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How Much Do You Know About These Afro-Latinos?

Influential, charismatic figures left their mark on the United States

From music, writing and acting to journalism, sports and activism, these talented Latinos of African descent have shaped the way we see the world. Here is a gallery of some of the most influential Afro-Latinos over the years.

Govind Armstrong

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Born in Los Angeles in 1969, Govind Armstrong spent his childhood there and in Costa Rica, his mother’s native country. It was in Costa Rica, while helping out in the kitchen at home, that his passion for cooking emerged. He brought his love of Latin American cuisines to his creations in the U.S. and is an advocate for the use of fresh ingredients from local producers in his dishes. Armstrong is the executive chef of 8oz. Burger Bar — with five restaurants in the U.S. — and author of Small Bites, Big Nights. He’s been featured in People and O, the Oprah Magazine, and in the TV shows Top Chef and Iron Chef America. In recent years, he has opened the restaurants Post & Beam in Los Angeles and Willie Jane in Venice, California.

Martina Arroyo

spinner image martina arroyo one of the first black opera singers
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One of the first Black opera singers, Martina Arroyo, the daughter of a Puerto Rican father and an African American mother, was born in Harlem in 1937. In 1958, Arroyo made her Carnegie Hall debut and won auditions for the Metropolitan Opera in New York. She went on to perform on stages such as the Vienna State Opera and Milan’s La Scala. As a lirico-spinto soprano, Arroyo dramatically portrayed Verdi heroines (the core of her repertoire), as well as performing in operas by Mozart, Puccini and others. In 2003, she established the Martina Arroyo Foundation and supports new generations of opera singers.

José Celso Barbosa

spinner image jose celso barbosa a renowned physician and politician
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Born in 1857 in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, José Celso Barbosa was renowned as a physician and a politician. His life spanned historic moments: from Spanish colonization, slavery and abolition to emancipation and the Spanish-American War. Barbosa studied medicine in the United States. After graduating with honors from the University of Michigan with a medical degree, he returned to his homeland and set up his practice — even though the Spanish government at first didn’t recognize his degree because it wasn’t from a European university. Regarded as the father of the Puerto Rican statehood movement, Barbosa became a tireless advocate for Puerto Rico’s annexation to the United States. He thought it would be the most effective way to free the island from Spanish colonialism. In 1899, he founded the Republican Party of Puerto Rico, and in 1907, he started the island’s first bilingual newspaper, El Tiempo. Barbosa’s thoughts on political and social reform, civil and labor rights, suffrage and Republicanism were published in several important newspapers of the day. He died in San Juan in 1921. His birthday, July 27, is an official holiday in Puerto Rico.

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Julia de Burgos

spinner image julia de burgos a puerto rican journalist and poet
JUAN ANGEL ALICEA MERCADO

A civil rights advocate for Afro-Caribbean women, Julia de Burgos was a Puerto Rican journalist and poet. She was born in 1914 in Carolina, Puerto Rico, and died in New York in 1953 at age 39. Although de Burgos left Puerto Rico when she was 25 and never returned, her nationality and identity were always part of her work. She wrote about the island’s colonial past, feminism, social justice and the consequences of slavery. De Burgos dreamed of a more broad-minded Puerto Rico than that of the 1930s when its intellectuals expressed ideas about identity that overlooked the issues of Puerto Ricans of African heritage. She received awards from the Institute of Puerto Rican Literature and an honorary doctorate from the University of Puerto Rico. Her feminist ideas continue to influence contemporary women authors.

Roberto Clemente

spinner image roberto clemente the first latino player to be inducted into the u s baseball hall of fame
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The first Latino player to be inducted into the U.S. Baseball Hall of Fame, Roberto Clemente was born in 1934 in Puerto Rico. After graduating from high school, he began his baseball career playing for a local league, the Cangrejeros de Santurce. He was recruited by U.S. teams, and in 1954, Clemente signed a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates and became one of the team’s greatest legends. In late 1972, Clemente became the first Latino player to reach 3,000 hits. He died that year at 38 when his plane crashed while on a humanitarian mission to Nicaragua.

Rosa Clemente

spinner image rosa clemente the first african american female to participate in a u s presidential election
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Rosa Clemente was born in the Bronx in 1972. In 2008, Clemente, who is of Puerto Rican ancestry, ran as the vice presidential nominee for the Green Party on a ticket with Rep. Cynthia McKinney. They became the first African American female political figures to participate in a U.S. presidential election. Clemente founded Know Thyself Productions, a media consulting firm that works on community advocacy, justice in the media, voter participation among marginalized young people, intercultural relationships between Black and Latino people and human rights issues. She was associate producer of Judas and the Black Messiah, a 2021 Oscar-winning film.

Celia Cruz

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With her extraordinary voice, endless joy and colorful outfits, Úrsula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso paved the way for Latin American music in North America and the world. Cruz, who was born in Havana in 1924 or 1925, got her start singing in nightclubs and rose in popularity in 1950 after joining La Sonora Matancera band as lead singer. After the 1959 Cuban revolution, she settled in the United States, where she performed as part of the Fania All Stars. She died in New Jersey in 2003, leaving a legacy of staunch opposition to Fidel Castro’s regime and her vibrant signature cry of “Azúcar!”

Sandra Guzmán

spinner image journalist author and documentary filmmaker sandra guzman
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An independent journalist, author, documentary filmmaker and Emmy Award winner, Sandra Guzmán was born in Puerto Rico and raised in New Jersey. She has dedicated her life to raising the voices of marginalized people and communities. An example is a series of intimate stories about the survivors of Hurricane María, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017. When offered the opportunity to interview 15 outstanding women for The Women’s List, a 2015 documentary, Guzmán said she “hit the journalism jackpot.” She was a producer of The Pieces I Am, a 2019 documentary about African American writer and Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison. Guzmán wrote The New Latina’s Bible, a book exploring themes of identity and memory, and is the editor of an upcoming anthology of Latin American female authors, Machetes Under Our Beds: An International Anthology of Words and Writings by Daughters of Latin America, featuring 140 literary voices.

Sunny Hostin

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Born in New York City in 1968, Sunny Hostin was raised in the Bronx in a bilingual household by her Puerto Rican mother, Rosa Beza, and her African American father, William Cummings. She showed interest in the media from a young age: She wanted to tell people’s stories and appear on TV. Bowing to her family’s expectations, Hostin set aside those dreams to attend law school. After she became an attorney, Hostin was approached during a Bar Association event by a Court TV producer who urged her to get in front of the television cameras. She was 38 and has been on TV ever since. At first, she battled stereotypes and the lack of opportunities in the visual media world. She was told she didn’t have the right profile to become a national TV host. But she did not let go of her dream: Today, she’s a senior analyst and legal correspondent for ABC News and cohost of The View, an ABC daytime show.

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Paulo Lins

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Paulo Lins, who grew up in the Cidade de Deus favela in Rio de Janeiro, began writing poems in 1980. His first book, Sobre o sol, was published in 1986. In 1995, he was awarded a Vitae de Literatura grant, which enabled him to write his masterpiece, City of God — a sociological novel about the lives of children and young people in a Brazilian favela who were drug dealers, murderers and addicts. In 2002, the book was the basis for director Fernando Meirelles’ movie, which was nominated for four Oscars and one Golden Globe.

Soledad O’Brien

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Soledad O’Brien was named Journalist of the Year in 2010 by the National Association of Black Journalists and one of Newsweek’s “15 People Who Make America Great” in 2006. Born to a Cuban mother and an Australian father, O’Brien has won three Emmy Awards and created the CNN documentary series Black in America and Latino in America. She has been recognized for reporting about natural disasters such as the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In 2013, O’Brien launched Starfish Media Group, which produces stories about empowerment. In 2017, Starfish became the PowHERful Foundation, to better reflect its focus on empowering young women in the U.S. In 2020, O’Brien made the documentary Outbreak: The First Response, about the first community that confronted the COVID-19 outbreak and the families who advocated for their parents locked in nursing homes during the pandemic. One of her most recent projects is the Matter of Fact Listening Tour, where she explores social and equity issues.

Pelé

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Living in poverty while working as a shoeshine boy, Edson Arantes do Nascimento dreamed of playing for a Brazilian soccer team. In 1956, when he was just 15, he was signed by the Santos of São Paulo. At 17, he joined Brazil’s national team, which won the 1958 World Cup championship in Sweden. Thanks to his command of the ball and smart shots, Pelé scored more than a thousand goals during his career. In 1975, he joined the New York Cosmos. Pelé retired in 1977, consolidating his position as “the greatest soccer player of all time.” Pelé died in December at 82.

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Rosie Pérez

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Although Rosie Pérez’s accent betrays her as Brooklyn-born, her parents are Puerto Rican. She began her career in the late 1980s as a dancer on the TV show Soul Train. Her movie debut was in 1989 as Spike Lee’s girlfriend in Do the Right Thing, and she earned an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress for her role in Fearless in 1993. Critics praised her performance on the HBO series The Flight Attendant. Pérez also has acted on Broadway. Since the ’90s, she has advocated on health issues such as AIDS and, more recently, arts education through the Urban Arts Partnership — an organization that supports underserved students in New York and Los Angeles.

Dámaso Pérez Prado

spinner image cuban musician damaso perez prado
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The mambo, an infectious Latin American rhythm, rose to popularity in the 1950s thanks to this Cuban musician. Dámaso Pérez Prado created it by adding Afro-Cuban rhythms and instruments, kettledrums and elements of jazz to the danzón. Prado became the first Latino artist to hit number 1 on the U.S. Billboard charts with “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White.” The “Mambo King,” who was born in Matanzas, Cuba, in 1916, became a Mexican citizen in 1980. He died in Mexico in 1989.

Judy Reyes

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Born in the Bronx, New York, Judy Reyes’ family’s Latino roots go back to the Dominican Republic. She attended Hunter College, a public university in Manhattan, and became interested in acting. Reyes performed on theater stages until the 1990s, when she decided to focus on TV, taking guest spots in shows such as Law & Order, NYPD Blue and The Sopranos. She scored a movie part in the 1992 indie film Jack and His Friends. She played nurse Carla Espinosa in the comedy Scrubs (2001–2009), followed by roles in One Day at a Time (2017–2020), Succession (2018), Black-ish (2020) and Batwoman (2022). She helped create the LAByrinth Theater Company, a space that welcomes everyone who dreams of expressing themselves through art, regardless of their ethnicity.

Zoe Saldaña

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Zoe Saldaña, who was born in 1978 in New Jersey to a Dominican father and a Puerto Rican mother, grew up in Queens, New York. After her father died when she was 9, Saldaña moved with her sisters to the Dominican Republic, where she studied dance. At 17, she returned to the U.S. and began her career performing in New York theaters. In 2000, Saldaña made her feature film debut with Center Stage and has since appeared in movies such as CrossroadsDrumlinePirates of the CaribbeanStar TrekAvengers: EndgameAmsterdam and Avatar.

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg

spinner image advocate and professor of african american history arturo alfonso schomburg
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A bibliophile, advocate and professor of African American history and culture, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg was born in Puerto Rico in 1874 and moved to New York when he was 17. His work as a book collector and curator during the first half of the 20th century helped set the foundation of what is now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library. It is said that when Schomburg was a child, he asked his teacher why they had not studied Black history and she replied that Black people had no history. Most biographies of Schomburg mention this as a turning point in his life. Determined to unearth Black people’s achievements in the Americas, Schomburg visited uncommon bookstores and other collections — gathering books, brochures, historical documents, poems, newspapers, speeches, letters, engravings, works of art and more. In 1925, he published his best-known essay, “The Negro Digs Up His Past.” Schomburg died in 1938 and is buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Piri Thomas

spinner image author piri thomas known for his memoir down these mean streets
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Piri Thomas became known for his 1967 memoir, Down These Mean Streets, which was his debut as a writer. In it, Thomas wrote about the hardships he faced in terms of identity, poverty and racism. It was the experience many children of Latino parents faced in neighborhoods such as Harlem. Because of its bluntness, the novel became controversial and was banned from some schools and libraries. Thomas was born in Harlem in 1928 to a Puerto Rican mother and a Cuban father. He spent a few years in prison as a young man, after which he gave up his life of crime. He died in 2011, leaving his mark on Nuyorican literature.

Felix ‘Tito’ Trinidad

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Born in Puerto Rico in 1973, Felix “Tito” Trinidad began his boxing career at the age of 12. He won five amateur championships. His professional boxing career started in 1990, and he became champion of the International Boxing Federation and the World Boxing Association. In 1999, he defeated Oscar De La Hoya in the much-remembered “Fight of the Millennium” in Las Vegas, becoming a World Boxing Council champion. He has a record of 42 wins and three losses, with 35 victories by knockout.

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