The Late 1800s
Arturo Alfonso Schomburg —born in Santurce, Puerto Rico— was a prominent figure during the Harlem Renaissance. He moved to Harlem in 1891 at the young age of 17. Schomburg was a self-proclaimed Afroborinqueño who later helped found the Negro Society for Historical Research. Known today as one of the fathers of what we call African American/Africana Studies, Schomburg was also dedicated to a different major cause of his time—the liberation of Cuba and Puerto Rico from the grips of Spain.
New York City was an immigrant enclave for Cubans, Puerto Ricans and other Caribbean political leaders during the late 1800s. Iconic names like Martí, Hostos, Maceo and Betances all made stops in the city to coordinate revolutionary actions in the islands. In similar tradition, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg joined organizations such as the Jose Martí affiliated Las Dos Antillas and became a member of the Comité Revolucionario de Puerto Rico. He also found brotherhood as a Freemason by joining “El Sol de Cuba Lodge #38.” This lodge was unique because they conducted all business in Spanish. Founded under the African American institution of Prince Hall Masonry, El Sol de Cuba became a place where Latinos could organize in New York. Forced segregation would often mean that White and Black Latinos didn’t live near each other. The Diaspora was integrated into the fabric of American racial politics. But this lodge helped members connect with other American Blacks while promoting community service, independence politics, Afro-Latino history and other endeavors they saw fit as a group. Internal records show that brother masons —including Martí— visited from nearly every republic in South America at some point during the Spanish speaking era of the lodge’s history.
Schomburg and other Afro-Latinos chose to organize themselves within some of the established Black American organizations in a very intentional manner. America has long been a nation that does not fully value the humanity of Black people. It’s likely that this reality was made clear to immigrant of color. El Sol de Cuba is an example where Latino immigrants actively worked to break down some of the barriers presented by the new country they called home. They found —in Black American and West Indian communities— other marginalized groups that faced similar challenges.
These collaborations and associations would continue throughout the decades at different levels. Across the country, Black and Latino communities often crossed paths as the marginalized groups in their cities and townships. Some Latinos (who could pass) would racially socialize as White in their communities. This would play a key role in their interactions with Black people around them. Still, Latino and Black populations became victims of public lynchings, disfranchisement, discrimination, and other established practices reserved for the non-White people of America.
The Civil Rights Era
During the Civil Rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s, we find a documented period of unity between Black and Latinos. Chicano Civil Rights leader Reies López Tijerina held private meetings with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad from the Nation of Islam concerning commonalities in their movements. Cuban leader Fidel Castro chose to stay in Harlem and met with Malcolm X during one of his visits to New York. César Chávez openly spoke about learning from other movements’ areas of strength. King was also a Chávez supporter:
As brothers in the fight for equality, I extend the hand of fellowship and good will and wish continuing success to you and your members…You and your valiant fellow workers have demonstrated your commitment to righting grievous wrongs forced upon exploited people. We are together with you in spirit and in determination that our dreams for a better tomorrow will be realized.
—MLK to Chavez September, 1966
Organizations like the Young Lords (mostly Puerto Rican) and the Brown Berets (mostly Chicano) would both join Fred Hampton’s (Black Panthers) Rainbow Coalition of radical grass roots organizations. They organized within their own communities and then joined forces at points of common interest.
There was a growing awareness amongst Black and Latino Civil Rights leaders that the communities had much in common as part of the marginalized and oppressed communities within the country. A key example was the historic 1967 meeting called together by López Tijerina during the annual meeting of the Alianza Federal de Pueblos Libres.
Representatives from major Black and Chicano Civil Rights organizations convened to discuss a unity agenda. Notable names included the U.S. Organization, Black Panther Party, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Mexican American Youth Organization and Crusade for Justice. Even the Hopi Nation sent a representative. Bilingual meetings where screams of “Black Power,” “Chicano Power” and “Poder Negro” could be heard. Speeches critiqued White Supremacy and detailed a need for basic unity in their common struggle for civil and human rights. Ultimately, this cross-ethnic gathering resulted in the signing of an agreement titled the “Treaty of Peace, Harmony, and Mutual Assistance.”
An agreement between all represented Black and Brown organizations where groups agreed to respect each of the separate movements and work together when possible. Leaders understood that division existed between the communities. One line from said treaty states that: “Both peoples do promise not to permit the members of either of said peoples to make false propaganda of any kind whatsoever against each other, either by SPEECH or WRITING.” Another explains that “both peoples, make a solemn promise, to cure and remedy the historical errors and differences that exist between said peoples.”
Over time, most of the major Civil Rights organizations lost influence due to, in no small part, a concerted effort by the American government. Programs like COINTELPRO would lead to the assassination or imprisonment of leaders and propaganda was spread to discredit many of the organizations. Nevertheless, Black and Latino communities were able to gain victories with their efforts.
The Rise of Hip Hop
In the 1970s and 1980s, we begin to see the rise of Hip Hop. The children of the Civil Rights movement in New York City were still marginalized and living in close proximity to each other. Organically, this socio-political culture began to rise amongst the youth. It was a way of life that included rappers, DJs, break dancers and graffiti artists. Black and Latinos were both key parts that created this new expression of a unique lived reality. Rapper QTip broke it down in an excellent Twitter history lesson when he wrote:
But during these strides this country still had the monster of racism and racial insensitivity breathing and ruling… believe it or not young black n Latino lives specifically weren’t acknowledged in mainstream American culture unless Of course.. the convo was abt gangs , being criminals or uneducated. And hey! Like I stated early our families were rushed our schools sucked and we were left to put devices to survive… but HIPHOP showed that we had DEPTH, fire, and BRILLIANCE… the music was undeniable! It moved from NY N became national and even GLOBAL.
Hip Hop artists have a long history of calling for unity between Black and Brown in this country. Artists Fat Joe and Ice Cube have also explain their perspective on the topic:
A lot of Latinos are influenced by me and I try to show them that there is no difference between Blacks and Latinos. In any area you find a large amount of Black people, you find a large amount of Latinos. If we learn to get together and become one, we can become a majority, we could become at least much stronger. We could unify. We could Express our issues and what we are concerned with in our community. And they have to listen to us because us together as one form a large number of voters so we demand our respect.—Fat Joe
My thing is, the Black and the Brown have always shared California…I think it sounds silly to be trying to kick people out who’ve been here before America. You know, That don’t make no sense. I just think people should figure out a way to include these people into our society. They already here and let’s make it happen. You know, I think it’ll be better for everybody.—Ice Cube
Music speaks to the soul of a large segment of young people today. Hip Hop has served as a cultural tie between Black and Latinos since its inception as a culture and way of life. Language is no barrier. Legendary groups like Public Enemy performing in places like Brazil and Spanish Hip Hop or Reggaeton collaborations with US artists in growing numbers demonstrate that Hip Hop will continue to serve as a point of unity.
The Present Day
It is still possible to find expressions of Black and Latino solidarity today. Texas LULAC and NAACP groups worked together fighting racist textbook standards for students in 2010. Across the nation, there are grassroots efforts with Latino and Black organizations working together to combat diverse issues including voter disfranchisement, healthcare, and police brutality. There are countless issues where challenges both communities face intersect. It is at these points that an effort could be made to work together.
Organizing has resulted in the unique position of Blacks and Latinos in America to be acknowledged by the United Nations Committee Against Torture:
The Committee is particularly concerned at the reported current police violence in Chicago, especially against African American and Latino young people who are allegedly being consistently profiled, harassed and subjected to excessive force by Chicago Police Department (CPD) officers. It also expresses its deep concern at the frequent and recurrent police shootings or fatal pursuits of unarmed black individuals. In this regard, the Committee notes the alleged difficulties to hold police officers and their employers accountable for abuses.
The growing movement against police brutality and use of excessive force is that type of opportunity. Latinos and Blacks both face disproportionate rates of incarceration and racial profiling. An awareness of these lived realities are slowly, but surely creeping into the mainstream consciousness of America. Embracing the banner of “Black Lives Matter” is that type of opportunity. It will never mean Latino life or any other life matters any less. This is a chance to stand in solidarity with African Americans who have brought the issue to the front door of America. Another point in the history of cross-cultural relations. A chance for the Latino community to show the significant portion of Afro-Latinos that their lives matter.
There are plenty of instances where the two communities have been at odds. Those who prefer separation will focus on those occasions. Others will choose to walk in the tradition of King, Chavez, Malcolm and Reies. Solidarity is the best way forward. Unity is a tool that helps both groups progress. Where will you stand in history?
This article was first published on December 26, 2014 at www.LatinoRebels.com