What do Cardi B, Rosie Perez, Kid Cudi, and Maxwell all have in common? They are a part of the growing Afro-Latino population that’s estimated to be about 6 million in the US and should be widely celebrated as part of Hispanic Heritage Month which is recognized from Sept 15 to Oct. 15.
Afro Latino/a/x generally refers to people who have ties to countries/territories such as Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Panama, Cuba, Brazil, etc. Many people from these areas who speak Spanish and have darker skin or more African features will identify as Afro Latino. Just with African Americans, colorism (skin tone) can be an issue among Afro-Latino families. A significant population throughout Mexico and the US also identifies as Afro-Mexican or Blaxican – Mexican and Black.
In 2015, Mexico for the first time allowed people to choose “Black” as a race in its national survey. It’s estimated that a little over 1.38 million people identified as Black. Pew Research Center, which has done a series of articles on the Afro-Latino community in the last several years, said that Afro-Mexicans still face invisibility because of the legacy of Spanish dominance and colonial anti-blackness.
Just last year, award-winning playwright and filmmaker Lin-Manuel Miranda’s movie “In the Heights” shone a light on the very diverse Afro-Latino community in New York but drew criticism since some of the main characters were light-skinned. Despite the criticism, it told a story that weaved many cultures together that were proud of their family’s origins but immigration issues were an underlying issue in the movie. Just recently in Texas, San Antonio is seeing an influx of people migrating from Venezuela. Pew Research said the South American countries with the largest Afro-descendants are Brazil, Dominican Republic, and Venezuela.
Latin America’s ties with slavery run deep. Pew’s data said that about 15 times as many African slaves were taken to Spanish and Portuguese colonies than to the US. More research suggests that about 130 million people of African descent live in Latin America, and they make up roughly a quarter of the region’s total population, according to recent estimates from the Project on Ethnicity and Race in Latin America (PERLA) at Princeton University.
When analyzing the demographics of the Afro-Latino population, Pew Research found that this community tends to be younger and less likely to attend college and earn a degree. In 2020, three-in-ten Afro-Latino adults were ages 18 to 29, compared with two in ten of all US adults. Also through a series of survey questions, Pew Research found that Afro-Latinos are more likely than other Latinos to report being unfairly stopped by police.
Cuban American actor Laz Alonso, the star of the TV series “The Boys,” said in a 2020 Revolt magazine article about why he thinks there’s such a debate on the definition of Afro Latino.
“There is a re-education that has to take place whereas Black people from all over Latin America understand that they are Black, you know?” he said to Revolt. “If you want to call yourself mulatto, okay, but guess what? That means you’re still Black, you’re just a lighter version of Black. I think that’s what’s happening right now is that a lot of Afro-Latinos are awakening. They’re dealing with an awakening of their Afro-Latino-ness and understanding that the stuff that their grandparents were told to believe was not true.”
The Face of Sickle Cell: Kyra and Kami Crawford
It’s not uncommon for Dana Jones to be in the emergency room. While talking with her for this story, Dana was in the ER with her 19-year-old daughter, Kami Crawford, who suffers from Sickle Cell Disease or SCD.
Kami had a lingering cough and Dana wanted to make sure it didn’t turn into deadly acute chest syndrome before Kami returned to her journalism studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
This ER visit is a part of the lifestyle of the Jones and Crawford family. Dana’s youngest daughter, Kyra Crawford, 17, also suffers from SCD. Dana first found out about her girls’ diagnoses from a letter that the state sent. That prick that babies get in the bottom of their heels when they are first born turned out to be positive first for Kami and then Kyra. Dana and her ex-husband were carriers of the sickle cell trait, which increased the chances for their daughters. The American Red Cross says most people with sickle cell trait do not experience symptoms of the disease.
To help Kami and Kyra lead normal lives they get monthly blood transfusions (sometimes every three weeks) to help prevent sickle cell complications, such as organ and tissue damage, severe pain, and strokes. Together, the girls have already had three strokes.
Dana said in addition to the physical torture her girls go through, the family has endured mental and financial stress. During the pandemic, Dana and her girls joined the Lemonade Circle, which is a leadership group for young girls. On Sept. 17, the Lemonade Circle organized a blood drive to support Kami and Kyra.
“There have been a few times where they both have been in the hospital,” said Dana. “We are always in survival mode and we can’t predict stuff. Every three weeks, I drive to Austin for her blood transfusion to help her get through the next few days.”
Sickle cell disease was first discovered in 1910 when a Black student from Chicago College of Dental Surgery fell sick. When his blood was examined, the red blood cells had a strange shape, like the letter ‘S,’ hence the name. Round red blood cells can travel through blood vessels easily, but the sickle cells become rigid and sticky, which can slow or block blood flow.
Although sickle-cell disorder affects nearly triple times as many individuals as cystic fibrosis, charitable foundations have donated nearly 100 times more money for other disease treatments, like Lou Gehrig’s disease, than donations for sickle cell.
One out of every 366 Black newborns is diagnosed with the ailment, according to the CDC which predicts that sickle-cell disease affects about 100,000 Americans. While 1 in 13 Black or African-American babies is born with sickle cell trait, SCD also impacts Hispanic-Americans from Central and South America, people of Middle Eastern, Asian, Indian, and Mediterranean descent.
There are only a few sickle-cell drugs with FDA approval. However, gene therapy advancements can make sickle-cell disease not only manageable but also curable.
Dana said she calls every few months to check if her girls have moved up the multiple lists they are on for clinical trials.
“We are very much interested, but it’s not that easy,” Dana adds. “A lot of trials start with adults first but now some of these trials have been around for a little bit longer and they are starting to open up to teenagers and younger people.”
Gene editing companies may get an assist from the Biden administration which announced . . .
But Dana admits it’s a long waiting game because one trial that seemed promising abruptly ended when several of the patients were getting different forms of cancer.
So far modifying a patient’s DNA utilizing gene-editing technology seems promising but trials are still ongoing and tracking patients for side effects. The technique’s creators, CRISPR Therapeutics and Vertex Pharmaceuticals reported in June of this year that in the majority of their treated patients, their innovative therapy is alleviating symptoms.
Gene editing companies may get an assist from the Biden administration which announced in August of this year that the FDA recently approved new drug therapies to help patients manage their pain. Through its “Cure Sickle Cell Initiative,” the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is also striving to develop effective genetic therapies and has invited researchers to apply for funding to support large-scale clinical trials.
Along with the NIH, the American Red Cross wants to increase blood donations from Black donors who play a critical role in helping people with SCD since their blood matches up better with someone of the same race. African Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population, but less than 3% of blood donors.
The New York Times featured the sisters last year in its publication and said both girls’ strokes could have been prevented if they were screened and received proven treatment that stops most strokes in children with the disease. Since Kyra and Kami have been seeing a new doctor as of 2019, they are both now getting yearly stroke screenings.
The Times said, “Kyra’s strokes are a striking case study of the broad national failure to provide even the most basic treatments to people with sickle cell. Faulty care and sluggish research are symptoms of what sickle cell specialists say is the deplorable legacy of neglect of Americans with the disease.”
While Kami is now a freshman at UT and was active in playing volleyball and dance in high school, Dana’s youngest daughter, Kyra, spent most of her sixth grade in hospitals and was put in a medically-induced coma for one of her strokes. Kyra is home-schooling and is trying to catch up on her schoolwork to earn her high school diploma.
Afro-Mexican in Texas and Mexico
In the context of the history of slavery in the Americas, the term free Blacks initially refers specifically to people of mixed African and European descent who were not slaves. This is also the case for many African Americans that helped the slave owners gain independence from Mexico. For example, Hendrick Arnold was of mixed ancestry and did the bidding of Texas slave owners by owning slaves himself. However, racial classifications were numerous in Mexico and many were free under the orders of the Afro-Mexican President Vicente Guerrero. Additionally, Victor Blanco, possibly an Afro-Mexican, or of Afro-Spaniard descent was the “mayor” of San Antonio during the time Spain ruled Mexico and before 1821.
Texas was a part of the Republic of Mexico from 1821 until 1826. Texas became a pro-slavery state in 1845. Blanco was elected the first vice governor under the Constitution of Coahuila and Texas, effectively making him the head official in San Antonio for a time. Recent Mexican reports indicate that nearly two million Mexicans identify with African ancestry.
A note about “Sambos” and “Uncle Toms,” or those who betrayed their own people, is important here. A few Blacks aided the Texas slave owners. Samuel McCulloch Jr., Henrick Arnold, and William Ashworth all worked in support of the oppression of their own people. A statue recently erected to honor Hendrick Arnold does not tell the whole story. He can hardly be described as a hero since he supported slavery even though he was part Black. Furthermore, both Arnold and Ashworth owned Black slaves themselves since they had white parents. They would fight against the free Afro-Mexicans who opposed slavery. McCulloch considered a mulatto, would have been treated better by some whites given his white father. The term “mulatto” comes from the Spanish and means mule, a racist term associating Black people with animals. In 1827, Arnold had a daughter with a slave named Dolly. Shamefully, Arnold held his own daughter Harriet as a slave. All the while this was going on free Afro-Mexicans were fighting as free men for General Santa Anna’s Mexican army and against the likes of these traitorous mulatto slave owners.
There is much ado about the Blacks that fought for the slave owners during the struggle to rip Texas away from Mexico, but little is said about the Afro-Mexicans that fought for Santa Anna against the Texas slave owners. Despite the painting of General Santa Anna as a supervillain he freed slaves wherever he went. Vicente Guerrero’s oldest daughter was the goddaughter of Santa Anna. The General knew that the inexperienced defenders would flee and so may have designed a plan to attack the north wall and leave the other walls partially open so that when the defenders attempted an escape, they would be ambushed by Black Mexican lancers of the Los Morenos Libre de Vera Cruz (The Free Black of Veracruz) unit.
After Mexico was defeated, slavery was once again instituted. Blacks were a population that was subjected to harsh plantation and farm life along the banks of the San Antonio River and the local creeks as pro-slavery southerners flooded into the state. Slave farms dotted the landscape with at least three slave-owning farms in the northern sector of Bexar County. There were slave farms in the southern sector in and near the Applewhite and Mitchell Lake areas, and on the near Southside in later years. One such slave plantation was on the near Northside just west of Broadway Street in San Antonio.
According to Father Juan Morfi (1778), the mission at San Saba, just 140 miles northwest of San Antonio, reported that 151 Blacks, some of whom were Afro-Indian were located within the mission walls during the 1700s. What is often ignored or erased were the cultural influences of the original Canary Island population by Berber, Black, Islamic, and Moorish customs and traditions. This is seen with the whistle language (Silbo) which was adopted by the Spanish colonial settlers but is clearly Moorish, North African or Berber in origin. Much of the original African customs and traditions of the original inhabitants of these islands, off the coast of Africa, were Hispanicized, and their origins were purposefully erased from history. Thus, a clearly defined Afro-Mexican population began to develop.
Blacks in San Antonio have many origins, including being both free and slaves. A review of the slave records from the 1700s also reveals that some of the Canary Islanders and Spaniards were slave owners or pro-slavery men. Records compiled at the Institute of Texan Cultures show that in the 1700s in Bexar County, Afro-Mexican, Afro-Indian, and Afro-Spaniard slaves were being sold. Because of their Spanish surnames little has been analyzed to document the entire slave system under Spanish rule in San Antonio and how they eventually became Afro-Mexicans. Examples of Afro-Mexicans being sold as slaves in early Bexar County can be found in the general manuscript series, 1603-1803 and are given as statistical census reports from that era. The record tells this story: San Antonio de Bexar and Villa of San Fernando – There is recorded a bill of sale between Maria Josefa Flores de Valdes and Justo Boneo y Morales for Negro slave named Luis . . . Villa of San Fernando and Presidio of San Antonio de Bexar. Another record shows a bill of sale between Gil Ibarvo and Angel Navarro for Negro slave Juana (Afro-Mexican). Also, in what was called San Antonio de Bexar and Villa of San Fernando de Austria, a bill of sale between Juan Andres Alvarez Traviezo and Facundo Mansolo for a mulatto slave named Maria de los Dolores was recorded.
Prior to 1829, Mexico had a slave system under the Spanish. Spain used Afro-Mexican soldiers and conquistadors during its rule as a colonial power. During the Deiz y Seiz celebration, Afro-Mexican President Vicente Guerrero abolished slavery and the Racial Casta System. Ironically, during the same year, a Black Mexican named José Francisco Laviña asked the mayor of San Antonio to free his wife being held as a slave in Bexar County. In the white slave-owning colonies of Texas, Moses Austin had brought with him 400 Black slaves into the original colony. Some of them escaped to Mexico and developed Afro-Mexican families and communities. After his death, Stephen F. Austin, a pro-slavery man, tried to convince.
Mexico to accept slavery, but Mexico made the argument that all children born of slaves are born free. Hence, many Blacks saw an opportunity for freedom by becoming Mexicans. Austin was sent to Mexico and a scheme was developed in which whites would abandon slavery in favor of an indentured servant system. Mexico soon discovers that this system was for 99 years and not seven. General Santa Anna having felt hoodwinked was ready for war. The scheme seems to have been developed by the slave owner James Morgan and William Travis. Morgan is most likely the man that created the myth that Emily West (Morgan) was a slave.
Mexican President Vicente Guerrero abolished slavery on September 15, 1829. Very few are aware that the abolition of Mexican slavery took place during the celebrations of Diez y Seis (September 16 or the Mexican Independence Day), which makes it a day for Blacks to celebrate as well. Through ethnocide and the erasure of African contributions, this holiday has been sanitized of its Black contributions. Deiz y Seiz, is as much a Black holiday as it is a Mexican holiday. Many historians believe that the abolition of slavery in Mexico (Texas) was the driving force behind the Texas-Mexico wars of 1836 and 1846. According to researchers Campbell (1989), and De Leon (1983), Anglo economic prosperity was linked to the idea that Texas should be free from Mexico to maintain and expand the institution of slavery.
Tuskegee Airmen: Soaring to Excellence
In the year 1925, the United States War Department issued a statement that Black Americans were incapable of handling anything dealing with advanced technology. The report further stated that, “Negroes could not control themselves in face of danger, they were physically unfit for combat duty, and they were inferior in intelligence and resourcefulness to whites.” One of the primary reasons for issuing this report was to keep Blacks from becoming pilots. This report generated a concentrated attack from the NAACP, the Urban League, and other Black leaders. They insisted that Blacks were just as capable as whites in battlefield situations and pointed to the overwhelming success of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment during the Civil War and the success of the Buffalo Soldiers in many battles including the Teddy Roosevelt-led Battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish American War. They also pointed to the success of the 369th Infantry Regiment better known as the “Harlem Hellfighters” during World War I.
Negroes could not control themselves in face of danger, they were physically unfit for combat duty, and . . .
Due to the insistence of Black leaders the United States Congress passed the Civilian Pilot Act in 1939, which gave six African American schools the opportunity to start programs in aviation if they did not already have one. Tuskegee Institution did have such a program. In January 1941, the War Department formed the all-Black 99th Pursuit Squadron to be trained at the Tuskegee Army Airfield in Tuskegee, Alabama. Initially Black leaders and especially Black newspapers opposed the segregated base for the training, but despite their opposition President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved the opening of the segregated facility in Tuskegee.
The first class of trained pilots formed the 99th Pursuit Squadron and graduated in March 1942. They flew their first mission on June 2, 1943, an aerial attack on an Italian target in the Mediterranean Sea. Later that year, the army activated three more trained squadrons with the 99th to form the 332nd Fighter Group. This group not only carried out attacks on enemy targets but also served as escorts to bomber airplanes. On one particular escort mission to Berlin, Germany, they shot down three German ME Jet fighter planes, the first jets operated in the war, and damaged five additional planes. It was a feat never matched by any other escort planes.
They were so good at protecting the bombers the story goes that one bomber group flying in from a mission, communicated with another group going out on a mission and asked who was their escort? The group replied, “the Red Tails” (the nickname given to 332nd fighters) and the response was “we’ll see all of you back here this evening.” The fact being that the bomber group returning to the base had been protected by the Red Tails, and it had been so superior that they knew their fellow pilots would all return to the base unharmed. These Black pilots who had been deemed mentally incapable to fly fighter planes, were sought out by white pilots flying bomber missions as their protectors. Throughout their time involved in protecting the bombers, they had the lowest loss record during the entire war.
Extremely satisfied with the performance of the 332nd fighters, the War Department began to train Black pilots to manage bombers. In January 1944, they took the inactivated white 477th Bombardment Group, activated it and assigned it to the Black pilots to operate. Within four months, they were ready to fly missions but never did get the opportunity to do so. Instead, they were stationed at Freeman Field in Indiana for the duration of the war.
Once again, Black soldiers proved that all the negative assessments of their ability to fight were wrong, be it on the ground or in the air. A total of 992 pilots were trained and flew 179 bomber escort missions and lost bombers on only seven of those missions and a total of twenty-seven bombers overall compared to an average of forty-six from white escort planes. They flew 15,533 sorties and destroyed 261 enemy aircraft. The Tuskegee Airmen lost only sixty-six pilots and thirty-two were taken prisoner of war during the entire World War II. Daniel Chappie James, the nation’s first Black four-star general was one of the pilots. The commander of the 332nd was Benjamin O. Davis, who graduated with the first class of pilots, and went on to become their commander. He eventually received the rank of brigadier general, the first Black American to do so.
Their legacy lives on with the fifty-six Tuskegee Airmen chapters throughout the United States and one in the Virgin Islands. Rick Sinkfield a member of the San Antonio Chapter has written regarding the 992 pilots, “While fighting fascism overseas, the Tuskegee Airmen proved their commitment and worth to America in time of war. In doing so, they planted the seed for the Civil Rights Movement from which all Americans have benefited.” Their work and sacrifice played a significant role in President Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9981 that integrated the United States military. In March 2007, President George. W. Bush presented the Congressional Gold Medal to the three hundred Airmen at a ceremony in the White House. Finally, former President Barack Obama wrote that his career in public service was made possible by the path of heroes like the Tuskegee Airmen trailblazer.
These great men soared to excellence and proved that the 1925 War Department statement was an enormous misreading of the outstanding ability of Black Americans in all realms of the military, and in any other field they choose to pursue as careers.
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