As a New York City-born Haitian-American woman, I identify as Black, Caribbean-American and Afro-Latina. The latter seems to confuse people, including my fellow Latinx community, but it shouldn’t. That’s because Haiti, located on the western part of the island of Hispaniola, is a part of Latin America.
While many tie Latin America to the Spanish language, the region’s formation is historical, not linguistic. Latin America extends from Mexico down to the tip of South America and includes part of the Caribbean. It consists of countries in the Western Hemisphere that speak Spanish, French, Portuguese and multiple native tongues, which have all experienced several colonial encounters, genocide and Indigenous and African enslavement.
In fact, Haiti was the first independent nation in Latin America. In 1791, the enslaved Africans of the colony revolted, inspiring a 13-year struggle, which led to the official abolition of slavery and independence in 1804. The revolution was so important to its neighbors that in 1815, Venezuelan political and military leader Simón Bolívar, known as “El Libertador,” went to Haiti to receive arms from Haitian president Alexandre Pétion in an effort to liberate Gran Colombia — which included the territories of present-day Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama, northern Peru, western Guyana and northwest Brazil — from Spanish colonialism and enslavement.
The Haitian Revolution, deemed an impossible event in the eyes of European colonial powers, forever transformed the world, yet it would come at an enormous cost. To start, the French government requested billions of dollars for “repayment” from the Haitian state as severance for its “lost” colony. Even more, out of fear that other enslaved Africans would repeat these revolts, some Latin American and Caribbean nations ostracized Haiti. The idea of their own slaves revolting, loss of wealth and potentially becoming “another Haiti” was a price many were unwilling to pay. In response, several nations cut off trade with Haiti, and even the United States did not acknowledge its independence until after the 1860s.
So while Haiti, which shares Taino, Arawak, West African and European ancestry with its Caribbean Latinx neighbors, is a part of Latin America, its disconnection from the region is largely a result of its embrace of its African ancestry and its threat to plantation economies and European ideals.
Since my youth, I understood this and knew Haitian culture to be in conversation with Spanish-speaking Latin American and Caribbean nations. I grew up in a home where every Saturday and Sunday morning started with songs from Fania All-Stars, such as Celia Cruz, Héctor Lavoe and Ruben Blades, blasting out of the kitchen stereo as I completed my homework and chores. I learned that Cuba’s radio waves intercepted with those in Haiti, allowing my parents and grandparents’ generations to exchange political commentary, music and ideas across the region.
(Photo Credit: Richard Louissaint)
Language has never stopped Haitians from connecting to our neighbors. Even more, despite the assumption that we are a people that solely speak French, languages like Haitian Creole, Spanish and even English are a part of our daily lives. Still, regardless of our linguistic diversity, my Latin American counterparts remain shocked at my ability to speak Spanish. I’m often asked, “how did you learn to speak this language,” or “what do you know about Latin America,” as if Haiti were not a part of it.
This has not only been my experience on a personal level but also academically. Many Latin American and Caribbean studies departments fail to include Haitian studies and Haitian Creole. By linking the region to Spain, they often uplift Spanish, and certain indigenous languages, as representative of a “true Latin America.” In the rare event that Haiti is included in classroom discussions, it often drops out of the conversation following 1804, as if the Haitian Revolution is the nation’s only contribution to Latin American history.
With Haiti often unacknowledged as a Latin American country, its diaspora in the United States is similarly not recognized as Latinx. This is most evident in the immigration rights movement. While immigration is not solely a Latinx problem, non-Black Latinxs have become the face of the struggle. While numerous Asians, Africans, Caribbeans and even Black Latinxs are erased from the movement, we remain the subjects of racist and xenophobic backlash and policies. The Trump administration’s decision to conclude TPS for Haitians, in conjunction with Salvadorans and Hondurans, is telling of the reality that Haiti is a part of the United States’ backyard — Latin America.
With this history forgotten and present-day reality ignored, Haiti continues to be excluded and marginalized across the region. We have become typified as a “backwards” people defined by trauma, natural disasters and political unrest. Our embrace of African roots and resistance, in opposition to European and North American colonialism and imperialism, has been deemed a problem. And despite our efforts to help our sibling nations achieve freedom, we remain the literal black sheep of Latin America.
I identify as Afro-Latina because my family comes from an island in Latin America. I claim Afro-Latina identity to acknowledge the critical contributions Haiti has made throughout the region. I am Afro-Latina because my ancestors gave Latin Americans an alternative to enslavement. When I assert the term, I am declaring that every Independence Day Latinxs celebrate would not exist without Haiti. When I embrace the word, I am no longer allowing my fellow Latinxs to exclude Haiti and to deny this Black Latin American history.
I identify as Afro-Latina, simply, because I, like my Black Latinx family in the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Cuba, Panama, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Honduras, Peru, Costa Rica and beyond, am Afro-Latina — even if my country remains at the bottom of these collective nations.