to see themselves as heroes, which makes her our hero.


READ: From Maxwell To Cardi B, These Afro-Latinos Are A Driving Force In The Music Industry Today

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Julia De Burgos Had A Short Life But Her Legacy Continues To Inspire Afro-Latinas Today

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Julia De Burgos Had A Short Life But Her Legacy Continues To Inspire Afro-Latinas Today

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Julia de Burgos was a woman ahead of her time. The prolific writer, feminist, and activist — born in Carolina, Puerto Rico in 1914 — excelled in her craft long before anyone was ready to acknowledge it. Her world wasn’t prepared for an Afro-Latina academic that would defy conservative tradition. And so, she challenged it with her words.

Like Puerto Rico in the 1920s and 30s, Julia de Burgos was also coming of age.

It’s as if they were both figuring out who they were going to be and what they would represent. The main difference between the island and de Burgos is that she took broader steps much faster than the island could keep up. In her short life, De Burgos’s accomplished so much despite being born in extreme poverty. In many ways, she was a survivor and a fighter. De Burgos survived malnutrition when her six younger siblings could not. She survived Hurricane San Felipe Segundo, Puerto Rico’s only Category 5 to ever strike the island — when more than 300 other unfortunately did not.

At age 24 she self-published her book of poetry.

In 1939 she released “Poema en veinte surcos” (“Poem in Twenty Furrows”). Even at that young age, de Burgos was already married, a graduate of the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, and working as a teacher. Poetry, however, was her real love.

Her work dealt with the issues she knew best: poverty, Puerto Rico, and a desire to live.

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One of the greatest revolutionaries! #Repost ¿Sabías que en el 1937 Julia de Burgos añadió la palabra “de” a su apellido para demostrar que sólo ella tenía posesión de sí misma? Julia de Burgos es considerada la poeta más grande que ha tenido Puerto Rico. Mediante su trabajo exploró temas sobre esclavitud, imperialismo, justicia social, y feminismo. Su poesía le dio acceso a los círculos intelectuales de Puerto Rico. Sin embargo, estos grupos no estaban listos para aceptar la equidad del hombre y la mujer. “En mí no, que en mí manda mi solo corazón, mi solo pensamiento; quien manda en mí soy yo”. Poema "A Julia de Burgos", por Julia de Burgos. #WomenWednesday #CorramosNosotras #JuliaDeBurgos #JuliaVive

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It’s astonishing to know that such a young woman could write so beautifully about her homeland’s disgraceful history of colonization and slavery at the hands of the Spanish. She was a strong advocate of Puerto Rico’s freedom from Spain and becoming a nation. In 1939, De Burgos became a member of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party and also the Secretary-General of the Daughters of Freedom. Her role was seen as controversial, at least by the United States. Writer Molly Crabapple noted that the FBI interrogated De Burgos because they suspected her of being a nationalist and communist.

Biographer Vanessa Pérez Rosario told the New York Times that De Burgos’ notion of what Puerto Rico was more significant than the island could aspire to.

“She already envisioned an idea of Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican identity that was much broader than what was being articulated on the island at the time,” Rosario told the New York Times.

Her thoughts and ideas were too much for Puerto Rico’s elite circle of male intellects, and so, in 1940, she left the island and set for another island, the island of Manhattan. By this time, de Burgos had already published two more collections of poetry and was divorced. She had begun a relationship with a Dominican political exile named Juan Isidro Jimenes Grullón who was her equal intellectually, but not in social status. He came from an affluent family.

“I want to be universal,” de Burgos said to her sister when she arrived in New York City, according to Ms. Magazine. De Burgos did just that and moved to Cuba for a while but returned to Manhattan where she was once again a starving artist this time “facing racial, ethnic and linguistic discrimination.”

Regardless of those harrowing obstacles, de Burgos — who no longer was with Grullón — continued to work as a writer and also a journalist for a local Spanish-language newspaper. Puerto Rico also recognized her achievements and awarded an honor from the Institute of Puerto Rican Literature and an honorary doctorate from the University of Puerto Rico.

In the mid-’40s, De Burgos had remarried though that relationship also ended in divorce.

According to her niece, María Consuelo Sáez Burgos, de Burgos became depressed and turned to drinking. Her alcohol abuse led to “cirrhosis of the liver and respiratory disease.”

Her death, however, is probably the saddest end to her prolific life. The Times reports that police found de Burgos unconscious on the streets of Harlem. She died at the hospital in 1953. She was just 39 years old. And, because she didn’t have an I.D. when police took her to the hospital, she was listed as a Jane Doe. She was buried in a random cemetery and was finally discovered by her family weeks later. Her remains were later exhumed and taken back to Puerto Rico. Despite that tragic ending, her legacy lives on in her poetry, and more importantly in the people, she continues to inspire.

Fans of de Burgos, or those curious about her work can turn to the following books: “Poemas exactos a mi misma,” “Poema en veinte surcos,” “Canción de la verdad sencilla,” and “El mar y tú: otros poemas (1954).” Most of them are available on Amazon.


READ: 21 Things You Didn’t Know About Celia Cruz, The Indisputable Queen Of Salsa

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