Afro-Latinx: Crossing Cultures, Identities, and Experiences

Discover how Afro-Latinx activists, educators, writers, artists, musicians, and athletes represented at the National Portrait Gallery have contributed to U.S. culture and history.

By Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

I'm Big Papi (2008) by Freddy RodríguezSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Afro-Latinx roots stem from the intersection of European colonialism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Today, one fourth of the Latinx population in the United States identifies as “Afro-Latino, Afro-Caribbean, or of African descent  with roots in Latin America.” The range of identities, which can also include Afro-Latinx, Afro-Latine, African American, and Black, among others, exemplifies the complexity of experiences within this group. 

Dr. Marta Moreno Vega (2011) by Timothy Greenfield-SandersSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

While the Portrait Gallery’s collection of Afro-Latinx individuals in the United States is far from comprehensive, the selected portraits in this exhibition tell a story of self-identity and cultural hybridity. This exhibition highlights the complexities of intersectional identities, and how colonialism and marginalization have catalyzed the necessity of being seen, heard, and understood.

Antonia Pantoja (2014) by Manny VegaSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Community Work

A through line for many Afro-Latinx histories and biographies is community work. Whether those communities are neighborhoods, cities, or other groups, uplifting and giving back is a common part of the Afro-Latinx experience. 

Antonia Pantoja (2014) by Manny VegaSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Antonia Pantoja

This mosaic of Dr. Antonia Pantoja was a study for a public mural in her honor in New York City. In 1944, she moved to New York City and became a community organizer, denouncing racism, inequity, and abusive conditions faced by laborers. She saw education as key to enabling her fellow Puerto Ricans to organize themselves and access their political power. In 1961, she founded ASPIRA, a nationally recognized institution that supports Latinx—and particularly Puerto Rican—youth to pursue an education. She fought hard for students’ access to resources and bilingual instruction. Pantoja’s efforts earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996.

Dr. Marta Moreno Vega (2011) by Timothy Greenfield-SandersSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Dr. Marta Moreno Vega

In this photograph, Dr. Marta Moreno Vega conveys wisdom, confidence, and thoughtfulness. She is a Nuyorican (a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent) and Afro-Puerto Rican activist, artist, educator, historian, and Yoruba priestess. She advocates for “cultural equity, cultural studies, and education.” In 1971, she became director of El Museo del Barrio and, in 1976, she established the Caribbean Cultural Center for the African Diaspora Institute, which advocates for and connects Afro-descendent communities. Through her institutional leadership, she expands visibility and representation for the people of the African Diaspora. Her scholarship explores overlooked histories, religions, and traditions while affirming Afro-Latinx relevance on a global scale.

Jorge Soto Sanchez (1979) by Gilberto HernándezSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Writing, Poetry, and Art

Inspired by the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the Nuyorican (translated as “New Puerto Rican”) movement in New York City embraced bicultural and bilingual experiences. At the core of the Nuyorican movement was unabashed pride and solidarity. An ideological shift in thinking and community building were core elements. These cultural connections brought many poets, writers, and playwrights together to form a cultural awakening and new identity within the Afro-Latinx community. This bi-lingual movement revered the Afro-Caribbean and Indigenous roots of individuals while embracing music and the visual arts.

Miguel Algarín (1984) by ADÁLSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Miguel Algarín

Afro-Puerto Rican poet and author Miguel Algarín was born in Puerto Rico and grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Algarín’s writing often expressed his multiracial and dual cultural identity. During his lifetime, he received four American Book Awards and in 1973 cofounded the Nuyorican Poets Café, a celebrated creative hub, with poet and playwright Miguel Piñero and writer Pedro Pietri in 1973. The Nuyorican Poet’s Café became a place where writers, visual artists, and performers embraced their roots, cultural identity, and experiences living in Spanish (East) Harlem (El Barrio), the South Bronx, and the Lower East Side (Loisaida).

Sandra Maria Estévez (1974) by Máximo ColónSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Sandra María Esteves

Sandra María Esteves is a visual artist, cultural activist, playwright, and one of the few significant women poets involved in the Nuyorican and Black Arts movements. Born in the Bronx, Esteves’s Dominican and Puerto Rican roots greatly influenced her work, which often references issues of colorism, social and environmental justice, and acceptance. During her teen years, Esteves experienced both colorism within her family as well as racism, which led her to question her identity. Throughout her career, writing has reasserted her intersectional identity, as exemplified by the poem “Sistas,” which shows a deep connection to the concept of sisterhood and to women singers of African descent.

Tato Laviera (1975 (printed in 2015)) by Máximo ColónSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Tato Laviera

Born Jesús Laviera Sanches in Puerto Rico, Laviera grew up on the Lower East Side of New York City. Laviera was committed to his community, realizing the importance of giving back. His poetry experimented linguistically with cadences and rhythms, often evoking the sounds of African drums. He would frequently code-shift between English and Spanish to re-assert themes of immigration, transcultural identity within the Afro-Latino diaspora, the impact of colonization, and visibility. Identifying with his African roots, the cadences found in his work reflect a longing for African-Caribbean diasporic music and a place of acceptance or “home.”

Jorge Soto Sanchez (1979) by Gilberto HernándezSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Jorge Sotos Sánchez

Jorge Soto Sánchez was a Nuyorican visual artist most known for his involvement in El Taller Boricua, a community artist print workshop and collective that embraced cultural and socio-political empowerment. Sánchez’s work incorporated graffiti elements, Taíno and African iconography, and aspects of Santería—an Afro-Caribbean religion. His art conjures urban and transcultural topographies and experiences. During the mid-1970s, Sánchez became the director of El Taller Boricua, and participated in several exhibitions in New York City and Puerto Rico. Most recently, his work was shown in El Museo del Barrio’s Taller Boricua: A Political Print Shop.

Piri Thomas (1972) by Máximo ColónSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Piri Thomas

Piri Thomas grew up in Spanish Harlem during the Great Depression, where he felt that racism and machismo in El Barrio forced his early entry into a gang. During a seven-year incarceration, he experienced an awakening, recognizing his capacity for greatness while overcoming racism and grappling with his hybrid Puerto Rican-Cuban identity. Thereafter, Thomas published the tremendously acclaimed memoir Down These Mean Streets (1967). Thomas’s writings became an influential part of the Nuyorican literary movement. Máximo Colón photographed the writer for a segment that WNET’s Puerto Rican television show Realidades devoted to Thomas’s memoir.

Carlos "Patato" Valdés (2000 (printed 2014)) by Alexis Rodríguez-DuarteSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Music

The rhythms and music brought by enslaved Africans during colonization (or brought through the African Diaspora) have been formative to the music of the Caribbean, Latin America, and the United States. Along with language and oral history, the development of innovative forms of music within the Afro-Latinx diaspora helped shape new cultural identities. The rhythms of bachata, bomba, plena, and salsa are creative cultural expressions found within Latinx communities’ employment of Caribbean and traditional African elements.

¡Yo soy de Cuba la Voz, Guantanamera! (1994 (printed 2016)) by Alexis Rodríguez-DuarteSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Celia Cruz

Known unequivocally as Celia, the Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz (Úrsula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso) was born in Cuba. Shortly after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, Cruz left the island and never returned, ultimately defecting to the United States. She became a U.S. citizen in 1961 and eventually settled in New York City. Cruz’s iconic style—flamboyant, form-fitting gowns, statuesque-high heels, and dramatically styled hair—paid homage to her African and Caribbean roots while her trademark expression “¡Azúcar!” (sugar) alluded to plantation history. Her songs spoke to pan-Latino audiences while connecting the thousands of exiles living in the United States and abroad to Cuba.

John Santos (1987) by Frank EspadaSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

John Santos

Born and based in the San Francisco Bay area, John Santos is a bandleader and percussionist whose career in Latin jazz spans more than four decades. Santos is known for his experimental blend of traditional Afro-Caribbean and contemporary music, often relying on traditional instruments and inspiration from those that have come before him. For Santos, music’s oral tradition is a means to educate and protest. By employing beats and rhythms to convey messaging, and utilizing African music traditions, Santos’s drum is not only a tool of communication but also a conduit to life.

Carlos "Patato" Valdés (2000 (printed 2014)) by Alexis Rodríguez-DuarteSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Carlos Patato Valdés

Carlos Valdés Galán was born in Havana, Cuba in 1926. Coming from a family of musicians, Valdés had a knack for music and rhythm as a child. During his teen years, he began playing with popular Cuban bands and ensembles. In 1954, Valdés immigrated to New York City to pursue his career in Latin jazz. Along with Mongo Santamaria, Valdés is recognized as one of the best congo players that has collaborated and performed with jazz and salsa’s greatest. He also helped invent the tunable congo drums that are now standard in the music industry.

Juan Marichal (1966) by Gerald GoochSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Sports

Any examination of the Afro-Latinx influence in the United States must include béisbol. Since Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947, Afro-Latinx players have shattered Major League records and become household names, from Roberto Clemente to Juan Soto. Despite their success on the field, many players faced discrimination. Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda described feeling like an outsider: “We had two strikes against us: One for being Black, and another for being Latino.” This feeling of having two strikes extends beyond baseball. For years, Afro-Latinx athletes had to divide their attention between winning, combating racism, and using their platform to speak out against discrimination.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos (1968) by Unidentified ArtistSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

John Carlos

Olympians John Carlos (right) and Tommie Smith (center) staged a protest at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. While “The Star-Spangled Banner” played, the track champions wore no shoes and raised gloved fists in a Black Power salute to denounce racism and economic inequality in the United States. Carlos later described it as an effort “to make people realize that humanity is far greater than athletics.” Their act of defiance caused controversy and led to their removal from the games and the Olympic village. John Carlos has continued to shed light on injustice as the self-proclaimed “World’s Fastest Humanitarian.”

Juan Marichal (1966) by Gerald GoochSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Juan Marichal

Known for his unique style—on an off the field—Juan Marichal earned the nickname “the Dominican Dandy.” The right-handed pitcher was known for his precision, stamina, and high-kick windup, as immortalized in this 1966 Time magazine cover. Marichal debuted in 1960 with the San Francisco Giants, pitching a one-hit shutout, walking one and striking out twelve. He spent the decade at or near the top of the majors in nearly every pitching category, including wins, complete games, ERA, strikeouts, and innings pitched. Marichal was the first Dominican-born player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Pedro Martinez (2000) by Susan Miller-HavensSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Pedro Martinez

With speed and pinpoint accuracy, Pedro Martínez became one of the most dominant power pitchers of his era. From 1997 to 2003 he was the best pitcher in baseball, leading in wins, strikeouts, and earned runs. Martínez’s uniform bears the Dominican flag, because, as Martínez stated, “I know who I am and where I came from. And I will never forget.” Fittingly, the title of this painting, El Orgullo y Determinación, translates to “Pride and Determination.” At his Hall of Fame induction, Martínez offered encouragement to his fellow Dominicans, then called Juan Marichal to the podium, and together they unfurled a Dominican flag.

I'm Big Papi (2008) by Freddy RodríguezSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

David Ortiz

David Ortiz, known as Big Papi, was a fixture of Red Sox baseball for years, contributing to three World Series victories. He retired as the all-time leader among designated hitters in hits, home runs, and runs batted in. He is considered one of the most reliable clutch hitters in baseball history, with thirteen career walk-off home runs. His many awards and honors include the 2011 Roberto Clemente Award for sportsmanship and community involvement. Artist Freddy Rodríguez creates silhouettes of baseball players to highlight their athleticism instead of skin color. This silhouette emphasizes Big Papi’s signature self-confidence and powerful swing.

¡Yo soy de Cuba la Voz, Guantanamera! (1994 (printed 2016)) by Alexis Rodríguez-DuarteSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

The Portrait Gallery’s collection of Afro-Latinx figures offers a few examples of the countless contributions of Afro-Latinx activists, educators, writers, artists, musicians, and athletes in the United States. We recognize the need to highlight these stories, both to paint a clearer picture of U.S. history and to overcome historical erasure through increased visibility. As we honor Afro-Latinx stories, we gain a clearer understanding of how cross-cultural experiences and intersectional identities continue to shape this country.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps