Feature illustration Toussaint l’Ouverture, Haiti by William H. Johnson
When asked to talk about my maternal homeland, Honduras, in an attempt to raise awareness about the plight of my fellow catrachos, I used to share that Honduras was one of the poorest countries in Latin America. Some people would ask me, “Even poorer than Haiti?” to which I would respond, “Well, no. But Haiti’s not part of Latin America.”
And so went my understanding of Latin America and Haiti, until I became exposed to the history of the island of Hispaniola and realized something rarely acknowledged: Haiti is a part of Latin America; Haitians, it could be justifiably asserted, are Latinos too.
The categorization of Haitians as Latinos centers on the definition of the term Latino itself and the definition of the Latino community itself. If all Latinos are Hispanic – meaning they are, either ethnically or culturally, recently or centuries ago, of Spain or the Iberian Peninsula generally – then Haitians cannot be considered Latinos, because they have, of course, a mixed heritage which is much more African and French than it is Spanish. But I don’t define Latinos as being exclusively Hispanic. The name “Latin America,” I argue, should be considered literally: the various peoples produced by Romance colonial powers in the Americas, specifically, by Spain, Portugal and France.
Now, if you are one of the millions of Latinos who think of the terms Latino and Hispanic as interchangeable, if you proudly and emphatically link Latino heritage to rapacious conquistadors, then my arguments will fall on deaf ears. But if, like a growing minority of Latinos, you view being Latino as something broader and more inclusive – if, for instance, you include Brazil, a nation with a Portuguese heritage, in your definition of Latin America – than you must also include in your definition the country of Haiti, a nation with a shared history with the full-fledged Latin Americans of the Dominican Republic and a people not significantly more Black than other settlements within the Latin Caribbean or along the Brazilian coast.
It may be that Haitians are regularly excluded from the Latin American world because they are francophone. But this ignores completely the word Latin in the name “Latin America,” since French and Spanish, as Western Romance languages along with Portuguese, are derived from Vulgar Latin; hence, “Latin America.”
Also, even France and Spain share a common history and heritage, especially during the centuries of imperialistic expansion in which Latin America originated. Before the 16th century, going as far back as ancient Rome, France and Spain began as the Roman territories of Gaul and Hispania. During the crumbling of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, Gaul and Hispania were conquered by Germanic tribes, the Franks and the Visigoths, respectively. Most recently, the histories and fates of France and Spain converged under the Bourbon crown since 1700. In fact, the current king of Spain, Juan Carlos I, is not only a member of the House of Bourbon, but also the (French) Capetian and (Austrian) Hapsburg dynasties.
Unfortunately, I don’t think its French-ness excludes Haiti from popular definitions of Latin America, but its African-ness. Antihaitianismo, normally attributed to Dominicans, is an ideology and practice shared by nations throughout Latin America in one form or another. The argument put forth is, not that Haitians are Black, but that they’re too Black. The Haitian tradition of Vodou – a mixture of Catholic, West African and Arawak beliefs and practices – may also keep Haiti outside the Latino realm, but Vodou is hardly different from Cuban and Puerto Rican Santería, a popular and widely-recognized religious tradition within the Latino community. What, then, besides language, is the difference between Blacks practicing Vodou in Haiti and Blacks practicing Santería no more than 60 miles away in Cuba? To my mind, there is no difference.
Ultimately, it’s not up to anyone but the Haitian people to decide whether or not Haiti is to be considered a part of Latin America. Latino, after all and most important, is a form of self-identification and self-awareness. Given my arguments here, nothing could stop French Canadians, for example, as “the various peoples produced by Romance colonial powers in the Americas,” from identifying themselves as Latinos also. I only argue, however, that we Latinos must stop viewing Haitians as so unlike ourselves, and that, if the Haitian people were to claim the Latino identity as their own, how could we – especially the Afro-Latinos among us – deny their claim?