Strong African presence in Latin America


I can still smell the spray of the sea they made me cross.

That night, I can not remember it.

Not even the ocean itself could remember.

But I do not forget the first seagull I saw.

The clouds above, like innocent witnesses.

I have not forgotten my lost coast, nor my ancestral language.

They brought me here and here I have lived.

And because I worked like a beast, here I was born again.

Many a Mandingo legend have I used

I rebelled.

The Master bought me in the square.

I embroidered the Master’s coat and I gave birth to his son.

My son did not have a name.

And the Master died by the hand of an impeccable English lord.

From the poem Black Woman, by Nancy Morejón.

Nancy Morejón was born in Havana, Cuba on August 7, 1944 and is the first African Cuban woman to gain a Bachelor of Arts degree from the island’s post secondary education system.

Usually the images of the population of Spanish-speaking countries like Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and the countries of Central and South America do not contain much, if any, representations of Africans.

Even in Brazil (a former Portuguese colony) with its large population of Africans there is not much representation in that country’s popular culture (including soap operas) of an African presence. So much so that one of the many “Bushisms” attributed to former U.S. president George W. Bush is that he reportedly asked Brazilian President Fernando Cardoso in November 2001: “Do you have Blacks, too?”

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice reportedly came to Bush’s rescue by replying: “Mr. President, Brazil probably has more Blacks than the U.S. Some say it’s the country with the most Blacks outside (the continent of) Africa.”

Some reports have the Brazilian president commenting later that, regarding Latin America, Bush was still in his “learning phase”.

While it may have been surprising that the man who was then leader of “the most powerful country in the world” did not know of an African presence in Brazil, he has lots of company. Unlike the documented African presence in the U.S. and the Caribbean islands that were colonized by the British, the Africans who were enslaved by Spaniards in the New World (which includes islands in the Caribbean and countries in North, South and Central America) have been rendered invisible.

The fact that Africans were enslaved in every territory colonized by the Spanish is a surprise to many people who are astonished when they encounter Africans from places like Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Paraguay, etc.

In Paraguay there was official denial of an African presence in spite of the fact that Africans were enslaved by the Spanish in Paraguay until a gradual emancipation took place, beginning in 1842 with the Law of Free Womb. The Law of Free Womb was supposed to free any children born to enslaved African women in Paraguay after 1842.

However those children, classified as “Libertos,” were not free because they were compelled by law to work for their mothers’ owners until age 25 if they were male and 24 if they were female. In 1862, there were approximately 17,000 enslaved Africans and 20,000 Libertos in Paraguay. Slavery in Paraguay was declared abolished in October 1869 and Africans in Paraguay were finally freed in 1870.

It is therefore strange that the official story was that there were no Africans in Paraguay until a group of Afro-Paraguayan activists, led by Lazaro Medina and Jose Carlos Medina, organized a census of Paraguayan Afro-descendents in 2007.

The census, which was supported by the Inter-American Foundation of the United States and Mundo Afro from Uruguay, focused on three communities with an acknowledged African population: Camba Cua, just outside of greater Asuncion; Kamba Kokue, on the outskirts of Paraguari and the city of Emboscada. The census, which was formally presented to and accepted by the Paraguayan government and representatives of the United Nations in Asuncion, identified 8,013 acknowledged African-Paraguayans in the three communities.

This figure is not entirely accurate since the census did not reach everyone, especially in Emboscada, where some individuals approached by the census takers preferred not to identify as African-Paraguayan. There are other groups of African-Paraguayans scattered throughout the country that were not reached by the census takers.

It is impossible to estimate the total number of African-Paraguayans but Lazaro Medina feels that the figure of around 8,000 presented in the 2007 census could easily be doubled. Rodolfo Monge Oviedo identified a much higher number – 156,000 – in his article, “Are We or Aren’t We?” published in the February 1992 NACLA Report on the Americas: Black Americas 1492-1992, Volume 25, Number 4.

Argentina is another country that has officially denied the presence of Africans in spite of historical documentation of enslaved Africans in the country. Africans were taken to Argentina beginning in 1534 and colonial Argentina was largely dependent on slave labour.

Census information compiled between the years 1778 and 1836 shows Africans as 29 per cent of the population. Slavery in Argentina was finally abolished in 1853 after a law similar to that in Paraguay which gave limited freedom beginning in 1813 to the children born to enslaved African women. The Law of Free Womb in Argentina compelled the children of enslaved African women to work for the mother’s owner until they were 20 years old.

The much-publicized disappearance of Africans from Argentina after 1865 is a myth engineered by the government and upper-class White population who wanted Argentina to become a White country. The history books eliminated the presence of Africans to such an extent that African-Argentineans were told that they did not exist.

In 2001, when Maria Lamadrid presented her new Argentine passport at Ezeiza International Airport (located in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital city) she was detained with accusations that her passport was a fake because, according to the immigration officials at Ezeiza International Airport: “This can’t be your passport. There are no Blacks in Argentina.”

The immigration officials did not know that the African-Argentine woman they detained for six hours was the President of Africa Vive (Africa Lives), an organization founded in 1997 by Lamadrid to “defend the rights of African descendants”. Africa Vive was also founded “to combat poverty, lobby for jobs and educational opportunities in the Black community and raise awareness of African culture and history in South America’s ‘Whitest’ nation”.

In spite of Argentina’s attempt to “whiteout” African history and presence in the country, information from Africa Vive puts the population of African-Argentineans at approximately one million. In 2001, Grupo Cultural Afro, SOS Racismo and Africa Vive united and persuaded a national deputy to organize a ceremony in memory of the African soldiers who died fighting for Argentina’s independence.

On December 18, 2009, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the year beginning on January 1, 2011, the International Year for People of African Descent (Resolution 64/169). If you do not already know of the history and contributions of Africans from the African continent and those of us in the Diaspora, now is a good time to start in preparation for 2011.

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