AfroLatinx Travel Centers Black Stories & Intentional Travel

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This story is part of Como Celebramos, in which we’re sharing how we’re honoring our favorite summertime Sunday rituals.

“I don’t care what you think you know, or you heard, or you read. If you have not been there, we cannot have a conversation.”

These words come out in a matter-of-fact tone that belies just how often Dash Harris Machado has had to deal with others’ preconceived notions about places they have never been. As the co-founder of AfroLatinx Travel, Harris Machado has made it her business to organize educational and intentional trips to some of Latin America and the Caribbean’s historic Black communities. Says that the attitude and ignorance surrounding these spaces were a major catalyst for starting the negritude-centering travel organization.

While filming her documentary series, “Negro,” which chronicled the experience of everyday Afro-Latinos, Machado found herself traveling to predominantly Black neighborhoods and pueblos in Latin America. However, when she would ask for directions or insights about these places from non-Afro-Latinos, she would run into the same reactions over and over again.

“Why do you want to go there? It’s the ghetto. You’re going to get shot,” Harris Machado remembers people telling her.

The child of Afro-Panamanians, she was already accustomed to this kind of anti-Black language, as it had often been used to describe her parents’ barrio in Panama. However, rather than just sit with her frustration, she saw an opportunity to combat these attitudes and make accessing these communities easier through guided tours with a focus on intentional travel and education. And so, in 2014, Harris Machado and her co-founder, Javier Wallace, PhD, launched AfroLatinx Travel’s inaugural tour with a trip to Colón, Panama, a place that she says is often labeled as being “dangerous” by guidebooks.

“I always say that no matter what you think of a place, it doesn’t matter because people still live there. They make lives, they make worlds, and they have their dignity,” she says.

With this philosophy guiding the organization, trips to historic Black communities in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Peru, and Colombia soon followed. And while each trip has its unique logistics and idiosyncrasies, the mission is always the same: center Black experiences, Black histories and futures, and Black people in Latin America while being led by actual Black Latines. However, the organization also makes an economic impact, as it brings both donations and dollars to places that don’t often benefit from the main tourism economy.

For example, prior to a trip, Harris Machado will reach out to her contacts at the destination to find out what items the community might need. The travelers are then asked to bring these items with them. These items can range from practical things, like cleats and rubbing alcohol, to more enrichment-based items, like Black dolls — all things that we in developed countries might take for granted but are scarcer in certain communities throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, especially in places like Cuba.

Harris Machado shares that on one of the trips to Cuba, there was a line of women in their 60s waiting to receive the Black dolls rather than their usual target audience of young girls — proving the positive but sometimes unexpected ripple effects these trips can have on the local communities they visit.

If all this seems like a bit more work than your average summer vacation, that’s because it is. In an age where the nature of remote work means that “digital nomads” can move to developing countries and take advantage of cheaper costs of living and beautiful vistas, AfroLatinx Travel is all about creating intentional travelers. Before interested parties can book a tour, they must first fill out a brief interest form that helps the organization narrow down prospects. Those just looking for a good time or a luxury vacation rather than learning and giving back won’t be considered.

“The interest form is the first step that people take to express why they want to go. So, if you can’t fill out the interest form in its entirety, then you’re not serious,” she says. “[The next requirement] is monthly meetings. Also, [prospects] have to complete a Black Latin American history and contemporary topics course.”

The meetings and courses aren’t just meant to gauge a participant’s willingness to engage, they’re necessary to understand the oftentimes complex intersections of race, politics, and culture visitors will find themselves navigating. AfroLatinx Travel tours aren’t your typical beach fare or day at the resort. Machado Harris simply doesn’t do luxury travel. Instead, travelers find themselves interacting with members of the community as guides in an experience, one that often sees them entering into residents’ houses and sharing in aspects of locals’ religion and daily lives. It is not simply leisure for leisure’s sake or education without action; it’s an experience that, ideally, leaves travelers knowing more about themselves and their relation to Africanidad in all its forms.

“The mission of the organization is to connect the diaspora in meaningful ways, not only connecting the travelers with the locals but also the travelers with each other,” Harris Machado explains.

Trust is a major factor on these trips, both trust for the organization — something the co-founder admits was a challenge to build in the beginning — and trust for each other. However, when that trust is established, participants find that they come out the other end enriched and with new relationships to nurture.

However, as Harris Machado mentions herself, this work and these kinds of experiences are not new. They’ve grown from a necessity within the community into various entrepreneurial enterprises—Soul Life Travel and Rio Encantos also provide tours out of Costa Rica and Brazil, respectively. Yet the growth of the movement has been slow, but progress usually is.

Looking to the future, Harris Machado seems excited for what’s to come. Preparations for October’s Cuba tour are already well underway and include a guided trip in a drop-top around Havana, dance workshops, and a trip to historical sites of slave revolts, as well as two days of independent exploration. Looking further, a trip to Brazil — the country with the largest population of Black Latines in Latin America — might also be in the cards. However, Harris Machado wants to see more organizations providing services and outlets for Black-centered intentional travel.

As she says, “I want more people [to do this] . . . to make the work go further, for people to replicate and expand the collective body of work. The more people that know about this history, the peoples, and the connections, and the diaspora, the better for all of us.”

Miguel Machado is a journalist with expertise in the intersection of Latine identity and culture. He does everything from exclusive interviews with Latin music artists to opinion pieces on issues that are relevant to the community, personal essays tied to his Latinidad, and thought pieces and features relating to Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican culture.

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