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ETHNONYMS: Costeños, Gente de Color, Gente Negra, Libres, Morenos, Morochos, Negros

Identification. Afro-Colombians do not form a single cultural complex. The term is a general category referring to people with variable proportions of African descent living in several regions of Colombia. More difficult still to categorize are the native inhabitants of the islands of San Andrés, Providencia, and Santa Catalina, Colombian possessions about 165 kilometers off the coast of Nicaragua. These people belong historically and culturally to a West Indian cultural complex formed under British colonial influence but have been subject to increasingly intense colombianización since early in the twentieth century. This essay will not deal with them (but see Cifuentes 1986 and Wilson 1973).

Terminology is morally and politically charged, and therefore usage is complex. Many people, especially among the educated, use the term "Afro-Colombian" as a fairly neutral term to identify others; fewer use it to identify themselves. The term "Negro" (Black), although common, can be used disparagingly; some people, Afro-Colombians or not, avoid it; others use it as a noun; a few use it only as a qualifier (e.g., "Gente Negra," Black people). Since the late 1980s, with increasing Black politicization, the term "Negro" is more common, although reference to "Comunidades Negras," Black communities, has been institutionalized to some extent by a 1993 law that refers to them as such. Some people use the euphemistic "Moreno" (Brown) or "Morocho" (Dark), others the general "Gente de Color" (Colored people), to identify themselves and others. People may avoid all reference to color and instead use regional terms. In the department of Chocó in the Pacific region, Black people often refer to themselves as "Libres" (free people), a usage dating back to colonial times. The term "Costeño" (coastal dweller), is often used to imply blackness, since many Afro-Colombians live in coastal regions. In the English-language literature, the terms "Black" (sometimes "black") or "Black person" are more common than "Afro-Colombian."

Location. Black people in Colombia are all descendants of Africans originally brought as slaves to work in mining and agriculture in colonial New Granada. They are concentrated in three main areas. The Pacific coastal region, a very humid, heavily forested zone, is criss-crossed with myriad rivers. It is very poor and infrastructurally underdeveloped, and the population is reckoned to be 80 to 90 percent Black, with smaller populations of indigenous peoples, Whites, and mestizos (mostly immigrants from outside the region). The Caribbean coastal region is the second area of concentration, especially along the coastal belt itself and along the banks of some of the major rivers, the Magdalena, the Cauca, and the lower Sinú. This is a mostly flat, fairly dry region, more urbanized and infrastructurally developed with large cattle-raising and agricultural enterprises. The third area is the upper-central Cauca Valley (especially in northeastern Cauca and southwestern Valle del Cauca departments). Much of this is sugarcane territory, with huge capitalist plantations. Black people work on these, or as small peasants on land sandwiched between them, or in the towns and cities of the region, especially Cali.

Apart from these three main concentrations, Black people have also migrated in increasing numbers to major cities, such as Bogotá and Medellín. The African descent of people all along the banks of the Magdalena and the Cauca rivers, except in their uppermost reaches, is also noticeable.

Demography. Reliable estimates of population are not available. The last national census to include racial categories (Black, White, Indian, and mixed) was in 1918, and then two major provinces refused to make returns in these categories. The 1912 and 1918 census returns reckon "Blacks" to be about 10 percent of the total. Subsequent estimates (based on guesswork) have often used a figure of about 4 percent, whereas a 1992 estimate, based on the Britannica Yearbook, gives a range of 14 to 21 percent.

Linguistic Affiliation. All Black people in Colombia speak Spanish. In certain areas, such as the Pacific region, there are specific features of accent, vocabulary, and syntax that make the Spanish spoken there distinctive. In Palenque de San Basilio, a single village in the Caribbean region, palenquero is also spoken (often as a first language); migrants from this village to other areas may also speak it. It is a Spanish-based creole language with African and Portuguese elements; in the early 1990s the Ministry of Education began to finance an ethno-education program aimed at reversing the apparent trend toward the loss of palenquero.

History and Cultural Relations

Africans were imported from the 1520s into settlements along the northern coast of colonial New Granada. The Caribbean port city of Cartagena became the principal slave port for the colony. Blacks were used in agriculture and as personal servants in this region from early on, but they were mainly used in the mining areas. Prior to 1600, perhaps 100,000 slaves were imported, but from about 1560 the Spanish settlements in the gold-rich Cauca Valley and northern Antioquia increased the demand for slaves to supplement scanty and fast-declining Indian labor. The Pacific coastal region was colonized effectively from the late seventeenth century and became a major user of slave labor.

Mining was the main occupation for slaves in New Granada. Both men and women worked in the open-cast mines, usually in cuadrillas, or gangs, headed by a capitán. They also worked in agriculture and cattle raising in Cauca Valley haciendas, in the mining camps of the Pacific coastal region, in Antioquian farms, and in the large haciendas of the Caribbean plains. In addition, they were used as servants, laborers, and artisans in the cities.

Slavery varied in harshness, according to the region and the epoch, but most slaves had the opportunity to mine, farm, or sell on their own behalf for one day a week, and some were able to save money and buy their freedom. Freedom could also be granted by a master. Colonial records show that women (and children) were given and bought their freedom more often than men. This partly reflected the sexual relations that occurred between White men and slave women. By the 1770s, "free people of color," a general category fed by manumission and race mixture and including everyone who was not classified as a White, an Indian, or a slave, were about 60 percent of the New Granadian population.

Slaves also fought for their freedom, escaping into the many virtually uncontrolled areas and sometimes forming fortified villages, palenques, for their defense against Spanish military missions. Rebellions and the establishment of palenques by slaves occurred from the early sixteenth century and intensified during the eighteenth.

By the time of independence (1819) and abolition (1851), the importance of slavery had declined in many areas, although it was still important in the Pacific and the Cauca regions. After abolition, former slaves in areas such as Antioquia and the Cauca became workers on the mines and farms of their former masters or independent gold panners and farmers, much as manumitted slaves had done during the colonial period. In the Pacific region, colonialstyle mining more or less collapsed, and freed slaves became independent miners and farmers, selling gold to urban commercial elites.

The elaboration of Afro-Colombian culture during and after the colonial period was not as overtly African influenced as in the case of Afro-Cuban or Afro-Brazilian culture. New Granada was not a full-blown plantation society, the importation of slaves ended earlier, and slavery was already a relatively weak institution in many areas prior to abolition. Nevertheless, palenques and communities of free Blacks (which could be quite isolated in areas such as the Pacific coast region) were places where Afro-Colombian culture could develop. As in other regions of Latin America, there were also associations of slaves and free Blackscabildos, or councilslocated mostly in the cities. These were nominally lay church brotherhoods, but many had tenuous links with the church and were allowed to hold their own dances and celebrations, often centered on drumming. In areas such as the Cauca Valley, Antioquia, and the Caribbean plains, Afro-Colombian culture often fed into a more generalized working-class and peasant culture of triethnic origins. Indeed in Antioquia, Afro-Colombian culture more or less disappeared, except in some isolated northeastern areas.

Relations with Amerindian groups varied. In the Pacific region, where a mining monoculture existed, Indians and Blacks tended to remain fairly separate, although there was, and continues to be, an interchange of goods, services, and knowledge, plus some intermarriage. Especially after abolition, Indian groups gradually moved into the headwaters of the rivers as Blacks occupied the lower reaches. In areas such as Antioquia and the Cauca, either Indian populations declined more drastically, or geographical separation remained more marked. In the Caribbean region, Indians and Blacks tended to mix more thoroughly, although certain zones show a predominance of Indian or Black heritage.


In the Pacific region, settlement is mostly riverine, lacustrine, or coastal and is often quite dispersed. Houses are generally rectangular wooden constructions, built on stilts and with palm-thatch or sheet-metal roofing. There are also some larger villages and towns, such as Quibdó and Tumaco (about 50,000 inhabitants each in 1985). The international port of Buenaventura (population about 160,000 in 1985) is constantly expanding because of immigration from the rural areas. Access to space is so constrained that some residents live in houses on stilts in neighborhoods that stretch onto the tidal mud flats.

In the Cauca region, settlement is on small peasant farms and in villages and towns: all these feed the sugarcane industry's demand for labor. Many Blacks from the Cauca and the Pacific regions have migrated to cities such as Cali and Medellín, where they often live in self-built neighborhoods. In the Caribbean region, the most obvious concentrations of Black people are in settlements along the beaches, often dispersed, occasionally nucleated. Houses are generally of the common rectangular wooden design but are not on stilts. In the hinterland, settlement is in villages and towns, with a more mixed population. Houses are more likely to be made of industrially produced materials. The poorer neighborhoods of large cities such as Barranquilla and especially Cartagena have notable concentrations of Black people.


In the Pacific region, economic activities are varied and include agriculture (principally cultivation of plantains and maize), the raising of pigs, fishing, hunting, and, in suitable areas, mining. Contract logging has been of growing importance since about the 1960s: independent cutters sell their produce to intermediaries, on whom they depend for credit. Some large national and transnational timber companies also employ local labor directly. Since the 1970s mining has become increasingly mechanized, with small gasoline-driven pumps and minidredgers widely available on credit. Multinationals have used large-scale dredging techniques in very specific zones since the 1900s. In the southern Pacific region, intensive capitalist shrimp farming and the cultivation of African palms have also made inroads during the 1980s, causing environmental degradation: the former is destroying the mangrove swamps, an ecologically specialized niche, and the latter is causing more generalized deforestation.

Landholding in this region is often not legally regulated. Where individual private property titles do not exist, Black communities are held by the state to be squatters on public lands; this makes their displacement by capitalist entrepreneurs all the easier. A collective system of ownership has been documented for the southern part of the regionand seems more widespreadin which a consanguineal kinship group tracing ancestry to a common ancestor exploits a given territory that has a communally worked mine, plus family mines and agricultural plots. People can move from one territory to another by activating kinship links. Men and women both work in mining and agriculture with no sharp division of labor. Generally, women are very economically active outside the domestic sphere.

In the Cauca region, the growth of the sugarcane industry from the 1930s has meant intense pressure on peasant landholding, which here is by legal title. Smallholders (who may be women) still cultivate cocoa and coffee for regular cash income alongside subsistence crops. Labor is organized along kinship lines within a broadly defined kindred. There is no sharply defined sexual division of labor. Peasants also work in the sugarcane industry for cash wages, and increasing pressure on land has intensified this and migration to the cities. In Cali, Medellín, and Bogotá, they join many Black migrants from the Pacific region working chiefly as domestic servants (women migrants outnumber men), in the construction industry, and in informal occupations, although there are small numbers of Black students and professionals.

In the Caribbean region, land-extensive cattle ranches have dominated since colonial times and have employed Blacks and mestizos as sharecroppers and laborers. Families may combine agriculture on privately held land with sharecropping and wage labor in rural areas and/or the cities. For maritime Black settlements, fishing is an important source of subsistence and cash income. In certain areas, tourism also generates incomenot only in cities, where Black people may work as boatmen, for example, or selling food, but in more rural areas, where tourists from the interior of the country come to rent beach houses. From 1900 until World War II, the United Fruit Company's banana plantations near Santa Marta employed Black laborers (some of them from the West Indies). In the 1960s a banana boom began in the west of the region, near the Gulf of Urabá, and Blacks migrated from the Pacific region to work there, usually as drainage-ditch diggers.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Characteristic of Black people all over Colombia (and not unique to them) is a flexible kinship network in which individuals and families activate links within a loosely defined kindred, often simply termed familia, in order to get access to goods and services, and to facilitate migration (see "Economy"). Classificatory categories such as primo, "cousin," or tía, "aunt," group together a large number of relatives. An individual may have more than one partner, often in unión libre, informal union, during the course of his or her life, giving rise to many half-sibling relations. In the Pacific region, this has been characterized as "serial polygyny," as a man contracts temporally overlapping relations with successive women. Some men have simultaneous polygynous relations, in which the women have roughly equal social status. In the Caribbean region, it is not unusual for a man to have a mujer de asiento, principal wife, perhaps legally married, and a querida, or lover. These patterns may give rise to matrifocal households because women retain children in a household with which successive male partners form links; her female children may then have children but remain in their mother's house. In census material, these patterns are reflected in high rates of unión libre, single motherhood, and illegitimacy for areas where Black populations are concentrated. The interpretation of these forms is subject to debate, with some scholars adducing African influences, others the destructive effects of slavery, and still others the impact of economic marginality over centuries, leading to constant male mobility, for example.

Ritual kinship is also important, with individuals forming ties of compadrazgo both with relatives of equal status to themselves and, more rarely, with people of higher status. The latter form is more common in the Caribbean region.

In the Pacific region, inheritance is from one spouse to the other and then to their children. Houses and personal possessions are passed on at death, but land (or at least the right to work land) is passed on when children reach puberty. Data on inheritance in other regions are unfortunately very scarce.

Political Organization

Positions of informal status and authority are achieved through seniority and personal attributes (e.g., strength of character, breadth of experience, success in providing material goods, and skill in storytelling). Some decision making and conflict management is handled at this level. In Palenque de San Basilio, there are also cuagros, or age groups, into which people are recruited informally in infancy and formally initiated at puberty, when male and female leaders are chosen. Intracuagro relations are of mutual aid and solidarity, and male-female relations are often formed within the cuagro; intercuagro relations are competitive, at times expressed through boxing matches.

In formal terms, regions where Black people live in Colombia come under the umbrella of national administrative and political structures of the departamento (a province, headed by a governor) and the municipio and corregimiento (a municipality and its districts, headed by a mayor). The staffing of bureaucratic posts is managed through a system of patron-client relations in which votes are exchanged for goods and services, mostly channeled through the traditional Liberal and Conservative parties. The Liberal party has a long-standing advantage in many Black areas, purportedly because it was in power when slavery was abolished, but also because its more federalist stance favored the peripheral regions where most Blacks live. Generally, formal politics is not "racialized": Black senators, for example, do not generally speak from a self-consciously "Black" platform.

From the 1960s, however, a small educated minority of urban Blacks, spurred mainly by the Black Power movement, tried to create organizations that encourage "Black identity"; these had a marginal existence. In the late 1980s, several self-help Black peasant organizations, often sponsored by the church, began to emerge in rural areas of the Pacific region. In the early 1990s, both types of organization strengthened when constitutional reform opened an arena for issues of ethnic identity and multiculturality to be voiced, mainly by more experienced Indian organizations. The constitution of 1991 included a clause promising collective land rights for rural Black communities in the Pacific region. After two years of negotiation, in which representatives of Black organizations were involved, Law 70 of 1993 was passed, which enshrined these rights in legislation. Black organization thus reached a new stage of intensity, identifiable as a social movement; issues of the specific conditions of life in the Pacific region and generally of the status of blackness in national society and culture became more public than ever before. Black people in the Caribbean and Cauca regions, however, tended to have a peripheral position in all this, since the legal process targeted the Black communities of the Pacific region.

This Black social movement is related to government plans to "open up" the Pacific region to development. Since the 1980s, there have been grandiose plans to finish the Pan-American Highway (which runs through the region), build more deep-water ports on the coast, and build an interoceanic canal. More prosaically, road building has progressed apace since 1980. Immigration by non-Blacks into the region increased, and pressure on land and natural resources grew, prejudicing many Black communities. This pressure was also transmitted to Indian-Black relations in the area as Black people involved in logging and mining began to encroach on Indian lands. Other Black communities suddenly found themselves within Indian reserves newly created as a result of Indian lobbying of the central government. Church-sponsored Black and Indian organizations were instrumental in mediating these conflicts. The overall experience fomented organization and the lobbying of the constitutional reform process by the Pacific region's Black people.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Black people in Colombia are Catholics. As among many people in Latin America, they tend to practice a "popular Catholicism" that the clergy considers more or less unorthodox. In the past and still in the 1990s, the clergy tended to disapprove of practices in Black regions, but with the emergence of a stronger Black identity, some priests are willing to include "traditional" elements in church ceremonies.

In the Pacific region, the presence of the church was rather weak, and many religious rites are practiced outside the direct control of the clergy. There are festivals to venerate a saint or the Virgin Mary, an image of whom is processed through a settlement and often down a riverin a town such as Quibdó, capital of the department of Chocó, the Fiestas de San Pacho (Saint Francis of Assisi) have the aspect of a carnival as different barrios compete to present the best procession and float over twelve days. Velorios, or wakes to propitiate a saint, are usually sponsored by a specific person who provides drink, tobacco, and food. There are also wakes to commemorate the death of a person. Music is a vital element in these rites, with cantadoras (female singers), who may also take role of rezanderas (prayer sayers). Aguardiente (rum) is commonly taken by the participants to combat the coldness of the deceased; beyond the immediate circle of the corpse, where respect is shown, people play dominoes, drink rum, and tell stories and jokes. At the velorio of a child (whose soul is considered to go directly to heaven, a cause for rejoicing), there may be some merriment and perhaps games that may have sexual overtones.

Less research has been conducted in the Caribbean coastal region but one study shows extensive similarities between this region and the Pacific coast, although perhaps greater attention is accorded to spirits than to saints. In Palenque de San Basilio, the cabildo lumbalú consists of elders who officiate at velorios with drumming, singing, and dancing to help the deceased's departure. Spirits of the deceased are called upon to aid the living and must therefore be propitiated and managed carefully through ritual means, for example during the velorio, when many precautions are taken to prevent the spirit's return or anger. Ritual specialists, often women, are accorded prestige and respect. Some observers interpret the interest shown in spirits and saints as in some measure related to African religious concerns with ancestral spirits and the propitiation of deities. It is hard to discount some African influences, but velorios and a concern with spirits and saints are also widespread in non-Black areas.

Work in the Cauca region has focused on elements that are in fact common in other Black (and indeed non-Black) regions: the use of magic and sorcery to attack one's enemies, bring good fortune, influence one's sexual partners, and defend oneself against the machinations of others. Sorcery is often used where envidia, envy, is rife and this in turn may be the result of perceived transgressions against norms of reciprocity, which occur when a person enjoys some material success and is thought to forget his or her obligations as a friend or relative. In this area, too, the pact made with the devil to increase a worker's output and wages has been documented. The gains achieved are fruitless, howeverthey cannot be usefully invested and must be spent on consumables; the worker will also gradually waste away. In the northern Cauca region, Black people also celebrate various festivals, including the Adoration of the Child.

There is very little information available on medical practices among Black Colombians. In general terms, as among many peoples all over Latin America, health is considered to be a balance between "hot" and "cold" forces and elements that affect the body: the cold of a corpse can be threatening, for example, and is combated by the heat of rum. Also, health and welfare are affected by the machinations of others through sorcery, and recourse can be made to healers to defend against these threats, whether to person or property. In the Pacific region, Indian shamans (called jaibanas in the department of Chocó) are considered the most powerful healers: they and their patients may use pildé, a relative of the hallucinogenic Banisteriopsis caapi vine (ayahuasca), to induce visions. In the Chocó, Black curers are called raicilleros (raicilla means "rootlet" but also refers to the ipecac root); they diagnose illness by examining urine samples. When they are given a sign that healing is their vocation, raicilleros begin a seven-year training with various teachers. Less specialized healers are called yerbateros (herbalists).

Music in Black regions of Colombia is varied and rich. In the department of Chocó, the chirimía bandbased on clarinets, drums, and cymbalsplays versions of European-derived dances (e.g., mazurka, polka); there are also alabaos (religious songs), romances (ballads), and décimas (ten-line stanzas). Further south in the Pacific region, currulao, played with marimba, drums, and voices, is a central genre generally thought to have a more African derivation. In the northern Cauca region, fugas (fugues) and coplas (rhyming couplets) are European-derived forms that are widely played and sung among Black people.

In the Caribbean coast region, there is a huge variety of styles, including the cumbia, which exists in both folkloric and commercialized forms. Music there is often held to be of triethnic origin, but the major inputs have come from European and African traditions in a complex cultural interchange. During the twentieth century, genres from this region have become commercialized, often crossing over with Afro-Cuban styles, and have become popular nationwide and abroad under the generic umbrella of cumbia. An accordion-based style, vallenato, which interprets what were once traditional Caribbean Colombian airs, has also become nationally commercialized and is especially popular among Black people in other regions of the country. All over Colombia, but especially popular in Black regions, is found salsa, a genre based on Afro-Cuban and other Caribbean styles, which became commercialized in New York in the 1960s and spread over the entire Latin American region.

See alsoAfro-Hispanic Pacific Lowlanders of Ecuador and Colombia


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