Printer Friendly

Where are the African-Latinos?

In South America, racism is still a major impediment for the descendants of the Africans who were enslaved 500 years ago, despite their having made great intellectual, artistic and scientific contributions to the cultures they entered. As part of the 120th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888 (Brazil, incidentally, has the largest concentration of people of African descent outside of Africa), Barima Adu-Asamoa looks at the plight of Afro-Latinos in South America.

Whilst apartheid in South Africa provided visible racial segregation, in Latin America a subtle engagement has been employed which demands of African-Latinos, as well as indigenous ethnic groups, a psychological reorientation comparable to the French policy of "assimilation" in Africa, but with a biological component--"physical transformation". This has to be achieved through marrying people of European descent to ensure that the next generation will have a lesser dose of blackness (skin tone), until future generations become completely "whitened". This sums up the Latin American answer to the "African question". The policy also embodies the criteria for social inclusion.

The term African Latin-Americans (or African-Latinos) refers to black Africans in South America, part of the larger African Diasporan population totalling nearly 400 million dispersed in North and South America, Arabia, the Caribbean, Europe and some parts of Asia and the Oceanic islands. Latin America is defined as the entire western hemisphere south of the United States, and comprises countries colonised by Spain, Portugal, France and, to some degree, the Netherlands. Conservative estimates put the African-Latino population at 150 million. Enslaved Africans sent to Latin America began to fight for their freedom right from the moment of forced removal as well as on arrival. Notable amongst these were the Maroons, who formed black states--in effect, states within states. When the enslaved Africans of Haiti, led by Toussaint L'Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, declared independence in 1804, it became only the second independent country in the western hemisphere (the first being the United States).

Seeking freedom rather than servitude, many enslaved Africans formed confederations of counties, notably the Quilombo of Palmares under King Ganga Zumba in Brazil. In 1678, King Zumba accepted a peace treaty offered by the Portuguese governor of Pernambuco, which required that the Palmarinos relocate to the Cucau Valley. The treaty was challenged by Zumba's nephew, Zumbi, who led a revolt against the king and maintained an independent confederation. Zumbi remains a national hero amongst African-Brazilians.

Today, as Brazil gains more economic clout, the world is beginning to see contours and colours shaped over decades of denial, but visibly expressed in social injustice against its black population. As in many South American countries, "shades of blackness" as a racial classification is enforced in Brazil as an unwritten social exclusion code.

The "lighter" your skin colour is in relation to the centre (which is "white"), the higher your social inclusion. Sociologists and cultural anthropologists have referred to this policy of assimilation through intermarriage as "miscegenation", "wiping out", "whitening" or even "soft genocide". This has enabled South American countries (ruled over the centuries by descendants of European colonisers and immigrants) to promote a mythological "racial harmony" and "integration" which have distracted the world from seeing what could be construed as human rights issues.

It is a policy that has nearly wiped out Argentina's black population. This policy of "miscegenation" is akin to "the Spanish experiment" applied in Spain (during the 18th century) to destroy the cultural and racial identity of blacks, Arabs and Jews after the second restroation of the Spanish crown. In the late 1930s, 14% of Argentina's population were blacks. Today, only two million (5%) remain, having been "wiped out" or "whitened" through intermarriage.

In 1878, 10 years before the abolition of slavery in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro hosted the Congresso Agricola (Agricultural Congress). The dominant view at that time reflected the Brazilian elite's policy of "whitening Brazil." The country thus imported European immigrants in droves in an attempt to "whiten" its population. Between 1870 and 1963, Brazil absorbed nearly seven million European immigrants who had been sponsored either officially (by government) or privately (transportation and resettlement costs paid) to come to Brazil. The African-Brazilians who possessed neither the requisite economic base nor the skills to compete with the new wave of immigrants were further pushed down the social ladder into menial jobs. In 1890, Decree 528, signed by Brazil's first president, Deodoro da Fonseca, opened the country to further immigration except by Africans. The decree remained in force until 1907, when it was substituted for another which favoured European immigration.

Defining race codes

The classification and hierarchy of race in Latin America begins with Europeans (blancos) or descendants of European immigrants, mainly from Spain, Italy, Portugal, and The Netherlands. They are followed by the mestizo, then the mullatoes, then the zambo, and lastly the el negrito (blacks).

* Blancos: Descendants of European immigrants constitute less than 30% of the entire population of Latin America, but control the wealth and have a virtual monopoly of political power in the region. The most recent native political leaders in South America--Presidents Hugo Chavez (Venezuela) and Evo Morales (Bolivia)--are facing strong opposition from the wealthy and powerful European constituents of their populations to redistribution of the national wealth.

* Mestizos are offspring of any marriage between Europeans and Amerindians or Africans. They make up the majority of the population in half of the countries in Latin America, including Beliza, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay and Peru.

* Mulattoes are direct offspring of Europeans and Africans, mostly European settlers and Africans during the colonial and post-abolition eras. The vast majority of mulattoes are found in Brazil, Belize, Dominican Republic, Cuba and Colombia.


* Zambos: Enslaved Africans during the slave trade struck strategic alliances with the Amerindians (the indigenous people in Latin America) and later inter-married. Their offspring are referred to as zambos and are predominantly in Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil.

* El Negrito: They are descendants of enslaved Africans and now make up nearly 25% of the entire population of Latin America. They are the most deprived people in the region by all economic and social indicators.

Race continues to be one of the most persistent predictors of poverty in the Americas; there are an estimated 150 million African-Latinos in the region (World Bank 2006), which makes blacks the largest marginalised ethnic group there.

Salvador, the capital of the Brazilian state of Bahia, is a city of about the three million people, of whom 80% are African-Brazilians, living in the abject misery of shanty towns (favelas). Yet this is a country that has rediscovered itself with oil wealth, whilst 55% of its population live in poverty. An Inter-American Development Bank report recently posited that Brazil and other Latin American economies could expand by over one third if African-Latinos were fully included in the workforce of their countries. For example, blacks in Brazil are almost half the population--48%, or 90 million, based on the most recent official population estimate of 185 million. Yet they have an economic participation rating of only 20% of GDP. Unemployment is 50% higher among African-Brazilian than whites. The majority of African-Brazilians, 78%, live below the poverty line, compared to 40% of whites.


Brazil has 594 members of Congress but only 18 are black. In the US, the Congressional Black Caucus has 37 members out of 535 House and Senate members.

Next comes Colombia, which has the second-largest African population in the region. African-Colombians make up about 21% of the population, but represent well over 75% of the poor, and earn 34% less than their non-black counterparts.

Piedad Cordoba de Castro, the first black woman to become a senator in Colombia, and promoter of the 1993 law that recognises equal rights for black Colombians, remarked: "The situation for black Colombians is the same as for blacks in the US 20 or 30 years ago, yet we represent an estimated 21% of Colombia's 44 million people, the largest proportion in the Spanish-speaking world."

In Peru, African-Peruvians constitute 10% (3 million) of the population, and, like elsewhere in Latin America, they are at the bottom of the social ladder. An accepted code of racial exclusion for jobs--Peruvian style--goes like this in news-paper adverts: "Request someone with a good appearance", a subtle code for "blacks not wanted".

Although many countries in the region have begun to introduce legislation recognising African-Latinos as minorities, few of these laws are really enforced. Politically, the impediments put in the way of aspiring Black Latinos appear consistent with racial ideologies of exclusion. When President Chavez changed the board of directors of the Venezuelan state oil company and included an African-Venezuelan purely on merit, on account of his qualification as an engineer, the governing board refused to accept him--because in the past there had never been an African-Venezuelan on the board. In 1968, when Luis Beltran Prieto Figueroa, an African-Venezuelan who belonged to the party Action Democrdtica, aspired to be a presidential candidate, the party rejected him outright on the grounds that a black person could not be president. In Brazil, the Frente Negra Brasileira (Brazilian Black Front), founded in Sao Paulo in 1931, served as the national political voice of African-Brazilians, but it was suppressed along with other political parties during the dictatorship of Getulio Dornelles Vargas in the 1930s.

In Cuba, a law passed in 1911 forbade the organisation of political parties based on race or colour. Military action by the Afro-Cuban leaders Pedro Ivonet and Evaristo Estenoz to reverse that decision ended in disaster in 1912. Government troops killed 3,000 Afro-Cubans in Ori-ente Province, putting an end to black political resistance in Cuba.

Where are they?

Colombia: There are 10 million African-Colombians in the country, mainly descendants of enslaved Africans taken there in the 16th century. They worked in the gold mines, sugar cane plantations, cattle ranches and large haciendas. In 1851 slavery was abolished in Colombia, but it took another 100 years before African-Colombians could gain some semblance of freedom.

After emancipation, the Spanish mestizaje (or race mixing) became a predominant concept adopted by the European elite to make the nation "lighter". The move was not totally successful because many blacks ran into the forests, where they lived with Amerindians.

Not until 1991, after a very vigorous popular struggle, did the new Colombian constitution give African-Colombians the right to collective ownership of traditional Pacific coastal lands, and special cultural development protection. But racism is still tampant in the country, as witnessed in the state of Choco, where blacks are the prime victims of the 40-year-long civil war.

Venezuela: There are five million African-Venezuelans in the country, mainly the descendants of the 700,000 enslaved Africans shipped there in the 17th and 18th centuries to work on plantations. As in other South American nations, blacks dominate the Venezuelan population along the coast.

Venezuela is known to have a "cafe conleche" culture, and this is proven by the fact that over two thirds of Venezuelans, including President Chavez, define themselves as mixed race. Power and wealth remains in the hands of the white (Spanish) elite, but Venezuela does have blacks working in high government positions. The African community is very African-conscious and even publishes a magazine called Africanias.

Barlovento is the black Mecca of Venezuela. It was known among Europe's chocolatiers for its high-quality cocoa. For 300 years, this was one of Venezuela's greatest sources of revenue, from plantations worked by large numbers of blacks. In 1999, the Venezuelan-African community in Barlovento hosted the Second International Reunion of the Latin African Family. Delegations came all the way from Puerto Rico right down to Argentina. Thanks to President Chavez, African-Venezuelans are now playing prominent roles on the international stage whereas previously they were unseen.

Argentina: There are two million African-Argentines left in the country. Slavery was abolished in 1851 in Argentina but, like much of South America, it took several decades before it occurred in a practical sense. When the African-American song-stress Josephine Baker visited Argentina in the 1950s, she asked the mixed-race minister of public health, Ramon Carillo: "Where are the negroes?", to which Carillo responded, laughing: "There are only two--you and I."


Marvin A. Lewis, author of Afro-Argentine Discourse: Another Dimension of the Black Diaspora, concurs, saying: "There was an official, concerted effort to eliminate the blacks from Argentine society." Blacks were not even included in the official census. Between 1869 and 1914, the Argentine population increased from 1.8 million to 7.9 million. During this period, the population of the capital city, Buenos Aires, increased eight-fold, but its black population remained static. In 1970, the Afro-Argentine population of Buenos Aires numbered only about 4,000 in a city of 8 million people.

In the 1700s, the population was almost 50% black. The decline can be attributed to conscription for Argentina's wars with Great Britain in 1806-1807, the wars of independence from 1810 to 1816 against Spain, and the civil wars throughout the 1820s. Though they fought on the promise of social and economic mobility, neither of these happened. And facial intermarriage was encouraged because of the deaths of black men in the wars and to make possible the social mobility of mixed-race children. Finally, Argentina's desire to be a European nation in the western hemisphere took on a dark side by "wiping out" the natives and the blacks, while atttacting European immigrant workers to the country from 1869 to 1914. Today, whites make up about 85% of the nation, and blacks and others about 15%.

Brazil: The African-Brazilian population is a good 90 million if you count in those of mixed race. In the 17th century, the Jesuit preacher and missionary Frei Antonio Vieira described Brazil as having "the body of America and the soul of Africa," because of the enormous impact that Africa had on the country through enslavement. Roughly the size of the US, and the world's fifth-largest country by land mass and sixth by population, Brazil borders most of the continent's other nations. In 1531, King Joao III of Portugal sent out the first European settlers to Brazil. At first the Portuguese enslaved the indigenous population, despite their resistance. The first enslaved Africans arrived in 1538 to replace the indigenous labour, and from the 1580s the arrival of Africans increased dramatically. In the mid-18th century, when the sugar boom was at its height, around 40% of Brazil's enslaved population was involved in the cultivation of sugar cane. The uprisings of enslaved Africans, combined with other factors, helped to undermine the viability of the slave system and, finally, in 1888, Isabel the princess regent, issued the emancipation decree, the so-called Golden Law.

Today, Brazil's economy, demography, culture, languages, faiths and religions have been considerably shaped by its history of enslavement. Brazil has the largest concentration of Africans outside Nigeria; most black Brazilians are concentrated in the state of Bahia, whose capital, Salvador, was founded in 1549, marking the beginning of the permanent occupation of the country by the Portuguese, which lasted until 1823. Salvador was the former capital of Brazil, before Rio de Jaeiro and how Brasilia. Between 1807 and 1835, there were a number of rebellions by enslaved Africans in Brazil. In 1807, an uprising in Salvador resulted in the introduction of legislation prohibiting enslaved Africans from walking in the streets after dusk without the permission of their masters. Today Bahia is the most-visited state in the federation and its economy is the fastest-growing in Brazil.

As the former African-Brazilian mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Benedita da Silva, puts it: "Racial democracy only exists in school books and official speeches; the elite in Brazil has promoted the myth of racial harmony to make people accept certain forms of discrimination and to deny the need for affirmative action."

RELATED ARTICLE: Latin American blacks

Brazil 185 million

Blacks 90 million

Colombia 44.3 million

Blacks 10 million

Venezuela 26 million

Blacks 5 million

Peru 27 million

Blacks 3 million

Argentina 40.3 million

Blacks 2 million

Ecuador 13.7 million

Blacks 500,000

Mexico 108.7 million

Blacks 300,000

Honduras 7.6 million

Blacks 200,000

Puerto Rico 3.9 million

Blacks 700,000

Nicaragua 5.6 million

Blacks 500,000

Costa Rica 4.1million

Blacks 100,000

Panama 3.2 million

Blacks 500,000

Guatemala 12.7 million

Blacks 300,000

Uruguay 3.4 million

Blacks 200,000
COPYRIGHT 2008 IC Publications Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:OPINION
Author:Adu-Asamoa, Barima
Publication:New African
Date:Dec 1, 2008
Previous Article:Another one to celebrate: they call themselves "Afro-pessimists". And their fallacious "philosophy" teaches that the black man can never achieve...
Next Article:Aid is about power.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters