How AfroLatine Identity Can Expand Our Understanding of Faith | Sojourners

How AfroLatine Identity Can Expand Our Understanding of Faith

Photo of Guesnerth Josué Perea by Sabrina Shannon Santorum. Graphic by Candace Sanders/Sojourners.

This interview is part of The Reconstruct, a weekly newsletter from Sojourners. In a world where so much needs to change, Mitchell Atencio and Josiah R. Daniels interview people who have faith in a new future and are working toward repair. Subscribe here.

I love documentaries. I try to watch a minimum of one per week. I am especially drawn to documentaries like Born in Synanon — a documentary about a rehab community that eventually became a cult — because it wrestles with questions around race and religion. These two subjects are endlessly fascinating to me.

So, when I heard about Faith in Blackness, I knew I would have to see it. In October 2023, one of the executive producers, Josué Perea, invited me to a screening at the University of Washington. The documentary explores the relationship between AfroLatine spirituality and how that spirituality shapes a person’s identity and understanding of the divine. Rosanna Castro, one of the interviewees, explains it this way: “I want to live a religious, Catholic experience that’s decolonized, affirming, tolerant, loving, and humble. Because those are all the things that Christ was.”

(Editor’s note: Perea worked on this film as part of the Rising Leaders Fellowship, a project of Sojourners’ advocacy and mobilizing teams, separate from Sojourners’ editorial work. The editorial teams retain full independence over editorial decisions, including coverage.)

After the documentary ended, Perea and I made plans to meet up the next day so we could continue chatting about one of the major themes of the documentary — Blackness. I found it to be both hilarious and appropriate that we were having this deep conversation about Blackness and Christianity while we both coincidentally wore shirts featuring James Baldwin.

Perea wears many different hats: He is the executive director of the afrolatin@forum, the managing director for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice, the founder of the AfroLatine Theology Project, and a member of the Community of the Incarnation, which is a contemplative community that’s run out of The Center for Spiritual Imagination. Perea and I were able to sit down for another deep conversation about Faith in Blackness, decolonizing Christianity, deconstructing the idea of race, and reconstructing the idea of what it means to engage in the contemplative tradition.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Josiah R. Daniels, Sojourners: You were the executive producer for the documentary Faith in Blackness. Tell me about the documentary.

Josué Perea: Faith in Blackness is a beautiful story of people embracing and reclaiming their religious identities. It is also about how religious identities [factor] into blackness for Black Latine.

In the documentary, we focus on folks who are Black Latine. There’s a lot of layers to that. [We’re focusing on] how their blackness plays a role in their faith traditions and then how their faith traditions have played a role in [shaping] who they are and their blackness.

And it’s a short-form documentary — it’s only 27 minutes — but it really captures conversations of identity, belonging, and discovery. One of the questions that me and my friends — Charles Reynoso and Michael Lopez, who also made this film — asked ourselves was, “Where do they find home?”

They find home in their understanding of their Black selves — whether they have always been enshrined and immersed in blackness or whether it’s something that they discovered, as one of the participants shared in the documentary, through therapy or other means — and in their faith.

So, they feel found once they’re able to express their full identities in both those areas, when they’re able to claim their Black Latinidad without any apology, and when they’re able to claim their blackness without any further explanation. So it’s a beautiful story of eight people from six different religious traditions. There’s three from the big Christian traditions and then five other traditions.

Tell me about the decision to explore other faith traditions outside of Christianity.

The documentary came out of a short paper that I wrote for the academic journal Engaging Religion, from Indiana University.

My friend, who’s the director Charles Reynoso, when he read it, he was like “This is a documentary.” And I was like, “I don’t know how.” So then we started capturing stories of people. He had the idea of capturing stories to change it from an academic perspective to a more personal perspective.

The documentary became about spirituality. I said we cannot do anything if we’re not going to include African-descended traditions, we cannot do it if we’re not going to include Buddhism and Islam, because they’re not normally identified as traditions that folks who are Black and Latine practice, but they are very salient in the experience of Black Latinidad. One of the biggest revolts in Latin America was led by the Malê. The Malê Revolt was led by Black Brazilians who were Muslim. (Scholars hold that the Malê Revolt was a revolt of enslvaed people which created a social pressure that contributed to the legal end of slavery in Brazil.)

The diaspora has a gamut of different practices. We really wanted to make sure that it encapsulated the diversity of spiritual practices within the entire diaspora. There’s more work to be done, right? We couldn’t cover Vodun for example. That’s a religious tradition that has been vilified in the U.S. and other Western spaces. But we had to stop at some point.

Why is hybridity an important theological belief for you?

We, as people, live multiple lives in many different spheres. The word that I like is ámbitos, it's the Spanish word for spheres, but it’s not really like a circular thing, like a realm. We inhabit these different spheres, these different spaces.

No one is ever just singularly who they are, there’s who I am on the outside and then there’s the person inside. And so the [question becomes], “How can I connect both?”

When we start talking about people of African descent [and hybridity], then we start thinking of W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of “double consciousness.” My mentor, Jiménez Román expanded that term and said, we have a triple consciousness as Black Latines. We have to deal with the fact that we’re Black, we’re in this country, and we have some sort of other cultural/national identity that we have to navigate.

[I also think we are] spiritual beings and we have to deal with that as well. So there’s a quadruple consciousness. I have to deal with the fact that I’m Black, I’m a Latino in the U.S., and I’m Christian. How do all of those things play a role in my life? Also, I think that we do a disservice when we think that people who are not racialized as Black don't have that same hybridity — those layers [to identity] are really important.

All of those aspects are really important to who we are in the world, how we show up, how we understand the divine, and how we understand community. Many traditions point to the divinity having a community or being in community with humanity or in community within itself, as Christians believe. This allows us to further connect and understand the divinity within ourselves.

I think there’s something about understanding our hybrid selves and embracing our hybrid selves that allows us to better connect to the divine.

Tell me about Black Lives and Contemplation, a project out of the Community of the Incarnation, which you belong to. Why is it important for you to create a series specifically dedicated to the Black contemplative tradition?

Whiteness has co-opted [contemplative Christianity], where contemplation and meditation became equivalent with a certain ideology and identification of being white. But when we look at the different traditions that we have within the diaspora — including Christianity, Islam, and African-descended traditions like Lukumí or Ifá or Candomblé — there’s a deep contemplative root in all of those traditions that predates Europeanist control. [In a] way, we have had to become contemplatives by default: We’re in spaces where we have to wrestle with certain things inside our mind before we’re able to talk about them or publicly discuss them.

The reason why some people don’t understand that contemplation and contemplative spaces are spaces for people of color is because we don’t know the history.

I want to give a shout out to another person who was a contemplative, bell hooks. For me, hooks’ writings on Black people and love, redefining love. Her depth of Black love comes from a place of contemplation.

Tell me a little bit about why you think James Baldwin is an important figure in the contemplative tradition.

In one of his last interviews, the interviewer kept pressing him on whether he was a Christian. And he was like, “I’m Christian, but not under the definition that the church would use.”

And the reason why Baldwin is important as a contemplative guide is because I think he operated out of his deep inner life. He was able to look at everything that was happening around him and not be torn asunder. He reflected on those issues when he saw what he called “the betrayal of the white progressives.” I also think his emphasis on love just connects well with other contemplatives like St. John of the Cross and St. Ignatius. There’s this idea for Baldwin that love is the ultimate factor of what leads us into salvation. And he says if love is not about salvation, then it’s not really love.

What is the difference in your mind between deconstructing and decolonizing your faith?

Although it’s not highlighted much, there’s a relationship between deconstructing and decolonizing, but they are two very different processes. I would say that one can decolonize something and not necessarily deconstruct it. But I think that deconstruction leads to decolonization.

When people decolonize something we start to rip it away from the way that has been taught to us by society or “the man” to quote the way that Black folks refer to it.

So, it’s learning that Christianity had other reference points [besides] European understandings of Christianity.

And then there’s the colonization of our mind. In decolonizing, do we really then deconstruct the way we learn? For example, for as much as we’ve progressed, we still sometimes use Western forms of qualifying [and] quantifying data to validate certain experiences. Have we really thought about the fact that we sometimes use Western modes of validation to validate Black experiences, to validate experiences of people of color?

I can understand that there are people who know that Christianity does not come from Europe, but they haven’t deconstructed Christianity for themselves in a way that they can then make it work for themselves.

My father is a Black Colombian man who was offered to pastor a South American church in Brooklyn. And when he came, I’m a thousand percent sure that the people who hired him were surprised that he was Black. So then when I questioned Christianity and I deconstructed, there’s a personal identity that’s tied to [that deconstruction.]

It becomes very personal, very connected to our identity, very connected with our sense of self. But the process of decolonization, for me, is more communal. We all understand that these spaces that we inhabit are colonized spaces. And [we need to ask] how were they colonized? How has the truth been colonized?

After you decolonize and deconstruct, what does it look like to reconstruct your faith, religion, and identity?

The process of deconstruction has to lead to a healthy process of reconstruction. It can’t just stay in the deconstructive state. I think a lot of people stay there. [And I don’t think we can stay there because] then we’re fragmented.

Reconstruction is really a process of finding ourselves in the practices that we’re talking about. So let’s speak to Christianity specifically: I deconstructed Christianity around 11 or 12 years ago. And I tried to practice Buddhism, but that didn’t feel correct for me. I realized I needed to reengage Christianity in a way that nourished me as a person, but also nourished my concerns of being an advocate for Afro Latines.

So the reconstructed version of Christianity centered blackness. In my prayer room, I only have icons of Black folk because that’s my focus. [I’m] at the stories and identifying the Africanity or the blackness within and highlighting that.

For example, St. John of the Cross was one of [the more famous] contemplatives that we know about — the likelihood is that he was a mulatto man, which means that he was of African descent. So I’m like, no wonder I identify with that guy. (Some scholars suggest that St. John of the Cross’ mother was of Jewish or African Muslim descent, but this has not been confirmed. Other scholars point to Muslim faith in Spain as an influence on the saint.)

Reconstruction happened when I began, “How can I find myself centered in these [stories]? How can I make those parts connect to who I am now and how I’m living in the world?” And what [brought it] altogether for me was contemplative Christianity.

Christians have this phrase from the book of Hebrews that we’re connected by such a “great cloud of witnesses.”

It’s a very dark, highly melanated cloud.

Exactly. So for me, the cloud of witnesses is not only Christian, it’s an interreligious cloud. Black people, we’re always thinking about our ancestors — whose shoulders are we standing on? As I’m walking in the world, I think about coming from a deep lineage of people. I’ve found that’s how reconstruction works for me.

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