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ETHNONYMS: Morenos, Mulatos, Negritos (pejorative), Negros, Zambos


Identification. Afro-Bolivians typically refer to themselves as "Negros" (Blacks). Black intellectuals introduced the term "Afro-Boliviano" in the last quarter of the twentieth century, and by the early 1990s the term has found its way into usage among Black urban migrants living in La Paz and more generally among Bolivia's intelligentsia. "Negrito" (Little Black) and "Moreno" (Brown) are the terms most commonly used by Bolivians when referring to Blacks; however, Blacks find the diminutive offensive. Afro-Bolivians use the term "Mulato" to refer to a Black of a lighter skin color. "Mulato" in its more common usage in Bolivia refers to the the offspring of Whites or Hispanics and Black people. "Zambo" refers to someone of mixed Indian and Black parentage; it is mainly used derogatorily.

Location. There are Afro-Bolivian communities throughout Bolivia, especially in the semitropical climates of the departments of La Paz, Santa Cruz, Beni, and Cochabamba. The largest concentrations of Blacks are found in the lowland provinces of Nor Yungas and Sud Yungas in the department of La Paz. Several communities of Black agriculturists are located in each of these provinces, such as Chicaloma and Chulumani in Sud Yungas and Mururata and Tocaña in Nor Yungas. The Bolivian Yungas are characterized by heavy rainfall and a mean temperature of 23°C.

Besides rural agricultural communities, there are migrant communities of Afro-Bolivians in all major Bolivian cities. In La Paz, Afro-Bolivians live mainly on the outskirts of town, especially in the rapidly growing areas of El Alto and Villa Fatima. Because of inconsistent migration patterns, there are no well-defined Afro-Bolivian neighborhoods in La Paz. As migrants from rural villages arrive in La Paz, they settle in the poorest neighborhoods. Participation in social activities, music ensembles being the most important example, is central to Afro-Bolivians' establishment of a subjective sense of community. These groups are based on common origin, for example the province of Nor Yungas. They chose a central location within the city to meet, thus keeping transportation costs and accessibility approximately equal for all members.

Demography. Estimates of the population of Afro-Bolivians range as low as 6,000 to as high as 158,000, or 2 percent of Bolivia's population. These estimates vary widely because census figures for Bolivia do not include racial differentiations.

Linguistic Affiliation. Afro-Bolivians throughout Bolivia speak mostly Spanish. The Spanish spoken by rural Black agriculturists is a dialect, and Afro-Bolivians maintain a small vocabulary of words of African origin. In the province of Sud Yungas and, to a lesser extent, in Nor Yungas, Blacks also speak the Aymara language.

History and Cultural Relations

The history of Blacks in Bolivia dates from colonial-era Peru, when Africans were imported as slaves to labor in the silver mines of the Peruvian viceroyalty. By the turn of the seventeenth century hundreds of thousands of Africans had been imported into Spanish America (Bowser 1974, 37), and by 1611 some 6,000 Black and Mulato slaves worked the upper Peruvian mines of Potosí (Klein 1986, 32). Africans were also imported as slave labor to work coca-leaf plantations in the semitropical provinces of Nor Yungas and Sud Yungas (M. Léons 1978). Emancipation was legislated in Bolivia's constitution of 19 December 1827; political debates delayed its enforcement until 1851.


The semitropical provinces of Nor Yungas and Sud Yungas are located on the eastern side of the Andes; the mountainous topography is dense with vegetation. Afro-Bolivian communities in Nor Yungas include Tocaña, Mururata, and Chischipa. Coroico is the nearest regional town and political center, and several Afro-Bolivian families live and work there. In Sud Yungas are the villages of Chulumani, Irupana, and Chicaloma, which is also known as pueblo de los negros (village of the Blacks). Like most rural Bolivian villages, Afro-Bolivian villages have a small plaza circumscribed by a church, a schoolhouse, and one or more stores.

In the Afro-Bolivian village of Tocaña, homes are scattered up and down the sides of a small mountain and connected by footpaths. Each dwelling consists of either a single two-story adobe structure or two to three separate single-story structures. The living, sleeping, and dining areas are together under one steel roof, and they are noncompartmentalized. If a house has a second story, it is commonly a storage area. As a separate structure, the kitchen can be as simple as a covered fireplace, or it can be a complete rectangular adobe building with a thatched or steel roof and a door. Single-story homes often have a third structure used as a storage room. Each household sits on a small plot of land (less than one-tenth of a hectare). Families also have more substantial plots of land (up to 1.5 hectares) that they farm. As of 1992 there was no potable water system in Tocaña, nor was there electricity or adequate sanitation facilities such as household latrines.

In the city of La Paz, Afro-Bolivian migrants live throughout the poorest neighborhoods. If they have a house, it sits on a small plot of land (less than one-tenth of a hectare) and is typically of brick and enclosed by a brick wall. The central living and dining area is one large room, with the sleeping area separated by a wall or a curtain. The kitchen is often separated from the house. As of 1992, most migrant Afro-Bolivian families lacked necessities such as electricity and adequate sanitation.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Afro-Bolivians of Nor Yungas and Sud Yungas are primarily agriculturists. Cash crops include coca leaf, coffee, citrus fruits, cacao, and many varieties of bananas and plantains. Coca leaf is the primary crop; it is a durable plant, and the same fields can be harvested several times each year. Coca leaves are hand picked and dried in the sun before being bagged. Afro-Bolivians refer to each 30-pound bag as a sexto, and these bags are brought to regional markets, such as those in Caranavi and Coroico, where they are exchanged for cash. The cash value of coca leaves fluctuates dramatically throughout the year depending on the size, color, and quality of the leaves.

During the harvest of citrus fruits and coffee, trucks arrive directly from La Paz to carry the produce to markets. Truck owners act as middlemen, paying Afro-Bolivians a small fraction of what the produce sells for in the city.

Rural Afro-Bolivians partially subsist on their crops and the chickens they raise. Men hunt wild game, and to further complement their diet and add variety, both men and women travel regularly by truck to large regional markets. Besides food, they purchase clothing and household, agricultural, school, and other supplies.

Owing to racism, Afro-Bolivian migrants have a difficult time finding decent jobs in the city of La Paz. Both women and men are often able to get work as domestic servants; however, it is more difficult for men to secure this type of employment. Some men find jobs as shop clerks or professional drivers.

Some migrants maintain important links with relatives in the lowland Yungas villages. By traveling back to their villages, working in the fields during harvests, and trading store-bought goods with their friends and relatives, migrants return to the city with agricultural produce such as citrus fruits, bananas, and plantains.

Division of Labor. Adults and children work year-round at agricultural tasks. Men often organize themselves in groups of two to six and work in their different fields on a rotating basis. The work includes chopping, thrashing, and burning of trees and large brush; clearing fields; and tilling so that the fields can be planted. Women work in smaller groups while simultaneously caring for preschool-age children. Women participate in all but the heaviest chopping and clearing of fields; they mainly plant and harvest. Besides their agricultural and child-care responsibilities, women cook, do the laundry, and wash the dishes. Both men and women shop at the weekly markets.

Land Tenure. Both men and women inherit land, and each family often has several different plots that they work. Ideally, each family will have plots in different environments on the mountain. Most families have coca-leaf fields on the sunny or dry side of the mountain, and other fields in the denser jungle where they grow bananas and plantains.


Afro-Bolivians reckon kinship bilaterally. They refer to one another by endearing nicknames (e.g., "Mastuco," meaning "large" or "full-bodied"), by relationshipabuela (grandmother), tio (uncle), suegra (mother-in-law), and the likeand by fictive or ritual kinship terms such as comadre (comother) and compadre (cofather). Compadrazgo is an important fictive-kinship institution among Afro-Bolivians, and such relationships are formed for the sponsorship of weddings, baptisms, the raising of a roof, and even the purchase of an automobile.

Marriage and Family

Although legal marriage is common among Afro-Bolivians, a couple often lives together and has children for several years before they can afford to marry. Divorce and serial polygamy are not uncommon among Afro-Bolivians. After divorce women often remain single and raise children, whereas men migrate to another part of the country in search of work and sometimes remarry.

Aymara-speaking Blacks of South Yungas frequently intermarry with Aymara Indians and mestizos, a strategy to elevate the social status of their children (M. Léons 1978). Afro-Bolivians of Nor Yungas, however, are by and large endogamous. Interethnic relations between Blacks and the Aymara are quite different in Nor Yungas. Although some Aymara families live in mainly Black agricultural communities, there is often racial tension between the two groups, and intermarriage is infrequent.

Socialization. Young children accompany their mothers during the day as they work in the fields: it is the mother who is mainly responsible for rearing and disciplining children. Children attend primary school in their own communities and secondary school in a nearby regional town. Because of the distance, teenagers attending high school often live with a relative in town or find room and board, returning to their families only for weekends.

Sociopolitical Organization

The Afro-Bolivian community of Tocaña has a democratic syndicate political system similar to those found in rural communities throughout Bolivia. In 1952, when agrarian reform was instituted in Bolivia, the government authorized these local political organizations as a replacement for the outlawed hacienda (plantation) administrations (W. Léons 1977, 31). Syndicates are hierarchic boards of political secretaries elected by adult community members. The secretary general holds the position of leadership in the community and may retain it for consecutive one-year terms, provided the community is content with his or her performance and the individual is willing to continue to hold office. Local syndicates are intended to give agricultural communities political representation at regional and national levels.

Another form of political organization pertains to social activities, such as sports and music. These organizations form the basis for community solidarity. The officers of these groupspresidents, vice presidents, secretaries of conflicts, and treasurersare called dirigentes (directors). Although there are local and national governmental organizations in place in La Paz, migrants have recourse only to these social organizations; hence for migrants these serve as the central political organizations. In 1992 women held most of these offices through which they both organized social life and addressed economic concerns.

In Sud Yungas, Blacks rejected the syndicate political system. The small sizes of their settlements were not conducive to the syndicate organization, and, additionally, Blacks viewed the syndicate as an Indian institution. In Chicaloma, Afro-Bolivians replaced the local hacienda administration with a junta, a cooperative work group. This allowed them political autonomy such as the Aymara have through syndicates and was commensurate with the dispersed nature of Afro-Bolivian settlements. Juntas draw their membership from a cross section of age groups (W. Lions 1977, 32).

Conflict. There is competition and racial tension between the Aymara and Afro-Bolivian migrants in La Paz and, to a lesser degree, between the Aymara and rural Afro-Bolivians. In the city of La Paz, Afro-Bolivians face heightened forms of racism and discrimination in their daily lives. Afro-Bolivians are in direct competition for jobs with Aymara Indians, who are the largest ethnic group in La Paz. As early as the days of colonial slavery in the highland mines of Potosí, the Aymara mocked Black cultural traditions, especially in a dance (performed in blackface while drumming and singing) called saya or tundiki. These Aymara dance practices continue in the 1990s and are one source of racial tension between Afro-Bolivians and Aymara in La Paz. Migrants attend informal public forums that they call debates, where they openly address their grievances with the Aymara and express their experiences of being a small Black minority in a country dominated by Indians. Among their complaints are the superstitious beliefs some Bolivians have regarding Blacks (e.g., that seeing a Black person or offering one a glass of milk can bring good luck). The saya or tundiki occasions much resentment. At debates held in 1992, Afro-Bolivians said they felt marginalized and that they believed that Aymara migrants had better job opportunities than did Blacks.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Like most Bolivians, Afro-Bolivians are Christians. Most rural Afro-Bolivians of Nor Yungas, however, attend the regional Catholic church in the town of Coroico only for baptisms and other life-cycle ceremonies. A priest from Coroico occasionally visits outlying agricultural communities such as Tocaña and Mururata to say Mass. Like most rural Bolivian villages, each Afro-Bolivian village has a patron saint, and communites celebrate their patron saints with fiestas lasting up to several days. According to local mythology, during Bolivia's independence struggle (1809-1825), the Virgen de la Candelaria saved the people of Coroico from an army of Royalists sent by the Spanish Crown. Surrounded, the unarmed vecinos (local non-indigenous Spanish speakers) abandoned their homes and went to church to pray. Afro-Bolivians, along with all the people of the region, celebrate 20 October as the day the Virgen de la Candelaria descended from the sky on a cloud, and, with her army of patriotos (patriots), defeated the Royalist forces. The largest regional patron-saint fiesta is in the town of Coroico. Afro-Bolivians contribute to the celebrations of the Virgen de la Candelaria by singing a song dedicated to her. This song is part of their saya music tradition (see "Arts").

Ceremonies. The Afro-Bolivians of Nor Yungas have a ceremonial monarchy, which is part of a long lineage of kings. Earlier in the twentieth century, King Bonifacio Pinedo, who lived in the village of Mururata, was recognized as the Afro-Bolivian king. He wore a cape and crown for major celebrations, especially Easter. When King Bonifacio died in the 1960s, no immediate heir to his throne was crowned until his grandson Julio Pinedo became king in 1982.

Arts. Among both Afro-Bolivians of Nor Yungas and Afro-Bolivian migrants in La Paz, music, dance, and poetry are the most important forms of artistic expression. In 1982 Afro-Bolivians of Nor Yungas revitalized much of their traditional music. Before this, they participated in the brass-band tradition that became so important to Bolivians during the mid-to late twentieth century. Among the revitalized traditions are saya, a song genre that serves Afro-Bolivians as a means of maintaining and transmitting their oral history; mauchi (funeral music); baile de tierra (traditional wedding music); and zemba, a lively combination of drumming and dance that was formerly associated with the Afro-Bolivian monarchy (Pizarroso Cuenca 1977, 73).

Singing is the most prominent aspect of Afro-Bolivian music. All of the genres except mauchi include accompaniment by several different drums, and saya adds bells and scrapers.

The manufacture of musical instruments is considered an art, and community instrument makers are recognized for their talents. Especially important are saya drums, long bamboo scrapers called cuanchas, and colorful drum mallets called haucañas (an Aymara term). Saya drums are of three different sizes, and each plays a unique rhythm that interlocks with the other two. The largest drums are the asentadores, and, as the name suggests, they "set" the beat. Second in size are cambiadores, which interlock a triplet pattern with the basic duple established by the asentadores. The smallest drum is the gangengo, which interlocks an upbeat pattern with the asentador. In the saya tradition, both men and women dance, but they form two separate dancing groups. The captain of the dancers wears sets of bells around his legs. The bells worn around his left leg are pitched higher, and they lead the women dancers. On his right leg, the captain wears a lower-pitched set of bells that lead the men. Afro-Bolivians point out that the bells also symbolize the chains and shackles worn by their enslaved ancestors.

Both the writing and reciting of poetry are highly valued forms of artistic expression. In Tocaña and La Paz, community poets recite during brief interludes at public musical performances. Their poetry often addresses Afro-Bolivians' struggles against racism and discrimination.

Death and Afterlife. Afro-Bolivians consider their mauchi tradition to be a vestige of a lost Afro-Bolivian religious practice. Mauchi is sung by men after a burial as friends and relatives walk back to their village from the cemetery, and it is sung on Todos los Santos (2 November). In mauchi, men join their hands together and form a large, closed circle. One community elder leads the unaccompanied singing, and the other men respond.


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