Redefining the racial in-between

An alumna and photographer sheds light on being Afro-Latino.

Sandra Andino prefers to let the subjects of her photographs tell their own stories. Her new exhibit, “Afro-Latino in Philadelphia: Stories from El Barrio,” is no exception.

A handful of unframed black and white portraits hangs on the walls of an entirely white room. Each face, along with accompanying audio, gives a different perspective on what it means to be Afro-Latino in Philadelphia.

“One aspect of identifying as Afro-Latino is the idea that you have to be one or the other,” Andino said. “You can’t be both. So, either you’re Latino or you’re black. The whole concept of being Afro-Latino is that it is not one or the other. We are both.”

Andino, a 2001 alumna, works as a cultural anthropologist, photographer and educator. Her exhibit, “Stories from El Barrio,” is on display at Taller Puertorriqueño, a community-based arts organization that fosters diversity. Located at 2721 N. 5th St., the exhibit is running until Jan. 9.

Andino wishes to dispel the idea that Black and Latino cultures are not capable of being connected.

“What I was trying to accomplish was really to increase awareness of the issues involved with being Afro-Latino,” said Andino, who received her cultural anthropology doctorate in 2001 from Temple.  “I wanted to make the whole audience aware that there is such a thing as Afro-Latino, and to physically see it. I wanted to make the Philadelphia community aware that we have Afro-Latinos contributing greatly to our communities, neighborhoods and society.”

“There are still a lot of negative stereotypes attached to people of color,” she added. “With my exhibit, I want the audience to see and experience the challenges that they have gone through as Afro-Latinos.”

One individual featured is Maria E. Mills-Torres, a multicultural educator, curriculum and language specialist.

“It is important for us to speak out because, like I said, the discrimination and racism is done in such a way that the individual whose doing it sometimes doesn’t realize it,” Mills-Torres said. “It is not just affecting the individual that is receiving it but also the person doing it.”

In the exhibit, Mills-Torres shared “a very difficult moment” in her life—when she struggled in high school with bias against African Americans. Confessions like these were not uncommon in the exhibit; Andino shared many personal conversations with those featured and found similar experiences.

The exhibit is designed with unmarked white space to allow the individuals featured to represent themselves free of outside distractions. It is the second reincarnation of Andino’s project—she also did a showing in 2011, but without audio of her subjects telling their stories.

“I always had in mind that I wanted the show to have an audio component,” Andino said. “I wanted the audience to have an opportunity to be able to listen to the conversations and interviews I conducted with these individuals. I just had so much that I wanted to share. That was the reason for me re-launching this whole experience, but this time around including an audio tour. That  is what this show is all about.”

“Sandra is someone who is very personal,” said Rafael Damast, the curator and visual arts program manager at Taller Puertorriqueño. “She is very connected to her work. This idea of exploring the complexity of what it is to be Afro-Latino, and how that fits into the Latino community leads to a broader conversation of black identity. I think the exhibit is humanizing the perspective.”

Andino wants to continue educating Philadelphians about those who identify as Afro-Latino.

“I just hope that through this show I am also contributing something positive to the discussion around race and racial identity,” said Andino. “Racism is still very much alive, and it is very important for people within our own community and outside to learn more about the importance of developing a connection with what you experience through the show.”

Erin Blewett can be reached at

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