New York summers are full of exciting events, making it particularly hard to choose which ones to attend. In July 2015 there were two events in Brooklyn competing for my attendance, an Afro Latino festival and a Hip Hop festival. Facing this dilemma (yes my life is so hard), I decided to put my love for hip hop aside to attend the Afro-Latino festival. This festival featured excellent concerts and film screenings. One documentary in particular piqued my curiosity because of its name: “AfroLatinos: An Untaught History.”
The title alone undoubtedly drew me in, because I wanted to learn more about the Afro Latino experience. In a world that constantly tries to define who we are based on our skin color or where we come from, learning more about Afro Latinos promised to be fascinating.
“Maintaining one’s identity in a hostile context, as the Africans did in the Americas, is never an easy task”
Although most of us more or less know the story of the early Europeans that came to the American continent, we know very little about the early Africans who came to the so called “new world” unwillingly. Maintaining one’s identity in a hostile context, as the Africans did in the Americas, is never an easy task. After centuries of slavery and racism, certain questions seem especially relevant, like: What is the Afro Latino identity? What have Afro Latinos been able to preserve? What place do Afro Latinos occupy in their respective societies?
One answer cannot be provided to such complex questions. From one country to the next, the Afro Latino situation totally varies. Some Latin countries readily recognize the fact that parts of their identity were shaped by African people. But other Latin countries try to obscure and deny their African identity, refusing to acknowledge or celebrate it.
“AfroLatinos: An Untaught History” is a seven-part series created and written by Renzo Devia and Alicia Anabel Santos. Although the festival only screened an excerpt of the documentary at the Afro Latino Festival, my satisfaction at the end of the screening equaled, if not exceeded, my enthusiasm and expectations for the film. In the film excerpt, several historical and cultural points were discussed, among them: music, food, and religion.
Overall the film succeeds in its desire to connect the historical and cultural dots. I was so impressed by the quality of the work that I met with director Renzo Devia after the screening to learn more about the project. Renzo kindly discussed the project with me and agreed to an interview for my blog, which I have summarized below. Enjoy!
Renzo decided to focus his project on Afro Latinos for two reasons, first the lack of documentation and resources available on this topic, which touches every Latin American country and second, his desire to visit every country in Latin America. This effort was as challenging as it was ambitious for Renzo and Alicia.
“the producers had to earn the trust of the different communities that they wanted to film”
First they had to locate Afro-descendant communities in each Latin American country. While this task was not so difficult in Renzo’s homeland of Colombia or Alicia’s homeland of the Dominican Republic, the task did present a challenge in countries like Mexico, Chile, and Argentina where the Afro populations are not even mentioned in the census.
Moreover, the producers had to earn the trust of the different communities that they wanted to film. Renzo pointed out that one cannot just enter an Afro Latino community and start filming a voodoo ceremony, for example. A director must be welcomed into the community and also be sensitive to which sacred practices can and cannot be filmed. Consequently, prior to commencing their work in each subject country, Renzo and Alicia completed extensive research on their subjects.
Through their research, they identified the complex and varied African ethnic origins of today’s Afro Latinos, which provided with a better understanding of certain cultural practices present in Latin America now. In Cuba, for example, the Spanish brought over a large population of Yoruba people. Consequently, despite the imposition of Christianity by the Spanish on the Cuban people, many Cubans of Yoruban descent have found ways to maintain their African religions. This fact is demonstrated by the Santeria religion present in Cuba which is directly connected to the Ifa religious system present amongst Yoruban communities in modern-day Nigeria.
The great strength of this documentary series lies in the directors’ strategic and successful manner of connecting the film’s different elements point by point. The film’s ability to flow with its own elements undoubtedly reflects the meticulous research carried out by its creators and the variety of knowledgeable people featured in the film – ranging from community leaders, to academics and historians, to everyday Afro Latinos of all ages.
When asked about their objective for this project, Renzo without hesitation affirms that their job is “to teach, to show, to bring awareness and to create dialogue.” As paradoxical as it might sound, dialogue creation is highly needed in Latin America where racism is highly prevalent notwithstanding the fact that the majority of the population shares DNA from indigenous, African and European populations. ‘
There’s no doubt that racism, wherever it is found around the world, is a societal affliction that feeds off of ignorance, causes unnecessary barriers between people, and leads to absurd and often fatal behavior.
By example, Renzo came across a story about an Afro Latina from Argentina who was denied entry to her country after traveling abroad and was accused of having a fraudulent passport by a government official who told her “there are no black Argentineans.” The irony of this story is that Argentina is renowned around the world for its traditional dance, the tango, a dance that is an undeniable fusion of African and European dance forms and musical traditions.
The tango’s complex roots are explained step-by-step in the film. The documentary explores this and other lesser known subjects in a thoughtful and detailed fashion, such as: how beautiful Haitian music finds its roots in the Congo, how Argentina experienced three major waves of African migration, how over 300,000 enslaved Africans arrived to the Mexican port town of Veracruz, and how palenque communities in Colombia were formed by formerly enslaved Africans who victoriously fought for their freedom.
“we must empower more youth to be writers and TV producers”
Renzo notes that if the film series can start history books talking about the African diaspora in Latin America, they will have done a lot. The historical memory, and sometimes lack thereof, explains the current state of affairs in each Latin country. Many Latin American countries have failed to integrate their Afro populations in a meaningful way. Renzo emphasized that “even in places like Colombia where the Afro population is at least 20%, it is hard to find Afro Latinos in politics, in the banking world or working as lawyers. These problems, of isolation and exclusion of Afro descendants, must be acknowledged before they can be solved.
Fortunately, the documentary does an excellent job at highlighting the beauty, creativity, uniqueness, political ideas, resistance, perseverance, victories and other contributions that Africans and their descendants in Latin America have bestowed in their respective societies. Some viewers may be surprised to learn that much of what outsiders associate with being Latin is in fact, you guessed it, African! Renzo relishes his role as story teller, revealing a more complete and fascinating picture of Latin identity. Renzo strongly believes that we must empower more youth to be writers and TV producers, so they can take the reins in defining, presenting and highlighting their own self-image and complex multi-dimensional identities.
The documentary series created by Renzo and Alicia contributes important truths to the Afro Latino story, it is a true gift to the history of humanity and will hopefully restore and uplift the way everyone views Afro descendants in the new world.
Renzo Devia is a U.S.-born television producer and director of Colombian heritage with over 25 years of industry experience. His body of work focuses primarily on culture in documentary style and magazine format. To learn more, about his documentary series AfroLatinos: An Untaught History, visit: https://vimeo.com/channels/afrolatinos.