10 Famous Afro-Latinas Who’ve Made a Powerful Impact
A simple definition of the term Afro-Latina is “a woman of African descent whose origin comes from Latin America.”
In other words, an Afro-Latina is a Black person from one of the Latin American countries.
About 30% of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean has African roots. Nevertheless, the Afro-descendant perspective is often absent from positions of power.
For example, Afro-descendant organizations in Argentina estimate that the country’s Afro population is close to 2 million, but less than 200,000 people identified as such in the last census.
Keep reading to learn about the roots of Afro-Latinas—and discover 10 amazing women who’ve made a powerful impact on the world!
Who is Afro-Latina?
Being Latina or Latino refers to ethnicity, as opposed to race. Both White and Black Latinas (and Latinos) exist.
While their race is different, Black and White Latinos shared a common cultural background and experiences. They may or may not speak Spanish, but their cultural background is tied to Spain or Latin America.
Black Latinas (also known as Afro-Latinas) may speak Spanish (or French, in the Latin American country of Haiti; or Portuguese, if they are from Brazil). They may speak English if they live in the United States or Canada.
In any case, Afro-Latinas’ cultural background is tied to both Latin America and Africa.
A Brief History of Afro-Latinas
All members of the African Diaspora faced unimaginable struggles and injustices. The slave trade started in the Americas in the late 18th century and brought the majority of Africans to Latin American countries. More than 10 million Africans were forcefully taken to Latin America, and cultural mixing was one of the byproducts of colonization.
Afro-Latinas have been historically marginalized and they need to be acknowledged, respected and visible. Barriers in access to social services and job opportunities remain common.
July 25 is the annual International Day of Afro-Latina and Afro-Caribbean Women that aims to raise awareness and spur change with regard to discrimination, violence, sexism, exclusion, poverty, and migration.
10 Famous Afro-Latinas You Should Know
Drumroll, please! Check out our curated list of brilliant Afro-Latinas and learn who they are, what they’ve done, and how they’ve inspired the world.
1. Celia Cruz
Cuban legend Celia Cruz is the probably most famous Afro-Latina. She received the National Medal of Arts from Bill Clinton in 1994 for her contribution in spreading the spicy sounds of salsa music to the U.S. and the world. Also known as “the Queen of Salsa,” Celia still makes people shake their hips even after her death in 2003.
This Afro-Cubana proudly embraced her heritage through her music. Her musical career began in Cuba in the 1950s, where she first received the name “La Guarachera de Cuba” because of her popularity in singing guaracheras (a type of music originated from Cuba).
When Cuba began to nationalize its music industry in the 1960s, she moved to Mexico and later Miami to continue her music career. She became increasingly famous, releasing many successful songs and bringing Afro-Cuban music into the mainstream.
She released songs like La negra tiene tumbao (which roughly translates to “The Black Woman has Rhythm“), which associates Afro-Latina identity with pride and celebration. Throughout her life, Cruz gained international success, releasing an impressive 37 studio albums.
2. Julia De Burgos
Julia de Burgos was a Puerto Rican poet who tackled the complexities of womanhood, social inequality, and feminism. She was a woman before her time who lived in the 1930s and died an in 1953 at age 39.
Having been raised on a farm in extreme poverty influenced Julia’s writings and political outlook. She studied education at the University of Puerto Rico, where she earned credentials to become a teacher in 1933, which was almost unheard of for women of her era.
De Burgos was known for her work in the women’s branch of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. Her short yet prolific life was defined by her innovative work, radical politics, and a volatile personal life.
While she achieved some level of critical and commercial success during her lifetime, de Burgos reached legendary status four decades after her death, when a new generation of Latinx scholars and readers discovered her work. Her poems experienced a resurgence in popularity in the 90s, when Caribbean Afro-Latina writers, in particular, recognized her work for its themes of colonialism, feminism, American supremacy, colorism, poverty, and Latinx identity–subjects de Burgos explored far before they were part of the mainstream.
Her legacy continues to influence Afro-Latina writers, and it is referenced in history and poetry classes around the world. Julia de Burgos is recognized for her ownership and celebration of her Afro-Latina roots–a stance that was just as radical in the past as it is today.
3. Rosie Perez
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Afro-Latina Rosie Perez proudly embraces her identity as a Black Puerto Rican. She is a product of the “Nuyorican” movement, the blend of Puerto Rican and New York City cultures.
After debuting in Spike Lee’s hit movie, Do the Right Thing, she went on to become a household name in the U.S. Her acting career has spanned decades, and Rosie is also a choreographer, author, dancer, and talk show host.
Perez is super involved in the Puerto Rican community. She co-directed the documentary ¡Yo soy Boricua, pa’que tú lo sepas!, which describes the history of Puerto Ricans.
Perez was appointed to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDs (PACHA) by Barack Obama in 2010. Her candid attitude has served both her and her Afro-Latina community and made her a spokesperson for the Latinx people. Perez advocates for all Latins, regardless of their nation of origin or skin color, to come together and advocate for their rights and representation.
4. Gwen Ifill
Gwen Ifill was an African-American journalist of Panamanian and Barbadian ancestry who was the first Black woman to host a national political talk show in the U.S. She hosted PBS’ Washington Week and co-hosted PBS NewsHour.
She covered seven presidential campaigns and moderated the vice presidential debates in 2004 and 2008. She authored a best-seller, The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, which was published on inauguration day 2009.
Gwen Ifill won a Peabody Award for outstanding journalism and reported for major publications and networks including the New York Times, PBS, and The Washington Post. Gwen passed away in 2016 at age 61, but her legacy lives on. Simmons College recently named a media school after her, the Gwen Ifill College of Media, Arts and Humanities.
According to Barack Obama, “Gwen was a friend of ours, she was an extraordinary journalist. I always appreciated Gwen’s reporting even when I was at the receiving end of one of her tough interviews.” The former president called her a “powerful role model for young women and girls” who “blazed a trail” for female reporters everywhere.
5. Maritza Correia McClendon
Maritza Correia McClendon has the honor of being the first Black Puerto Rican to join the U.S. Olympic team. Now a marketing executive, Correia McClendon has made it her life’s work to help African-American children around the United States learn to swim.
When Maritza was a child, her doctor discovered that she had scoliosis and suggested that she take up swimming as treatment. Despite her condition, Correia McClendon went on to make history by setting U.S. and world swimming records. She won multiple NCAA championships and won a silver medal for her performance in the 400-meter freestyle at the Olympic Summer Games in Athens, Greece in 2004.
6. Miriam Jimenez Roman
In 2010, Miriam Jiminez Román is the editor of the 2010 book, The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States.
She used her experience as a Black Puerto Rican to pave the way for Afro-Latinas and all Latinos. Her book gave credibility and recognition to the Afro-Latino identity.
The Afro-Latin@ Reader focuses attention on a large, vibrant, yet oddly invisible community in the United States: people of African descent from Latin America and the Caribbean. It points out that Afro-Latinxs are uniquely situated to bridge the widening social divide between Latinxs and African Americans.
The book addresses history, music, gender, class, and media representations in scholarly essays, memoirs, newspaper and magazine articles, poetry, short stories, and interviews from over 60 authors.
She also heads the “Afro-Latin@ Forum”, which is another way Jiménez Román strives to bring awareness and pride to Afro-Latinidad. Miriam has helped create space for Black Puerto Ricans in amazing ways.
7. Janel Martinez
Janel Martinez is a Honduran-American Afro-Latina journalist and creator of the blog, Ain’t I Latina. Her writing has appeared on Cosmopolitan for Latinas, NPR’s Latino USA, HuffPost Live, Madame Noire, Black Enterprise and others.
Ain’t I Latina? is an online destination created by an Afro-Latina for Afro-Latinas. Due to the lack of representation in mainstream media, as well as in Spanish-language media, Janel Martinez created a space where millennial Latinas can celebrate their diversity.
Martinez’s blog is celebrated for her witty writing, insightful nuance, and much-needed stories of being Afro-Latina. Already at age 30, she’s a prolific writer whose work focuses on intersectionality.
8. Susana Baca
Susana Baca is a famous Peruvian singer-songwriter. As a vocalist, she became internationally renowned with “Maria Lando,” a track from the 1995 David-Byrne-produced album, Afro-Peruvian Classics: The Soul of Black Peru. Her songs are rooted in deep emotion: pain, nostalgia, longing.
Susana is also a school teacher, folklorist, ethnomusicologist and two-time Latin Grammy Award winner. This powerful now 76-year-old Afro-Latina is a key figure in the revival of Afro-Peruvian music.
Her backing band features indigenous Andean instruments, as well as acoustic guitar and electric upright baby bass. Although many of her songs are based on traditional Peruvian forms, she also incorporates elements of Cuban and Brazilian music.
Susana Baca is not only a wonderful musician but also a keen cultural researcher who has helped revive Afro-Peruvian folklore.
She founded el Centro Experimental de Música Negrocontinuo (Institute of the Black Music Continuum), a cultural center dedicated to the study of Afro-Peruvian music and dance. In July 2011, Baca was named Peru’s Minister of Culture in the Ollanta Humala government, becoming the second Afro-Peruvian cabinet minister in Peruvian history.
9. Toto La Momposina
Sonia Bazanta Vides, also known as Totó la Momposina, is a Afro-Colombian cantadora (singer). She was born in the northern Colombian town of Talaigua Nuevo and is from the fourth generation of her family to be involved with music.
She has earned worldwide respect and admiration for her powerful voice and impressive performances. Drawing on the music and dance of the Colombian Caribbean, her work is informed and inspired by a rich cultural mix of elements from African, Indigenous, and Spanish traditions.
Totó’s 1993 album La Candela Viva gained her international attention. She accompanied Gabriel García Márquez to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982 as part of a Colombian cultural delegation performing during the award ceremony. Totó La Momposina has dedicated her life to representing the music of Colombia’s Caribbean coastline.
10. Elizabeth Acevedo
Elizabeth Acevedo is a Dominican-American poet and author who lives in Washington, D.C. She proudly identifies as Afro-Latina.
Acevedo observed the lack of diversity in children’s books (especially for people who looked like her) and saw it as an opportunity to share her voice. She has written three young adult novels.
The Poet X, in which a young girl in Harlem discovers slam poetry as a way to understand her mother’s religion and her own relationship to the world, is a New York Times Bestseller, Carnegie Medal and National Book Award Winner.
Elizabeth is also the author of With the Fire on High—which was named a best book of the year by the New York Public Library, NPR, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal—and Clap When You Land, which was a Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor book and a Kirkus finalist.
¡Viva las Afro-Latinas!
As a group, Afro-Latinas have been historically marginalized for far too long. The talented women on this list are shining examples of the rich Afro-Latin culture. They are finally starting to receive the acknowledgment, respect and honor they deserve.
Who else should be included on this list? Leave a comment, and let’s start a dialogue!
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