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ETHNOYMNS: Afro-Venezolanos, Criollos, Morenos, Mulattos, Negros, Pardos (historically important), Zambos


Identification. Afro-Venezuelans are designated by Spanish terms; no words of African derivation are used. "Afro-venezolano" is used primarily as an adjective (e.g., folklore afro-venezolano). "Negro" is the most general term of reference; "Moreno" refers to darker-skinned people, and "Mulatto" refers to lighter-skinned people, usually of mixed European-African heritage. "Pardo" was used in colonial times to refer to freed slaves, or those of mixed Euro-African background. "Zambo" referred to those of mixed Afro-indigenous background. "Criollo," which retains its colonial meaning of "being born in Venezuela," does not indicate any racial or ethnic affiliation.

Location. The largest Afro-Venezuelan population is located in the Barlovento region about 100 kilometers east of Caracas. Comprising an area of 4,500 square kilometers, Barlovento covers four districts of the state of Miranda. There are also important Afro-Venezuelan communities along the coasts of Carabobo (Canoabo, Patanemo, Puerto Cabello), the Distrito Federal (Naiguatá, La Sabana, Tarma, etc.), Aragua (Cata, Chuao, Cuyagua, Ocumare de la Costa, etc.), and the southeast shore of Lake Maracaibo (Bobures, Gibraltar, Santa María, etc.). Smaller pockets are also found in Sucre (Campoma, Güiria), the southwest area of Yaracuy (Farriar), and the mountains of Miranda (Yare). An important Afro-Venezuelan community is also to be found in El Callao, in the southernmost state of Bolívar, where miners from both the French and British Antilles settled in the mid-nineteenth century.

Linguistic Affiliation. Spanish, the language of the Conquest, is spoken, in creolized form (Sojo 1986, 317332). African words are frequently used, especially with reference to instruments and dances; these are predominantly of Bantu and Manding origin (Sojo 1986, 95-108).

Demography. The official estimate of those with "pure" Afro-Venezuelan ancestry is 10 to 12 percent of the total population (i.e., about 1.8 million to 2 million). Sixty percent of all Venezuelans, however, claim some African blood, and Afro-Venezuelan culture is acknowledged as an important component of national identity.

History and Cultural Relations

The first African slaves in Venezuela were Ewe-Fon, brought in 1528 by the Welsers, German bankers granted a special concession to settle and exploit western Venezuela. Portuguese, French, and English slave ships continued to bring Africans of diverse origins, primarily Bantu from the Congo and Angola and Manding from the Gold Coast, until the beginning of the nineteenth century. The slave trade in Venezuela ended before Yoruba peoples began to be brought to the New World, distinguishing Venezuela's slave population from that of Cuba and Brazil. Slaves were treated as units of commerce, called pieza de india in reference to their physical size and potential for hard labor.

During the sixteenth century, slaves were brought to work in the copper mines in Coro and Buría (Yaracuy) and to Isla Margarita and Cumaná for pearl diving and fishing. Small-scale agricultural plantations were also established in Venezuela, especially in the regions surrounding Caracas. In the eighteenth century large shipments of slaves were brought to Barlovento to support the burgeoning cacao industry and to the sugar plantations in Zulia, around Lake Maracaibo. Venezuela's slave population comprised 1.3 percent of the total slave trade in the New World, compared with 38.1 percent for Brazil, 7.3 percent for Cuba, and 4.5 percent for the United States (Brandt 1978, 8).

The history of slave resistance in Venezuela, both in the form of insurrections and runaway communities, began quite early. The first documented rebellion was in 1532 in Coro, but the most famous uprising of the time took place in the Buría mines in 1552. The rebellion was led by El Negro Miguel (also known as Rey Miguel), who founded a cumbe, or cimarrón (escaped slave) settlement and raised an army of 1,500 slaves, Mulattos, Zambos, and indigenous peoples to attack colonial establishments. Communities of runaway slaves continued to grow throughout the seventeenth century, and by 1720 there were between 20,000 and 30,000 cimarrones in Venezuela, compared to 60,000 slaves still working on the plantations (Rout 1976, 111112). Barlovento was the site of intense cimarrón activity throughout the eighteenth century, with several cumbe settlements being established around Curiepe and Caucagua. The most famous of these was that of Ocoyta, founded around 1770 by the legendary Guillermo Rivas. After he led raids on various plantations both to liberate slaves and to punish overseers, a special army was raised to destroy Ocoyta and execute Rivas.

"Cumbe" derives from the Manding term for "separate or out-of-the-way place." Usually located above river banks or in remote mountainous areas, cumbes were typically well hidden and housed an average of 120 residents. Such settlements were also called rochelos and patucos. Cimarrones were often assisted by indigenous tribes living in the area (e.g., the Tomusa in Barlovento), and cumbe populations were composed not only of Blacks, but also of Indians and even of poor Whites. Cimarrón groups conducted raids on plantations, assisted in the escapes of other slaves, and participated in contraband trading. The only legally established town of free Blacks was that of Curiepe, established in Barlovento in 1721 under the leadership of Captain Juan del Rosario Blanco. The community was composed of former members of Caracas's Company of Free Blacks as well as huangos from the Antilles. The latter were escaped slaves who, like all Blacks fleeing non-Spanish-speaking islands, were granted freedom upon arrival in Venezuela if they accepted baptism.

Afro-Venezuelans played a decisive role in the struggle for independence. Initially, slaves fought for the Crown, believing that the landowning creole Republicans were their enemies. In particular, the notorious royalist battalion of General José Tomás Boves attracted many slave soldiers. Bolívar, realizing the strategic importance of Black soldiers in the fight for independence, declared the abolition of slavery in 1812 and again in 1816, after promising Haitian president Alexandre Pétion that he would secure freedom for slaves in return for Haitian military aid. A major landowner himself, Bolívar freed 1,000 of his own slaves, and in 1819 recruited 5,000 slaves into his army. José Antonio Paéz, a key figure in Venezuelan independence, led an army of Blacks from the llanos (plains). One of his most famous lieutenants, Pedro Camejo, has been immortalized in Venezuelan history as "El Negro Primero," because he was always the first to ride into battle. In the final battle of Carabobo, Camejo was mortally wounded but returned to General Paéz to utter one of the most famous statements in Venezuelan history: "General, vengo decirle, adiós, porque estoy muerto" (General, I have come to say goodbye, because I am dead). A statue of El Negro Primero stands in the Plaza Carabobo in Caracasthe only statue commemorating a Black in all Venezuela. Curiously, he is always depicted wearing a turban, the same iconography used for the mythical Negro Felipe (see "Religious Beliefs"). With the declaration of independence in 1810, all trafficking in slaves was outlawed. The decline in slavery continued throughout the War of Independence when, at its conclusion in 1821, the "Ley de vientre" was passed, stating that all children born, whether of slave or free parents, were automatically free. By 24 March 1854, the date of slavery's official abolition in Venezuela, less than 24,000 slaves remained.

Throughout the twentieth century, Blacks in Venezuela have faced subtle forms of racial discrimination despite a philosophy of racial democracy and an ideology of mestizaje that contends all groups have blended together to form a new, indistinguishable type, called the mestizo. Yet underlying this ideology is a policy of blanqueamiento, or "whitening," that has encouraged both the physical and cultural assimilation of Afro-Venezuelans into a Euro-dominated mainstream. An important semantic counterpart to the process of blanqueamiento is that found in the term negrear, which denotes concepts of "marginalization" or "trivialization." The emergence of Black intellectuals such as Juan Pablo Sojo and Manuel Rodrigues Cárdenas in the 1940s, and more recently of younger writers such as Jesús García, has helped counter the forces of blanqueamiento, or assimilation. A strong body of research in Afro-Venezuelan history and folklore has also been established by Venezuelan scholars, particularly Miguel Acosta Saignes (1967). Public festivals such as the Fiesta de San Juan have emerged as focal points in the reappropriation of Afro-Venezuelan culture, articulating current transformations in a living tradition of cimarronaje (resistance to the dominant culture, consciousness of being marginal).


Afro-Venezuelan settlements comprise rural and semirural sites located in or near former plantations, mines, colonial towns, and cumbe settlements. Towns are constructed along the colonial model, with residential streets radiating out from a central plaza. Houses are constructed from mud and thatch, or are of concrete with tin roofs. The kitchen is the central hub, with bedrooms and possibly a courtyard built adjoining it. In rural areas, the poorest dwellings are typically one- or two-room mud-and-thatch huts with no running water or electricity. Beneficiaries of agrarian land-reform projects in the 1960s live in settlements constructed with government funds. Built of cinderblocks, houses may have up to three bedrooms, kitchen/living room, bathroom, and plumbing and electricity. Migrants to larger urban centers usually live in poor, working-class barrios, dwelling in overcrowded apartment blocks or obliged to construct shanties from cardboard, cinderblocks, and corrugated tin. Migrants tend to live in the same areas, thus establishing a "regional" character for certain barriosfor example, the majority of migrants from Curiepe have settled in the San José barrio of Caracas.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Most of Venezuela's rural Black population subsists on crops cultivated on conucos, or small agricultural landholdings, where they grow maize, plantains, manioc, and sweet potatoes for their own consumption. Some families also grow citrus fruits, mangoes, avocados, and cacao for commercial trade. Chickens and pigs are raised mainly for the sale of eggs and meat. Despite agricultural development policies initiated by the national government in 1960, most small farmers continue to rely on traditional, labor-intensive methods of land cultivation. Along coastal areas, fishing is an important activity.

During the 1970s and 1980s, tourism emerged as an important economic resource for some Afro-Venezuelan communities. In Barlovento, Venezuelan and foreign tourists crowd into Curiepe and other towns for the Fiesta de San Juan (23 to 25 June). The Corpus Christi Devil Dancers (Diablos Danzantes) of Aragua, Miranda, and the Distrito Federal have also become important tourist attractions.

Trade. Agricultural products and labor comprise the principal units of trade. Items for tourists, such as miniature drums, bandannas, and hats, are peddled during fiestas.

Division of Labor. Gender roles follow those of the general Venezuelan populace, although they are generally more flexible in Afro-Venezuelan communities than in other groups. Men and women share in daily activities, but women have more domestic and child-rearing responsibilities than do men. In farming, men have traditionally plowed and seeded crops, whereas women have weeded and helped with the harvest. Men find occasional work in manual labor. Women secure economic opportunities and financial independence from men through market activity, selling animals and agricultural goods, and also by finding work as cooks and domestic servants.

Land Tenure. Conucos comprise the principal form of land tenure. The Agrarian Reform of 1960 gave many Afro-Venezuelans title to their land. Through the 1970s, however, agricultural development programs failed to incorporate Venezuelan peasants into the country's successful petroleum economy, spurring migration to urban centers in search of jobs. With Venezuela's economic downslide in the late 1980s, the economic picture for Afro-Venezuelan landholders remains precarious.

Beginning in the 1970s, Afro-Venezuelan coastal lands have been threatened by the construction of beachfront condominiums, especially near Caracas. Tourist activity and the development of lands for recreational usage are also a threat. Afro-Venezuelan communities on Isla Margarita in Nueva Esparta have been particularly affected by the large-scale tourist industry there.


Kinship Groups and Descent. Kinship is reckoned along the same lines as in the rest of Venezuela (i.e., bilateral, with relatives figured through consanguinity and affinity). Compadrazgo, the establishment of godparents (ritual coparents) at the birth and baptism of children, is important to Afro-Venezuelan social organization, providing a vehicle for child-care arrangements and interfamilial cooperation.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Legal marriage has been erratic in many Afro-Venezuelan rural and migrant communities. During colonial times, unions between slaves favored the economic interests of slaveholders over the interests of slaves.

Domestic Units. Nuclear families, as well as mother-child dyads, are the most common basic domestic arrangements. Extended families, including grandparents, for example, are also common. In rural areas such as Barlovento, related households may be situated around a shared courtyard or be in close proximity to one another. With an increase in the number of adolescents who go to the cities to finish their secondary education, family units are changing. Children usually live with relatives in the cityaunts, uncles, grandparentsthus broadening the role of extended family units, especially in migrant urban communities.

Socialization. Children participate in daily secular routines as well as in ritual and ceremonial activities from an early age. Formerly, children were involved in informal systems of education, watching and learning from adults in the Community. Since the late 1970s, however, there has been a transition to more formal systems of socialization. Most children now attend school to at least the sixth grade and often go to the city and live with relatives to complete their formal education. The incursion of radio and television into most Afro-Venezuelan communities has also affected the enculturation of young Venezuelan Blacks, delivering mass-media images, usually from a middle- and upper-middle-class perspective.

Sociopolitical Organization

The existence of cofradías (brotherhoods) since colonial times has played an important role in the social and political organization of Afro-Venezuelans. Derived in part from various forms of African communal associations, the cofradías were incorporated around patron saints. Comprised of slaves, free Blacks, and Pardos, cofradías provided a vehicle for cooperation and collective work. Unlike the Black cofradías and cabildos (guilds) of Cuba and Brazil, membership in these groups was not organized along the lines of distinct African ethnic identities. Cofradías existed in the major towns and cities of colonial Venezuela; at the beginning of the nineteenth century, thirteen cofradías existed in Caracas alone. As the only sanctioned form of Black collectivity, cofradías were subject to strict legislation and became the focus of attempts by the church to pacify potential Black opposition and assimilate Afro-Venezuelans into the colonial political structure. Despite such tactics, Black cofradías remained a vehicle for organized resistance. Cofradías, which are still organized around the celebration of patron saints, continue to serve as welfare and burial societies for their members.

Cofradías also find contemporary counterparts in the emergence of local community groups and cultural centers. Many of these groups were initially organized in response to the encroachment by tourism and business interests on Afro-Venezuelan religious fiestas. The reappropriation of the Fiesta of San Juan in Curiepe, for example, was aimed at keeping profits within the community and counteracting the effects of exoticized commercialization. A group known as the Centro Deportivo y Cultural de Curiepe sought to "re-Africanize" the festival, coordinating various cultural and educational programs in conjunction with the festival. In the late 1980s, members of this group, now known as the Centro de Investigación y Documentación de la Cultura Barloventeña (CIDICUB), in cooperation with the state of Miranda, initiated an official program to promote the study of regional history and identity. They established cultural centers, published school textbooks about local history, and began a series of radio programs, television documentaries, theater companies, and music and dance workshops, all focused on Afro-Venezuelan history and culture. Community centers and cultural workshops such as these have also been established in other areas, including Chuao, Aragua, and Bobures, and Zulia.

Migrant regional associations have played an important role in Afro-Venezuelan life in the cities, providing a vehicle through which contacts are maintained with rural communities. Some groups have actively promoted the cultural events of their home communities. The nationally publicized week of cultural presentations organized around the Fiesta of San Juan in 1970, for example, was initiated by Curiepe migrants living in Caracas. The municipal government of Caracas also supports, through FUNDARTE, the maintenance of Afro-Venezuelan culture in many of the barrios of Caracas with centers, concerts, competitions, and the celebration of various festivals.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. In Venezuela, Catholicism provides the basis for a nationally shared religious tradition, yet, as in many Catholic countries, there is much variation in specific religious practices. The syncretic cult of Maria Lionza, based on indigenous legends, reflects the most widespread fusion of local and Catholic practices. Depicted as a trinity with Negro Felipe and the Indian chief Guaicaipuro, the mythic figure of Maria Lionza has become an iconic representation of Venezuela's tripartite indigenous, African, and European cultural heritage.

Afro-Venezuelan religious practices have been adapted to Catholicism. Drumming and dancing, which figure in the celebrations of patron saints' days and other religious ceremonies, bear a close resemblance to various forms of African ancestor worship. Because the slave population was so heterogeneous, no single African religious system dominated in this syncretization process, as it did for example in Cuba, Brazil, and, to a lesser extent, in Trinidad with its Yoruba tradition. There has also been some intersection with indigenous cosmological systems. Figures such as duendes, familiaries, and encantados are types of spirit beings connected with the dead or forces of nature, which act as intermediaries between the parallel realms of physical existence and that of the spirit world. It is through contact with these beings, usually dwelling in deep riverine pools, that curanderos (healers) derive their power and divine the future. These beings are also responsible for the deaths and disappearance of various people. Such beliefs are articulated in the oral traditions not only of Afro-Venezuelans but of indigenous and mestizo peoples as well.

The influx of Cuban immigrants after the Cuban Revolution in 1959 has encouraged the establishment of the Afro-Cuban religion Santería among Venezuelans of all cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Although this is a predominantly urban phenomenon, African influences in Venezuela continue to evolve through a dynamic and continuous migration of cultural practices and forms.

Religious Practitioners. Organized as they were around patron saints, Black cofradías were not simply social organizations, but also religious ones. Some cofradías were subdivided into separate "societies" that had distinct responsibilities. Sojo (1986) reports that in Barlovento, for example, each day of Holy Week had a separate society that was in charge of maintaining the holy images and ritual ceremonies associated with the respective day. In preparation, members would practice celibacy, abstain from consumption of alcohol, and perform various ablutions before "dressing" the saintly image.

Since colonial times, magico-religious societies have also existed, employing various forms of brujería, or "witchcraft." In Afro-Venezuelan communities, as in the rest of Venezuela, there is belief in brujos (sorcerers), who can cast spells and cause various forms of daño (harm). Fear of mal de ojo ("evil eye") against children is particularly common. Curanderas are sought for their knowledge of herbal medicines, which are used both in combatting illness and counteracting daño. In Barlovento, healers are sometimes called ensalmadores and are particularly respected for their ability to divine the future as well as to find lost objects and people.

Ceremonies and Arts. Afro-Venezuelan ceremonies have been primarily linked to the Christian calendar, and many Afro-Venezuelan music, dance, and costume traditions are associated with specific church celebrations. The Nativity, Holy Week, Corpus Christi, the Cruz de Mayo, and patron saints' holidays are central to Afro-Venezuelan expressive culture throughout the country. The Día de los Inocentes (Feast of Fools, 28 December) is also celebrated and is particularly important in Barlovento, where "governments of women" are set up parodying male authority with absurd decrees and other actions such as cross-dressing. Carnival celebrations (the week before Lent) are significant, especially in eastern Venezuela, where in communities such as Güiria and El Callao there has been a large Caribbean influence. During saints' feast days, promesas (promises) made to the saints in return for personal favors are fulfilled. Correct observance of ritual activities such as offerings, drumming, dancing, and the feeding of all those present are essential to satisfying these promises.

In various regions of Venezuela, different religious holidays have emerged as important local celebrations. Around Lake Maracaibo, the fiesta of a Black saint, San Benito, (26 December to 2 January) is prominent and is celebrated with the playing of chimbánguele drums. In Cata, Chuao, Cuyagua, and Ocumare de la Costa (Aragua), Naiguatá (Distrito Federal), San Francisco de Yare (Miranda), and Canoabo and Patanemo (Carabobo), the Diablos Danzantes (organized into cofradías) are the centerpiece of the Corpus Christi celebrations, performing in particularly vivid costumes and masks that incorporate African imagery. In Barlovento, the Fiesta of San Juan Bautista (Saint John the Baptist) has been of singular importance since slavery. The three days of San Juan (23 to 25 June) were the only three days of the year during which slaves were given a rest from hard labor and were permitted to gather freely. During the holiday, not only would slaves celebrate with drumming and dancing, but also plot insurrection and flight.

As the one time of the year given to Blacks, the Fiesta of San Juan became associated with reversal of the social order as well as with cimarronaje, particularly in Curiepe, the town that has come to be most strongly associated with San Juan festivities. Two different drumming styles are associated with San Juan, linked, respectively, to public and private aspects of the fiesta: the large mina drum is played in tandem with the short, upright curbata in the central plaza, whereas the smaller, cylindrical culo e'puya drums are played directly in front of the saint during the velorios performed in private houses. Although attempts have been made since the late 1940s to incorporate the celebration of San Juan into a larger national tradition, the holiday remains a symbol of Afro-Venezuelan culture and is consistently used to reaffirm the values associated with it.

Another important Afro-Venezuelan ceremonial form is the velorio. Held during funerals and on the eve of saints' feast days, a velorio typically features a small party that travels from house to house performing drumming and dancing before the image of the saint. Other velorios, however, such as that for the Cruz de Mayo, remain stationary and are held in one place. Funerals for children who died before being baptized are called mampulorios and are considered happy occasions: the children, being innocent, are believed to ascend directly to heaven in the form of angelitos (little angels). The traditions associated with Christmas parrandas and with the Cruz de Mayo fulia songs are also important in Afro-Venezuelan culture, particularly in the central coastal regions. During Christmas, parranda (merrymaking) groups go from house to house singing songs to the accompaniment of small drums. During the Cruz de Mayo celebrations, fulias offer a forum for competitive singing as performers try to outwit each other through improvised verses or with poems organized in the strict ten-line decima structure. Fulias are accompanied by the tambor criollo (a drum), as well as cuatros (four-stringed guitarlike instruments), and maracas. Gaitas are another form of Christmas music, although most commonly associated with the western region of Zulia and Isla Margarita.

Afro-Venezuelan musical expression is characterized by a great diversity of drums. Most are of African origin and many bear direct resemblance to the drums of Bantu-speaking and West African groups. Generally, drums use specific rhythmic patterns to accompany specific song or dance forms; hence, drums, rhythms, and stylistic forms may all be designated by the same name. In turn, this stylistic complex is usually associated with a specific fiesta or celebration.

In Barlovento, the culo e'puya drums are important, as are the mina and curbata, which are played together. Quitiplas are also prominent in Barlovento. These are fashioned from hollow bamboo tubes and played by striking them on the ground. (They are similar to the Trinidadian "tambou bamboo" that gave rise to steel-drum styles.) Along the central coastal region, the cumaco is widespread, used in San Juan celebrations as well as the secular bailes de tambor (dances). The tamunango is found in Afro-Venezuelan communities in the interior. To the west, in Zulia, the chimbángueles are used to accompany San Benito festivities, and a friction drum called furruco is commonly played during Nativity celebrations and the singing of gaitas. In the eastern coastal regions, influence from Trinidad is evident in the performance of steel-band (estilban ) music. Maracas (seed-filled rattles) are prevalent throughout Venezuela and are commonly used to accompany drumming, as is another indigenous-derived instrument, the conch.

Other small percussion instruments, such as the charrasca, a small notched scraper, are also used as accompaniment. Less common instruments found in Barlovento and along the coast include the marimbola, a large bass "thumb-piano" derived from the African kalimba; the carángano, a musical bow similar to the Brazilian berimbau; and the marimba barloventeña, a large mouth-bow (Aretz 1967). As in other parts of Venezuela, the four-stringed cuatro is extremely common.

In addition to musical, dance, and costume traditions, oral lore forms an important part of Afro-Venezuelan expressive culture. Some of the best-known tales in Afro-Venezuelan oratory center around the exploits of Tío Conejo (Uncle Rabbit), who manages to outwit Tío Tigre (Uncle Tiger). In the twentieth century a small body of Afro-Venezuelan literature has been established, including the works of novelist and folklorist Juan Pablo Sojo and the poet Manuel Rodrigues Cárdenas. Theater and dance groups, which have a long history of performance in Barlovento, have become progressively more important with the appearance of such groups as the Centro de Creación Teatral de Barlovento-Curiepe, the Teatro Negro de Barlovento, and Madera.


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