During the transatlantic slave trade, Latin America and the Caribbean received 95% of enslaved Africans. Although many Afro-Latinos inhabit the island of Puerto Rico, the choice to identify as Black is still heavily debated. In 2000, 80% of Puerto Ricans identified as white on the U.S. census. Ten years later, that number only decreased to 76%. Why do some Black Latinos call themselves "Afro-Latinx" and why do others dislike the term? Do Afro-Puerto Ricans face similar struggles with policing, discrimination, environmental inequality, and economic disparity as Black Americans outside the island?
Natasha S. Alford, vice president of digital content and senior correspondent at theGrio, traveled to Loiza, Puerto Rico, to produce her Pulitzer Center-supported documentary, Afro-Latinx Revolution: Puerto Rico. With information and stories from interviews with over 20 Puerto Rican and Afro-Latinx residents, scholars, and community activists, Afro-Latinx Revolution discusses Afro-Latinx identity while reporting on racism, police abuse, and the revolution that ousted former Governor Ricardo A. Rosselló.
"I met Natasha at an NABJ (National Association of Black Journalists) convention some years ago. She made an impression. She was overflowing with so many great story ideas and I was pleased a few weeks later when she proposed a project on Puerto Rico's underreported Afro-Latinx community,” said Pulitzer Center Senior Editor Tom Hundley. “I knew we'd get something good from her, but what she has delivered has exceeded all expectations."
To learn more about the filmmaking process, the inspiration behind the film, and journalistic practices, Pulitzer Center Intern Shana Joseph spoke with Alford. The following Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.
Shana Joseph: What inspired you to want to cover the experience of Afro-descendants in Puerto Rico?
Natasha Alford: I like to tell this story for anybody who may feel discouraged or intimidated by taking on a big project. I actually pitched the series to the Pulitzer in 2018 at a National Association of Black Journalists conference. The motivation was more personal at the time. Growing up African American and Puerto Rican, I felt that we were often told the same story of Puerto Ricans being Black, Taíno, and Spanish. But there wasn't much explanation or education when it came to understanding the African influence on the culture. I thought it would be a great opportunity to survey race on the island and understand how race manifests in modern-day society but I didn't follow up.
And then the protest against the governor happened in 2019 and it was the perfect fresh news peg. It was the perfect time to evaluate how political organizing was really changing the country. Most mainstream news covered the political story but I saw an opportunity for an overlooked story that would focus on the anti-racism aspect of the organizing.
I pitched again to Tom Hundley at the Pulitzer Center. He was open and supportive of the project. Once I got The New York Times to sign on to review my reporting and consider my story in The Guardian, I was off to Puerto Rico within a week of pitching the story.
SJ: During the planning process of your film, were you concerned about gaining the trust of the people you interviewed? If so, how did you plan to overcome that?
NA: Yes. As a journalist, you cannot make a story up. You have to report what is actually there. There were no guarantees that some of my hunches about what the stories would be would actually manifest. Fortunately, I got quite a few interviews that perfectly highlighted some of those racial dynamics, systemic racism, and political activism that I wanted to profile.
Journalism requires a lot of humility when you step into the unknown. And so even if you think you have a connection to a community, you can still be an outsider. It's not enough to be Black going into a Black community or to speak the same language. There are so many things that make a community what it is. I was aware that I was coming in as somebody who was from the continental U.S. I also wasn't fluent in Spanish, so that would potentially be a barrier. So what was key was having people who could vouch for me and choosing to work intentionally with local partners on the island. I did not come with a crew and inject myself into communities with people that they didn't know. I sought out people who were already connected to the island, hired them, and worked with them as partners to book interviews and to get footage. I made sure that I was able to get them because I established relationships on the island. So, yes, it was overwhelming but I just relied on the craft and techniques of good journalism. And fortunately, it came together.
SJ: I noticed that you chose musicians, community leaders, lawyers, and more to be a part of this documentary? How did you decide who you wanted to interview?
NA: First, I leveraged sources who were here in the continental U.S. Dr. Marta Moreno Vega is the director of the (Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, CCCADI) in East Harlem. She is a pioneer in this work and I asked for her recommendations on the island.
When you start with the activists, they can point you in great directions in terms of just branching out. I started with activists who were doing anti-racism work and then I had some sources in the legal space because one of the stories I reported on focused on immigration and whether Black Latinos were being targeted by ICE.
I think what was important to me was showcasing differences of opinion and that everybody does not approach the work in the same way. Just because you don't go into the streets in protest doesn't mean that you're not doing anti-racism work. Marcos Rivera, the attorney we interviewed, is a great example of that. He looks very different. He's not necessarily wearing traditional African garb or maybe some of the things that you think of when you think, “Oh this is an Afro-Puerto Rican.” He's wearing three-piece suits and glasses in the film, but he's pro-Black and very conscious of race. So I thought it was important to complicate our visual narratives and understandings of what activists look like and how they do what they do.
SJ: When editing and completing this film, what were some key takeaways and facts that you wanted to make sure were conveyed in the documentary?
NA: I did want people to understand that the impact of the slave trade is still alive and well. Slavery is not a thing that we should talk about only in the past tense. I hope that the documentary accomplished bringing history forth to think of slavery as something that was beyond the continental U.S. There's a history and a legacy that we have to unpack.
But, I'm really open to different reactions to the film, I don't want to tell people what to think. I do just hope that it inspires more storytelling. I felt that our film was like an introduction. It was a survey of the landscape of many different problems. But we didn't get to everything. There were so many things that I still would have liked to talk about. So, I hope people see it as a starter for conversations and that it inspires more reporting that's focused on the Black experience in the Caribbean and in Latin America. The keyword here is complicating the narrative. While most people think of Puerto Ricans and the first person who comes to mind is JLo or they use that phrase, “butter pecan, Puerto Rican,” I hope they understand that there's way more to the story than that.
SJ: Being Puerto Rican and Afro-descendent, you stated that you have a personal connection to this story. How did that affect how you related to your sources? What was it like hearing their stories?
NA: Yeah, I definitely felt a connection. I felt that there was an erasure that happens when it comes to Afro-Puerto Ricans, to the point where people would be surprised that they existed. So, I felt the pain of being told that you're not enough of one thing or another. I felt like that was something that I could empathize with. It just went to show that there isn't anything you can do to prove your belonging, as long as racism exists. The film showed Puerto Ricans who grew up on the island, who spoke fluent Spanish, and who were fully immersed in the culture. Yet they still find themselves having to justify their existence. I understand that because people questioned whether I was Puerto Rican enough. My sources gave me peace because I realized even if I were to pass all these tests that people try to put in front of me, I may still very well deal with discrimination and racism. I certainly felt connected to them.
SJ: As I watched your documentary, I loved the personal touches where viewers heard your story and your reflections. Why was it important to you to include personal anecdotes in the documentary?
NA: I have to give full credit to my documentary mentor. Her name is Aurora Guerrero and she is a Chicana writer and director. Aurora was the one who encouraged me to include my personal story because I didn't have it in the first cut of the documentary. I was very afraid of being perceived as trying to make myself the center of the story. I didn't want it to be about me. I wanted it to be about them. But, she convinced me that there was power in explaining the why. There's power in explaining your connection to a story and the questions that you are trying to work through because then you are going on the journey with the audience versus speaking to them as if you are just an authority. It actually worked out really nicely that she gave me that feedback.
SJ: Did you encounter any obstacles/problems while filming and interviewing? What were they?
NA: I would say the only problem was just the delay that comes when having to translate as a reporter. I don’t speak Spanish fluently but I wanted people to speak to me in their native language. I think those are the best interviews because they are speaking from a place of comfort versus trying to perform in English. I would want to speak back to them but I could only do it in English or a little bit of broken Spanish. So, the exchange of information is a little bit slower when you have a language barrier. I was lucky to have a translator most of the time. However, because of my schedule, there were some interviews I just had to do on my own. So, there was a lot of hustle involved. I was translating on my phone and listening. Now I'm committing to working on my Spanish and this project inspired me to really take it seriously.
SJ: Why did you choose to keep the documentary bilingual?
NA: It was important to me that audiences who speak both languages have access. I did not want to prioritize English as being somehow more important than Spanish. This was a story that was taking place in a dominantly Spanish-speaking community. That community deserves to watch the film and have access to everything that's being discussed as much as people who speak English only.
We've come out of a time in America where people were being attacked for speaking Spanish in public. They were being verbally assaulted and physically assaulted. In a small way, my choice to keep Spanish in the documentary is a form of resistance against hatred and xenophobia. I’m also being as inclusive as possible because I do not just care about the reactions of English-speaking audiences. I care about the reactions and dialogue that comes from Spanish-speaking audiences too.
SJ: What was the most difficult part about reporting on a topic like this one?
NA: It’s just the feeling that you will miss something or that you can't get to everything. I was very intentional about not leaving out important parts of the story. When a subject this huge is raised, there's always a risk that you leave out something that's vital to the story.
I was very conscious of being inclusive and making sure that I did not reinforce stereotypes. I feel there's a tremendous responsibility when you make a film, especially when you're reporting about a place that you don't live in. You want to get that story right. I wanted all my subjects to feel respected and to feel that they were represented well and truthfully, not in a PR sense, but in the sense that what I chose to include from their interviews was a good representation of what they believe. There's just so much power in journalism. For anyone who trusts you with their story, you want them to walk away feeling as though they were respected in the process.
SJ: How has this experience changed you?
NA: That’s a good question. Now more than ever, I feel encouraged to go off the beaten path. When I first pitched this story, it felt like I was trying to do something that maybe was just important to me, but I wasn't sure if I could convince other editors and other outlets to care about what I cared about. In choosing to charge forward, find a way to get it done, build support, and get people talking about the project, I realized that it is possible. It inspired me to be fiercely independent, to be original in my ideas, and to lead and think about what's important to me rather than worry about what is trending. I think there's a lot of power in that, and perhaps that is why I delayed the first time I pitched the story. I wasn't 100% convinced that I could pull it off. The second time around, I felt like I couldn’t lose this opportunity. I had to tell the story. So, now I feel even more convicted to go after my ideas and to believe in my own ideas. I hope the project does the same for others who may feel a little bit unsure if they can make it happen. You definitely can make it happen and it's worth trying. You owe it to yourself to try.