Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 is Hispanic Heritage Month, and the International Society of Black Latinos (ISBL) will participate in a number of different celebrations.
ISBL is a Los Angeles- based organization whose mission is to educate the broader community about the cultural and historical richness of the African Diaspora in Latin America and the presence of vibrant Afro-Latino communities in the U.S. According to ISBL founder Juanita V. Palacios- Sims, in the Los Angeles area the Afro-Latino community consists of people from Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Nicaragua, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Puerto Rico. “It’s hard to say how big the community is, because with Black Latinos, there is no box, we can check off and say we’re Black Latinos. I normally check Black, Latino or other depending on my mood,” said Palacios-Sims laughingly. She is of Cuban and Colombian descent and because of the bullying she endured as a child, by high school had totally eliminated her accent and identified as African American.
Invisibility is one of the burdens she said Afro-Latinos in the United States face, especially in Southern California. “Every time we walk out and are speaking Spanish, people look at us like we’re alien, especially in Southern California. They also ask ‘why do you speak Spanish,’’ Palacios-Sims says, pointing in particular to one incident she experienced in a Inglewood store.
“A young lady, Latina, was stocking the shelves, and myself and two other girlfriends (Afro-Latino) walked in speaking Spanish. I asked her in Spanish, where I could find such and such, and she didn’t answer. I finally asked her do you not speak Spanish. She said ‘Yes I speak Spanish; were you speaking Spanish? ”Incredulous, Palacios-Sims spoke to the young lady again in Spanish, and she responded by asking “why are you speaking Spanish?” I find that if you (Afro-Latinos) speak to Latin folks in Spanish, they answer you in English. ”She said this is particularly true in Southern California yet not even an issue in places like Miami or New York.That reality combined with the invisibility she experienced prompted Palacios-Sims to found ISBL. Among the activities the organization does is conduct workshops in schools that educate about Afro Latinos and in the process, Palacios-Sims says she has had the heartbreaking experience of children who were mixed Black and Latino coming up and asking if they were Afro Latino?
Educating these youngsters and teaching that they can be a bridge between the African American and Latino communities is part of what ISBL is all about. Additionally, helping Black and Latino youth and people see their similarities (i.e. food, music, culture, names and much more) in the process eliminating the fear between the two groups is another key; Palacios-Sims says she also wants to let young people know that they do not need to choose one or the other, but should embrace that they have the best of all worlds; they are Black, Latino and American.