Nana Dijo: Irresolute Radiography of Black Consciousness. Directed by Bocafloja and Cambiowashere. New York: Third World Newsreel, 2015. 40 minutes.

Invisible Roots: Afro-Mexicans in Southern California. Directed by Tiffany Walton and Lizz Mullis. New York: Third World Newsreel, 2015. 21 minutes.

Reviewed by James Padilioni, Jr.

Knowing and Naming the Afro-Latinx Body

What forms of self-knowing and feeling count as authentic? Do we find ourselves in the labels of identity we adopt, or do our gestures and movements hold memories as an embodied archive? And how does the physical appearance of our bodies and the way others in society perceive it intervene in both the ways we navigate these bodies and the names we give them across time and space?

Omaris Z. Zamora reminds us that a key contribution of feminist theory, whether in its Black, Chicanx, or Latinx registers, is its insistence to theorize in and through the flesh. But in surveying the field as it stands today, Zamora asks “where can we locate the AfroLatina body?”1 The documentaries Invisible Roots: Afro-Mexicans in Southern California and Nana Dijo: Irresolute Radiography of Black Consciousness form a rich archive of Afro-Latina/x testimonios that instructors should consider bringing into their classrooms to facilitate critical discussions that center the audible voices and experiences of Afro-Latina/xs throughout the diaspora, complete with their virtual and embodied on-screen presence.

Invisible Roots is a short but textured film that sketches the lives of several Afro-Mexican families from the Costa Chica of Guerrero and Oaxaca who now reside in Southern California. We meet most of the interviewees as family units speaking both with the camera and each other. These conversations are interspersed with video footage of food preparation and traditional dancing in connection with a fundraiser these families host for the feast day of Santiago Apóstol, a popular folk saint. Some of the most salient interviews are with college students who were born in Mexico but migrated to the United States as children, and who find themselves othered in relation to Chicanx Southern California culture, the traditional mestizo Mexican migrant community, and the African-Americans who form their phenotypic mirror.

The interviews in Invisible Roots present students with the opportunity to attune ethnographically to the processes of identity formation that articulate racial, ethnic, national, gendered, and sexualized understandings of the body together.2 Particularly, the juxtaposition of these interviews alongside video footage of cultural practices and performances open this documentary up for discussions that focus on the gap between the identity labels we adopt and employ consciously in discourse, and the intuitive forms of knowledge we hold and transmit in our bodies kinesthetically via vernacular rituals.

The folkways of the Costa Chiquenses presented in Invisible Roots follow traditional kinship and gendered divisions of labor. Men traditionally perform the diablo, a masked dance featuring rhythmic stomping of the feet. As scenes of this performance play, several male elders narrate a mythic story of African origins.3 When we meet the Vega family women, they are busy preparing dozens of tamales for the celebration. While a college-age daughter details the preparation methods and ingredients that mark these tamales as different and give them “more juice and more flavor” than those of other Mexicans, she distances herself from blackness in discourse, telling the camera she knows she probably has African heritage and is “not quite sure why or how it happened, but,” she says, “I have an idea.” Similarly, Cristal Cisneros confidently walks us through the fundraiser food tables, remarking how her “aunts” in Costa Chica still make these same recipes. But when her father describes himself as “Afro-Mexicano” she is audibly surprised, telling the camera instead that she feels Hispanic because Spanish was her first language and that since she does not dance the diablo, she does not feel connected to her African heritage.

Nana Dijo’s cinematic frame differs aesthetically from Invisible Roots—it’s shot entirely in black and white, and it features all the interviewees as lone individuals lacking any on-screen family or kinship relations. Here too, Nana Dijo interviewees share stories relating how both white and mestizo Latinxs as well as African-Americans misidentify and stigmatize them primarily due to physical appearance.4 One Black Cuban woman recounted a time while combing her daughter’s hair that her cousin entered the room and made a negative comment about the child’s pelo malo (bad hair). In addition to these reflections, the interviewees in Nana Dijo elaborate a structural critique of the colonial legacies of slavery, racism, and capitalism, connecting it to contemporary poverty and lack of opportunity for Afro-Latinxs and the various movements across Latin America for Afro-descendants to gain collective political rights.5 Because the speakers here are confident of their relation to these histories, their narratives deftly weave together how the daily microaggressions experienced by Afro-Latinxs within the interpersonal realm articulate together with national and global structures of antiblackness.6

If students are given a framework for talking about embodied knowledge, Invisible Roots will present much to discuss about how gendered forms of labor entailed in activities such as food preparation, hair styling, and folkloric dance catalyze choreographies of Africa in the Latin Americas.7 However, the conversation would benefit from students being aware of the recent campaign to raise Afro-Mexican consciousness among Costa Chiquenses and change the Mexican census to include the categories Afro-Mexicano and Afrodescendiente.8 Though offering crucial background context to the identity formations of the Invisible Roots participants and their wider migrant community, these political mobilizations are left out of the film’s frame.9

That the interviewees in Nana Dijo hail from various locations in Latin America and the United States adds to this documentary’s diasporic sensibility as being rooted neither here nor there, un pie aquí y otra allí.10 The commentary this film makes about the global nature and skeletal structures of Afro-Latinidad—those concealed underneath the surface guise of various skins (negro, moreno, mulato oscuro, trigueño)—is gestured toward in its conception as a “radiography of Black consciousness.” For political reasons, the speakers here have all operationalized a salient Black identity to complement their Latinidad. However, the documentary intermixes cuentos from Cuba, the Afro-Mexicans of Costa Chica, the Garifuna people of Honduras and in the United States, mixed Black-Chicanxs in California with one African-American parent, and the Afro-Uruguayan tradition of Candombe. For all of this breadth, Nana Dijo may flatten some of the unique historical legacies and social trajectories by which any person may arrive at adopting an Afro-Latinx identity.11

Invisible Roots and Nana Dijo each employs different cinematic frames to envision the Afro-Latinx body and stage a meditation upon the various manifestations of Afro-Latinidad, which Sandy Plácido reminds us “shifts depending on the situation, and is marked by multiplicity, simultaneity, and fluidity.”12 Invisible Roots presents a story about the persistence of local vernacular traditions and kinship/family networks through late modernity and across circuits of transnational migration. Nana Dijo narrates the postmodern, migratory, and diasporic nature of Afro-Latinidad as another symptom of global antiblackness. Both films contain many lines of flight that instructors can introduce to classroom discussions, provided they first equip students with historical, ethnographic, and critical theoretical frameworks for engaging the encrusted layers of discourse, cultural practice, and social perceptions of the black body that constitute the iterative processes of Afro-Latinx identity formation and self-knowing.

1 Petra Rivera-Rideau, Omaris Z. Zamora, Sandy Plácido, and Dixa Ramirez, “Expanding the Dialogues: Afro-Latinx Feminisms,” Latinx Talk, November 28, 2017.

2 Marta Moreno Vega, Marinieves Alba, and Yvette Modestin, Women Warriors of the Afro-Latina Diaspora (Houston: Arte Público, 2012).

3 Natalia Gabayet, “Transmisión del conocimiento en Danza de los Diablos entre los afromestizos de la Costa Chica de Guerrero y Oaxaca,” Cosmovisión y mitologías indígenas, Vol. I Colección Etnografía de los Pueblos Indígenas de México, Serie Ensayos, eds. Marina Bolaños Alonso and Catharine Good Eshelman (Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 2007); Natalia Gabayet, “El Rito de los Diablos,” La Jornada del Campo, no. 85 (2004): 19.

4 Edward Telles, Pigmentocracies: Ethnicity, Race, and Color in Latin America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

5 Juliet Hooker, “Afro-Descendant Struggles for Collective Rights in Latin America: Between Race and Culture,” Souls 10, no. 3 (2008): 279-91; T.S. Paschel, Becoming Black Political Subjects: Movements and Ethno-racial Rights in Colombia and Brazil (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016).

6 Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, “Rethinking Racism: Toward a Structural Interpretation," American Sociological Review 62, no. 3 (1997): 465-80.

7 Anita González, Afro-Mexico: Dancing between Myth and Reality (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010).

8Resultados Definitivos de la Encuesta Intercensal 2015,” Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geográfica, December 8, 2015.

9Now Counted by Their Country, Afro-Mexicans Grab Unprecedented Spotlight,” All Things Considered, National Public Radio, February 5, 2016.

10 Miriam Jiménez Román and Juan Flores, eds., The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); Petra Rivera-Rideau, Jennifer A. Jones, and Tianna S. Paschel, eds. Afro-Latin@s in Movement: Critical Approaches to Blackness and Transnationalism in the Americas (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

11 George Reid Andrews, Afro-Latin America: Black Lives, 1600-2000 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).

12 Rivera-Rideau, et al., “Expanding the Dialogues.”

James Padilioni, Jr. ( is a visiting assistant professor of religion at Swarthmore College. His teaching and research foreground the ritual cultures and plantation lifeworlds of the African Diaspora, including magico-religious, ecstatic, and pharmacopic traditions, Afro-Latinx and Afro-American folk Catholicism, Black queer performance, and critical race theory. His forthcoming book, Black Gnosis: San Martín de Porres, the African Diaspora, and the Problem of Knowledge, examines the restaging of ritual performances relating to San Martín de Porres (1579-1639), the first Catholic saint of African descent from the Americas. James is co-host of the Always Already critical theory podcast and the director of its Epistemic Unruliness interview stream.