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Confronting Anti-Blackness In Milwaukee's Latino Community

Samer Ghani
A sign from a Milwaukee protest after the murder of George Floyd in early June 2020 in Spanish that reads, Your fight is my fight.

Latinos in the United States and in Latin America comprise many races: like white, Black, Asian and Indigenous. This summer, after the police killing of George Floyd there was a push of solidarity among many Latinos for Black lives. Mexican flags and signs in Spanish were frequent at protests in Milwaukee.

However, many Latinos in the city say while the protests were a step forward, there is still a lot of work to be done regarding sentiments of anti-Blackness in the community.

Joan Mari Luciano Vargas is a mixed race Puerto Rican woman who lives on the north side of Milwaukee. She’s light-skinned compared to her Black, Puerto Rican mother.

Credit Courtesy of Joan Mari Luciano Vargas
Joan Mari Luciano Vargas

“I was raised with braids, always on my hair with head wraps on just like the one that I have right now. It is something that was cultural and it was something that was normal. Especially coming from my mom, who is a Black woman with Black hair," recalls Luciano Vargas.

When Luciano Vargas came to the United States as a young child, her classmates started to challenge how she presented herself and her Blackness.

“I should be having a different kind of hairstyle, maybe I just should change so that I'm able to look the way that I'm supposed to," she says. "I will tell my mom, 'Can we like flat iron my hair so we can make my hair straight?'”

According to Professor Stephanie Rivera-Berruz of Marquette University, the pressure to erase Blackness and assimilate to whiteness is not an uncommon thing, but rather something that is rooted in the European colonial history of Latin America, where anti-Blackness was created to justify white colonialism.

"This history, when we look at it more closely, we recognize that race, the valuation of people based on their phenotypes, where the lighter you are is valued over the darkness of skin, is really produced by the colonial project in order to justify itself," explains Rivera-Berruz.

Angelica Rocha is an educator, artist and a non-Black Mexican woman who lives in Milwaukee. She says she’s witnessed, first hand, anti-Blackness within the Latino community.

"As unfortunate as it is, anti-Blackness is something I've seen ever since I was a child. I feel that it has been hinted to Latino youth from a young age like, 'Oh, don't ever date a Black person or don't date outside your race if they have a darker skin complexion',” says Rocha. 

The perpetuation of anti-Blackness in how Latinos are taught they should select their partners or spouses is also common says Rivera-Berruz, who specializes in philosophy of race, gender and sexuality.

"The preferences for lighter skinnedness, as well as the values that are attached to that light skin, then get taken up as what should be the norms of how we ought to look, how we ought to behave, how we ought to speak, how we ought to conduct our intimate and personal lives," she says.

According to Jacobo Lovo, director of Latino Arts in Milwaukee, the absence of Black representation in arts, music and film is another clear example of how anti-Blackness is perpetuated in the Latino community.

“To really, really acknowledged that omission, or failing to recognize and give due recognition to the influences that come from Africa in our own Hispanic culture is something that we really need to own up to, and, and study a little bit more reflect on," says Lovo.

In an effort to educate the local community about the African influences in Latin America, Latino Arts will be puting on a virtual event titled "Rooted in the Afro-Latin American Heritage" on February 11.

“It's going to be this amazing conversation about how the influence of the African diaspora continues to exist within the Caribbean and Latin America. But then we're going to take a really close look of the different traditions that we might not be cognizant of, or not realize how heavily influenced they are by those African roots," says Lovo.

Lovo invites both Latinos and non-Latinos to the event to develop a deeper and more complete understanding of the Latino community through engaging with people through the arts. 

Angelina Mosher Salazar joined WUWM in 2018 as the Eric Von Broadcast Fellow. She was then a reporter with the station until 2021.
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