Las Vidas Negras Importan. How Juneteenth Helps Me Reflect on My Afro-Latinx Experience

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump announced that he would hold a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 19. Critics were appalled that Trump’s first rally since anti-racism protests erupted nationwide would take place in Tulsa, where White mobs massacred at least two dozen Black residents in 1921 in one of the worst racial attacks in U.S. history. The perceived insult was compounded by the day Trump choseJune 19, Juneteenth, the day commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.

Trump’s critics said his rally plans were fanning the flames of hate and showing disdain for the Black Lives Matter movement. Trump faced intense pressure and rescheduled, but the controversy is fueling a new push to finally make Juneteenth, which Blacks have celebrated since the late 1800s, a federal holiday. 

The end of slavery was one of the most important milestones for the cause of freedom in U.S. history. Why has it taken so long for a new movement to recognize Juneteenth as an official national day of celebration and how can this holiday play a role in educating Americans of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds about the struggle for Black liberation? Rosalyn Damiana Lake Montero reflects on her own journey of awareness.  –ProgressReport.

AfroLatinx civil rights activist and educator Rosalyn Damiana Lake Montero.

I, Rosalyn Damiana Lake Montero, a Black Dominican immigrant, am cautiously optimistic. See, the only time I ever learned about Juneteenth in school was during a brief eighthgrade social studies class. All I remember we learned is that it officially marked the end of slavery. I don’t think we went too in-depth.

I now know that President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves more than two years earlier while the war was still going on, but that the state of Texas continued to practice slavery anyway. Then, on June 19, 1865, Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced to one of the most remote parts of the Confederacy that the Civil War was over and all enslaved people were free. That date became known as Juneteenth, and it grew in recognition as a holiday in the years that followed.

When slavery really ended is complicated. The Emancipation Proclamation only applied in the states of the Confederacy. Border states that didn’t join the Confederacy weren’t covered, so slaves there weren’t technically freed until the 13th amendment was ratified in December 1865.

These are things I learned as I got older, as I found myself wanting to know more about how the history of enslaved people in Texas, and how their experiences related back to those of my own Dominican family, so, I did my research. It was very empowering to learn that Juneteenth, also known as Emancipation Day and Freedom Day, is now observed as a state holiday or commemoration in all but four U.S. states, and that now there’s a lot of talk of making it a federal holiday.

But the more I learn, the more frustrated I become that it isn’t one already. And I’m also concerned that there really aren’t any celebrations of the abolishment of slavery back in my native Dominican Republic.

Virtually all of Latin America and the Caribbean enslaved people from Africa, some as long if not longer than the United States. For example, Cuba and Brazil didn’t abolish slavery until the late 1880s. The Dominican Republic ended slavery much earlier in 1801, making it the first Spanish speaking country in the Americas to do so. But like the United States, it still went on, so there came a second, more official abolition in 1822.

Because slavery has been so rarely discussed back in the Dominican Republic, or within the U.S. Latino community, my journey toward learning these basics has been a long and independent one. Without that historical roadmap, it’s like a mystery tour—one that can be magical and also deeply troubling. In these communities, people get uncomfortable at the mere mention of Black issues, and that discomfort, that lack of acceptance of the Black part of our heritage, is a problem. How can we go forward, how can we instill pride, self-confidence, and self-determination in the next generation if Black and Brown children can’t learn about their histories, their victories, and with that, the magic within them?

Even as I write this blog, I’m trying to chart that course, and while I worry that this year’s Juneteenth is little more than a trending social media hashtag, I know that now is the moment for me to keep educating myself and my community. The last few weeks of Black Lives Matter protests are helping to build that momentum, and they have all kinds of people talking about how to get educated. Even UnidosUS, the organization that powers the blog on which I’m writing, has encouraged its employees to take the day to learn more.

I am thankful for the educators that go out of their way to make sure our Black students know who they are and who and where they come from, and that should not be limited to lessons on slavery. We should be teaching students of the African diaspora about their ancestors’ rich cultures and traditions. Many of them were royalty back in Africa, and we need to treat all people of African descent as the kings and queens that they are. It’s going to take more than just a handful of Black educators and non-Black allies to do that, and I’m adding myself to that collective. I’m trying to lead by example.

Afro-Latinx civil rights activist and educator Rosalyn Damiana Lake Montero.

I started this blog, intentionally stating that I am a Black Dominican instead of an Afro-Latinx. Many Dominicans and other immigrants from Latin American countries, negate their Blackness when they come to the United States because we are taught and told that people they saw as African-Americans are “delinquents” or “lazy” welfare recipients and many more horrible stereotypes that do not fairly represent the United States’ Black community.

There are people who engage in destructive activities in all communities, but we cannot and should not allow racist ideologies to visit and sit in our minds and hearts. This internalized anti-Blackness is deeply rooted in Eurocentric-greed, imperialism, and capitalism.

Latinx and many other immigrants come to the United States to achieve the “American Dream” Pero let me tell you something mi gente…for many years, the “American Dream” has not been an accurate representation of the United States’ population. There are simply too many structures in place that reinforce past forms of slavery and exploitation. Many Latinx turn a blind eye to racial issues hoping to assimilate to the faces that are benignly represented in the mainstream media. Those White and Light faces perpetuate that structural racism, and you can even see it perpetuated by mainstream Latino media.

AfroLatinx civil rights activist and educator Rosalyn Damiana Lake Montero poses with her track team.

You know, faces that suggest “there is no issue here in the United States,” faces that do not make people question the norm or expose the reality of racial inequalities in a nation being led by a very unqualified leader, whose tactics are focused on a centuries-old colonial divide and conquer mentality. But if Latinos don’t support Black people in the Americas, then we are also part of the problem.

If you are a non-Black Latino and you want to learn more about Black issues in the United States and in the world, speak to a Black person with an open mind, ears, and heart. We cannot heal as minorities if we don’t stand in solidarity. But do some research before you do that. I am sharing my transparent Black thoughts because I experience being Black every day, and it is tiring as a Black person to constantly see people that look like me being killed in 2020.

Gratitude art created by a Black student participating in a social and emotional healing circle led by author and educator Rosalyn Damiana Lake Montero reflects Black children’s sense of vulnerability.

Latinos and Blacks deal with remarkably similar issues in terms of inequality and police brutality. According to U.S. Census data from 2018, the poverty rate was 20.8% for Black families and 17.6% for Latino families, compared to 10.1% among White families. Data from the National for Education Statistics showed that the adjusted cohort graduation rate for public high school students in 2017-2018 as 81% among Hispanics and 79% among Blacks, compared to 89% for Whites. And According to the health website KFF, uninsured rates for non-elderly people are 19% for Hispanics, and 11% for Blacks, 8% for Whites. And when it comes to police violence, the website Mapping Police Violence shows that most unarmed people killed by police force are people of color. In 2017, for example, police killed 149 unarmed people across the nation. Of those, 49 were Black, 34 were Hispanic, two were Native American, two were Asian/Pacific Islander, one was unknown, and the remaining 51 were White.

The above information is important, but it doesn’t reflect the discrepancies for Blacks within the Latino community itself. For example, according to a recent UnidosUS fact sheet Afro-Latinos, people identifying with this cohort experience poverty at closer to 23%, and high school graduation rates are 73%.

Let us use data and history to educate ourselves queridos Latinos. Let us dismantle these internalized racist ideologies. We are all minorities. If we unite, we will become the majority. We all have a role to play. For myself, I am a Spanish language educator at the Seed School in Washington, DC, and I am currently gathering resources and interviewing many people from the African diaspora on my Facebook page, Rosalyn D. Lake-Montero. I want to create content like this blog to bridge communities and educate the next generation of leaders.

Rosalyn Damiana Lake Montero takes her Seed School of Washington students to meet her mentor, DCAfroLatino Caucus Founder Manuel Mendez.

One organization that has empowered me as a Black, Spanish speaking immigrant has been the Afro-Latino Caucus of Washington, DC. If you are Afro-Latinx, I encourage you to check out the initiatives and work that the group’s founder, Manuel Mendez, is doing to unite the Black and Latinx communities around the Mid-Atlantic region. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Mendez, who is also my mentor, was hosting in-person Afro-Latinx history and culture workshops and field trips. For now, those have to be done virtually, and he has other online platforms. For example, his Afro-Latinx podcast Caras Lindas can be accessed from any digital device. It might just inspire you to find a similar group in your community or start your own.

Social media postings in solidarity are a start, but we need everyone to lean in even more to our discomfort. Young people all across the United States, all through the Americas, and all around the world are watching history change before their eyes. So, this Juneteenth, I invite you to celebrate the victory of the abolishment of slavery in the United States by not only learning how the holiday got started, but by finding your own historical connection to it. I invite you to have an open heart and mind and to stand in solidarity with our Black hermanos y hermanas and to support Black Lives Matter movements rising up all around the globe. Las Vidas Negras Importan.

-Author Rosalyn Damiana Lake Montero is a Dominican-born civil rights activist and Spanish language instructor at Seed School of Washington, DC. She is also an active member of the DC AfroLatino Caucus.  



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