Univision journalist Tony Dandrades was honored at the first Afro-Latino Heritage Summit, held April 13-14, 2018, in Miami. Here, Dandrades is at the 16th Latin Grammy Awards in Las Vegas on Nov. 19, 2015.
Photo: David Becker (Getty Images for LARAS)

Members of the African Diaspora converged into downtown Miami on April 13 and 14 to celebrate Afro-Latino excellence. The first annual Afro-Latino Heritage Excellence Summit highlighted the accomplishments of black Latinos in media, activism, education and the arts.

The inclusive weekend event, the first of its kind, brought black Latinos and other Diasporans into the fold to celebrate blackness at its finest. Gil (pronounced “Jill”) Rodriguez founded the summit on the principles of building cultural awareness, the unification of black Latinos with other black people from various nations, and the positive representation of black Latinos in the public eye.

These points, specifically, were important to me. I’ve struggled with the separation between black Latinos and other Diasporans. As a bicultural black woman, I made a conscious decision to put blackness before nationality, heritage or language, and that hasn’t always been met with positivity or openness. I was raised in a Pan-African home, so this was not a hard stance to take. I have always felt that many black Latinos pandered to other Latinos for acceptance versus aligning themselves with the global, collective black community. It’s been detrimental to us. This seems to be changing.

Rodriguez’s profound understanding of the roadblocks that exist for many black Latinos prompted her to change her own mindset. Rodriguez wanted to tell our stories without asking for permission to exist. She knew the importance of creating a space wherein we could teach our children about their racial identities as well as the bigger connection to the African Diaspora, where we all carry the blood of our ancestors.

At a time when we are often overlooked and disregarded by our white and brown counterparts, and the incessant anti-blackness among Latinos that Love & Hip Hop: Miami’s Amara La Negra brought to a mainstream audience, Rodriguez felt that there was no better time than the present to focus on the contributions of black Latinos by celebrating the brightest and best in our community.

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Angela Betancourt, one of the prominent attendees, said what we were all thinking:

It’s important that the world understands that black excellence doesn’t revolve around singing and dancing. We are only asked to come to the table when we can make others clap and laugh. And where Amara La Negra has very valid points, there are black Latinos who do more than entertain. That day is done. This event is full of brilliance in the form of black people. We are intellectuals, historians and activists.

The two-day event revolved around a keynote speaker and engaging panels on Friday, and an awards ceremony and gala Saturday night. Jamaican-Cuban American Olivia Almagro, founder of the upcoming animated web series Alicita, was panel moderator. Featured panelists twin sisters Yvette and Yvonne Rodriguez— owners of Tres Lindas Cubanas Cigars—shared with the conference audience their experiences as black women in business, as well as their personal stories of growing up as bicultural Diasporans in Miami. Closing Friday’s events was a riveting keynote speech by Jessi Calzado-Esponda, the Afro-Cuban powerhouse behind the Kardashians’ 2016 trip to Cuba. She passionately detailed the trials, tragedies and triumphs of her life journey from Cuba to the U.S.

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The gala Saturday night, ironically held on Pan American Day, was a first-class affair with dinner, music and an awards ceremony honoring Omilani Alarcon, director of the documentary Latinegras, featured at the Miami Film Festival;
and Univision’s very own, Tony Dandrades, for his illustrious 20-plus-year career in the news-reporting field. [Editor’s note: Univision is The Root’s parent company.] Both Alarcon and Dandrades faced numerous challenges in a whitewashed industry, yet they prevailed. Other notable guests were Carolina Contreras, aka “Miss Rizos”; Brenda Medina; and Marilyn Holifield, a Harvard Law School graduate and prominent partner in the renowned international law firm Holland & Knight.

Holifield stated: “Now is the time for Diasporans to work together to preserve our history and our culture. We have a responsibility to share these aspects of who we are because it will, ultimately, bring us closer.”

The rhythms of drums and collective black pride united a group of people in a place where there was once division. Hopefully, the success of the Afro-Latino Heritage Excellence Summit will continue to bring members of the Diaspora together in the same way that Queen Bey’s Coachella performance did. We can only hope.

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Power to the people!