News and views from the award-winning author of the novels The Skinny Years, America Libre, House Divided and Pancho Land

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Black in Latin America - Episode One Review

I applaud Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. for exposing U.S. viewers to the diversity of Latin America's people in this landmark series. When most U.S. citizens think of a Latino, they rarely picture someone black. This series broadens our understanding of the very complex identity of people from Spanish-speaking countries, an identity that is usually oversimplified into misleading racial stereotypes in the U.S. media. Just like the United States, Latin America's population is composed of immigrants from every corner of the planet along with indigenous local people and African slaves. Moreover, the blending of ancestries is not even mix across Latin America--often showing a predominance of one ancestral group within regions of a single country. It is in this respect, that the first episode of Dr. Gates' series displayed some shortcomings.

The scenes from the first episode in the Dominican Republic were shot in a section of Santo Domingo where most of the people are of African descent. A visit by Dr. Gates to other parts of the Dominican Republic where European or indigenous ancestry are more common would have broadened the U.S. public's perspective of the nation's diversity.

In a more serious shortcoming of this episode, Dr. Gates appeared to judge the people of African descent in the Dominican Republic according to his own racial standards by implying they were in denial about their heritage because they did not abide by the U.S. "one drop rule" for establishing black identity. Dr. Gates seemed to find it troubling that people of mixed ancestry (like Dr. Gates himself), would not accept the same identity he embraced.

Most scholars agree that "race" is primarily a social construct. In reality, the labels White, Black, Asian and Hispanic (which most Americans accept as legitimate racial/ethnic categories) are simply identities that exist primarily within the borders of the United States. Outside the United States, the nations and people lumped within these arbitrary categories show little propensity for unity. Although unintended, I feel Dr. Gates imposed some of his own nationalistic hubris in this episode.

Despite these flaws, I support Dr. Gates and his attempt to broaden our perspectives. The most important thing he has done is to open our eyes -- and open a dialog.

Raul Ramos y Sanchez