My affinity to Cuba is in large part informed by my personal trips to the island. It started out as a quest to document Cuba’s underground music scene and unique preservation of hip-hop culture. In the age of President Barack Obama and the thawing of U.S.-Cuba travel restrictions, it was finally made possible for someone like me, a Washington Heights-born Dominican-American, to physically make that voyage. But no U.S. government agency would ever have the vested interest in boasting the heart or humanity of Cuba. It’s because of grassroots agencies like AfroLatinx Travel, one of a growing group of organizations that facilitate travel, trips, tours, and itineraries focused on Black heritage, legacy, culture, and realities, that I got more than just music out of our Caribbean neighbor. Today, she feels like something close to home.
International travel for Black and Brown people has become a major talking point in recent years. According to the American Society of Travel Agents, the Latine travel market is among the fastest growing in the United States, with Latines representing more than 50% of all growth in the U.S. travel market. Similarly, more recent reports by research travel giant Mandala suggests that African-American travel represents a $63 billion opportunity. While it’s unclear what percentage of these travelers are Afro-Latine, it’s clear that melanated folks want to enjoy leisure travel — but we aren’t always safe wayfaring. In fact, a study by tourism agency MMGY Global found that Black travelers pay more attention to how destinations treat people of color and how travel agencies approach diversity than white visitors. Working to create experiences where people of color feel safe, seen, and celebrated, Black travel agencies are on the rise — and many of them are based in Latin America.
During the 2018 Festival de las Muñecas Negras, AfroLatinx Travel, established and operated by Panamanian historians Dash Harris Machado and Dr. Javier Wallace, took me everywhere from Viñales’ tobacco farms to the art galleries of Fabrica de Arte to Sunday rumba at Callejon de Hamel, which is a spectacularly adorned by the works of Afro-Cuban artist Salvador Gonzalez Escalona. A dedicated facilitator of diasporic social, cultural, economic, and community-building exchanges and tours, the agency works with small tour crews made up of local family and friends. Perhaps the most resonating part of the experience, and what inarguably sets AfroLatinx Travel apart from more tourist-y organizations, was our trip to the Yoruba Association Museum, where Harris walked us through the principle tenets of Yoruba spirituality and the African Orishas. What followed was a profound tambor presentation in the privacy of a newly crowned babalawo’s home, which ultimately inspired me to consider converting to traditional Ifa spiritual practices.
“My center is always Black liberation, Black autonomy, Black community building, and connecting Black folks in these kinds of spaces. I aim to build Black liberatory spaces. My mission is simply to connect Black people with other Black people,” Harris tells Refinery29 Somos. In fact, the money made through AfroLatinx Travel experiences goes directly into the individual pockets of the families and sole proprietors who lead the excursions.
An integral tether of AfroLatinx Travel, which puts on tours from Panama to Puerto Rico, is education. In my experience in Cuba, I also saw documentaries and digital discourses dedicated to correcting ahistorical legacies of Black life and contributions throughout the Americas. And because so much of what informs Cuban life and society is rooted in West African spirituality, these are the stories AfroLatinx Travel chooses to amplify.
“There’s no way I can ever talk or relay about [Cuban] culture without mentioning African spirituality. It’s just impossible. That’s what they’re grounded in. It’s not to say that every single last Cuban practices; that’s not how they operate. Yet, this is the story that we’re choosing to expand and celebrate,” says Harris, who got married and lived in Cuba for years. “We’ve had people say they want to do our tour, but would rather leave the African spirituality out of it, and I would tell them this wasn’t for them.”
Like AfroLatinx Travel, platforms like Travel Noire, a media company founded in 2014, were created so that people of color could see themselves in a tourism industry that happens to thrive in a lot of the root homes of Black and Brown travelers. One of their more concentrated goals is to collaborate with local tour companies and independent businesses, while also partnering with content creators and online influencers in the travel movement.
“For destinations throughout Africa and the Caribbean, there’s a keen interest in landing in a place that has a significant population of Black natives,” Marissa Wilson, Travel Noire’s general manager, told CNN. “Apart from these spaces being absolutely beautiful, there’s a sense of connection, comfort, and excitement in traveling to places where a huge part of the population looks like you.”
Though AfroLatinx Travel is among the first of its kind, many more agencies with similar driving forces have been established since Harris first started 12 years ago. For instance, it was the lack of representation around the Caribbean coast of Limón, Costa Rica, that inspired Sadie Jordan, who is of Costa Rican and African-American descent, to launch Soul Life Travel, an agency that arranges customized travel experiences for individual and group tours that emphasize Afro-Caribbean heritage and culture in the Central American country.
“I created Soul Life Travel to show Black and Brown people our cultures. A lot of things connect us, whether it be our cuisine or how our mama’s throw down in the kitchen, and so many experiences,” Jordan told Travel Noir last year. “The goal is to bring people together for culture, wellness, and adventure in the most unique locations of Costa Rica, particularly the overlooked Caribbean coast, which is near and dear to my heart.”
When people go on a Soul Life travel tour, they can expect to be connected to Costa Rica’s local Afro-Latine community in a variety of ways. Billed as the nation’s first Black woman-owned travel agency, Soul Life Travel’s newly added Puerto Vieja tour is exclusively dedicated to experiencing the Afro-Costa Rican culture that thrives along the Caribbean coast. Jordan’s six-day itinerary includes a Black Caribbean farm-to-table experience, Indigenous chocolate-making, and a full day at Cahuita National Park, where you can snorkel and kayak.
Jordan underscores that her travel agency in Costa Rica focuses on the Puerto Viejo region so that people can spend their dollars supporting Black-owned businesses. “It is paramount for us to showcase the Caribbean coast because, historically, it’s been out of the travel and tourism circuit,” she said. “We want to make sure that a lot of our dollars are going back to that area so locals can reinvest in their own companies.”
In Brazil, Rio Encantos is a network of guides and partner agencies that is passionate about amplifying the country’s African and Indigenous legacies, from Rio de Janeiro to São Paulo to Minas Gerais. Fogueira De Xangô, an event focused on ethnic tourism, Indigenous spirituality, and the celebration of traditional African food, is just one of their many curated spaces. They also offer an array of walking tours, which have been translated to virtual tours, that cover Brazil’s history of slavery, struggle, and Black resilience.
“This guide, also available in Portuguese, will lead you on a self-guided walk through the Port Area of Rio and the UNESCO World Heritage Site for the Transatlantic Slavery Trade, which took place in the biggest complex of human being trade,” writes Rio Encantos operator and travel art manager, Kelly Tavares. “This is a sensitive memory and walk with a shared vision focusing on the legacy of this forced journey of our African ancestors and about who we are now as Afro-Brazilian descendants. With a sense of pride in our ancestry, I dedicate this work for my people.”
For me, being a child of the diaspora means tracing a continual ellipsis that begs more questions than it answers. Due to forced and perpetual migration, language and cultural barriers, and lack of funds, many like me have to go out on individual expeditions to reconnect with our root homes. So much of what I have been afforded to see, understand, and take back with me is in great part thanks to children of the diaspora who quite literally make it their business for us to be seen and belong wherever we go.
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