Migration, Art, and Afro-Latinidad
By Lechelle Barron
Unpacking Hispañola in Context: Migration, Art, and Afro-Latinidad in Contemporary United States was the panel discussion of Taller Puertorriqueño’s 20th Annual Arturo A. Schomburg Symposium on February 27, at the Roberto P. Hernández Theater in North Philadelphia.
The six members of the panel wereAbigail Lapin Dardashti, Panel Moderator, Scherezade Garcia, Multi-Media Visual Artist, Shaun Leonardo, Multidisciplinary Artist,
Miriam Jiménez Román, Scholar, and Executive Director of AfroLatin@ Forum, Gabriela Watson Aurazo, Filmmaker and Activist, and Firelei Báez, a Multi-Media Visual Artist.
Each panelist showcased their visual arts and participated in a group discussion with the audience. “The goal is to digest ideas we’ve been discussing through the lenses of artists and an established scholar. The initial idea for this symposium was to think about how ideologies and identity based self-definitions shift through movement and migration and through different landscapes, and to talk about different issues on how racial identity shifts specifically in terms of Afrolatinidad,” said Lapin Dardashti.
Gabriela Watson Aurazo, is a Brazilian of Afro-Peruvian descent, she directed a documentary titled We, Afro-Peruvians, which shows her quest to connect with her Afro-Peruvian identity. “In Brazil as a daughter of Peruvians, they always thought I was Brazilian because I’m biracial too, so when I said my parents are from Perú they would say, “But how?”, I said, well, there is actually black people in Perú, they would say, “Oh, really?”, I tried to always connect to the Afro-Brazilians, so I felt like I’m navigating in two different worlds that didn’t dialogue with each other, and then I started to go to Perú and interview my black family, it was the family that I did not have much contact with growing up in São Paulo, and as a result of that process of interviewing I put together the first documentary, and opened up this dialogue about Afro-Peruvians in São Paulo,” said Watson Aurazo. “Being in Brazil I identified with those two cultures with the Latino and the Black, but we never called ourselves “Afro-Latina”, we say we are Afro-Brazilians or Black, growing up I wanted to go in search of reaffirming my blackness, because it was always denial, growing up not seeing myself in books, films, and in the media. I feel like I connect with so much I try to translate that into my piece, and try to connect the blackness, try to look for the humanity, but to connect with everyone.”
Báez shared that same perspective. “In a similar way, it’s finding ways of bringing my personal experience and where I come from in dialogue with different mainstream histories that a lot of times do try to flatten who we are,”said Báez. “Sometimes you have go outside of what’s familiar or maybe migrate from your homeland to realize all the things you were, that you couldn’t say when you were there.”
“Actually, Firelei and I had a brief conversation about the way the diaspora has impacted our countries of origin, in fact, Juan Flores wrote a book called The Diaspora Strikes Back, which specifically deals with the ways in which the changes that we undergo in the United States, we take with us when we go visit back home, so this is constant moving back and forth. We have been engaging each other because ultimately we end up in the same spaces by necessity, we meet up with people, we look for places we are comfortable,” said Jiménez Román. “We have the experience of Afro-Mexicans in North Carolina passing Puerto Rican, because that way if they are not documented nobody is going to know, they will be passing because we’re citizens. One of the few things that Afro-Mexicans can look forward to is not being harassed, at least not as Afro-Mexicans, as undocumented, but they are harassed as black folks, which is why I want to bring it back to the political aspect of all of this. When David (David C. Brotherton, a scholar, who did a presentation on The Criminalization of the Immigrant and Deportation as a Theater of Cruelty) is talking about the deportation, the mass of picking up undocumented workers and the deportation processes that they go through, they have to be racially profiled for that to take place, and that’s ultimately where the issue comes in that we’re vulnerable because of what we look like, and the spaces that we occupy, they don’t stop everybody, so those are parts of the kinds of struggles that we have to engage in, I like the fact that artists are talking about these issues, but then how do you translate the artistic aspect into a political movement, a political engagement,” she added.
Báez responds, “I think a lot of times it’s that act of finding yourself, and seeing yourself in a space that you wouldn’t otherwise and finding your history there so that political movement starts within you, and you can’t be an active participant in an outside space if you don’t feel like you have a valid voice.” “You have to know who you are first, you see everything clearly when you have a distance, it is so interesting I became more Dominican after leaving, looking at it now from a distance, all those experiences made me accept it, and that’s the only way we can create a movement and then educate,” Garcia adds. “There are quiet gestures of protests and that can be when faced with a census checking four or five boxes something that I’ve done, or in language, paying attention to the language that you use and instead of “Yes, But” posing yourself in opposition, always do “Yes, And” so “Yes, I’m Dominican and Guatemalan”, but I also do believe in artwork as action, and taking political action through your work. I do think there is also direct political action through artwork, which as a Dominican, Guatemalan, Afro-Latino growing up in Queens it’s important to me to bring that to different spaces as a way to instigate how and why Black Lives Matter,” Leonardo said.
In addition to the panel discussion, a commemoration ceremony was held to celebrate the Schomburg Symposium’s 20th year anniversary. “We want to do a little bit of a historical overview, this is an event that we’ve consistently done, but we do it with very little resources and a lot of generosity from the people that agree to present, and we’re committed to sustaining it,” said Febo-San Miguel, Executive Director at Taller Puertorriqueño.
Evelyne Laurent-Perrault, Co-Founder of the Schomburg Symposium, describes vividly the day of the first symposium. “It was on February 22, 1997, we decided to do it in February to make the point that black history month is also to celebrate African heritage in Latinos. As with every event once organized, you’re always terrified how it’s going to be received especially because racism in the Latino community is a taboo subject, there is always the denial there is no racism in Latin America, so we had no idea if anybody was going to show up at all, 45 minutes before the event began, the place was packed to capacity at 100 people, Latinos, African-Americans, professors, scholars, students and people from the community. I could not believe how people wanted to really listen and engage, and traveled from New York to Washington for the event,” said Laurent-Perrault. “The board members who didn’t see the point of doing a program said, we have to continue this, this is the best event we have had in a very long time. Every year, it’s on a different theme, a different approach, we’ve covered music, body language, spirituality, religion, carnivals, mask making, cultural practices and ceremonies. I only put it together for four years with my co-workers, friends and partners, and after that a committee was created which is a volunteer committee and Carmen has been the Chair of that committee for the past 16 years, that’s how it began,” she adds.