African heritage in Latin America

Afro-descendants in Latin America have had a different experience from those in the US, experts say. Despite this, social, economic, and cultural discrimination has been historically very strong.

Joaquin Sarmiento/Reuters
’Palenqueras’ sell fruit and candy to cruise ship passengers who disembark in Cartagena, Colombia.

For tourists who roam the cobblestone streets of Colombia's colonial city of Cartagena, black women in bright dresses carrying mounds of fresh tropical fruit or coconut sweets in aluminum bowls on their heads offer a colorful vacation snapshot.

But the smiling women represent more than a memorable picture: They are a symbol of slave resistance and the survival of African heritage in Latin America.

These women, known as palenqueras, are from a small village called Palenque de San Basilio, about 30 miles from the walled city of Cartagena. Their ancestors fled Cartagena in the 16th century to found one of the first settlements of escaped slaves in the Americas.

Cartagena was one of the principal ports of entry for hundreds of thousands of African slaves brought to the New World to work mainly in the gold and silver mines, but also as servants or builders. Slaves here were held in warehouses known as factorías from where they were bought, often continuing their journey south to territory that is today Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia.

Their arrival was just as traumatic and violent as that of slaves brought to the United States. But in the centuries since then, Afro-descendents in Latin America have had a different experience from those in the US. And their impact has perhaps been greater, says George Reid Andrews, author of "Afro-Latin America, 1800-2000."

Africans absorbed into society

Black slaves participated in many of the wars of liberation from Spanish colonial rule in Latin America, and racial equality and integration once independence was achieved was "part of the deal," Mr. Andrews says.

In the post-slavery period black people in the US were separated from whites; in Latin America, Afro-descendents were absorbed into society. This, in theory at least, did not take racial ancestry into account: Mestizaje, or the mixing of races, was seen as a part of nation-building.

"Mestizaje was celebrated on a superficial level," says Kwame Dixon, a scholar on race in Latin America at Syracuse University in New York. In some countries, such as Argentina or Mexico, the black population became so diluted it practically disappeared.

In the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires, for example, blacks accounted for about 20 percent of the population in 1810. Today, black Argentines are nearly invisible there. Yet a 2005 genetic study by the University of Buenos Aires and Oxford University found that nearly 10 percent of people in Buenos Aires can trace their roots to Africa.

Though officially most Latin American countries look past skin color, social, economic, and cultural discrimination is historically very strong. "In Latin America, where discrimination and inequality were not [historically] organized by the state, it's not as easy [as in the US] to see patterns of racial inequality," Andrews says.

But they do exist. Blacks in Latin America are more likely to be poorer, less educated, have shorter lives, and have higher infant mortality rates than whites, reports the United Nations economic commission.

And employment opportunities are limited. Black Peruvians, for example, are largely relegated to domestic jobs and have a tradition of being pallbearers at the funerals of the elite. In Latin America, few blacks hold high political office.

"Particularly as people move up the social hierarchy, skin color becomes more consequential in Latin America," Andrews says.

In recent decades, black consciousness movements have emerged, led in particular by groups in Brazil and Colombia, which have the largest black populations in the region.

"What we've seen in the past 20 years in Latin America is a return to blackness," Mr. Dixon says. At a UN-sponsored conference on race and discrimination in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, Afro-descendant groups from Latin America challenged their governments to take action. Some have responded with race-specific policies, such as Brazil's Law of Social Quotas. Others have included race in broader social programs.

A reluctance to identify as black

But because of historical prejudices against being black, many people of mixed race are reluctant to identify themselves that way. In Colombia, official figures say close to 10 percent of the population is Afro-descendant, but some demographers say the real figure could be as high as 26 percent, depending on how the category is defined.

Argentina's 2010 Census included a question on Afro-heritage for the first time since 1887. It revealed that 0.4 percent of the population is black. Although it is a small number, for the first time in 150 years this population has stood up to be counted.

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