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San Francisco Afro-Latinx community celebrates Black History Month by sharing its pride, struggles

San Francisco Afro-Latinx community celebrates Black History Month by sharing its pride, struggles

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As Olivia Peña came up to the mic—amid the volumes of books and among the storytellers at Adobe Books—it seemed obvious that she was right where she belonged. It was as if she was one of the books taking its rightful place in its nook of shelves. 

“I write about people like me,” said Peña, a Black-Salvadoran fiction writer, who earned her MFA at the University of San Francisco. “When I was growing up, I didn’t read any artists or any writing that had anything to do with Afro-Latino people. So for me it’s really powerful to be able to bring this voice to my writing because it was non-existent when I was growing up.” 

Peña was one of the many who participated in Acción Latina’s recent Paseo Artistíco, the bimonthly art stroll that takes place at various locations on 24th Street, better known as Calle 24’s Latino Cultural District. Commemorating Black History Month, the Feb. 8 Paseo was dubbed “Celebración Afro-Latinx,” putting a twist on the event by featuring a whole swath of local creatives sharing their work in a day-long event of Black Latinx pride. 

A former athlete who played soccer for Bowdoin College in Maine, Peña introduced herself and read aloud her short stories, which are filled with Images of everyday. 

“The best stories are about you and me” she said, reading excerpts from her new work “Daughters of the Sun.” Born and raised in San Francisco, Peña recounted tales of waiting for the paletero man on the steps of her father’s house on York Street. “When I first started fiction, I wanted to feature that ‘common-beauty,’ what poor people have in common with each other.” 

The gallery at the back of the shop shifted as people crammed into the space to hear the next speaker. A row of young brown women sat in the front all dressed in unison sports hoodies, sipping their smoothies in silence. They were anticipating Jeremias “Jeremy” Miguel Vasquez—activist, author, and educator—who delivered a stirring performance titled, “Miracles in Mariposas.” 

Donning a vibrant purple, traditional poncho with jeans and a t-shirt, Vasquez —who clearly spoke all from memory—got personal, sharing his dynamic poetry which included the highs and the lows of his experience. 

“Being Black is so lit, also being a Latino is one of the greatest things that ever happened to me,” Vasquez said. “I think for me growing up it’s been the biggest challenge is to merge them together. The two worlds of being Afro-Latino, for me there’s nothing greater than being aware of what you are and who you are.” 

Taking pride in your identity seemed to be the common theme, not only of the event, but the mode of life as each artist gave testimony of living their truth with authenticity. 

But it hasn’t been easy. 

Vasquez went on to speak about the oppression he experienced while being Black and Latino. When in college, eager to join a fraternity for young Latino men, Vasquez was rejected on the basis of his race. 

“I wasn’t Mexican enough,” Vasquez said. “It was a huge set back.”  

The Struggle Within

That complex experience of not fitting in either culture was also reflected in the voice of Annalise Velazquez, a San Francisco native and student at City College of San Francisco.

“What it feels like to be mixed in San Francisco, I have to say it makes my life difficult,” said Velazquez.

Racial discrimination from fellow Latin Americans has been a reoccurring tale in the stories of Afro-Latinx folks. Many who identify as Afro-Latinx have spoken about being too Black for Latinos, and too Latino for Blacks, oftentime resulting in not even wanting to identify at all. Anti-Blackness, hostility, or a general unease to the visibility of Black people, has permeated Latino culture for centuries. 

“I carry generations of trauma on both sides of my family tree,” said Velazquez. “My ancestors made me resilient.” 

Those ancestors were quintessentially Black and Latin, that’s because Latina/Latino/Latinx isn’t a race. 

Though the term Latinx has been contested in many circles, it’s defined by various Latino media sites as a group of ethnicities—a spectrum of peoples influenced by Spanish colonization who come from regions which are now called, “Latin America.” 

Afro-Latinx lineage didn’t result simply from mixing or intermarrying, rather from people who were stolen away from the continent of Africa beginning in the 1500s and taken across the Atlantic Ocean to be enslaved. Many of those people died at sea, but 10.7 million survived the treacherous voyage to the Americas, only to be trapped in commercial human trafficking.

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According to the Trans-Atlantic and Intra-American slave trade databases, of the 12.5 million Africans forcibly removed from their homes during the European dominated slave-trade lasting from 1525-1866, 95 percent went to Latin America, and the remaining 5 percent to North America. 

In Latin America, 1.3 million enslaved people were sent to parts of what is now Central America, such as Panama, Costa Rica, and Honduras. Four million people were sent to the Caribbean islands of Cuba, Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic and Haiti), and Puerto Rico. But 4.8 million enslaved people were sent to Brazil all along its wide coast. This has come to be called the “African Diaspora,” and has resulted in what is known as “generational trauma” by experts like Marta Moreno-Vega, a Puerto Rican Afro-Latina studies professor. 

“Since I am mixed, I do not always fit in with the African-American community because I am light skinned,” said Velazquez. “I do not always fit in with the Latinxs because of my radical views on colonialism.” 

Systemic racism and racial violence has historically affected Black communities in the United States with poverty. That is something that has profoundly influenced Velazquez’s life thus far. “I have been houseless on and off for the past 10 years,” she said. “So it’s taken me almost 12 years just to get my AS from City College. I feel outnumbered, like I have to work twice as hard.” 

As folks wandered in and around every open space inside Acción Latina’s Juan R. Fuentes Gallery, a celebration was taking place. Vibrant colors, bright in the daylight shone around a booth which displayed long, beautiful fabrics and studded earrings. The chic Afro-Cuban DJ Leydis sported a track jacket as she DJ’d playing lively beats. She wore a red and yellow headwrap, exquisitely tied in a knot that almost looked like a crown. 

The headwrap is the work of entrepreneur Marísol Catchings-Frank. Catchings-Frank founded her business and brand Azteca Negra in 2013, which features handcrafted headwraps, bows and earrings, made by Catchings-Frank herself. 

She was giving a demo of how to tie a headwrap for a crowd eagerly gathered to hear her story. 

“I’m Mexican, and Black,” she said as she started her introduction. “And I really didn’t see anything in the world that I felt was representative of me. I know that I’m not the only person in the world that feels like I didn’t have anything [to represent me], so I started creating pieces to help empower other people.” 

During the demo, Catchings-Frank got emotional when speaking about her brand’s mission and her story. 

“We’re constantly told so many negative messages about our hair, and the texture, but what I love about these wraps is that everytime I wrap them on someone, they get so excited about how they look,” she said. “It’s a way to reclaim. It’s a way to protect yourself, and a way to make yourself feel beautiful.”  

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