Panelists discuss importance of digital communication in preserving culture

By Alaina Goldberg, Staff Writer

For Bianca Laureano, the perception of Afro-Latinx people is very limited in the United States, as many only know of the community through famous Afro-Latinx celebrities like Casilda de Luna, a Dominican actress, and Roberto Clemente, a Puerto Rican baseball player.

Laureano, co-founder of the LatiNegrxs Project, said being Afro-Latinx is a much more complex identity, one often overlooked in both Black and Latinx communities.

“Afro-Latinx history barely ever included people who were authors, philosophers or even parents — regular people,” Laureano said. “We wanted to shift the focus to what it looks like to represent people everyday who are choosing how they want to represent themselves.”

Laureano spoke, along with a panel of Afro-Latinx scholars and digital curators, at the “Transnational Dialogues in Afrolatinidad – Digital Afrolatinidad” virtual webinar on Friday. Hosted by the Africana Studies department and supported by the Afro-Latinx Studies Initiative, the panel discussed contemporary social issues and identity.

The panelists highlighted the importance of learning the history behind Afro-Latinx culture and creating educational digital archives. The webinar specifically focused on digital communication and content creation among Afro-Latinx individuals to discuss important issues in their community.

Laureano said she began the LatiNegrxs Project on Tumblr in 2013 to change the way in which her community is often viewed.

“Our views were not always welcomed or included,” Laureano said. “We are still challenged a lot today and our page remains as the only youth-focused platform of LatiNegrxs.”

Laureano said her project focuses on the exclusion of Latinx people in the celebration of Black history, as well as the impact that they currently have on the community.

“We ask, who are the young people leading activism [for Latinx and Black people] today?” Laureano said.

Manuel Mendez, president of the DC AfroLatino Caucus, hosts the Las Caras Lindas podcast. The podcast explores the intersection of Blackness in Latinx communities, and aims to shed light on neglected and untold stories of Afro-Latinx people.

“Caras lindas means ‘beautiful faces’ in Spanish,” Mendez said. “[The] podcast is trying to advocate for those who are Black in the Latinx community, who aren’t usually seen in the community.”

Mendez said he often engages in intergenerational conversations with elders and millennials to talk about different challenges they have had with topics such as immigration and multicultural identity.

“This is one of the first projects I conducted,” Mendez said. “One of the topics we talked about were the Afro-Cubans in Washington, D.C., and the reasons why they came to the United States before the revolution and created a community here in the U.S.”

Mendez said he wants to create a safe space to conduct interviews of Afro-Latinx people.

Another topic discussed by the panel involved the forced migration of Africans to Western countries. Keila Grinberg, a history professor at Pitt, specializes in the study of slavery and race in the Atlantic World.

Grinberg, co-director of the public digital history project “Present Pasts: Memories of Slavery in Brazil,” said her most recent research project examines 19th-century cases of kidnapping and illegal enslavement on the southern Brazilian border.

“We want to gain a connection with the people who keep the memories of those who have been enslaved in Brazil alive,” Grinberg said. “The Atlantic trade of enslaved Africans to the Americas is considered by the United Nations as a crime against humanity.”

Laureano said at the beginning, it was challenging to give another “narrative” for those who have migrated to the United States. According to Laureano, it was a struggle for some people in the Black community to use the word LatiNegrxs, because it challenged their identity as a Black Latinx person.

“There was targeted violence that came towards our page, including anti-Blackness rhetoric once we began using the name LatiNegrxs,” Laureano said.

Laureano said the page has grown to become a “beautiful platform” that is used to archive Black Latinx history across recent years.

Spreading awareness on issues within the Afro-Latinx community, along with culture through digital media, was a common theme during the panel. Eduard Arriaga, an associate professor within the cross-cultural studies department at the University of Indianapolis, said much of his work and expertise involves racial representations, language and technology, digital humanities, diversity and inclusion and Afro-Latinx and Black cultural productions.

“I am trying to understand how Afro-Latinx communities go with the flow of developing technology while also gaining a level of resistance towards this change,” Arriaga said.

Grinberg said the African presence in Brazil left an invaluable legacy that is now officially recognized in various cultural elements of the country, including Jongo dance and music from the country’s southeastern regions. According to the Passados Presentes website, several million Africans were transported to Brazil in the 19th century.

“The key aspect of this project is the collaboration,” Grinberg said. “Technology gets old very fast, and we need to learn how to do our work in a sustainable way.”

Grinberg said she doesn’t want the project to just make it possible for communities to keep memories alive, and instead hopes it can be helpful for people who can use the information as resources.

According to Arriaga, a “digital movement” exists within the Afro-Latinx community, which focuses on how the use of technology and digital communication creates and shapes identities. Arriaga said the Afro-Latinx identity includes complex intersectional identities.

“I see the complex emergence of identities connected to national attachments and migrations,” Arriga said. “Afro-Latinx cannot be reduced to posting images to commemorate Black culture in America.”