An Identity to Celebrate

In May I enjoyed some quality time with my fellow regional liaisons serving in Latin America and the Caribbean, along with our wonderful supervisor. We met in São Paulo, Brazil, and in addition to our own internal conversations about our work we were privileged to meet with several prominent church scholars and practitioners, as well as share in worship and prayer meetings with two different congregations.

At a congregation of the Independent Presbyterian Church of Brazil, I led a little a capella singing–the chorus of a song called “Ewe, Thina” (We walk Christ’s way) in Xhosa from South Africa. This church likes to sing, so it was a delight to weave together the four voices in this simple chorus. But what struck me most was a brief exchange I had after the service, with an Afro-Brazilian woman who was so happy to have had music from her ancestral home as part of worship. If the churches in Brazil are anything like the churches in other South American countries I know, it is uncommon to sing songs from Africa. The few times I have heard such songs their origins have not been celebrated. This unexpected encounter left me ruminating on the importance of cultural identity and the challenges of interculturality in the region where I am called to work.

Many of my friends in the U.S. are surprised when I mention the afrodescendiente population here. In Latin America overall, about 20% of the population self-identifies as black. Black Africans were brought over as slaves in the colonial period, tenaciously surviving and eventually thriving in large numbers in some regions. Many fought for independence in the 1800s. Afro-Latin Americans have made important cultural contributions, particularly in music and dance (cumbia, plena, samba, candombe, etc.). Nonetheless, racism and prejudice are powerful forces, and the politics of racial-ethnic identity is complex.

Residents of an Afro-Colombian community just outside Palenque.

In Colombia, the constitution guarantees certain privileges for afrodescendiente communities, such as the right to collective land holding. This strengthens and gives legal recognition to traditional community structures, and makes it more difficult for Afro communities to lose their ancestral lands to outside interests. Colombia’s black population is around 25% (estimates range from 7 to 40%, depending on who is counted and who does the counting). Most of Colombia’s afrodescendientes  live in coastal states, which have been heavily affected by Colombia’s internal armed conflict. While around 10% of Colombians are numbered among the displaced, over 60% of Afro-Colombians with legal title to land have been violently uprooted.

Staff of a black community service organization in Barranquilla, Colombia.

In Venezuela, another racially diverse country, some members of the opposition deride President Hugo Chávez for being a negro, but Chávez himself has spoken with pride of his curly hair and other black characteristics from his mixed ancestry. Many mestizo and white members of Colombia’s middle and upper classes claim that theirs is a beautiful society enriched by its racial diversity. But afrodescendientes in the capital, where they are a small minority, tell story upon story of discrimination in employment and on the streets. Colombia has numerous organizations dedicated to promoting Afro-Colombian culture and defending the human rights of the afrodescendiente population, and I’m privileged to have had inspiring and energizing meetings with a few of these groups. I’m also grateful to have visited the Palenque de San Basilio community on Colombia’s north coast.

A monument to San Basilio’s founder, Benkos Biohó.

San Basilio is one of many palenque settlements founded by escaped slaves in Colombia in the 1600s, the only one that survives today. Residents date its founding to 1603, and most still speak or understand palenkero, a unique Spanish-African creole. The community, which considers itself a corner of Africa in South America, maintains many cultural traditions and is proud of its heritage, which was declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2005. You may have seen a New York Times piece on Palenque in 2007, complete with slideshow.

In Bolivia and Peru, the afrodescendiente populations are much smaller, around 1-5%, but likewise maintain vibrant pockets of cultural tradition. The Afro-Bolivian community is concentrated in the Yungas lowlands north of La Paz, and the country’s eastern cities. Bolivia’s indigenous majority rarely encounters its black compatriots, but Afro-Bolivians made a strong showing of solidarity in last year’s TIPNIS march.

This is just a quick, limited glimpse of afrodescendientes in the Andean region. Much more could be shared, and I have much to learn. To start, I intend to explore this UNDP page on Latin American Afrodescendants, which I just stumbled upon today, and I would love to hear your reflections and suggestions. Of course the complex issues of identity politics and cultural heritage also include questions of indigeneity and whiteness, which deserve careful attention. For today I just wanted to lift up the subject, because the contributions and struggles of afrodescendientes in Latin America should be recognized.


About Sarah

I serve with Presbyterian World Mission as liaison to the Andean region. This blog is a place to share stories, experiences, and observations, both my own and those of friends and colleagues and the occasional item of news.
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2 Responses to An Identity to Celebrate

  1. Liz Branch says:

    Kudos for this post–and for your last one on your life in La Paz. Thanks for opening our eyes to the complexity of South American society and to the vibrant gifts that afrodescendientes bring to us on whichever continent we live.

  2. Areta Crowell says:

    Thank you again Sarah for all the new light you bring to help us understand our complex world!
    I appreciated teh slide show particularly! Lots to pray about!

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