"Seeing Black Women in Power," a collection of photographs at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, visualizes the fight for racial equality in the 1960s and 70s in the United States. The images present the females faces of one of the great social movements of the last century.
But for Afro-Latin adolescents like Xiomara Dacondo, the photos and faces are more than just history. They are a reflection of self.
“I did not know much about this history, and so when we came to this museum, I was very happy. The struggle of women ... it is a great joy to see the talent they have,” she said after her visit last year.
Xiomara traveled to the U.S. capital with her companions from the Agrupación Xangô, an organization of Afro-descendants from Buenos Aires. It was a trip of more than 5,000 miles to connect with African-American history and learn more about political milestones in the struggle for equality. For Xiomara, it’s also a matter of identity.
“My dad is white Argentine, and my mom is Afro-Uruguayan, and I didn't think I was a black person. My dad used to tell me that I am a brunette and I believed that – that I was not black,” she says.
Her situation is not singular. While 30% of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean has African roots, studies by the IDB indicate that the Afro-descendant perspective is often absent from formal centers of power. In Argentina, Afro-descendant organizations estimate that the Afro population is close to two million, although only about 150,000 identified as such in the last census.
“There is a lot of discrimination, racism and discomfort,” Xiomara says. “In class, most people are white, and sometimes you feel uncomfortable, afraid of being rejected. I am very shy, so getting together with others can feel awkward when I think of what they might say or ask.”
Florencia Mendilarzo, an Afro-Argentine teenager, was also in Washington on the Xangô group’s trip.
“For me, as a young, teenage Afro-descendant, wherever I go, there is always that constant question: where am I from?” she says.
“Why do I have to feel like a foreigner in my country?”
Notwithstanding examples of progress – in Panama, Afro-descendant women have the highest education level of all racial and ethnic groups – barriers in access to social services and job opportunities remain common.
Studies show that young people like Xiomara and Florencia are more likely to become workers in the informal sector than their peers. According to the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, between 65% and 80% of Afro-descendant women in countries including Brazil, Costa Rica and Ecuador carry out manual, highly informal or rotating jobs.
People of African descent across the region also tend to have lower incomes, lower rates of saving and are less likely to have access to bank loans, according to IDB studies.
Discovering role models, in Washington or elsewhere, is vital to imagining new ways of existing within society, says Marcela Lorenzo, the Afro-Argentine president of Agrupación Xangô.
“Entering [Washington’s historically black college] Howard University and seeing that that there are people like you with PhDs, that there are doctors – it makes you think, ‘I was born to have a degree. I was born to be someone,’” she says.
“It’s terrible to walk down the street and wonder if you really are capable of becoming that.”
The end of invisibility
July 25 is the International Day of Afro-Latin and Afro-Caribbean Women. The yearly marker is meant to raise awareness and help spur change in the overlapping areas of discrimination, violence, sexism, exclusion, poverty and migration.
Speaking at the IDB’s Regional Policy Dialogue on diversity last year, Costa Rica’s Afro-descendant vice president, Epsy Campbell, noted that statistical information disaggregated by race and ethnicity is vital for measuring progress and setbacks.
“Analyzing poverty and public policies to eradicate it from a multidimensional perspective, cutting across the variables of race, ethnicity, gender and others, effectively allows us to not only lift people out of poverty temporarily, but to lift them out permanently,” she said.
To help meet this need, the IDB carries out technical-cooperation projects with several governments. In Panama, the Bank has provided technical and financial support for the development of the National Strategy for Public Policies for the Afro-Panamanian Population. One of the results was an improved diagnosis of the Afro-Panamanian community, focusing on conditions and challenges at the national and provincial levels.
"At the IDB, we know that the richness of Latin America and the Caribbean lies in its diversity – and to take advantage of it, statistical data is necessary, not only for the exercise of citizens’ rights, but also to design and promote inclusive public policies for vulnerable groups, such as women of African descent," says Marcelo Cabrol, manager of the IDB's Social Sector.
To help build bridges between the region's governments and local communities, the IDB also supports initiatives including the Inter-American Network of High-Level Authorities on Policies for People of African Descent, established by Harvard University and the Organization of American States, and SomosAfro.org. A virtual space for national and local governments to share their inclusion policies and deepen dialogue with citizens, it is currently used by seven countries and 43 municipalities. Its more than 34,000 followers share ideas to help make their communities visible, such as an Afro-curriculum in school and a dictionary of surnames to learn more about African descent.
The objective of these initiatives is to enable women like Xiomara, Florencia and Marcela to find a reflection of their identity in history and the inspiration to achieve big goals – without having to travel thousands of miles from home.
"I have experienced gender violence, I have been humiliated, I have been told that I could not make it – but here I am. That’s what matters,” says Marcela.
“I know how far I want to go ... and nothing and no one will stop me from moving forward.”
To learn more about people of African descent in Latin America and the Caribbean, discover our blog in this link