Afro-Hispanic Pacific Lowlanders of Ecuador and Colombia

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Afro-Hispanic Pacific Lowlanders of Ecuador and Colombia

ETHNONYMS: Afro-Ecuatorianos/Afro-Colombianos (intellectual, pejorative colloquially), Costeños, Gente Morena, Gente Negra, Libres (not common south of the Río San Juan, primary term in Chocó north of the San Juan), Morenos, Mulatos, Negros (intellectual, pejorative colloquially), Zambos (Ecuador; historically important)


Identification. All designations of Black people of the Pacific Lowlands are of foreign origin and indicate the combination of blackness and territory. Colloquially, in the region, "Gente Morena" (dark people) is polite usage, but intellectuals stress the Spanish terms "Negro" (Black), "Afro-Ecuatoriano" or "Afro-Colombiano," and, more generally, "Afro-Latinoamericano." "Mulato" is also used for very light people; "Zambo" refers to Black-indigenous "mixing" but has other usages. Such terms are normally used as adjectives, not nouns, such as "Pueblo Negro" (Black people) or "Comunidad Negra" (Black community). In the 1990s "Negro Fino" (refined Black) is used in Ecuador to differentiate Black people who are educated and are white-collar employees from those who are not.

Location. The Afro-Hispanic culture of the Pacific Lowlands of Ecuador and Colombia extends from Muisne in southern Esmeraldas Province, Ecuador, to the Río San Juan in Valle del Cauca Department, Colombia. It is part of the greater Pacific Lowlands Culture Area of Panama, Colombia, and Ecuador. South of this area is a distinct Manabí culture region of Ecuador; north of the area is the Afro-American Chocó proper of Colombia, with Black culture shared with people of Darién Province, Panama. East of the region are the interior Andean zones of Ecuador and Colombia. Afro-Hispanic culture is predominant in the region Afro-Hispanics share with Tchachela, Chachi, and Awá Kwaiker indigenous people of Ecuador and with Awá Kwaiker, Noanamá, and Emberá native peoples of Colombia.

Linguistic Affiliation. Spanish was the language of conquest in Ecuador and Colombia and became the language, in creole transformations, of Black people of the Pacific Lowlands. Serious linguistic work remains to be undertaken on the dialect of creole Spanish spoken in Afro-Hispanic culture.

Demography. Between 400,000 and 500,000 Black people occupy this region, making it the densest population in the entire lowland rain-forest tropics of the Americas. About 85 percent of the population of the region shares Afro-Hispanic culture.

History and Cultural Relations

Documented history and legend establish the beginning of Afro-Hispanic culture in Esmeraldas, Ecuador, when a Spanish slaving ship ran aground in 1553. There, a group of twenty-three Africans from the coast of Guinea, led by a Black warrior named Antón, attacked the slavers and liberated themselves. Soon after, by means only partially documented, this group, together with other Blacks entering the region led by a Ladino (Hispanicized Black person) named Alonso de Illescas, came to dominate the region from northern Manabí north to what is now Barbacoas, Colombia. At this time (late sixteenth century) intermixture with indigenous peoples, to whom Black people fled to establish their palenques (fortified villages), was such that, on the basis of their features, they were described as "Zambo" (Black-indigenous admixture), synonyms of which were "Negro," "Black," and "Mulato." Movement into southwest Colombia by African slaves was through Cartagena via the Cauca Valley and through Panama and Pacific ports. The first Black there may have arrived with the pilot of Francisco Pizarro, Bartolomé Ruiz, on the Isla de Gallo in 1526. There is evidence that the earliest influence on Afro-Hispanic culture in the region came from the Senegambian area of North Africa. Culturally, the influences of Bantu Africa, as seen in the musicespecially the currulao (see Ceremonies)and archaic Spainespecially some funeral customspredominate.

By 1599 Black people were clearly in charge of what was called "La República de Zambos." In that year a group of Zambo chiefdoms, said to represent thousands of Zambo people of Esmeraldas, trekked to Quito to declare loyalty to Spain. An oil painting of three of these chiefs from the emerald land of the Zambo Republic is portrayed by the "Indian artist" Adrián Sánchez Galgue; it is reportedly the earliest signed and dated painting from South America. The subsequent history until the wars of liberation led by Simón Bolívar in the north is that of slavery and freedom existing side by side. Organization of labor in raising food, exploitation of forest, mangrove, and sea, and panning for gold existed in remarkably similar forms in both free and slave communities. The primary cultural relationship from the sixteenth century through the twentieth is that of "racial succession," whereby Black people encroach on the cultural territories of indigenous people.


Afro-Hispanic settlement patterns configure into four primary adaptive niches manifest in three primary environments. All four niches exist in each environment, and people come and go from niche to niche. The three environments are sea edge, mangrove swamp, and forest. The niches are rural scattered dwellings, rural settlements, towns, and large urbanized towns. Egalitarian social relationships and preferred cousin marriage characterize the rural scattered dwellings, whereas ranked social relationships and work-group specialization characterize the rural settlements. In the latter, prominent men organize profit-oriented activities but their income is leveled by their continuing debt to workers. Ritual life in settlements is especially rich, but it is almost nonexistent in the scattered settlements.

Towns have the trappings of the central administrative apparatus of the nations of Ecuador and Colombia. Activities there are oriented toward the acquisition of money, and the boom-and-bust nature of the coastal economy determines the social strategies and patterns of activities to be undertaken. Towns are economically stratified, although social ranking and egalitarian processes are also present; race relations in towns during economic-boom periods are characterized by distinct White-over-Black asymmetry. The large, urbanized towns (Buenaventura and Tumaco, Colombia, and Esmeraldas, Ecuador), are rigidly stratified with "White" immigrants on top and the Afro-Hispanic population on the bottom. Processes characteristic of the rural dispersed niche and rural settlement are manifest in the lowest economic class. In the early 1990s San Lorenzo and Quinindé, Ecuador, and Guapi, Colombia, have entered the system of the large, urbanized towns. Many other towns are exhibiting similar patterns.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The people of Afro-Hispanic culture are completely capable of maintaining themselves on a strictly subsistence basis, and they often do so even though they are also deeply embedded in the vicissitudes of a boom-bust capitalist economy. Prominent in the sea-edge environment are shore fishing and deep-sea fishing, together with plantain and taro agriculture and coconut, peach palm, breadfruit, and mango arborculture. Chickens are kept for meat and eggs. The mangrove swamp features all of the activities of the seaedge environment plus swine raising, although agricultural activities depend on high-ground areas that are not periodically inundated by the tides. Rice is grown in cleared swamp areas. Women gather bivalve mussels, and men gather crabs in the mangrove swamp for export to the interior. Also, mangrove bark is stripped for tanneries and the wood is used to make charcoal. Fishers and hunters fully utilize the forest-riverine environment. Horticulture focuses especially on plantains and maize. The agricultural system is known as slash-mulch; there is no burning in the swidden activities. The plantain is the fundamental energy-providing food. Because of the heavy rainfall, manioc is not very important in most of the region, but taro provides ubiquitous back-up starch. Tobacco is a prominent crop in some swiddens; sugarcane is grown and processed locally, using the ancient trapiche (the earliest form of sugarcane-grinding apparatus); and peppers, onions, other condiments, spices, and medicinal plants are grown in kitchen gardens. Rice is becoming increasingly important.

Commercial activities now focus on exploitation of the exceedingly diverse hard- and softwoods of the rain forest. Work is done by cooperative work groups organized by one "chief." These are direct transformations of early gold-panning groupings (slave and free). During the full and new moons, men and women in some of the coastal towns gather shrimp larvae in the estuaries or in the sea; these are later sold to commercial shrimp farmers. Economic activity aimed at gaining cash is extensive and intensive when there is an inflow of money from the capitalist economy; subsistence activities are intense when there is no money.

Trade. People of Afro-Hispanic culture produce gold (including archaeological gold that is panned and sometimes mined, and, in the area around Barbacoas, Colombia, locally made gold jewelry) sought after by people outside of their culture area. Their primary trade item is their own labor, and spatial mobility in search of work is a diagnostic feature of the entire region. When there is a market for them, the following foodstuffs have been produced or gathered in large quantities: tagua (ivory nut), coconuts, bananas, peach-palm fruits, tobacco, cacao, dried fish, live crabs, live bivalve mussels, and live shrimp larvae.

Division of Labor. Men are more closely articulated to the capitalist economy than are women, and women are more articulated to the domestic economy than are men. The specific relationships depend on the adaptive niche together with the state of the externally induced boom-bust capitalist economy. Men are relatively more mobile than women, but women are more likely to curry favors in towns than are men. Sex roles are ritually expressed in their contrast and complementarity in six contexts of stylized interaction. In the cantina context males are in complete ascendance; in the saloon men use women as exchange tokens to established male-male alliances; in the currulao context men stress their male mobility, whereas women stress their ability to hold men as other men are "moving on." These contexts are secular. The first sacred context is that of the funeral and symbolic second funeral, in which egalitarian sex roles are expressed; the second is that of the funeral for a child, in which women are ascendant; and the third is the ritual to propitiate saints, in which women clearly control and dominate men. Afro-Hispanic sex-role relationships cannot be understood without reference to this continuum and configuration of complementary and contrasting sex roles.

Land Tenure. Men and women establish gardens in more than one of the three environmental zones, whenever possible. Men clear the heavy trees, and women and men work together in clearing brush and planting. It is up to the founding couple to maintain rights of usufruct to their swidden gardens and to their groves of coconuts and peach palms. Because the Colombian and Ecuadoran governments persist in classifying all areas occupied by Black people in the Pacific Lowlands as tierras baldías (vacant lands), conflict with colonists from the adjacent inland territories assigned land by colonization schemes is ubiquitous. Since the early 1970s the coast of Ecuador has seen the explosive development of the commercial shrimp industry; this has caused the deforestation of large areas of mangrove forest, and this ecological destruction is increasing exponentially. By the early 1990s these processes were incipient in Colombia as well. Cattle ranches have also expanded in many areas. Tourism has increased considerably as national and international travelers visit the beaches of Esmeraldas Province. Prostitution and illegal drug trafficking have increased greatly.


Kin Groups and Descent. The bilateral kindred is the maximum kinship grouping (i.e., the widest group recognized as kin). It is Ego oriented, so membership is overlapping. Genealogical space is established and traversed according to several criteria. One of these is consanguinity; here people figure who is related and who is not by noting their living lineal and collateral relatives. Another criterion is decedence, which means that a person will not reckon a kin relationship through a linkage involving one who has died; other linkages must be found. A third important criterion is affinity/attenuated affinity, which means that one can figure a "kin" relationship by a relationship of affinity or by a relationship once characterized by affinity. In the process of upward mobility, stem kindreds are also formed; here a given person (Ego) reckons his or her own position in genealogical space by reference to a previously established parental, or even grandparental, node. There is no unilineal principle in Afro-Hispanic kinship; it is strictly bilateral, although often matrilaterally skewed.

Compadrazgo is extremely important in the entire social organization, including the kinship and marriage system, of the bearers of Afro-Hispanic culture. It is by establishing ritual coparents at the birth and baptism of children that marriage prohibitions are formed, agreements to care for children made, and cooperative labor formations established and reinforced.

Kinship Terminology. The terminology is nonbifurcate-collateral where collaterals are separated from lineals, and no distinction is made between matrilateral and patrilateral relatives. Reconstruction of a possible early kinship system reveals strong West African roots.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Legal marriage is very uncommon in Afro-Hispanic culture, and the governments of Ecuador and Colombia are vague or inconsistent with regard to common-law relationships. Men "have a woman" or "have women" and a woman "has a man." It is in the asking of a man and a woman to be coparents at the birth of a child, for its baptism, or prior to embarking on a long trip, that a given couple is denoted as "married." The fundamental intrahousehold unit is the mother-child dyad (and with increasing frequency the mother's mother-mother's child dyad); the next important dyad is the mother-husband dyad. These dyads configure and expand into networks of relationships that receive symbolic form by ritual-kinship and cooperative-work relationships.

Domestic Unit. The kitchen area with abutting back platform is the fundamental beginning of the physical developmental sequence of an Afro-Hispanic house. This expands to a large front platform that, when enclosed, becomes a big one-room living space that is compartmentalized into other rooms as the number of residents expands. The house resembles neither colonist houses nor those of indigenous people. It is an independent aesthetic outgrowth of a long period of Afro-Hispanic residence in this region. Although patrifocal households are preferred, matrifocality is common.

Socialization. Boys and girls accompany male and female parents and other relatives in their quotidian routines and attend all ritual and ceremonial functions. In Ecuador, many go to school from the age of 6 through 10 years but otherwise are reared within a nurturing kindred in which experiential knowledge is complemented by the transmission of cultural information. Girls are taught by women to be free, independent, and self-supporting. Boys learn to cope with the vicissitudes of changing and shifting expectations emanating from the external capitalist economy. Breast feeding and weaning are casual, and children seem to learn to eliminate in the kitchen garden without the need for many verbal reminders or reprimands.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The political economy of western Ecuador and Colombia responds to booms and busts, brought about by sporadicity of requirements for certain products sought by world markets. The fundamental survival plan in Afro-Hispanic culture involves the maintenance of an exploitable set of dyads. These dyads form into families and kindreds, and out of these ramify networks. Networks are manipulated by brokers who make contracts with people outside of the culture area to the benefit of those inside. Action-sets are formed by network brokers to exploit short-run profits, such as those from cutting timber and floating it to a buying station. Sustained success as a network broker leads to the formation of stem kindreds, which are units that endure symbolically as a "family enterprise." Strategies of adaptive mobility in the Pacific Lowlands Culture Area involve peasant strategies, according to which short-run subsistence activities are maximized; proletarian strategies, according to which short-run capital-gain activities are maximized; and entrepreneurial strategies, according to which short-run and long-run risks are taken for economic mobility that involves the discarding of genealogically based social capital bound to the kindred system. These three strategies of adaptive mobility coalesce into a mobility system that is diagnostic of the entire culture area. This system is depressed and marginalized by a strong system of pervasive racism that prevents Black people from occupying the same roles as lighter-skinned people in the towns and large towns of the region.

Political Organization. Political organization follows the national system of Ecuador and Colombia, except all favors go to those who are non-Black and non-Zambo. To be Black in this Black area of Afro-Hispanic culture is offensive to those who control the political apparatus of the expanding nation-state in its frontier territories.

Social Control. Women and men talk about misdeeds and social transgressions, not to arouse the ire of those talked about but to exercise a system of managed social relationships through discourse about unacceptable conduct. Such gossip can expand into accusations of witchcraft against a closely related person or persons suspected of harboring hostile feelings against one afflicted by illness, or by a woman toward another woman said to have enchanted her husband or lover. Female and male curers exercise social powers through the manipulation of ritual items. They may identify people of evil intent as agents of witchcraft, and they may also ensorcell a man who has left a wife or lover for another. Such curers may also ensorcell one whom consensus reached through gossip declares to have violated rules of reciprocity.

Conflict. Men may come into physical conflict over land disputes, disputes over women or property, or over issues with origins in old family vendettas; when this happens extreme violence erupts and death may result. Such conflict is highly undesirable in that it is thought that the mundane and mystical heat so generated endures in a community through the medium of angry spirits and unappeased souls. Overt conflict between women is often resolved in a heated argument, which may, rarely, be accompanied by physical confrontation. Conflict is usually covert, through accusations of sorcery and the application of invidious sanctions.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. From the time of the founding of the first palenques in the interior of Colombia and Ecuador in the mid-sixteenth century, the Black runaways, or self-liberated people (Cimarrones) have regarded themselves as true Christians. This religious underpinning has often been in contrast with the Spanish, colonial, and, later, national priests, friars, and curates from Europe, Colombia, and Ecuador, who sought to "stamp out" Black beliefs and practices, taken to be "pagan" and "African." The cosmology of Afro-Hispanic culture is highly syncretic, with dynamic aspects of Catholicism and African religions fused into transformable systems of belief that vary from subregion to subregion. Other worlds exist on the sea and under, over, and beyond the sea; the sea itself is a universe of spirits as well as a domain for fishing, traveling, and shipping. Fear creatures, called visiones (visions), are said to be encountered in all environments and niches. Principal among them in most places is the Tunda, a spiritual body snatcher who is driven away by the sound of a base drum or a shotgun, and Riviel, an especially dangerous ghostghoul who must be deposed by a shotgun or rifle. Other fear creatures specific to localities include "the widow" (a masked flying witch), "the headless man," and "the living dead." This earth contains multiple entrances and exits to other worlds, including the site of a shrine to a saint, the locus of a funeral ritual for a child or an adult, and the cemetery. Heaven and purgatory seem to exist "below" the sky; saints, spirits, virgins, and souls of the dead come there, and souls of the dead depart from the earth to go there. Hell is set aside from purgatory and heaven; it is the locus of the devil, demons, and the souls and spirits of dead people who expired while "hot" (see "Conflict").

The cosmology of Afro-Hispanic culture, especially in the southern sector of the region, is divided into two halvesthe divino and the humano. The former is the domain of the virgins and saints (of colloquial Afro-Hispanic Catholicism), and the latter is the domain of the devil and all of the spirits and dangerous souls that can be appropriated to the devil's domain. The domain of the divino is a plane of existence populated by a number of saints, including the Virgen del Carmen, San Antonio, Santa Rosa, El Niño Dios, and La Mano Poderoso. Many people have shrines in their houses on which they light votive candles to the saints who protect them from diseases and other misfortunes. The domain of the humano, overseen by the Christian devil, is the other plane of existence, populated by obscure figures such as the Anima Sola (soul by itself, lone soul) or El Mismísimo (the Devil himself).

Religious Practioners. Curanderas (female healers) and brujos (male sorcerers) are the active agents who draw from the domains of the divino and the humano. Curanderas have special relationships with some saints and many of them are "representatives" for particular saints. Curanderas use the power of the saints and virgins during their curing rituals. Curanderas heal illnesses such as evil eye, evil air, and magical fright. To cure patients of these afflictions, they recite secret prayers, light candles to the saints and virgins, and use herbs the names of which invoke the powers of important figures of the divino. Brujos are said to use the power of the devil and some admit to actually doing so, at times. They know secret spells in which they invoke the powers of the devil, which are said to be used to make people ill or infertile, or to destroy someone's business.

Ceremonies. There is remarkable consistency in the culture of Afro-Hispanic life of this region with regard to ceremonial performance. At the death of a child a chigualo is held. Here African rhythmic and musical patterns conjoin with such Spanish customs (sixteenth century) as dancing with the corpse in the little coffin prior to burial. The child is willed to heaven as a "little angel" or "pure angel" (angelita/angelito ). Women control a similar ceremony, called arrullo, with cognate music, to bring saints to them and to their shrines. One of the most prominent saints in this region is San Antonio, whose color is beige; he seems, in some regions, to represent a transformation of the African deity Legba, the trickster. The "broker" (usually, a female, síndica, but sometimes a male, síndico ) of a given saint is the woman (or man) who is in charge of organizing a festival for that saint's special day, also called arrullo. Assuming this role is an act of reciprocity by a person who has received a favor, usually related to health, from the saint. During the alabado (wake) and novenario (second wake after nine days) for a deceased adult, women sing Moorish-Spanish-style songs to induce the soul to purgatory or heaven, without any rhythmic accompaniment. The important thing in this ceremony is that the soul leave the living and the community of the living. Another ceremony is sometimes performed after the second wake to force the lingering soul out of the world of the living.

The currulao is a secular ceremony, although it may be held at Christian sacred times, such as Easter, wherein, to the rhythm and music of exceedingly African provenience, men and women work through symbolic tensions manifest in their quotidian social relations. Finally, the most dramatic ceremony of all is the seldom-performed La Tropa (the troop), which enacts the formation of a palenque, the killing of Christ, the reign of the devil, the bringing of the forest into the Catholic church of the palenque, the resurrection of Christ within the forest within the church, and the liberation of the people of the forest and of the church within the palenque. La Tropa is performed only where priests permit people to do so, at Easter week, and people from the community or children of people from the community travel great distances to attend and perform.

Arts. Men make canoes and paddles, wooden bowls, drums, fish nets, and other ordinary and ritual paraphernalia; they also construct houses and shrines. A few men specialize in making incised clay pipe bowls with wooden stems. Women in some areas make gold jewelry. In Guïmbi, Ecuador, there is a master marimba maker who serves a large area, and in San Lorenzo a school has been established for the making of marimbas and all other musical instruments in use in Afro-Hispanic culture. There are itinerant artisans in the area who make such tourist goods as polished black coral, black-coral figurines, ivory-nut carvings, coconut and shell figures, and model boats.

See alsoAfro-Colombians


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