Whether baseball player Linda Alvarado purchased the Colorado Rockies or first Latina astronaut Ellen Ochoa broke barriers in space, Latinos have shaped American history.
Now, researchers are leveraging DNA to reveal hidden aspects of that history. They used genome-wide data from 6,500 people in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru to show that broad populations of Latin Americans today have ancestry from North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean—specifically Sephardic Jews.
As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, it is vital to remember that racial identity is complicated. More than 130 million Latin Americans have at least some African ancestry, according to the Pew Research Center. This figure represents the significant impact of enslaved Africans in Latin America.
Many Latinos who identify as having at least some black ancestry also have other ethnic identities that contribute to their broader cultural identity. Some straddle two worlds, embracing and celebrating their origins’ cultures. This is especially true of Afro-Latinos, Latinos who have full or primarily sub-Saharan African ancestry, often referred to as Black Latin Americans.
Notable Dominicans whose physical features suggest a full or predominant African ancestry include bachata singer Antony Santos, baseball players Sammy Sosa and José Alberto “El Canario,” and basketball player Al Horford. These individuals, and many others in the Dominican Republic, are descendants of a system of racial stratification imposed on that country by Spanish colonial authorities.
Exploring one’s heritage often involves a curiosity about Latino genetic ancestry, providing individuals with insights into their familial roots and the diverse cultural influences that contribute to their genetic makeup.
The research of several scientists and scholars indicates that the African ancestry of Latinos is primarily the result of interbreeding between white Europeans and enslaved Africans. This is particularly apparent in the case of Puerto Rico, where the Y chromosome of males indicates an ancestry that includes indigenous Caribbean people and black Africans. Likewise, the mitochondrial DNA of some participants in one study showed that they had an admixture with black Africans and white Europeans.
Latinos brought various cultural traditions and practices from the beginning of their European journey. The study’s first section, Making the Nation, explores how they helped form the American nation through their presence in thought and media, agriculture, commerce, labor, and military service.
It’s worth remembering that the American Latino story is more than a tale of war, revolution, and empire. It is also about people who have built America through hard work and determination.
One way that Latinos have contributed to America is by preserving and celebrating cultural traditions. Historian Jeffrey M. Pilcher, for example, points out that while salsa has become one of America’s favorite condiments, it was essentially Latinos who pioneered the American food industry by planting citrus and nut orchards in Florida and throughout the Southwest, founding cattle ranches in Texas, and cultivating vineyards in California.
Similarly, Latinos have contributed to the advancement of American medicine and science. From discovering the role mosquitoes play in spreading yellow fever to starting grape boycotts in support of a health initiative, Latinos have been relentless participants in the redefinition and democratization of American science and medicine. Finally, the study’s second section, Making a Life, delves into how Latinos have created (and re-created) their public and private lives, customs, and expressions in the U.S., including developing popular culture and social institutions. It also examines the importance of spirituality to the Latino experience and the need for empirical measures of spirituality that reflect the diversity of Latino cultures and religions.
While many Latinos identify as Hispanic, the term is not a race but a group of people with a shared cultural heritage. The Latino cohort is highly diverse, which creates inclusivity. It also makes it easier to explore intersectionality.
This year, Hispanic Heritage Month, we celebrated the contributions of iconic Latinos, including Mexican-American artist Frida Kahlo, Puerto Rican baseball player Roberto Clemente, labor and farmworker leader Dolores Huerta, Cuban singer Celia Cruz, and the first Latina Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. They inspire role models in the community and remind us that we must always strive for excellence.
Native Americans are known for their complex kinship structures, healing rituals, and beautiful art, including pottery, textiles, and kachina dolls. They relied on oral tradition, making them natural storytellers. They also were untamed warriors and akichitas, or protectors of their villages.
The U.S. has a long history of colonization and genocide of Native American tribes. The impact is still felt today in a wide range of social and health problems, including diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular diseases. Fortunately, a new generation of Latino leaders are fighting to change this trajectory and make the U.S. more inclusive to everyone.
Latinos have indelibly shaped American culture throughout the generations. Their contributions have shaped everything from music and film to politics and sports. And they continue to drive America’s economy.
But despite their prominence in the country, Latinos are still underrepresented across media industries. They’re particularly underrepresented on major newspapers’ Editorial Boards and widely read opinion sections. An overwhelmingly white, with only one Latino member, while the nationally recognized opinion section of the New York Times has no members of color.
The program follows research participants who use their acquired genetic ancestry to interrogate either their black/African or white/European heritage. The program illustrates how the idea of racial and ethnic purity is undermined by the complexity of diasporic relationships and migration histories, including colonial and slave ancestries.
Latinos are a crucial part of our national identity and must be represented in the debate about immigration policy, economic inequality, and other issues that affect them. But to do that, we must first embrace a more inclusive view of being Latino. As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, this is an important reminder to do just that.