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Scholar, Historian, Activist and Collector Arturo Alfonzo Schomburg

Los-Afro Latinos


Scholar, Historian, Activist and Collector

Arturo Alfonzo Schomburg

Lorena Ramirez

During January Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is celebrated in the United States. It’s a time set aside to commemorate his life, and most importantly, to remember his contributions to the African-American Civil Rights Movement (1960s). King, in a civil disobedient manner, fought hard to demonstrate that the rights of African-Americans mattered, just as much as those of white people.

One of the individuals who labored, enhancing the commentary and activism upon which Dr. King pursued his life’s mission was Arturo A. Schomburg (1874-1938), Father of Black History. While Schomburg’s endeavors took place more than 120 years ago, they were instrumental and created a legacy for the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement.


BEFORE Martin Luther King …Arturo A. Schomburg

Born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, January 24, 1874, Schomburg’s mother was a black woman originally from St. Croix, and his father was a Puerto Rican of German heritage. He attended San Juan’s Instituto Popular, where he learned commercial printing, and St. Thomas College in the Virgin Islands, where he studied Negro Literature.

Schomburg was a self-proclaimed Afro-Borinqueño (black Puerto Rican) whose fervent pursuit of African history was attributed to a teacher who told him, “Negroes have no history, no heroes, or great moments.” That auspicious moment set Schomburg on a path to invalidate those comments. He deliberately dedicated his life to the black liberation movement, collecting, documents and artifacts as well as speaking about the absent yet rich history of the African Diaspora.

From Puerto Rico to New York

In 1891 Schomburg migrated to New York City, specifically Harlem, where he became involved in the Harlem Renaissance, the independence movements for Cuba and Puerto Rica. He was a member of the Revolutionary Committee of Puerto Rico, a group of Cubans and Puerto Ricans, who sought independence from Spain. He was secretary of Las Dos Antillas, an organization that worked for the independence of both Cuba and Puerto Rico. A year later he became a Mason with El Sol de Cuba #38, a Spanish-speaking lodge comprised of Cuban and Puerto Rican immigrants and there are conflicting dates regarding when he become the Master of El Sol de Cuba #38 (1911/1918/1922). Disillusion by the lack of progress towards and independent Cuba and Puerto Rico, Schomburg changed the Masonic group’s name to Prince Hall Lodge, honoring the first US black freemason (Prince Hall).

Schomburg took on a variety of jobs, while living in New York. In 1896 he began teaching Spanish (1901 to 1906) and continued his interest in studying the role blacks played in Spanish history; he also served as a messenger and clerk for Pryor, Mellis and Harris (law firm) and in 1906 he worked for the Bankers Trust Company.


He married Elizabeth Hatcher of Staunton, Virginia, June 30, 1895, with whom he had three sons, Maximo Gomez, Arthur Alfonso Jr. and Kingsley Guarionex. Hatcher died in 1900 and Schomburg married Elizabeth Morrow Taylor of Williamsburg, North Carolina, Mar. 17, 1902, with whom he had two children, Reginald Stanton and Nathaniel Jose Schomburg.

Scholar, Historian and Activist

During 1904 Schomburg’s first known article, ‘Is Hayti Decadent?’ was published in The Unique Advertiser. In 1912 he co-edited (Daniel A. Payne Murray) “Encyclopedia of the Colored Race. A year later, 1913, speaking to a group of black educators at Cheyney University, Schomburg promoted the inclusion of black history throughout the U.S.’s educational system. He was a contributing writer for Crisis Magazine (official publication of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), co-founded the Negro Society for Historical Research with John Edward Bruce and was president of the American Negro Academy.

In 1924 the African American registry described Schomburg as dedicated to revealing and reinterpreting the African Diaspora. He studied the history of Africans in the Indies (Caribbean Islands). While in Europe, he researched the priceless treasures of African history,   meticulously collecting data about enslaved Africans (Negro Brotherhood) in Seville, Spain.


Schomburg had a vast collection of African history that totaled more than 10,000 documents. His collection included more than 5,000 books; 3,000 manuscripts; 2,000 etchings, paintings, play bills and several thousand pamphlets. The Carnegie Corporation purchased Schomburg’s extensive collection for $10,000 and it was added to the New York Public Library (NYPL) – 135th Street branch in 1926. With the money he received, he traveled around the world in search of more information. His collection was added to the Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints, where he became curator of the special division from 1932 until his death on June 8, 1938. In 1940, the division was renamed to the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature, History and Prints.


His documents can be found at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library, which “is recognized as one of the leading institutions focusing exclusively on African-American, African Diaspora, and African experiences,” says the NYPL website.

Schomburg is one of the world’s most renowned scholars of African history. He worked tirelessly to restore Africa’s presence in the human commentary, replacing what slavery (enslavement) took away.

Born 141 years ago, Arturo A. Schomburg …amazingly courageous, dedicated advanced the equality of persons of Africans descent. His legacy lives on…



A Lesson In Love & Locks

Los Afro-Latinos is pleased to feature Marshalla S. Ramos, author, educator and mother. This interview will also appear in the Los Afro-Latinos Children’s Supplement which will be published later this year.

Marshalla’s extensive teaching background, kindergartners to adults, taught her a valuable lesson. Humanity shares similar life experiences; differences occur on an individual basis. That’s why for Marshalla it is essential to focus on the fact that “we are all one.” Elaborating on this theme, Marshalla explained the importance of embracing others for who they are.  According to Marshalla, this point of view serves as an essential ingredient for wellbeing.

Three years ago, around the time she began writing, Isabella’s Hair and How She Learned To Love It, Marshalla, who grew up in Brooklyn, New York, made her first visit to her family’s homes in Santurce, San Juan and Ponce, Puerto Rico.

Her debut book, tells the story of Isabella, an Afro-Boricuan, who lives in Carolina, Puerto Rico. With loving support from her abuela (grandmother), Isabella learns self-love and self-acceptance.

isabellashairbookWhy did you decide to write this book? Skin color and hair texture constantly come up in the classroom. As an educator it was important to create a narrative from a child’s perspective. The voice of the protagonist (Isabella) was more than that of a child speaking. It included the expressions of a female who is of Afro-Latino heritage. During the editing process, a lot of memories resurfaced. Through family stories, I had the impression that my grandmothers, both with dark complexions, were strongly persuaded to marry  to “better the race.”  This book is my attempt to offer a debt of gratitude to my grandmothers and to honor the lives they lived.

Do you consider the book autobiographical or semi autobiographical? I think every book a writer writes is based on something they’ve experienced.

Describe the main character Isabella? She’s a beautiful 7-year-old growing up in Carolina. She likes to color each day and draws her family, and wonders why she looks a certain way. She enjoys the view of her yard and playing. People in the community say (negative) things about her color and hair.

What role does Isabella’s grandmother play in the story? Abuelita comes to visit one day and overhears how Isabella is upset that her mother made her a brown dress that matches her hair and skin. She’s sitting under the coconut tree and wondering why everyone thinks brown is beautiful. Abuelita asks Isabella questions about the things in Puerto Rico that are brown like cocoa beans, soil etc and what they do. These natural things enrich us and so does Isabella’s presence.

Isabellas Hair

An illustration by Michael Murphy from Isabella’s Hair.

What messages did you learn about your hair growing up? In my immediate family, my mom embraced me and taught me I was beautiful. But, my sister has typical Puerto Rican/ Spanish hair, and comments were made by other relatives that I wasn’t as beautiful, or Nuyorican as my sister. I would get teased. It was painful.

As an adult, do you accept your hair? If so, how did you arrive at that point of acceptance? I have locks now. I love them, I love my hair. Around 2007, I stopped relaxing my hair, and felt it was time to embrace my hair texture and who I was, and embracing the term Afro-Latina. I decided it was necessary to understand my African heritage, not to deny this part of me. I wanted people to see the real me. It’s very empowering to feel your own hair texture. It’s much healthier.

Is it important for children of color, particularly Afro-Latino children, to have books that feature Afro-Latino children? If so, why? I belong to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Every month, a magazine is published. One article was about protagonists in children’s books. Less than one percent represent children of color. Even when I was teaching kindergarten and you asked Scholastic (world’s largest publisher and distributor of children’s books), they don’t have these books. If you look at a child of color, they need to see characters that represent a similar experience to them. Children pick up books that interest them or they can relate to. If they don’t find them, they don’t gravitate to literature as much. Why not have books like this available? It’s important – not just for numbers, but for children’s self-esteem.

What kind of response/reaction are you receiving from the book? I’ve participated in a couple of book fairs and was at La Casa Azul (New York City Bookstore) for Book Day.  My book always sells out and people love it. It was picked up by People enjoy the story, and wish they had it when they were young. A young lady bought my book for a friend who adopted a black baby. The book is especially valuable for adopted children and girls.

What projects are you working on? A story about an Afro-Latino boy, titled Leon’s Courage. I’m still figuring out the setting, but it will deal with being smart and the implications of being smart in a neighborhood where kids don’t celebrate that. Leon learns to change negatives into positives with the help of his cousin, Isabella.

Marshalla dreams of returning to Puerto Rico to read her book at schools and bookstores throughout the island.

Isabella’s Hair and How She Learned to Love It was published by Create Space and illustrated by Michael Murphy.

Connect with Marshalla on Twitter and the Facebook page for Isabella’s Hair.

From Loíza, Puerto Rico: A lovingly curated children’s book selection

By Kim Haas

I’m so pleased to present this guest post. It was thoughtfully written by one of our favorite librarians, Daniel Pizarro. Daniel is the consummate gentleman. Plus, he’s smart and cares deeply about Loíza and the library’s patrons.

I met Daniel three years ago at Loíza Public Library in Puerto Rico. Our meeting represented a wonderful culmination of a series of emails and an eventual conference call solidifying a sister library collaboration between Loíza library and the Jersey City Free Public Library; which is my local library.

So, Daniel is my go-to-guy when I’m in need of a little inspiration and great recommendations for Afro-Latino and Afro-centered children’s books.

Los Afro-Latinos is currently working on an Afro-Latino Children’s Book Supplement. Until every “ i is dotted and t is crossed” and we publish the collection, we thought we would share with you Daniel’s contribution to the Supplement. And September is a great month to post Daniel’s selections as we shepherd our children back to school for the new year. Read more

An Afternoon with Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa [Event]

We are pleased to announce that our event with Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa has been rescheduled and will now take place on Saturday, September 28 from 12 – 2 p.m., and will be hosted at the Jersey City Free Public Library.

Los Afro-Latinos and Biblioteca Criolla of the Jersey City Free Public Library present: An Afternoon with Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa.

Join us on a literary journey as we celebrate Dahlma’s debut novel Daughters of the Stone.

Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa is an Afro-Puerto Rican and wrote Daughters of the Stone to share the rich legacy of African cultures in Puerto Rico. Read more about Dahlma and her motivation to write this novel here

This event is FREE and open to the public. Refreshments will be served.

Date: Saturday, September 28, 2013
Time: 12 – 2 p.m.
Location: Jersey CityFree Public Library
Biblioteca Criolla
472 Jersey Ave.
Jersey City, NJ 07302

Dahlma Flyer English

Dahlma Spanish Flyer

One-On-One with Afro-Rican Jazz Creator William Cepeda

Our April article for Being Latino features a Q&A with Afro-Rican Jazz Creator William Cepeda. This article was originally published on the Being Latino site

Since 1992, William Cepeda has been bringing Afro-Rican Jazz to the world. The music he shares with us is a combination of world music, progressive jazz, and traditional Afro-Puerto Rican roots and folk music and dance.

A Grammy-nominated artist and composer, and the protégé of John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespsie, William continuously advocates for research and documentation of Puerto Rico’s musical, dance, and cultural history. This dedication has won him numerous awards, grants, and recognition around the world, but is also a part of his family history. The Cepeda family was recently featured on an episode of CNN’s Inside Africa about Bomba dance.

Born and raised in Loiza, known as the heart of little Africa in Puerto Rico, he was always surrounded by music and dance. His love of music led him to seek formal education at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, the Conservatory of Music in Puerto Rico, and the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College. He holds two Bachelor of Arts degrees (one in jazz composition and arranging and one in music education) and a master’s degree in jazz performance.

In 1997, William created his own record label, Casabe Records.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing him about his interest in music, why he decided to create his own label, and his latest project La Música de Puerto Rico: Raíces y Evolucíon (Races and Evolution). Read more

Chef Eddie Cotto: A Missionary for Puerto Rican Cuisine

Our December article for Being Latino focuses on Chef Eddie Cotto, owner of the restaurant Me Casa in Jersey City. 

Chef Eddie Cotto

Chef Eddie Cotto

“I’m here because I love to cook.” To say that Chef Eddie Cotto is passionate about Puerto Rican food is an understatement. He’s on a mission, plate by plate not just to change, that’s too simple, but to revolutionize how Americans view his familial cuisine.

The Brooklyn born and raised former financier says, “I dream big, never small.” 

Chef Cotto aspires to see Puerto Rican food as ubiquitous as Mexican and Cuban food is throughout the United States. According to him, Puerto Ricans have not tooted their horns loud enough and have fallen short marketing their cuisine to a crossover audience as Mexicans and Cubans have. “Have we really made a mark on the world, culinarily, to really claim our spot? That’s where I think we haven’t.” The result, according to Chef Cotto is that many Americans identify and categorize Latino cuisine as either Mexican or Cuban. Read more

Don Ricardo Alegría: Keeper of Puerto Rico’s History and Culture

I feel comfortable saying no individual in contemporary times embodied Puerto Rico’s history, its traditions, was more revered by his countrymen, or more closely associated with telling its story than the incomparable Don Ricardo Alegría.

This post honors Dr. Ricardo Alegria at the first year anniversary of his passing on July 7, 2012. He lived a long, accomplished life and  deeply loved his homeland, Puerto Rico. To say his knowledge and memory of Puerto Rico, the island he called home for 90 years, was encyclopedic would be an understatement. Known as “The Father of Modern Puerto Rican Archaeology,” Don Ricardo Alegría spent his life exploring, investigating, researching, writing about Puerto Rico’s history, including its African legacy. Read more

Culture and Community Bloom at The Festival de Bambulaé

There’s a garden nestled on Palethorpe Street within North Philadelphia’s narrow, twisting roads. It’s called Las Parcelas. There are houses painted in vibrant yellows and blues dotting the landscape. The garden has carefully placed stepping-stones, hanging lights and colorful wall murals. There’s even a pit for pig roasting.

This is no ordinary garden. Formally, the space was occupied by 21 row houses and is now the home of 32 garden plots. It’s a product of the Norris Square Neighborhood Project (Norris Square), which has used its programming and six vast gardens to invigorate and feed the community for four decades. And on June 16, it was the site for Norris Square’s Festival de Bambulaé, a vivid garden celebration and fundraiser.

Rafael Álverez, Norris Square’s Director of Garden Programs.

“It’s an opportunity for the Puerto Rican community to share its culture with people throughout Philadelphia,” says Rafael Álverez, Norris Square’s Director of Garden Programs.

While youth leaders help community elders lay out table clothes, make guacamole and test microphones for the many Philadelphians to come celebrate later that day, it’s difficult to imagine what Norris Square’s gardens looked like 40 years ago.

“All of this area was houses and lots that were dilapidated, torn down and abandoned,” says Reed Davaz McGowan, Executive Director of Norris Square. “Demolition companies would come by and dump their trash here. Community members were depressed. It was a lot of violence, drugs and you’re taking people from this incredible Afro-Caribbean environment of Puerto Rico and all these colors and foliage and you’re putting them in a very urban environment where there’s cement and brick everywhere.”

Something had to be done to counter the violence, the trash dumping and the destruction families were experiencing. And that’s where Iris Brown and Tomasita Romero came in.

They started with some bright paint and a few flowers to bring the magic and beauty of Puerto Rico to Philadelphia. Romero received a fence through a partnership with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society to keep the garbage out. And then they started planting trees.

“Now it’s a thriving sanctuary for these birds and butterflies,” say McGowan, adding, “Iris wanted to do what she could do. She had a lot of support, but it shows how one person with an idea can make a big impact on their community.”

Tomasita Romero and Iris Brown are photographed.

For decades, Iris Brown has been instrumental in promoting the African influence in Puerto Rican culture. In a city which is racially and ethnically diverse, just a few blocks away, the community is predominately African American. Norris Square’s goal – aside from youth development, sustainable farming and community engagement – is to bridge the gap between these two communities.

“We’re more connected than we think,” says Álverez, who is Puerto Rican. “It’s very important to look at the African Diaspora within Puerto Rico and talk about how much it influences this entire culture, from the way we eat to the music we listen to.”

In recognition of Africa’s influence , Norris Square has created The Villa Africana Colobó, a small African village in one of its garden spaces. It has brightly colored huts and interior walls are decorated with African masks. During the  the Festival de Bambulaé, instrument making and leaf printing instruction were available to attendees.

Across Palethorpe Street, there is another garden called El Batey with grapes growing above an arbor and an enormous colorful butterfly wall mural. There are Bomba dancers from two troupes. Members are young and old, swishing their colorful skirts, swaying their hips, tapping their feet and rhythmically beating drums. Bomba is a traditional Puerto Rican dance whose origins trace to enslaved Africans on the island.

The chicken coop and other sites at the garden in Las Parcelas.

Maribel Lozada from Philareyto Dance describes the beauty of Bomba saying, “No hay mucho coreografía ; es más de sentido y como tu sientes.” Lozada has been teaching Bomba to neighborhood kids for decades, carefully explaining Bomba’s “influencia Africana.”

Her granddaughter was one of the dancers who performed with her in El Batey at the Festival. And Guillermo — who is only 10 years old, but has been Bomba dancing for nearly four years —  sits with Lozada echoing his love for the dance and the confidence it gives him. He says, “I like that I kind express myself, my movement and just be me.”

Back in Las Parcelas, beyond the guitar player and lessons on composting with worms, people are touring the garden space and feasting upon Napoleon, the pig who was roasted for six hours by McGowan’s husband, Nat, who happens to be a chef.

Two women munching happily at a table across from an oregano garden work at the PHS. They’ve come here every year since the late 1980s. And PHS has had a strong partnership with Norris Square Neighborhood Project for decades.

The Villa Africana Colobó

“PHS was right there at the beginning. And I think it’s one of the things we’re most proud of. This is why we do this,” says Lisa Stephano. She says of Norris Square, “I think the way they engage children, young people, and give them such meaningful skills and a place to really be together and get a sense of community is really special.”

“I think the gardens really did transform this entire community,” adds Maitreyi Roy who says that Las Parcelas is her favorite garden in the entire city. “They gave a sense of community.”

In the five years that McGowan has been Executive Director, the Norris Square Neighborhood Project has developed its youth program, which boasts impressive high school graduation rates in a community where less than 70% of boys graduate. Now they’re turning all their energy to these gardens. This Festival will raise money to help Norris Square develop community stewardship and cultural preservation. And through generous donations – given over the decades to create and maintain this program – Norris Square can throw movie nights and happy hours and plant more fig trees.

Reed Davaz McGowan and her husband Nat

Around 7:00 p.m., the festivities for the Festival were well under way. People are huddled beneath the fig trees and pear trees with plates of mango salsa, chicken and Napoleon the pig in all his delicious glory.

Out on Palethorpe Street, which is blocked off for the event, neighborhood children are seen playing basketball, riding bikes and drawing with sidewalk chalk.  A man named Modesto is here with his two sons. He works for Taller Puertorriqueño, a Philadelphia Latino arts and culture institution, and his wife serves on Norris Square’s Board of Directors. They come here every year to celebrate their culture and to support the work of Norris Square Neighborhood Project.

Modesto and his son drawing with sidewalk chalk.

His son Sebastian is drawing a robot with blue, green and yellow chalk. He’s drawing in the middle of a street in North Philadelphia, which wouldn’t have been possible years ago. It feels safe now.

He begs his father for more colors. And he’s earned them; after all, he spent his morning weeding the gardens of Las Parcelas. It’s already become his second home.

The Festival de Bambulae raises money to help Norris Square Neighborhood Project develop community stewardship and cultural preservation. Visit their site for more information and ways to help.  You can also “Like” them on Facebook.

Mayra Santos-Febres Talks Black Beauty and the Power of Words

By Kim Haas

“I was born with a particular sensitivity to words. Some people are very good with math and sports… I wasn’t but I could feel words.” Perhaps this early relationship with words explains a certain sensuality that characterizes not just her literary works but also Mayra Santos-Febres, the woman. Read more

Q&A with Author Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa

Update 9/19/13: Don’t miss the chance to meet Dahlma in person at our Afternoon with Dahla Llanos-Figueroa event. Join us Saturday, 9/28/13 at the Jersey City Free Public Library from 12 – 2 p.m. We hope to see you there. 

In Daughters of the Stone author Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa uses storytelling and spirituality to skillfully portray her childhood, what inspires her and life growing up as an Afro-Puerto Rican. [Click here for a synopsis of Daughters of the Stone] Read more