Remembering Miriam Jiménez Román, the Puerto Rican Activist for Afro-Latino Culture

Miriam Jiménez Román BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of NBC.

Scrolling through social media after the release of films like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” results in the materialization of the premonition of activists like the late Miriam Jiménez Román.

The work as an academic activist and author of this Puerto Rican woman warned of the consequences of understanding racial identity as a generic issue, far from the depth of scholarship.

Born in 1951 in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, Miriam Jiménez Román was a visiting professor of African Studies at New York University. Along with her husband, Juan Flores, she co-edited the book Afro-Latin@ Studies Reader: History and Culture in the United States and reflected on the Afro-Latin@ experience from the shelves of academia.

For Jiménez Román, the public discourse on the racial identities, history, and culture of Afro-Latin@ communities in the United States left an intellectual vacuum that gave way to the diatribe and total ignorance of the experiences.

“First, we’re not in a post racial state. Race is still a very important part of how all of us — globally — live our lives,” she said in a Q&A on March 2012. “African-Americans and Latinos need to get together, create change that will benefit not just Latinos and African-Americans but all people of color.”

As a Puerto Rican growing up in Harlem in the 1960s, diversity, and interraciality were concepts experienced firsthand by Jiménez Román. She began to think about blackness in terms of diaspora, values, and ideas.

As Stephania Taladrid explained in her article for the New Yorker, Jiménez Román’s work started from her understanding that her own identity was both a matter of skin color and a condition within an economic, social, and political hierarchy.

“Miriam had an unwavering commitment to bringing Afro-Latinos to the fore,” Yamila Sterling-Baker, a close friend of hers, told the magazine.

But for a Latina who lived through a time when blackness and Latino-ness were perceived as mutually exclusive, the importance of scholarly work took precedence in Miriam Jiménez Román’s work.

Her research materialized in books such as A (Black) Man of the People: José Celso Barbosa and the Puerto Rican Race Towards Whiteness (1996), Looking at the Middle Ground: Racial Mixing as Panacea? (2005) and Triple-Consciousness? Approaches to Afro-Latino Culture in the United States (2009).

Since then, Jiménez Román served as executive director of the Afrolatin@ Forum until her death in 2020. She was a member of the Black Latinas Know Collective and a member of the advisory board of the Encyclopedia Africana.

At a time when the controversy over Afrolatinidad and identity is returning to center stage, her work is more important than ever.