The Need for Developing an Afro-Latinx Theology

El mensaje de mi gente: The Need for Developing an Afro-Latinx Theology

Guesnerth Josué Perea (afrolatin@ forum)

 woman holding hands up in prayer

"Woman in Prayer", Photo by Abel Marquez, March 2020. Unsplash.

“Traigo en mi voz el mensaje de mi gente, Y también el flow que es lo que prevalece” - Goyo[1]

Throughout the existence of the Church Eternal[2], theology has been understood as a practice through which the faithful seek understanding. Theology, however, is more than the study of the divine, it is also a study of who God is to a community or a people. The practice of theology cannot exist without a consideration of the lived experience of the theologian and the community they perceive. As a result, as we start to consider specific theologies or specific lived experiences that inform a spirituality we are tasked with asking certain questions to have a more thorough understanding of theology for a group of people. What role does the experience of the faithful play in defining theology? How can we parse out the specific experiences of a specific group of people within a faith tradition? And, how can this parsing out, allow us to learn of a distinctive theological understanding? This piece will not answer all of these questions; however, we can use them to consider why there is a need for an Afro-Latinx Theology and what that theology can teach us about the intersections of culture, race, and Christianity.

"Creo que en toda América las gentes Negras han dejado unas huellas que están por reseñar y que a través de ellas se descubrirán muchos aportes de la cultura Negra en el continente." - Miriam Jimenez Roman[3]

For years now, as the Afro-Latinx movement has gained more notoriety, there has been a discussion about who we identify when we speak about Afro-Latinxs. While I have given a take on that definition,[4] it is important to note some specific aspects of both Latinidad and Blackness that play a role in outlining an Afro-Latinx theology and spirituality.  Latinidad is a pan-ethnic term which includes a variety of ethnic and social groups including a large segment of the Latinx population that is of African Descent. Despite this historical reality, far too many inhabitants and descendants of what is also known as Abya Yala[5], AKA the Americas, fail to grasp a holistic understanding of Latinidad because of the myopic culturally transmitted definitions of what it means to be Latinx. Therefore, Latinx theologies often disregard or simplify race and fail at including AfroLatinidad as a consideration of Latinx theologies. Similarly, African American theologies, which have become normative ways to understand Blackness within Christianity, have also failed to include Afro-Latinxs when discussing the importance of Black theology and religious experience. For many, someone who is considered Latinx is usually not Black. One can be either Black or Latinx, but not both. This false dichotomy precludes a holistic understanding of Latinidad and of Blackness and has led many people to disregard the totality of Latinxs, assuming that Africanity is inconsequential to Latinx identity and not realizing that it is central to its development.

Therein lies the failure of Latinx and Black theologies and spiritualities. Neither has fully grasped either the entirety of the Latinx experience, nor the entirety of the Black Diasporic experience because they have failed at including Afro-Latinx perspectives in formulating their viewpoints[6].

The exclusion of Afro-Latinxs in Black and Latinx theology spaces, erases an important segment of the population and makes it difficult for non-Afro-Latinxs to appreciate the specific aspects that make Afro-Latinx spirituality vibrant and distinctive. It is specifically a problem within Latinidad because of the continued anti-Blackness faced by Latinxs of African Descent, whether in the US or in Latin America. In addition, the deceit of anti-Blackness in a Latinx context is that the adroit influence of African traditions is so embedded within Latinx traditions that they cannot be ignored. From culinary to musical traditions, the huellas[7] of Africanity within Latinidad are palpable.

The same can be said within Latinx Christian theology and worship where, for example, one cannot ignore the influences of African spirituality in providing a multifaceted experience of faith. If one analyzes the religious experiences of Puerto Rican Pentecostals, for example, one cannot ignore the similarities between practices common within other African Diasporic spiritualities, such as divine healing, calling of the spirits, and prophecy, with those found within Pentecostalism[8].  Black Latinxs, as they engage in spiritual practices and theology-making, add to both Black and Latinx theologies a unique life experience and perspective that contribute to a fuller analysis of Latinx and Black Christianity.

That’s why there is a need for us to develop an Afro-Latinx Theology. A theology that informs us what the faith, experience and spirituality of Afro-Latinxs and why is it that it is inimitable. I call this theology Negriología[9]. Negriología, an understanding of the Divine that hails from the unique perspective and insights of Afro-Latinxs, can provide us with a language that redefine our understanding of God in light of the lived experiences of Afro-Latinxs. Developing a theology of this kind helps us to better grasp and teach theology and spirituality and fill in the gaps missed by other theological premises. 

One of the unique elements of Negriología, is the way that Afro-Latinxs understand God. Through surveying popular culture created by Afro-Latinxs, along with examples of various lived experiences, one can start to parse out an understanding of God according to Afro-Latinxs. For example, Roberto Anglero’s most popular song “Si Dios Fuera Negro”[10] recorded by his band Tierra Negra, imagines a world where if God were Black everything would change.

Gaining this sort of unique insight on the Divine is a part of Afro-Latinx spirituality because Afro-Latinxs straddle multiple[11]identities at the same time: Latinidad and Blackness. This is evidenced through analyzing the the lived experiences of Afro-Latinxs. For example, the testimony of St. Martin de Porres in the 16th Century, his service, humility and community-building, exemplifies the impactful lineage that Afro-Latinxs have had on Christianity. The life of this monumental figure in the history of Black Latinidad, Catholicity, and Black Christianity writ large, display qualities emblematic of the African Diaspora and its unique expression in Latin America, and by extension in the United States, that help us better define an Afro-Latinx theology. 

Born in Lima, Peru to a Panamanian freed-woman of African Descent named Ana Velasquez and an absent Spanish father, Martin de Porres grew up as the son of a single mom and sought entry to the monastery to ease the burden of poverty on his family. He was not allowed to join the Dominican religious order as a monk due to the racist policies of the order, the church and Peru as a whole[12]. Through a myriad of events, he eventually became a full-fledged member of the order and was known for his many acts of service, humility, and healing. These acts of service and his posture of humility are familiar within Christianity as many other saints and lay people have exhibited the same qualities. However, when considering his life within the context of the African Diaspora within Latin America, his life epitomizes an essential pillar of Afro-Latinx theology and spirituality: compassion.

"Compassion is preferable to cleanliness. Reflect that with a little soap I can easily clean my bed covers, but even with a torrent of tears I would never wash from my soul the stain that my harshness toward the unfortunate would create." - St. Martin de Porres[13]

Martin de Porres knew of suffering because of his heritage, because of what he lived through every day. It is no wonder that he was regarded as the most compassionate of his brothers in the order. This parallels the faith experiences of many Afro-Latinxs in Christianity; our remarkable familiarity with suffering and prejudice, having been racially othered within a culture group, has incited, even if begrudgingly, in Afro-Latinx parishioners a deep level of compassion out of which faith operates.

Despite the affinity of Afro-Latinxs to Christianity, one cannot discuss Christianity and AfroLatinidad without recognizing the harm that Christianity has done to people of African Descent, and other Latinx and Caribbean people, for centuries. As Dr. Yolanda Pierce says in a recent article she published:

“[We] need to know that there was a Portuguese slaver’s ship named Bom Jesus do Triunfo and a Spanish slaver’s ship named Jesús y Espíritu Santo—among many others [with Christian names]—that sailed with the explicit purpose of enslaving other human beings, [particularly those of African descent].”[14]

Evidenced by the atrocity of enslavement, which reverberates today in the lived experiences of Afro-Latinxs, a need for a distinctive expression of Afro-Latinx Theology that accounts for this transhistorical situation emerges. As a Colombian, Black, Latino, ecumenical Christian, I am faced with the complex reality that the expression of the faith I profess, was born in, and grew up with, has often been the very tool used to pilfer the imago dei[15] from me and others of African Descent. Our inherent multiplicity of identities as Afro-Latinxs calls us to pursue an understanding of the complexity of God in our own theology. A lived experience of a kindom[16] that is "Here and not yet"[17]

"Preacher Spotted," Untitled Photo taken in Bluefields Nicaragua from the series Africa's Legacy in Mexico, Central & South America. Tony Gleaton, 1982. Courtesy of the artist.

“I am guided above all by what I am, which is a Black person trying to survive racism in all its manifestations.” - Rev. Luis Barrios[18]

This here-and-not-yet aspect of Afro-Latinx Christian spirituality involves a particular kind of prejudice that has been salient to my spirituality and to that of other Latinxs of African Descent. Afro-Latinxs encounter racismboth outside of and within Latinidad, encounter a discrediting of their Blackness when interacting with African-American groups, and experience inequality within and outside of the church that makes it necessary for Afro-Latinxs to believe in the idea of a present reality of inclusion and hope for a future of undoubted recognition and acceptance. There is within the Afro-Latinx Christian a hope to one day be centered in spaces where they have been excluded, of being celebrated and of being appropriately credited. These manifestations of racism, prejudice and exclusion in our spiritual lives necessitate a grounding in compassion that reveals a distinct vantage of the kindom of God, where, as part of salvation, the Afro-Latinx Christian flourishes.

Afro-Latinx theology is anchored on a decentralization of power forged by the memory of our ancestors. For a people whose history can be obscured by the history of enslavement, erasure and prejudice, a salient part of Afro-Latinx theology is remembrance. Remembering the work of people like St. Martin De Porres, like Mother Elizabeth Clarisse Lange, an Afro-Cuban nun who moved to the U.S. and began the order of the Oblate Sisters of Providence[19], like those who died in the middle passage is crucial to understanding the necessity of this decentralization.

Dr. Pierce observes that “calling upon the ancestors is about memory: remembering how [we are] connected to a web of humanity that does not end when our bodies have returned to dust.”[20] This notion of generational solidarity has been highlighted in the varied artistic expressions of Afro-Latinx Christians. For example, AfroColombian Poet Lucrecia Panchano’s poem “Currulao Pa’l Señor”[21] highlights the hybridity of the Afro-Latinx, specifically AfroColombian, Christian experience. A currulao is an African influenced musical rhythm created on the pacific coast of Colombia, where most citizens are of African descent. This currulao, addressed to God, is her way of honoring the memory of a deceased friend and preserving her love for friends and family who she hopes are in heaven.

Afro-Latinx theology is dynamic. Young Afro-Latinxs, especially those who are studying theology, are diverting from the dominant discourse within Latinx and Black church spaces. They embrace and encourage a more inclusive perspective of Latinidad and Blackness and are not tied to the dichotomies that have defined Latinx or Black theological discourses. For example, young Afro-Latinx theologians are more interdisciplinary and have a greater understanding of intersectionality within theological discourses. In addition, there is an improvisational approach in Afro-Latinx Christianity that encourages constant adaptation in seeking the voice of God. Cultural and linguistic code-switching, speaking and embracing Spanglish, and the embrace of multicultural influences create a reality where Afro-Latinxs engender a “triple consciousness.”[22] These central truths beckon us to be flexible in our theology practice and allows us to be able to embrace, and therefore encourage a dynamic perspective to faith. Where many of our white, or mestizo, Latinx counterparts can more readily adhere to a Eurocentric and one-dimensional understanding of God, the inherent complex cosmovisión[23] of AfroLatinixs can catalyze an immutable search for a manifold understanding of the infinite Divine.

“There is only one principle which guides the thinking and action of Black theology: an unqualified commitment to the Black community.” - James Cone[24]

Afro-Latinx theology is service-oriented and has long been rooted in social justice & communal liberation. Within the Afro-Latinx Christian embodied experience, there is a vision of justice and love as part of worship and faith practice. This perspective enables Afro-Latinx Christians to more easily understand the missionology of Jesus Christ and the Christian church. This idea has been inculcated within me from a very young age, the idea that to love God is to love people, and to love people means to ensure that people are treated justly. In Christianity, one cannot worship “in spirit and in truth”[25] without being liberated to do so, a specific aspect of liberation theologies. Even though in both Black Liberation Theology and Latin American Liberation Theologies, the specificity of Afro-Latinxs is missing, through the lived experience of Afro-Latinx Christians they reconcile both liberation theologies and create one that is at the same time focused on their class racial oppression[26]. The calls for a justice concerned with both race and class are evidenced throughout the history of Afro-Latinx activism, in which the church is the venue through which justice is delivered. In the 1960’s a mostly Afro-Latinx group of young people called the Young Lords, started The People’s Church in East Harlem[27]. The People’s Church had a mission to provide the community with services that were being denied to East Harlem by the elected officials. While some may see this as an anomaly during a unique era of Black Power and activism within the U.S., this is exemplified throughout the years of service done by Afro-Latinxs in Christian churches throughout NYC and other large urban centers.

Afro-Latinx theology is embodied. The embodiment of faith is not only evident in Afro-Latinx religious experience, it is necessary and makes it easier to understand the incarnation. “In [Pentecostal] liturgy it is important to include the movement of the body and the idea of human mobility in conquered spaces” writes Rev. Luis Barrios[28]. Paramount to Afro-Latinx people's spirituality is the idea that worship of the divine is corporeal to the worshiper. it is where the realization of the kindom messages incarnate by valuing the body. “For us, Black people, personal and physical reaffirmation is of extreme importance.”[29] Not a disembodied faith as some theologians claim, as if forgetting the incarnation. But a realization that God is meeting us on earth through our complexion and phenotype affirming God’s creation where the world often does not. This embodiment of faith embraces expansive theological perspectives that call for inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people and all people who are othered by society. “[This embodiment of faith] dismantles the very inequality that devalues the bodily presence of Black people, who are then able to recapture not only their power but also a sense of control over their own lives.”[30]

Understanding Afro-Latinx theological insights and perspectives helps us have a more complete appreciation of theology and how it is communicated through a people’s lived experiences. Negriología encourages us to understand God through a lens that may not always be emphasized. Theological insights gained by being bi-cultural, something that comes natural to Afro-Latinxs, allows an understanding of God as incarnate and divine. The transnational perspective of AfroLatinidad allows us to understand the fluidity of theological ideas inherent within Latinidad and the African Diaspora.

When considering the diversity of theological perspectives and insights that encompass the Afro-Latinx lived experience it is important to understand that though we're specifically naming Negriología, there isn’t a singular Afro-Latinx Theology, because AfroLatinidad is not singular. As with the African Diaspora, as with Latinidad, the Afro-Latinx experience is sundry. There is, however, a connective thread throughout that spirituality, that creates a method by which Afro-Latinxs experience and are seen by the Divine. This is evidenced by AfroLatinidad's unique influence on Christian worship, heard anytime Latinx parishioners sing a corito[31], or when an Afro-Latinx preacher reflects a more holistic and inclusive homiletic with unique and resonant emphases. It is evidenced through many burgeoning aspects of an Afro-Latinx Theology, but those aspects all have one singular purpose, to allow the Afro-Latinx person to bring forth the message and experience of their people.


[1] ChocQuibTown. Somos Los Prietos. MP3. Sin Miedo, 2018.
[2] “Church Eternal” is a term I use to describe the lived experience of the Christian church past, present and future.
[3] Jimenez Roman, Miriam. Letter to Guesnerth Josue Perea. África Habla En Mi, 2020.
[4] Guesnerth J Perea, “Representando Donde Quiera: The Afro-Latin@ Lived Experience,” World Outspoken (World Outspoken, January 3, 2021), https://www.worldoutspoken.com/articles-blog/representando-donde-quiera-the-afro-latin-lived-experience.
[5] Recently Latin American scholars have been using the term Abya Yala, a Kuna word for the continent of the Americas, to reclaim an indigenous name for the continent. For more read: Yenny Delagdo-Qullaw, “Teología Abya Yala: Identidad, Descendencia y Frontera,” PUBLICA, November 19, 2021, https://publicatheology.org/2021/11/16/teologia-abya-yala-identidad-descendencia-y-frontera/.
[6] For example, in two most recent works on Pentecostalism, Latino Pentecostals in America and Afro-Pentecostalism, neither book makes any mention of Afro-Latinxs, who were present in every step phase of the creation of Pentecostalism in the US. For more see: Espinosa Gastón, Latino Pentecostals in America: Faith and Politics in Action (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016) and Amos Yong and Estrelda Y. Alexander, Afro-Pentecostalism: Black Pentecostalism and Charismatic Christianity in History and Culture (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2011).
[7] Spanish for footprints/fingerprints.
[8] For a thorough understanding of these similarities see Samuel Cruz, Masked Africanisms: Puerto Rican Pentecostalism (Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Pub. Co., 2005).
[9] Negriología can be defined as: An understanding of the Divine that hails from the unique perspective and insights of AfroLatinxs. It is a term that evokes the fact that Blackness, Negritud in Spanish, is a category that connects the African Diaspora in Latin America, and the Latin American Diaspora, to the entire world. The word hails from similar efforts within Black Diasporic culture to define the uniqueness of the Black experience, e.g. Negritude, Nigrescence and mirrors similar efforts in the Latinx Diaspora to give a name to a distinctive theological viewpoint, e.g. Mujerista.
[10] Tierra Negra. Si Dios Fuera Negro. Vinyl. Tierra Negra, 1979.
[11] One can also say that AfroLatinxs, especially those from the Caribbean, straddle a Caribbean identity, which is often differentiated from a Latinx identity due to the extraordinarily diverse experiences between those on the continent and those on the islands. For more see: Roberts, Nicole. “Caribbean Identity: An Hispanic Caribbean Perspective.” Journal of Caribbean Literatures 4, no. 3 (2007): 29–49. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40986208.
[12] For a complete understanding of St. Martin De Porres’s life and how his Blackness was essential, see: Celia L. Cussen, Black Saint of the Americas: The Life and Afterlife of Martín De Porres (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2017).
[13] Busto Duthurburu José Antonio del, in San Martín De Porras (4a Ed.) (Lima, Perú: Pontificia Universidad Católica de Perú, 2017), pp. 152-154.
[14] Yolanda Pierce February 2 et al., “Naming My African American Ancestors to Keep Them Alive,” The Christian Century, February 2, 2021, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/first-person/naming-my-african-american-ancestors-keep-them-alive.
[15] Lat. for “Image of God” a term within Christianity to determine the fullness of the human being. See: F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
[16]   A term that replaced “Kingdom” within Christianity because of its associations to male normativity and oppression, the word “kindom” represents a re-telling of the narrative of a future where all are seen as the family of God. See: Isasi-Díaz, Ada María, Mujerista Theology a Theology for the Twenty-First Century (Maryknoll, NY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002).
[17] Within Christian theology and worship, the idea that the kindom of God is both already present and also still to come. For reference see: Mt 4:17, 12:28, Mk 1:15, Lk 9:27, 11:20, 13:18-21.
[18] Juan Flores, Jimenez Miriam Roman, and Luis Barrios, “Reflections and Lived Experiences of Afro-Latin@ Religiosity,” in The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), pp. 252.
[19] Larry Peterson, “Celebrating Black Catholic History Month: Meet Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange,” Aleteia, June 12, 2017, https://aleteia.org/2016/11/12/celebrating-catholic-black-history-month-meet-mother-mary-elizabeth-lange/.
[20] Yolanda Pierce February 2 et al., “Naming My African American Ancestors to Keep Them Alive,” The Christian Century, February 2, 2021, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/first-person/naming-my-african-american-ancestors-keep-them-alive.
[21] Cuesta Guiomar Escobar, Ocampo Alfredo Zamorano, and Lucrecia Panchano, “Currulao Pa’l Señor” in ¡Negras Somos!: Antología De 21 Mujeres Poetas Afrocolombianas de la región pacífica (Santiago de Cali, Colombia: Programa Editorial Universidad del Valle, 2008), pp. 52-53.
[22] A term coined by Miriam Jimenez Roman and Juan Flores, modeled after W.E.B. DuBois’ “double consciousness” term as found in Souls of Black Folk, describing AfroLatinxs as having a “distinctive experience and identity because of [their having to navigate] between Latin@, Black, and United States American dimensions of lived social reality.” For more see: Juan Flores and Jimenez Miriam Roman, “Introduction” in The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), pp. 14-15.
[23] Meaning a Vision or global conception of the universe. See: RAE, “Cosmovisión: Diccionario De La Lengua Española,” "Diccionario de la lengua española" - Edición del Tricentenario, 2022, https://dle.rae.es/cosmovision.
[24] James H. Cone, “Introduction,” in A Black Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2020), p. 10.
[25] Reference to John 4:23 (Inclusive Bible)
[26] I think it is interesting that both Gustavo Gutierrez’s A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1973) and James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1970) where developed around the same time but both failed to holistically include class and race as issues pertinent to Liberation Theology and it is emblematic of a specific place where AfroLatinx theologians can synchronize both perspectives. Even the more Protestant version of a Liberation Theology, Misión Integral, fails to include the combination of both race and class as issues that affect Latin American Christians. For more on Misión integral see: Padilla C. René, Mision Integral: Ensayos Sobre El Reino y La Iglesia (Grand Rapids, MI: Nueva Creación, 1986).
[27] “I heard that young people, who were trying to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, deal with the imprisoned, who were actually trying to perform the Christian mandate of what we call the Corporal Works of Mercy, had been bloodied in a church by police officers who had come in. In a church! A sacred space.  Immediately, the next Sunday, I went to investigate and be part of it.” from: Luis Garden Acosta, “Influential Puerto Rican Activist Group The Young Lords Marks 40th Anniversary,” Democracy Now!, 2009, https://www.democracynow.org/2009/8/21/young_lords.
[28] Juan Flores, Jimenez Miriam Roman, and Luis Barrios, “Reflections and Lived Experiences of Afro-Latin@ Religiosity,” in The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), pp. 253-254.
[29] Ibid, pp. 255-256
[30] Ibid, pp. 258-259.
[31] A colloquial word in Spanish-speaking Pentecostal circles for a short praise song used in religious services.

 

Guesnerth Josué Perea is the Executive Director of the afrolatin@ forum, Associate Pastor of Metro Hope Church, Co-Curator of the AfoLatine Theology Project, a Novice of the Community of Incarnation and a Sojourner's Rising Leaders Fellow. His research on Afro-Colombianidad has been part of various publications including Let Spirit Speak! Cultural Journeys through the African Diaspora and the Revista de Estudios Colombianos. Josué was named by the newspaper amNewYork as one of five Colombians "making a mark" in New York City.  Josué holds a MA in Theology from Alliance Theological Seminary, and BA in Latin American History from the City College of New York.