Se Lo Debemos A Elles: The legacy and movements of Black U.S. people organizing for freedom paved the way for Latinx people in the U.S. 

Written by Ysanet Batista Vargas

All this month in the United States we celebrated and commemorated Black History. In 1926 Black people created “Negro History Week” due to the lack of Black history being studied in U.S. schools, institutions of higher education, life, and science. In 1976 the U.S. adopted the month of February as Black History Month. 

I have been curious to understand how low income immigrants from Latin America and the Spanish speaking Caribbean experienced the Black Power and Civil Rights era. My family and I are from the Dominican Republic and they migrated to New York in the early 60s and, while they were mostly focused on surviving as new immigrants in the Bronx and Harlem, I know my Dominican family and I get to live and exist in theU.S. due to organizing by Black people from the U.S. I was raised in a household that benefitted from SNAP, WIC, rent-control apartments, free public school, and other state programs that were created because of Black U.S. political & community organizing. Yet, I wasn’t taught in school much Black history or have taken time to explore in full depth the HOW, WHEN, and WHY. I wanted to have a more informed and accurate understanding of this story and used this month to explore, with more intention and detail, the impact of past Black U.S. movement organizing on the lives and rights that the majority of Latinx people benefit from today.  

This month I was enrolled in Afro Latinx Travel’s Invierno Negro class series and in our Mexico and Texas entanglement class we were taught about Felix Tijerina, a Mexican U.S. born person who was the president of LULAC (The League of United Latin American Citizens) and was quoted saying “Let the Negro fight his own battles. His problems are not mine, I don’t want to ally with him”. We can see these sentiments present today when the Los Angeles council members y were recorded stating racist, anti-Black comments. I grew up witnessing anti-Black comments spoken by people in my community and within my family so the news wasn’t surprising to me and I know many of us might have countless examples of anti-Blackness. This month I’d rather focus on the ways that we (people from Latin America and the Spanish speaking Caribbean) have benefited from the political labor of Black people from the US for the purpose of increasing our shared organizing and solidarity. 

Below are just a few of the wins that Black U.S. people achieved that helped all people from Latin America and the Spanish speaking Caribbean living in the U.S.:

  • The Chicano Movement that grew in the 1960s – a civil/human rights struggle advocating for liberation and full citizenship for Mexican Americans – was inspired by the Black Power and Civil Rights Movement. Seeing Black U.S. citizens fight for equality and their cause, the Chicanos pushed for equality in U.S. society as well. A relationship between the Black Panthers and United Farm Workers started during the early 1960’s. It formed due to the fact that they were both communities that were victims of oppression from the white dominant class. The BPP supported the UFW through their newspaper, The Black Panther. In it, the BPP would add articles which addressed the desire of the UFW protest. They would encourage their readers to support the movements and protest such as the boycotts of crops. One particular example is when the UFW was boycotting California table grapes  (led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta), the UFW goal was to get Safeway stores to only sell grapes the farmers picked on their own. Soon enough the Panthers and UFW began protesting in other Safeway stores in the area, and went national in October 1968 (Araiza, 200). During this time, the BPP issued the first article of the boycotting. Actions like these, led to the strengthening of their alliance, solidarity was present, the BPP was continuously helping the UFW take action. 
  • The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program was also achieved by the Civil Rights movement. In 2021, the rate of food insecurity among Hispanics was 16.2% – a rate 2.3 times higher than that of white households (7%). In 2021, more than 41 million individuals participated in SNAP. More than one in five SNAP participants are Latino. Latinos also make up more than 40% of WIC participants. 
  • Worker-Owned Cooperative Businesses – According to the U.S. 2021 Worker Cooperatives State of the Sector Report, 25% of people from Latin America own cooperatives in the United States. While the cooperative concept is very popular in many Latin American countries, many low income immigrants from Latin America did not start owning businesses until the late 60s. Africans who were forcibly brought to the United States used the collective concept today called cooperative economics in the 1800s and have utilized it for all the time they’ve been in the U.S. Many of the widely-known thought leaders who promoted political rights for African Americans, also more quietly and in practice promoted economic cooperation as the way to help Black communities survive racial and economic discrimination. Examples include W. E. B. Du Bois, Ella Jo Baker, John Lewis, and Ralph Paige.     
  • Immigration Laws: It was the struggle for civil rights led by African Americans that led to the change of immigration law in the U.S. from the quota system to family reunification system. Prior to the civil rights demands, the majority of immigrants were White Europeans. The 1965 Amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 not only allowed family unification for non-white Europeans but also altered the ethno-racial makeup of the US population (first majority people from Asia and secondly people from Latin America). In the book Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America by Juan Gonzalez, he shows data that the surge of migration from Latin America due to this immigration act were Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala (also due to United States’ military and economic intervention in these countries.)  

 Other victories influenced by and modeled after the Black Panthers (BP) Party: 

    • The Black Manters, Young Lords, La Causa/Los Brown Berets, are all political organizing groups in Latinx communities that were influenced by the Black Panther Party.
    • Our current National School Lunch Program is modeled after the Black Panther’s free breakfast program
    • Federal and state programs for sliding scale health clinics are based on BP free clinics
    • The Social Work of Ethics is based on the BP code of ethics. 

There are MANY more examples and victories that my people owe to Black U.S. folks but for now I hope this could inspire you to deepen and broaden your own research. What I found to be amazing is that Black U.S. people weren’t only organizing for themselves but they brought along everyone else in their fight for freedom from White Supremacist violence and a right to participate in U.S. democracy despite other racial and ethnic groups not trying to do the same for them. Much intentional effort has been put into pitting Black U.S. and Latinx communities against each other in ways that obscure the need for an interconnected, broader fight against oppressive systems. And the work to put aside false information about Black U.S. people also required intentional and organized effort. 

I have to confess that learning history, data, facts, etc. feels daunting to me – maybe because I am a millennial who didn’t learn to appreciate reading until becoming an adult – but this month I got my learning on in ways that were most accessible to me: conversations with comrades, taking live virtual classes, and watching videos. All of this information is important to have as we combat anti-Blackness within ourselves and in our people / communities. I am grateful to have had the chance to do this deep dive as one of my goals this year is to continue organizing within my family. I feel more clear and grounded to unravel dominant white supremacist narratives with both quick facts and deep history WHILE being more patient, connected, and responsible.