By Reese Coppin
It’s Hispanic Heritage Month so from September 15 to October 15, Cee Cee's Closet NYC will be spotlighting incredible Hispanic and Afro Latinxs leaders. Each year the National Hispanic Heritage Month commemorates the histories, cultures, and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.
It was first introduced in June 1968 by California Congressman George E. Brown. He pushed the recognition of the Latin community throughout the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement since it was at its peak and can grow awareness of the United States' multicultural identities. He represented East Los Angeles and a large portion of the San Gabriel Valley which was heavily populated by Hispanic and Latinx communities. In 1987 US representative Esteban E. Torres of California proposed celebrating this from a week to a month. He wanted the nation to properly coordinate events to celebrate Hispanic culture and achievements.
Celia Cruz born as Ursula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso was a successful Cuban singer and well known Latin artist of the 20th century. Celia was one of the most popular salsa performers of all time, recording 23 gold albums. She rose to fame in Cuba during the 1950s as a singer of guarachas, earning the nickname “La Guarachera de Cuba”. The “Son Con Guaguanco” album is a fan favorite. The album is an artifact of Cruz’s 1966 life, her transition from Cuba to the United States, institutional barriers and systemic racism also sexism. She became a symbol of pride and freedom. Cruz brought Afro-Cuban music to the world stage as a black woman despite the widespread discrimination. Thirty years after she left Cuba and 24 years after the release of her American solo debut she returned in 1990 to perform at the American naval base of Guantanamo Bay and kissed the soil beneath her feet. Today she is buried in New York with a fistful of Cuban earth.
Sylvia del Villard was an Afro-Puerto Rican actress, dancer, choreographer, and activist. She enrolled at Fisk University in Tennessee with a scholarship from the Puerto Rican government, took courses in social work and anthropology. Later she finished her studies at the University of Puerto Rico. While studying at the City College of New York, Sylvia’s cangrejera’s passion for Africa was awakened. This experience helped her to find her African roots in the Yoruba and Igbo tribes of Nigeria. In 1963 she began her career as a professional singer and recited poetry at the nightclub Ocho Puertas in Old San Juan. As a theatre actress, she worked on the big screen in the productions and continued to shine as a dancer and choreographer. In 1968, Sylvia founded the Teatro Afro-Boricua El Coqui company. The Pan-American Association for the Festival of The New World gave her a contract and recognized her as the greatest exponent of Afro-Puerto Rican and Antillean culture. The Luis Pales Matos theatre was opened and she presented numerous diverse projects there. However, due to problems with the neighbors, the theatre closed its doors leaving a void in the Afro-Boricua world. In 1971, there was a press release of Sylvia criticizing racist casting practices and television. The limited opportunities for black actors and actresses and the ongoing use of blackface. Sylvia continued to dance and sing. She returned to Puerto Rico in 1989 and received treatment for lung cancer. Sadly, she died shortly after. At the time of her passing, Sylvia del Villard was working on a cultural project called Puerto Africa.
These Afro-Latinx and many more paved a way for Afro-Latinxs today. They will forever be ingrained in American history as those who beat the odds and embraced their culture without sacrificing their dignity. We all can learn from them. Be unapologetic in your melanin.