Earlier this year, Yvette Rodríguez attended a talk about Afro-Cuban history, culture and experience at a college in Miami. The information was educational but Rodríguez found one element of the gathering a bit shocking.
All the speakers on the panel were white.
“It’s a talk about the Afro-Cuban experience and they could not find a historian, a teacher, a black Cuban person who would also sit on that panel,” Rodríguez said. “That means that the contact network for the people who organized the event, or of the panelists, does not include Afro-Cubans who can talk about these issues. That has to change.”
Rodríguez, a businesswoman and public relations specialist, knows that there are qualified professionals in the community who can tell the stories of Afro-Latinos. But whenever she makes this observation she hears the same question: Where are these people?
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After hearing that question “too many times”, Rodríguez decided to take action. Last week, together with her twin sister Yvonne Rodríguez and Miami attorney Yoel Molina, they celebrated the first meeting for the newly formed group Afro-Latino Professionals, a network that seeks to “expand and enhance” the visibility of Afro-Latinos.
“We exist. We are doctors, business owners, accountants, journalists, educators, writers, artists. We are here,” Rodríguez said. “Maybe we have integrated [into American society] in such a way that people assume we are African-American. But I think it’s important that we take ownership of our stories, that we control the narrative.
“Ya está bueno, ya,” she said. “Enough is enough.”
Among the participants in the the recent gathering, which took place at CubaOcho, an art gallery and restaurant on Calle Ocho, were a Puerto Rican professor from Florida International University, a Haitian-American photographer and entrepreneur, a Guyanese art curator, a Dominican educator and communicator and Cuban sociologists, accountants and lawyers.
The professionals shared their stories of success, talked about their projects and the challenges faced by Afro-Latinos in the United States.
Yvette and Yvonne Rodríguez, for example, are perhaps the first Afro-Cuban women to make their way as entrepreneurs in the tobacco industry in Miami. Four years ago, they opened their cigar company Tres Lindas Cubanas and have since traveled to Cuba to learn about the tobacco industry on the island. During their travels to the island, they learned that most of the people who make cigars in Cuba are black women. However, people like them aren’t business owners or the face of the industry.
“We were interviewed about our business and getting all this coverage in large part because we are Black Cuban women who own a cigar company,” Yvonne Rodríguez said. “We realized that we have a powerful platform and we must use it to give a voice to others.”
The Rodríguez sisters and the other members of the group are aware that this lack of presence in the academic, business, medical and other fields is due in part to the legacy of slavery, oppression and poverty in Latin America, which is similar to the United States. This reality has represented obstacles in the path toward success for Afro-Latinos, for whom it has historically been more difficult to obtain a higher education and enter professional fields.
According to a report published by the United Nations, there are about 150 million Afro-descendants in Latin America and this population is generally the most marginalized racial group. Both indigenous and Afro-descendant communities live in the poorest areas and have less access to quality education. The majority also do not own property or have the money to start businesses.
That legacy is also part of the history of Afro-Latino immigrants and their descendants in the United States.
For Yoel Molina, a lawyer who helped create the new network with the Rodríguez sisters, this type of organization is important because it facilitates mentoring and connection between people who share similar experiences.
“Growing up in Miami as a black Cuban is a very unique experience,” said Molina, 43, who studied at Miami Senior High School. “People who are not Cuban asked me how I could be Cuban and black, because they did not understand that there were black Cubans. However, from other Cubans what I got was: ‘Oh, so you are Cuban?’”
Molina said he was pleased with the turnout at the first Afro-Latino Professionals meeting: about 25 people participated. In Miami as in other U.S. cities where he has lived, Molina said he has met many Afro-Latinos who simply didn’t identify as black. That’s something he’s had to deal with since he was a child.
“I would see a black and Latino person, like me, and suddenly that person would say ‘I’m not black, I’m jabao’. I asked my mom what ‘jabao’ was and she said, ‘Ah, that means a person who is not black or white,’” Molina recalled, laughing.
“Qué, qué?” (Say what?)
“Imagine, I was 11 years old and I had to decipher the meaning of that,” Molina added. “I think things have changed since and something like [the Afro-Latino Professionals network] is long overdue.”
Follow Brenda Medina on Twitter: @BrendaMedinar