But, You Don't Look Latina! Celebrating Afro-Latina Documentarians for Black History Month

By Vanessa Erazo, LatinoBuzz

Actors of color contend with stereotypes and typecasting on a daily basis. In Hollywood, even in the 'post-racial era' an actor's ethnicity can severely limit the types of roles they are considered for. A Latino actor often has no choice but to audition for roles as a gardener, maid, or janitor and be asked to fake an accent. It's not much better for blacks.

Despite the success of black actors in mainstream blockbusters and African-Americans having won Oscars in all the major acting categories, it is still rare to have an all-black cast or to see a black actor in a leading role in Hollywood. Most of the roles offered in mainstream movies to a person of color are that of the token minority. Either that or you play a criminal, thug, gangbanger, or sometimes a reformed criminal trying to change your life around.

What if you happen to be Latino and black? Well, things get even more complicated. Early last year mun2, an English-language television network targeting U.S.-born Latinos, took on this very issue in a short web documentary called Black and Latino. Actors, musicians, and journalists like Christina Milian, Tatyana Ali, and Judy Reyes take on the question, "What does it mean to be black and Latino in the U.S.?"

Watch the full doc here.

Black and Latino features interviews with Latino actors Laz Alonso (Avatar, Jumping the Broom), Tatyana Ali (Fresh Prince of Bel Air), Gina Torres (Suits, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys) and Judy Reyes (Scrubs), musicians Christina Milian ("Dip it Low") and Kat DeLuna ("Whine Up"), and journalist Soledad O'Brien (CNN), among many others.

Afro-Latino actors are a conundrum for casting directors who are looking for a more 'typical' Latino look (read as light-skinned and Mexican). They end up booking more African-American roles because they don't fit the stereotype of what Latinos look like. In Black and Latino actress Gina Torres explains, "When I became an actress I quickly realized that the world liked their Latinas to look Italian, not like me. So I wasn't going up for Latina parts. I was going up for African-American parts."

Beyond the acting world Afro-Latinos contend with a host of issues. They have to fight for acceptance within the Latino community and sometimes even within their own family (lighter skin is often considered more desirable amongst Latinos). And to further complicate things many Latinos are unaware of or even deny their African roots. But outside of the Hollywood system, in the indie film world, there are Latinos who have embraced their African heritage and focused their cameras on Afro-Latinos. LatinoBuzz talked to some Afro-Latina filmmakers who have decided to tell their own stories. Who needs Hollywood anyway? Here are three documentaries that are currently in production.

Writer, Director, Producer: Magdalena Albizu
Producer: Ingrid Matias
Expected date of completion: September 2014
Follow: @NegritaDoc on Twitter and Facebook

Movies that center on Afro-Latinos are far and few between. Filmmaker Magdalena Albizu has a personal stake in her documentary Negrita. She says, "This documentary is my truth.  My truth is my family keeps stating I am not Black and proving to them I am. This documentary is a portrait of my struggle to determine and claim my identity."

Watch the trailer here.

Issues of identity are at the core of the Afro-Latino experience in the United States. Seen by Latinos as a novelty, Afro-Latinos often get asked, "Where did you learn to speak Spanish?" On the flip side, whites confuse black Latinos for being African-American. Compounded with the insistence of many Latino families to deny their blackness, Afro-Latinos must reconcile what are seen to be conflicting identities. Negrita producer Ingrid Matias encourages Afro-Latinos to embrace their mixed heritage, "It's important for Latinos to realize and accept that their African heritage does not make them less "Latino", regardless of where they fall on the color spectrum."

With their documentary Albizu and Matias hope to, "launch a transnational dialogue on race, identity, ethnicity, nationality and community-building." The film aims to document the experience of Afro-Latinas in the U.S. through interviews, "In their own words, empowered, self-affirming educated Afro-Latinas, located around the United States, share their experiences of living with a changing, often contested identity in a racialized society and how it affects their personal and professional lives."

Director, Producer: Sisa Bueno
Expected date of completion: Late 2013 - Early 2014
Follow: @WeoftheSayaFilm on Twitter and Facebook

Sisa Bueno is a filmmaker of Cuban and Dominican descent who has first-hand experience with the struggles of being a U.S.-born Afro-Latina, "Growing up as a first generation Afro-Latina-American was very challenging for me, due to the fixed social identifiers for "Black" and "Latino" that have been created in the United States. There were feelings of alienation growing up that I had to overcome. Within the Latino community itself, I experience discrimination." Bueno's personal history has informed her choices as a filmmaker. She took her feelings of alienation and channeled them into her documentary, We of The Saya, a story of grassroots activism and social change.

Watch the trailer here.

The subject was one she felt compelled to share with audiences since, "the Afro-Latino perspective is one that is rarely seen on screen." She explains further, "As a filmmaker, I am intrigued by complex stories that are untold, and I tend to focus on underrepresented stories and points of view." Her film, We of la Saya, follows Martina Barra, "a poor farmer struggling to survive in her small village deep in the rural mountains of Bolivia...as she embarks on a journey of self-empowerment and joins a popular movement to change the Bolivian constitution, which would bring basic civil rights to Afro-Bolivians like her."

Bueno started filming five years ago and has created an outreach program to partner with community organizations who have hosted work-in-progress screenings throughout New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. Currently, she has invitations to do community screenings in Cambridge, MA, Washington DC, and Miami.

Director: Dash Harris
Expected date of completion: Late 2013
Follow: @InADash on Twitter and Facebook

The docuseries Negro explores, "Identity, colonization, racism and the African Diaspora in Latin America and the Caribbean and the color complex among Latinos." Filmmaker Dash Harris emailed her thoughts to LatinoBuzz while in Peru shooting the Verano Negro festivities, an annual showcase of Afro-Peruvian dance, music, and food.

Harris, herself Afro-Latina, was lucky enough to have a family that embraced their black ancestry leaving her free from the denial of blackness many Afro-Latinos suffer. "My family is from Panama and I didn't have any of these issues because my parents empowered us to be proud of history, ancestry and made it a point that we read and learn about it." Yet, even with her family's acceptance she confronted discrimination outside the home, "Sure, my whole life I've never felt accepted by the Latin American community IN the U.S. (outside the U.S. and in Latin America, I am just assumed to be from that country or another Latin American country). I always felt I had to prove myself and was never comfortable negotiating my identity. So I didn't. No one can tell you who you are and I went where I was accepted and loved for exactly who I am, no explanation needed."

Hers is a recurring theme, Afro-Latinos face constant rejection on a societal level of their claim to being culturally Latino. Ignorance on the part of Latinos of their own history keeps them from accepting African descendants as their own. Harris hopes to break open the silence on colorism in Latin America with her documentary, "The issues the series covers are pervasive throughout Latin America and it's absurd that these issues aren't really spoken about in the open. Afrodescendants are deeply marginalized throughout the Americas and their legacies hidden, their stories need to be told and it is long overdue."

Most people have no idea that the vast majority of African slaves were taken to Latin America, not the United States. More than 11 million Africans (25 times the number sent to the U.S.) ended up south of the border. The African Diaspora in Latin America has been kept in the shadows long enough. Thanks to these determined Afro-Latina indie filmmakers their stories will be pushed to the forefront. Let's hope Hollywood catches up sometime soon.

Written byJuan Caceres and Vanessa Erazo, LatinoBuzz is a weekly feature on SydneysBuzz that highlights Latino indie talent and upcoming trends in Latino film with the specific objective of presenting a broad range of Latino voices. Follow @LatinoBuzz on twitter and facebook.