Blackness in Latin America

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Blackness in Latin America








In Latin America, the Spanish Crown created two republics: the Republic of Spaniards and the Republic of Indians. Although excluded from both of these republics, African and African-descended people grew and diversified throughout Latin America. In Spanish, the quality of blackness is called lo negro. The racialized ethnic category negro (black) emerged as a representation of human chattel between 1450 and 1480, when the Portuguese entrepreneur known as Prince Henry the Navigator sent more and more ships down the coast of West Africa, where they captured native peoples to be sold in Lisbon and throughout Europe. Ironically, perhaps, as the concept of blackness expanded in Portugal and Spain to include diverse African peoples such as Wolof, Mandingo, Ibo, and Biafara, concepts of racial mixture (European-African) together with African conversion to Christianity became important in the European-dominated West African slave markets.

A concept of blackness subsuming all African and African-descended people entered the Americas with, or soon after, the first voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492. By 1500 the concept of raza (race) emerged and was applied to people of indigenous American, African, and African-descended Spaniards and Portuguese, as well as to people of “mixture.” African-descended people who spoke Spanish were called ladinos in Spain, where they occupied positions of modest prestige and, sometimes, middle-range power. Their status contrasted with that of the enslaved Africans, who were called bozal (plural: bozales), a name derived from the horse halter used prior to the invention of the iron bit in Iberia. In the Americas, once-free ladinos became enslaved because of their blackness. Soon after the Europeans arrived, the categories of Spaniards and Indians were set in opposition to one another as immutable categories of people: the Spaniards to profit, the Indians to labor. The third category of humans—originally ladinos and bozales—that constituted the images of Africa and of blackness, was without a cultural place in the dominant scheme of people and profit. What blackness was to become in the New World depended on how black people(African-and dark-complexioned European-descended people, and now people of the Americas) were to represent themselves. Such representations are probably the least understood and the most ignored of all such cultural constructions in the New World.


African-American systems of life and thought are profoundly cultural. They are clearly African descended and African diasporic. Any study of Afro-American cultural systems must comprehend commonalities of experience as well as local interpretations of experiences at specific places in given periods in time. African-descended cultural constructions of meaningful historical pasts are ubiquitous, but they may be obliterated or highly distorted by written literature. In Silencing the Past (1995), Michel-Rolph Trouillot discusses two dimensions of history that must always be considered. The first is what actually happened. This could be an event such as a forced passage from an African location across the Atlantic Ocean to a specific slave market in the Americas, or one or more of the myriad revolts, rebellions, and movements of self-liberation of Africans in the Americas. The second dimension of history is that of the stories told about the events. When stories are not told, not remembered, or hidden, history is silenced. The stories themselves must be opened up and studied to be reasonably sure that they reflect events critical to the real cultural histories of people, not bent and distorted to the canons of a rigid dominant cultural system with many biases in written presentations.

Unfortunately, the stories told about black suffering and black liberation often come from those who are dominant in a given situation, from those whose popular and academic writings become hegemonic. Hegemonic writing, backed by those who hold political and economic power, is that which is taken as “truth” by the reader. Perspective enters here: What is often lacking in narratives of the past are the myriad of black perspectives that have been neglected or silenced. These perspectives come from real people who are able and willing to tell others what is significant in their past, their present, and their view of a future. In Latin America, what comes through strongly is not a remembrance of slavery, but rather a stress on self-liberation, an emphasis on freedom. As the Saramaka of Suriname repeatedly told the ethnographer Richard Price, people are either free or they are enslaved; there is no middle ground. Across the continent, in the Chocó of Colombia, black people refer to themselves as libres, or free (self-liberated) people. But anthropology and history have all too often obscured these assertions of the close association of blackness and freedom in favor of a “search for survivals” or a “legacy of slavery” that render existing black and African-descended people as hollow vessels of past cultural knowledge.


The hegemonic perspective on cultural survivals is connected most strongly with Melville J. Herskovits (1895–1963), one of the students of Franz Boas (1858–1942), who established the Americanist school of cultural anthropology—sometimes called the cultural diffusionist, or cultural historical, school. Some Boasians countered racist thought in anthropology specifically by attacking it in society generally. Herskovits shifted the emphasis of blackness from what were often taken to be deculturated Americans of color to a timeless and seemingly unchanging “Africa,” out of which peoples from distinct “tribes” were mixed in American slave marts following the infamous Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean. People in the Americas, from this hegemonic diffusionist position, were considered to be people burdened by the vestiges of retentions, reinterpretations, syncretisms, and cultural complexes.

Herskovits went so far as to rank “Africanisms” in the Americas in terms of their retained African accumulations, using A, B, C, D, and E, to denote “very African” (A grade) to “little or no African” (E grade). Those at the bottom of the “scale of intensity of Africanisms” were found in the United States and the northwest coast of South America. Such people were effectively deemed cultureless, people who had lost their basis in Africanity. They were taken to be darker people of color within mainstream lower-class life. Their histories and historicities were of no further interest to the scholarly world or to readers of popular literature. It is said that students returning from research with African-descended peoples to Northwestern University, where Herskovits founded the Department of Anthropology and long served as its chair, were themselves ranked on how many Africanisms they could find and present in their theses.

At the top of Herskovits’ scale of Africanism were the people of the interior of Suriname, once called Dutch Guiana. He and his wife spent several weeks there over two summers “studying” the Saramaka people and “mining” their African heritage. Herskovits came away with a psychological model for the study of all of Afro-America, regarded as a great, partially filled cultural vessel from which Africanisms were disappearing. Hence, “salvage” research was needed to turn up data and objects to be placed in books and museums. The actual techniques of ethnography, however, those for understanding the viewpoint and perspectives of real people (the native’s point of view), were subverted by Herskovits as he endeavored to teach the Saramaka about their Africanisms so as to record them more effectively. After a search of Herskovits’s notes at the Schomburg Center for Black Culture in New York City, Richard and Sally Price commented: “That he [Melville J. Herskovits] never quite got the Saramaka ethnography right seems in the end not to have mattered much, to him or to anyone else. Go figure” (2003, p. 87).

The anthropologist Jean Muteba Rahier, who has extensive field research experience in Northwest Ecuador, notes that “black resistances in the diaspora, just like Black identities, cannot be essentialized [e.g. Africanized], … African diaspora communities develop different strategies for struggles against particular forms of racism, exclusion, and exploitation” (1999, p. xxv).

African traditions, as taken from the perspectives of black people in the Americas, constitute intertwined, or braided, traditions that continue to span Africa, Europe, and the Americas. One thing found everywhere is an African-American stress on freedom and self-liberation, rather than on slavery and repression. The historian Gwendolyn Midlo

Hall, in her book Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas (2005), demonstrates clearly that rich data on changing Africanity in the Americas is buried in archives, and how much of this can be revealed by serious research.


According to Richard Price, the first recorded (written) instance of an African escaping slavery took place on Hispañola Island in 1502 when “an anonymous slave … ‘escaped to the Indians”’ (1996, Introduction). The indigenous people who received this unknown escapee (and subsequent escapees from enslavement) were the Taíno people, who called the mountainous and forested interior of their island haití. They spoke a language known as Arawak. Here, early in the sixteenth century, indigenous people and African people forged a new life of freedom on the fringes of the largest profit-oriented slave-owning system the world had ever known. With sugar and slavery at the center, subsistence agriculture, fishing, and hunting were on the periphery. Although blackness was defined as a condition of slavery by the Spanish and Portuguese, self-liberation—called cimarronaje in Spanish and marronage in French—characterized much of the region. Michel S. Laguerre writes, in Voodoo and Politics in Haiti:

Marronage was a central fact in the life of the colony [Hispañola-Haiti], not only because of maroon military power and the number of slaves who constantly joined them, but also because of the danger inherent in expeditions to destroy revolutionary centers of these fugitive slaves … [W]herever there were slaves, there were also maroons … Living in free camps or on the fringes of port cities, they were a model for the slaves to imitate, embodying the desires of most of the slaves. What the slaves used to say in sotto voce on the plantations, they were able to say aloud in the maroon settlements. (1989, p. 41)

Indeed, from varied indigenous perspectives and cosmologies, freedom and self-liberation actually characterized the very nature of “blackness.” Chiefdoms, or even small states, sprang up within colonial territories throughout the vast area that ranges from the Caribbean and Mexico, through Central America, down the spine of the Andes to Argentina, and into the huge tract of territory of today’s Guianas, Venezuela, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and the Amazonian regions of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. The two most famous of these were Palmares, in Brazil, and the Zambo Republic, in Ecuador.


Blackness is a fluid category throughout Latin America, but it is nonetheless salient in its varied dimensions that range from a pejorative term such as black (negroide) to specific references to black admixture, such as mulato and zambo, connoting white-black mixture and black-indigenous mixture, respectively. The primary meaning of lo negro stands in opposition to whiteness, and all of the terminology denoting admixture must be seen with this fundamental contrast in mind. Unlike North America, however, whiteness and blackness grade into one another in Latin American nations; there is usually no sharp color line, and phenotype, or outward appearance, often reflects social status or cultural orientation as well as supposed biology or genetic makeup. In the French Antilles, the Martiniquan writer Aimé Césaire, coined the word négritude to connote the positive qualities of blackness, in contradistinction and in political opposition to concepts developed by dominant white power wielders of Europe and the United States. This has more recently caught on in Spanish as negritud, and in Brazilian Portuguese as negritude. The variety of terms, concepts, identity referents, and representations that crowd into the overarching concept of blackness is striking. But the category lo negro nonetheless continues to exist.


One concept that stands out in some regions—such as Lower Central America, the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador—is zambo, which refers to a mixture of indigenous and African-descended peoples. Some of these mixed populations comprise African descendants of those who fled slavery and established free communities (called palenques in Spanish and quilombos in Portuguese) and of those indigenous descendants who also escaped slavery and received their African congeners. Historically, such people are well-known in various parts of Brazil; the yungas of Bolivia; the northwest coast of Ecuador; the Pacific and Atlantic coasts and Cauca Valley of Colombia; the Venezuelan llanos (eastern plains) and northern coastal crescent; the interior of the Guianas; the Darién, coasts, and interior of Panama; the Mosquitia of Honduras and Nicaragua; the west coast of Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and Nicaragua; the mountains of Haiti and the Dominican Republic; the Jamaican Blue Mountains and Red Hills regions; and the Cuban Oriente region. A few named people include the Miskitu of Nicaragua and Honduras, the Garífuna of Central America, the black lowlanders of northwest Ecuador, and the pardos of the eastern plains of Venezuela. In colonial times such people were sometimes said to be “the Devil’s mix.”

The concept of Zambaje as an American-indigenous–African-descended fusion implying power, creativity, and adaptability has re-emerged in some Latin American nations. It illustrates an interest among many intellectuals and emergent cultural leaders in re-examining the roots of “naming.” An example is that of llaneros (plainsmen of color) of eastern Venezuela. These are people known as pardos, once allies of black Haitians in revolt. The liberator Simón Bolívar called on them in his first march into the interior of South America. In the twenty-first century, the President of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, has sought to refurbish the positive image of pardo ethnicity and cultural heritage, of indigeneity and Africanity and their fusions. This assertion of pardo power is part of a sociopolitical movement called Boliviarian, which is directed against the elite of Venezuela and is in strong opposition to perceived United States dominance in Latin American countries.

Because of the prevalence of African-descended people and indigenous American people in historical conjuncture over a very long period of time, Norman Whitten and Rachel Corr undertook a study to see how indigenous people conceptualized blackness in selected areas of Venezuela, Lower Central America, Colombia, Ecuador, and Bolivia. What they found was that indigenous people reject “slavery” as the embodiment of blackness. Such a rejection clearly contradicts the dominant white perspective on slavery and its legacies as the defining features of blackness in the Americas. Lo negro, Whitten and Corr found, is full of images and representations of self-liberation, including power, cultural creativity, adaptability in the realms of the known and the unknown, knowledge of real history and historicity, and constantly emerging and transforming cultural systems.


In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, there seems to be an ideological movement in Europe and Latin America to both emphasize differences within the broad category of lo negro and simultaneously to crowd out those very differences by subsuming them into an immutable category of blackness, often in pejorative dimensions. There is ample historical precedent for such contradiction. In 1599, three Zambo Lords from the Zambo Republic of Esmeraldas (northwest Ecuador) trekked up the Andes to Quito to pay homage to the Spanish crown. Their portrait was painted by an indigenous artist using European techniques. This magnificent painting was eventually hung in the Museo de Américas, in Madrid, Spain; the two most common English designations of its title are “Esmeraldas Embassadors” and “Zambo Chiefdoms.” It clearly portrayed the three princes as indigenous-African descended in complexion. The crown rejected this portrayal, however, and relabeled the Zambo Lords “mulatos” to stress a false European admixture. Over a four-hundred-year period, what was unacceptable to the intellectuals of Spain was an indigenous-descended–African-descended admixture, the very admixture that emerged in the bursts of self-liberation that characterized the silenced part of America’s history. Then, in 1992, the Spanish museum curators decided to “restore” the painting, so they reblackened the princes to make them correspond to a more stereotypic African appearance, thereby redividing the races of the Americas into white, black, and Indian (or red).

In Spanish, it could be said that the diversity represented in the original painting was doubly negreado, or blackened: first by infusing European admixture sometime in the seventeenth century, and then by removing all admixture in the late twentieth century. Negreado is a pejorative word, which in vernacular Spanish means “blackened” or “demeaned.” It epitomizes Trouillot’s extended argument about the silencing of African-American pasts, particularly the accomplishments of black people who resisted colonial repression and, in the case of Haiti, enacted the first successful revolutionary movement against colonial rule in the Americas outside of the United States. The Haitian revolution was, in every conceivable manner, a black revolution. It was composed of self-liberated bozales, dark-complected creoles, and newly

arrived and self-liberated Congo warriors. At the time, and perhaps in the early 2000s, such a revolution was culturally inconceivable to whites; but it did happen, and it was and is very real.

Such is the ongoing paradox presented by the varied and diverse phenomena of blackness in the Americas, a category that emerged in the sixteenth century in the fires of black liberation, continued through the colonial era as forces of dark resistance to white rule and emerging mestizaje, played a strong hand in the wars of liberation, and in the early twenty-first century constitutes a significant, if paradoxical, congeries of peoples within modern republics. The Spaniards left no room for blackness in their colonial placement of peoples. What emerged were many black-created and black-defined cultural and value systems and systems of social relations, often in conjunction with indigenous movements and collaboration against oppression. In the twenty-first century these cultural systems of alternative modernity have yet to be explored adequately in their own right through the voices and actions of the people themselves.

SEE ALSO African Diaspora; Boas, Franz; Brazilian Racial Formations; Caribbean Racial Formations; Cuban Racial Formations; El Mestizaje; Haitian Racial Formations; Latin American Racial Transformations; Latinos; Slavery and Race.


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———, and Sally Price. 2003. The Root of Roots, or How Afro-American Anthropology Got Its Start. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

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Whitten, Norman E., Jr., and Rachel Corr. 1999. “Imagery of ‘Blackness’ in Indigenous Myth, Discourse, and Ritual.” In Representations of Blackness and the Performance of Identities, edited by Jean Muteba Rahier. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

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Norman E. Whitten Jr.