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Calling Out Afro Latinx Identity

By Omar Eaton-Martínez, Assistant Division Chief, Historical Resources of the Maryland-National Capital Parks & Planning Commission

“Latinos... you are more (African) than you might think”

—Felipe Luciano, Activist, Journalist, and former Young Lord

Have you ever walked into a room and not been acknowledged? How did that make you feel? If you want to make someone feel like less than nothing you don’t have to berate them. All you have to do is look right through them as if they don’t exist. This is something Afro Latinx face regularly. I understand this because it is who I am.

I was born on December 1, 1972 in Washington D.C., to Alfonso and Ruth Eaton. My parents came to the diamond district of the United States mainland from Puerto Rico in the mid-1960s. My father was one of the first of many Puerto Ricans recruited by the National Aeronautics Space Administration in 1966. He had studied mechanical engineering at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez, formerly known as El Colegio or Colegio de Agricultura y Artes Mecánicas. My father was born and raised in Santurce, cerca de La Calle Loíza. My paternal grandmother, mi Abuelita Ramona, was born on the French island of Guadeloupe and came to Puerto Rico as a teenager. My paternal grandfather Abuelo Alonzo was from the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Thomas and settled in Puerto Rico as an adult after marrying my grandmother. Although these three family members did not all share the same shade of brown skin and hair texture, in the context of how the U.S. identifies race, it is safe to say all of them were black.

My mother was an educator in Puerto Rico and in Washington, D.C. She was part of the original staff of teachers that opened the first public bilingual elementary school in D.C. (maybe the entire east coast), Oyster Bilingual Elementary in the Woodley Park section of the city. She studied education at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, also known as La Yupi. She also was born and raised in Santurce, cerca de La Calle Loíza. My maternal grandparents were born on Vieques, the small island just east of the main island of Puerto Rico. My Abuelo Angel was a black man who fell in love with my Abuela Cecilia, who would be considered a white Puerto Rican. In 1998, my Tio Tonio took me around Vieques and showed me all the hiding spots where mis abuelos would go during their courting stage because it wasn’t acceptable for a black man and a white woman to be together in Vieques in those days.

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I give this brief description and background of my immediate family because one of the first questions I get from people when they find out I am Puerto Rican is, “Wait a second! You mean both of your parents are Puerto Rican?!” Of course the other awkward reaction is when someone hears me speak Spanish in a conversation. They always look at me like I just grew a second head on my shoulders. What is really awkward is I get this question and crazy looks from everyone: African Americans, U.S. Latinos, Latin Americans, white Americans, and everybody else who cares to know and/or react.

Who is black? Can a Puerto Rican be black? Are African Americans the only ones who are black in the United States? These questions seek to interrogate the notion that blackness can only be expressed through a singular lens. One way to examine this is to review how Afro Latinx are included in the inaugural exhibitions of the National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC). One inclusive curatorial practice to blur these lines of blackness is referred to as “Calling Out.” The curatorial practice of Calling Out is not just an act of inclusion, it is an act of solidarity.

The inclusion of Afro Latinx identity in the Smithsonian’s newest institution, arguably the world’s largest museum centering on the black experience, is of deep importance. It blurs the lines of blackness through the intersection of race and ethnicity. By allowing Afro Latinx and other Afro Diasporic narratives to be included, the inaugural exhibitions challenge whiteness as normal. Simultaneously, parts of the exhibitions contest African American as the only black identity in the United States.

In October 2016, I met with two NMAAHC curators to discuss Afro Latinx identity in the inaugural exhibitions: Michelle Wilkinson, who co-curated A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond, and Joanne Hyppolite, who curated Cultural Expressions. We spent much of our meeting talking about the major role the museum’s exhibition scripts played in Calling Out, bringing to light an Afro Latinx identity. An example Wilkinson used to illustrate this tactic was the text she drafted to accompany a photograph of Baseball Hall of Fame member Reggie Jackson. The label next to his picture says, “Reginald Martinez Jackson, a black American of Puerto Rican descent, hit three consecutive home runs for the New York Yankees in the 1977 World Series.”

Many Americans and baseball fans ethno-racially identify Reggie Jackson as African American. Wilkinson took this pivotal moment in baseball history to Call Out Jackson’s Puerto Rican heritage by making reference to his full name. The inclusion of his Spanish surname Martinez and of his Puerto Rican identity allows for visitors to view the Hall of Famer with a new lens. This lens advocates for the centering of Afro Latinx within the black narrative of the United States.

Although Calling Out is not a formal curatorial practice, it describes well the use of text to explain the multiplicity of identities that make up the Afro Diasporic communities in the United States. Wilkinson explained further, “Some of the topics we deal with include the international dimensions of the Black Power Movement and the changing demographics of cities in which black immigrants settled. So for [co-curator Bill Pretzer and I], we did intentionally try to Call Out places and people that might be connected to some of these themes. With A Changing America being within the history galleries, which really imagine how people became African American and what that means legally, socially, historically, experientially, etc. over time.” This resulted in Calling Out “the variety of identities within black America and that meant at times Calling Out individuals like Shirley Chisholm or Reggie Jackson, who had immediate roots outside the continental United States.

Typically, we did this by referring to places of origin for the individual or their parents.” Wilkinson noted how this practice has parallels in popular culture. “I see Calling Out as akin to the term representin’ as used in hip-hop vernacular, where people connect themselves to a place, with pride.”

When Hyppolite first began work at the museum, one of her tasks was to begin a list of Called Out texts for Afro Diasporic communities. This included Afro Latinx identity for the culture galleries of the museum. She noted in an email exchange, “I’ll speak for myself and say that there’s no formal curatorial practice as far as I know for using the term Calling Out in the way that I did it during our conversation. And I don’t think that I was using it with some intentional consciousness either.” But, she reflected, “I can see some of the hidden connections there with the practice of Calling Out people and the places that they are from in black cultures. In my own culture,” she continued, “the first few sentences of a new conversation with people you just met is always about who your people are and what part of the island you’re from. Placing you in this way seems to help people understand you better because seemingly you are always more than just who you are in front of them. And where you are from has also seemingly shaped you in some way that it’s important for them [visitors] to understand.” Having curators like Hyppolite and Wilkinson, who identify with their Caribbean roots, allows the NMAAHC to develop curatorial methodologies like Calling Out that could possibly exist outside of the black/white binary tradition.

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For me, being Afro Latino has allowed me to develop a lens that allows me to read blackness and latinidad with a discriminating eye. Calling Out is a practice that I have used in my own personal identity as a method to bring to light what the traditional American lens cannot see.
In order to gain this acceptance, my parents and I made the decision to hyphenate my last name the end of my junior year in high school in anticipation that this would help increase my options of going to the college of my choice. Although both my parents were born and raised in Puerto Rico, only my mother had a Spanish surname, Martínez. It is common practice in Puerto Rico, and other Latino countries for people to hyphenate their surnames. Just like that, I went from Omar Eaton to Omar Eaton-Martínez.

Now ask me, “Did it work?” Well, I eventually decided to accept the offer to attend the University of Maryland, College Park. They asked me to fill out a questionnaire asking me to self-identify. I decided to write “Afro Puerto-Rican” in the “Other” section. Shortly into my first semester, I noticed that all my Latino friends would get letters from the Hispanic Student Union about social activities and my African American friends would get flyers from the Black Student Union. I only received them from the Hispanic Student Union. After much thought I figured out that they must have chosen Hispanic for me. This was just another reminder of my invisibility as an Afro Latino.
The Great Migration, an exhibition within the NMAAHC gallery entitled Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation, 1876-1968, contains a section called Coming to the United States. It Calls Out the Caribbean migration narrative. On this panel is the story of my father Alfonso M. Eaton. The migration story of my parents coming from a paradigm of racial democracy in Puerto Rico to a very rigid black American/white American binary influenced my racial self-concept as a youth. I overcame the invisibility of my Afro Latino identity through education. For this reason, I have chosen to research how Afro Puerto Ricans identified with their blackness. This process empowered me because I was able to come to a better understanding about my heritage by researching and complementing it with my experiences growing up with my parents in the States and visiting family in Puerto Rico during the summer.

I Called Out my own identity when applying to college. I am thankful for the NMAAHC for doing so in its exhibits. I am interested to see how other institutions take up the mantle of Calling Out.

First published in the AASLH History News magazine.

Stephanie Cunningham