Excerpt From No Longer Invisible: Afro-Latin Americans Today

It is self-evident that specific historical, cultural, socio-economic and political conjunctions result in the emergence of different race relations patterns in the Americas. Brazil and the Caribbean countries, for example, differ significantly from Peru, where people of African descent are in a distinct minority and their position can be properly understood only in relation to a numerically dominant ‘minority’ of indigenous peoples. In the discussion of race relations, however, neither Latin America nor the United States occupies a position of privilege; fluidity, we now understand, requires some rethinking and re-evaluation in light of what we have come to learn about race relations orders and how they interface with orders of power and privilege. If fluidity or ambiguity resulted in the creation of greater maneuverability for individuals, it is by no means clear that such an option was maximally beneficial to groups seeking political action and organization.

The much admired non-contentiousness of race relations patterns in Latin America is beginning to seem rather less benign than it did, if only because of the relative silence of voices from ‘below’. This is not, of course, to deny the presence of contrarian voices; the present volume contributes greatly to our knowledge of those Afro-Latin Americans who, over time and in various ways, and contrary to hegemonic ideologies that assign overriding significance to nationality (not race), have defined themselves as black and chosen actively to protest disadvantages directly attributable to their race and to propose remedial measures.

Peter Wade’s insightful discussion of Colombian race relations posits that they can be understood only in the context of the power relations involved. Indeed, it is precisely the dimension of power and its unequal distribution that frame race relations throughout the Americas.1 That Afro-Latin Americans have consistently developed cultural initiatives in response to their predicament is testimony to their unwillingness to embrace victimhood. Yet those initiatives in no way address issues of political and economic power and representation, nor do they resolve the tension between actual power and symbolic power.

The most intractable problem for both the state and society in the matter of Afro-Latin Americans is how, for the first time in their collective history, to incorporate demands of non-dominant groups into the system of governance. What lessons or inferences they may draw from the experiences of the United States – which has known continually evolving public articulations of the presence of racial discrimination and the role of state and society in enforcing, modulating and abolishing that discrimination – are not easily predicted, But charges of Americanization and, implicitly, denationalization suggest that individual societies, eager to protect themselves against corrupting influences from extraneous sources, may well justify establishing a cordon sanitaire. Latin America’s borders are permeable; thus the notion of the hermetic society, when applied specifically to Afro-Latin Americans, means, among other things, forcing a racial group to accept a narrowly conceived identity – that of nationality – while assiduously rejecting all external influences.

Given the dynamics of the real world, however, the predicament of Afro-Latin Americans may be defined as an issue of human rights. This reformulation of the issue effectively expands the conceptual and discursive parameters of the continuing discussion about race, allows for specific responses to specific situations and situates it in the context of debates and struggles that no state, and no society, will easily ignore. Yet if, as so often happens, the official response is mere lip-service, then little is to be gained; the issue of Afro-Latin America will simply languish under the rubric of a broader, more intractable problem.

The importance of this volume is that it raises the ‘visibility’ of Afro-Latin Americans from likely, and unlikely, parts of the region. All the countries covered here offer examples of the socioeconomic and political deprivation of their black populations – a deprivation that suggests absence from national and regional power structures, What makes the problems of Afro-Latin Americans particularly tricky is that in the post-colonial period there has been no explicit legal exclusion of blacks from participation at various levels of society. A closer look, however, points to pervasive areas of exclusion, some intended, others not.

Complicating the issue is the very role of the law in defining and managing race relations in the region. A fundamental fact about Latin American polities has to be confronted and ‘deconstructed’. This is that, in the absence of post-abolition legislation specifically targeting former slaves and their descendants, and in the absence of a tradition of compliance – either because such legal provisions do not exist or because the law has an ambiguous role in assuring equality of rights to all citizens – it is highly problematic to plunge headlong into recommending possible roles for the law when there has been no history of the law functioning in such a manner.

Issues of inclusion and exclusion

In any analysis of Latin American race relations, it is crucial to distinguish between dominant ideas articulated about national unity and race relations and oppositional ideas emerging from Afro-Latin American groups in a way that reflects their political heterogeneity. The role of historical memory cannot be overstated, especially in view of the fact that present-day activists are not necessarily concerned with political genealogies.

The issue of ‘group’ versus ‘individual’ rights is another problematic area, In the case of Brazil, for example, the thrust of postabolition race relations and social mobility has been predicated upon ‘individual mobility’, as was the case during slavery. This emphasis on individual strategy resulted in the emergence of individuals of stellar quality whose removal from the group did not in any way reflect the general predicament of the group, The dominant society, with no small pride, often cites these ‘honourable exceptions’ as examples of the successful working of the model, though the group from which these individuals emerged might interpret their ‘exceptionality’ rather differently.

At what point in time does the paradigm shift its focus from individual to group? And what are the hurdles that advocates of group identity and group activism have to confront?

To explore such difficult questions, contributors to this volume have sought to investigate the historical formation of Latin American race relations patterns, and so to unravel the gap between professed ideals of unity and one-peopleness, on one hand, and deeply rooted patterns of exclusion of Afros from the political, socio-economic and educational centers of the polity, on the other. Here lies a fascinating contradiction: between the incorporation into the legitimate national arena of erstwhile African-derived religious, cultural and social traditions once considered societally or politically subversive because of their ‘primitive’ provenance, and the absence of a corresponding insertion of Afro-Latin Americans into areas and structures of power and privilege from which they have traditionally been excluded.

To put the issue provocatively: what have been the real rewards for Afro-Brazilians, for example, now that the dominant society, including exclusive hotels, serves feijoada and the whitest-looking Brazilians are practitioners of Candomble? Has this legitimating of Afro-Brazilian traditions fundamentally altered the imbalance in power relations between Afro-Brazilians as a group and the dominant society? Is the dominant society thinking ‘nationally, collectively’ but continuing to act racially, exclusively?

Balancing historical, cultural and political realities

Is slavery still relevant? Yes and no. To argue that one cannot continue to talk back to slavery and its socio-racial economic structures to account for the conditions of Afro-Latin Americans does not mean that it ipso facto ceases to be relevant, especially in view of the images and roles linked to slavery. The archaism of slave relations and their supplanting by ‘modernizing’ economic and social relations have not resulted in the emergence of new societies in which status linked to slave origin has totally disappeared. The earlier optimistic expectations about the potential of class relations to undermine archaic socio-racial structures have not entirely materialized.

What is intriguing in this connection is the continuing hold of structures of power and prestige on Latin American societies, irrespective of the relative size of the ‘white’ population. Whether or not the societal push is to negate, or maintain distance from, blackness or to confine expressions of connection to blackness to the merely symbolic – particularly among those who are not identifiably black – the open articulation of pride in blackness is nowhere acceptable. Specific national permutations on ‘relations to blackness’ (positive or negative) can provide important insights.

If Dominicans, for example, cannot contemplate blackness without the historical ‘spectre’ of Haiti and its present-day consequences, collectively and individually, how, specifically, are black Dominicans affected? Does the designation indio resolve the problem for them? Do Dominicans of a darker hue constantly face the problem of being mistaken for closet Haitians? The interesting and even insightful notion that Dominican national identity makes sense only in relation to Haiti – to be Dominican is to be not Haitian – does not sufficiently explain the long-range consequences for individual Dominicans.

History, nationality and Afro-identity

The impressive presence of historical Africa in the cultural, religious, folkloric and culinary spheres, so richly documented in the preceding chapters, attests to the strength of both the original bearers of these forms and their descendants; it demonstrates, too, the ability of nations to absorb these legacies. To imagine or attempt to establish that from the time of their inception the incorporation of these traditions occurred in a linear fashion is to engage in selective historical evaluation. It is arguably the case that the very process of incorporation reveals certain basic contradictions in the relationship of the dominant society and its black population. Take, as examples, two definitive institutions in the cultural life of Brazil – Carnival and Candomble. To survey either merely from the perspective of the past ten years is to ignore a complex history of repression of traditions that were of African provenance. That these institutions moved from the clandestine to the marginal to their present status as national institutions is indeed remarkable.

The real problem for Afro-Latin Americans is how successfully to juggle common nationality and the struggle to attain public legitimacy for Afro-identity. Legislation as a regulator of race relations in the post-colonial period can be only part of the solution, as blacks have not been excluded by law from full participation in the society. What is required is not a compilation of constitutional provisions as evidence of the role of law in guaranteeing rights. Given the interplay between (a) laws, customs, etiquette and publicly articulated views about the ideals of interracial harmony and (b) the reality of racial segmentation, not much would be gained by this. Afro-Latin Americans are already, indeed, full members of the ‘nation’. How, therefore, can they structure their questions and demands in strictly legalistic terms? Can they challenge, or change through the mediation of the law, something that has been neither legal nor illegal? Does there exist anywhere in Latin America the modern-day equivalent of the system of customary law established in British colonial Africa – a body of traditional precepts and practices that, though unwritten, came to acquire the force of law?

Entry into government service, particularly the foreign service, as it affects Afro-Latin Americans offers an interesting challenge to the researcher. In Brazil one faces the sheer impossibility of finding anyone who will even acknowledge that race is a not insignificant factor in explaining the absence of blacks from the diplomatic service.  Indeed, one even marvels at the sheer ingenuity of the rationalizations offered: to wit, nationality – Brazilianness – binds a multiracial society that enjoys exceptionally smooth relations among its many racial groups, which include a large number of people of mixed blood, and an absence of overt racial tensions. Nationality singularly and effectively eliminates the need for other identities, particularly those whose inherent volatility poses a threat to national unity. Here, too, one can look for comparisons with the exceptional cases of the United States and South Africa.

One commonly hears from non-Afro-Latin Americans perhaps overconfident denials that blacks – be they servants, soccer players, musicians – have any abiding interest in black issues or movements. They speak, too, of their access to Afro-derived religious and cultural institutions, remarkable for its ease when one considers the uneasy divisions of, say, North American society. But what of the Afros themselves – can one imagine a space in which they at times think and act independently of the overarching race-free, classless national identity? Given the power of that identity, all-inclusive yet respectful of implicitly racial privileges, it is not surprising that a certain caution prevails among blacks who in other systems or circumstances might choose to mobilize around race or Africanity.

It is encouraging to learn that Afro-Dominicans, for example, exhibit a reasonable degree of self-esteem in a negrophobic society. But we perhaps risk over-sentimentalization when we note that extensive racial mixing produces offspring who though visibly of different shades – one black, the other white – identify themselves as biological siblings.

Comparative perspectives

There is no evidence to suggest that significant numbers of people of African ancestry anywhere in the Americas actively contemplate voting with their feet. However unsatisfactory existing conditions for those of their kind, they tend not to abandon their home countries to seek other national identities. How to explain this? Afros undoubtedly derive some benefit from the flexible system of racial designations. In postcolonial Latin America, blacks have not been the targets of physical lynchings and other racially motivated acts of violence. The de facto segregation of Panama’s Canal Zone was never the norm in the rest of Latin America. Nor did exclusionary practices – in schools, in clubs, in residential area – enjoy the kind of legal sanction associated with racial segregation in the United States. Yet, as Abdias do Nascimento has consistently argued, ‘lynching’ has far deeper meaning than the actual physical act. There is a special case to be made for (re)conceptualizing the role of violence as a determinant of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ race relations. A recurrent refrain in his writings since the mid-1940s is that racial violence is multifaceted and extremely subtle. To deny access to structures of education, health and political participation, he observes, constitutes violent actions for those on the receiving end. Such a conceptualization of violence and its role in race relations has the potential of liberating our understanding of the Latin American situation.

The point speaks directly to comparisons between the United States and Latin America. Meaningful comparisons cannot be selectively applied to only the most conspicuous aspects of race relations, especially those regulated by the force of law. Nor can comparisons be magically terminated at some point in the 1950s when the world was left to wonder at images of National Guard troops escorting a little black girl to school in the US South to the taunts and jeers of whites. What happened after such shocking events is central to the comparison. Why, it needs to be asked, do institutions of higher learning in Latin America have so few black students, a paucity made even more astonishing when one compares their numbers with their counterparts in the United States? No amount of ‘flexibility’, ‘smoothness’ or ‘lack of tension’ in racial matters can adequately explain away what is clearly a problem.

In a widely discussed case the daughter of the governor of the state of Espirito Santo, an Afro-Brazilian, was denied entry to an elevator designated for use by residents of a high-rise apartment building and, presumably, their guests. The story, a characteristic example of what one observer has very aptly termed ‘vertical apartheid’, rings a familiar note to the many blacks who have themselves been assumed to be service personnel irrespective of their dress or demeanor. The governor’s legal counsel chose not to argue the case on the basis of existing anti-racist legislation, as they well understood the difficulties of successful prosecution in a legal climate where precedents are few and, perhaps even more important, the plaintiff bears the burden of proof. Lack of precedent here is linked to the conspicuous absence of multiracial civil rights organizations. The struggle for racial justice presupposes some notion of racial injustice; and as Latin American self-conceptions do not include that crucial notion, prominent multiracial organizations dedicated to racial justice are seen to be fundamentally oxymoronic and crass in their attempt to apply inappropriate North American racial paradigms to their societies.

Future examinations of present-day Afro-Latin Americans need to seek actively to extend the framework of the process to one that permits global comparison. That framework will have no a priori victors or successes contrasted with worst-possible cases; it will, one hopes, open the way for Afro-Latin Americans themselves to establish links with other peoples of African ancestry in transnational encounters much like the recent gathering in Uruguay discussed in the Postscript to this volume. The salient feature of these meetings is not the search for ready-made, all-purpose solutions; rather, it is the airing of reflections and histories that transcend individual cases.

A possible future research area would be, for example, inter- and intra-Dominican relations in communities outside the national territory. Do Dominicans in the United States hold steadfastly to the single commonality of Dominicanness, irrespective of race or color? What happens when they come into contact with other Latin Americans whose socio-racial mix may not be so directly linked to a Haitian factor but whose societies nonetheless confer privilege, status and power on those who are of lighter hues? What happens when in the United States Dominicans and other Latin Americans confront the rigidly binary division of racial lines? But even this binarism is more complicated than it would appear.

Even more productive would be an exploration of both overt and covert differences, posing the question, Are there in fact certain constants in race relations throughout the Americas, constants implicit in oft-repeated phrases: ‘money whitens’; ‘in the other Americas an individual has a greater possibility to be whatever he or she chooses or desires’; ‘there is certainly greater racial mixture in Latin America’; ‘after all, we are all at least symbolically hybridized or mesticized’? What the literature lacks is an in-depth comparative inquiry, across cultures, that does not give disproportionate credence to colonial nomenclatures, idealized expressions of nationhood or peoplehood that extol race mixture while ignoring the clearly color-based rank order of preference.

No amount of verbal elegance – or money – can ‘whiten’ a Pele, a Benedita da Silva or a Pena Gomez and still qualify as an accurate description of reality outside specific national contexts. Emphasizing the particularity of national etiquettes matters precisely because national histories and cultural practices are never to be ignored. However, as soon as individuals or groups cross national boundaries, those etiquettes and practices, be they concrete or symbolic, cannot be maintained in their innocence or originality. Does the indio Dominican or the Brazilian moreno who insists on being so identified find that North Americans, say, or Europeans, or continental Africans accept these categorizations? Indeed, it would be highly instructive to record American responses to the application of these labels to large numbers of their own, not simply a minority of honorable exceptions.

In 1989 a popular women’s program on Venezuelan television discussed the question ‘Is it punishment to be a black woman in Venezuela?’ The participants – a well-known politician, a physician, a model and sibling athletes – offered a range of perspectives. In its modest way the program sheds light on the discussion of race and gender in present-day Latin America. How interesting it would be to compare the program with advocacy initiatives undertaken by, say, Afro-Brazilian women’s organizations, together with examples drawn from other national groups.

Visibility, or non-invisibility, is a multifaceted and variable phenomenon. In Peru, where the salient divide is between the indigenous and the mesticized components of the population, any disadvantages associated with blackness pale in comparison to the individual and collective weight of those disadvantages endured by the majority indigenous population. What Peru does share with other Latin American countries is the privileging of whiteness. In this particular race relations universe a study of indigenous-Afro relations in specific situations, over the centuries, could well contribute to our understanding of comparative race relations. Similar work could be done on Ecuador.

On matters of race and color the novice observer does well to tread lightly when approaching societies and systems such as those in Latin America. Non-whiteness and blackness, one quickly learns, are not interchangeable concepts; never assume blackness, and determine, with delicacy, the individual’s personal identification, which may not be consistent with that assigned him or her by others. For the Latin American, a similar challenge awaits in North America, say, or even continental Africa, where what is perceived as ‘white’ may very well be, to the person concerned, ‘black’.

Looking to the future

‘Revealing’ the true number of blacks in specific societies, in an effort to establish their numerical majority, does not ipso facto translate into power-holding or even power sharing. Yet Afro-Latin Americans can bring to the study of comparative race relations their unique ability to interrogate Latin American paradigms both in theory and in practice. Those who in varying ways, and often in hostile conditions, struggle to be both true nationals and dear-eyed critics risk accusations of sullying the national image with imported ideas. Unlike their fellow nationals, they are oddly expected to limit their socio-political and even cultural thoughts and actions to approved ideals. The success of their struggle ultimately hinges on the legitimacy of a black perspective in national public discourse.

By focusing on the Afro-Latin American experience, then, this volume will, we hope, provide a real service. This will be to reopen the historical debate on comparative race relations in the Americas and to transcend the reductionism characteristic of earlier works that imposes a simple binarism – be it religion, history or culture – on what we now understand to be a complex reality. As we are confronted with the ever-increasing Latin Americanization of migrations to North America, the complexities and contradictions of each side’s race relations become more fully exposed, making it possible to frame new questions and thus to avoid hackneyed explanations based on ideally constructed images rather than realities in which Latin Americans of African ancestry make themselves heard.

The battle to insert a politically active Afro-identity into the public discourse continues, and the authors of this book hope to have made a useful contribution to this struggle. In this context, ‘no longer invisible’ should be seen more in a political sense than in merely demographic, cultural or religious terms. It is not that politics and political participation are the sole definers; but without them the battle is only half won, and the fundamental role of power is not sufficiently accounted for or taken into consideration.

The country studies in this book [No Longer Invisible: Afro-Latin Americans Today] point to the rich heritage of Afro-Latin America and to enduring similarities in the position of Afro-Latin Americans in their societies, particular national conditions and background notwithstanding. The Cuban example both fascinates and frustrates. The only Latin American country to confront racism publicly, Cuba has undertaken concrete measures to integrate Afro-Cubans into institutions and areas of Cuban life from which they were traditionally excluded. It cannot, however, be assumed that race or racial factors have become non-issues. In a period of worsening economic conditions the society is coping with extraordinary pressures that impact negatively on the kinds of initiatives from which Afro-Cubans have derived considerable benefit. The discussion of recent events in Colombia, especially the struggles of Afro-Colombians to attain fuller inclusion in the national polity and its institutions, points to prospects for renewed political participation. Belize, Honduras and Nicaragua reveal complexities related to their histories, and to specific permutations of language, culture and identity tied to the non-Hispanic Caribbean. And the inclusion here of the story of Afro-Bolivians, Afro-Mexicans and Afro-Uruguayans is in itself a noteworthy achievement; discussions of the Afro presence in Latin America will now have information, long missing from the literature, on countries that have, to date, been given little or no prominence or thought.

Of particular interest are the multiple meanings of Africa for Afro-Latin Americans. Nowhere in the Americas has there ever existed a unidimensionally positive image of Africa. It is to be hoped that this collection will generate interest in researching the general and specific consequences of African descent for Afro-Latin Americans.


This volume could well be the foundation for the development of a data bank that stores information on the history, culture, politics and education of Afro-Latin Americans. For emerging grassroots non-governmental organizations the information provided would be invaluable in their struggle for legitimacy.

The book provides much useful information that could also serve as the scholarly base for film documentaries and other projects examining the history, culture and politics of the societies discussed here. By raising common issues it lays the groundwork for comparable transnational programs and areas of cooperation.

Might one hope for a program – sponsored, say, by UNESCO or the Organization of American States, that seeks not just to catalogue distinct historical events but, first and foremost, to identify and monitor (currency being of primary importance here) the intersections of history, economics, politics and culture among nations with populations of African descent? The African Diaspora Research Project based at Michigan State University serves as a useful model. That project has, inter alia, brought together scholars and graduate students who jointly explore interdisciplinary issues pertaining to the African diaspora. A good point of departure might be Norman Whitten’s proposal for reactivating studies of Afro-Ecuadorian communities.

For scholars and non-specialists alike, a perennial problem in their search for information on Afro-Latin Americans is locating materials. This book, at the minimum, provides a source of recent provenance that is widely available, and as such, it will contribute mightily to what one hopes will be a move closer to center stage for a much neglected group.

Africa and Afro-Latin America: reconnecting the two through mutual exchanges of learning and information would surely count as one of the more fruitful outcomes of any effort to shed light on Afro-Latin Americans. A cooperative research undertaking involving perhaps UNESCO, the Organization of American States, and the Organization of African Unity, would seek to collect oral histories, published texts, films, and the like, organize them thematically and disseminate them in both Africa and Latin America. Individual countries working cooperatively could initiate film and video projects. The challenge here would be to reach a broad audience nationally and transnationally.

Fundamental to any understanding of Afro-Latin Americans is, I believe, the question of Africa. Deeply embedded in centuries-old shame, the idea of this continent has a central, though rarely considered, role in the complex relations among its descendants in the diaspora and the larger societies in which they live. The real and imagined meanings of Africa in all its richness and contradictoriness beg to be contemplated not as aspects of a single phenomenon but as factors in the dynamic of Afro-Latin American life today.


1. Wade, P., Blackness and Race Mixture: The Dynamics of Radal Identity in Colombia, Baltimore, MD, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993, p. 3.

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Anani Dzidzienyo is Associate Professor of Afro-American Studies and Portuguese and Brazilian Studies at Brown University.  He has taught courses on Blacks in Latin American History and Society, Afro-Brazilians and the Brazilian polity, Comparative Politics of Africa and Latin America, and the Afro-Luso-Brazilian Triangle.  His publications include The Position of Blacks in Brazilian Society (MRG report, 1971, 1978, 1979), Activity and Inactivity in the Politics of Afro-Latin America (SECOLAS, 1978), “Africa-Latin America Relations: A Reconsideration of Mobility” (1985), and “Brazilian Race Relations: Old Problems/New Ideas?” (1993).

About the Director

Anani Dzidzienyo

Anani Dzidzienyo is an Associate Professor of Africana Studies and Portuguese and Brazilian Studies at Brown University. He specializes in the study of race in Latin America and the encounters between Latina American and Africans, as well as on the life and work of George Padmore and Kwame Nkrumah. He has been invited to present papers, organized and participated in international conferences on blacks in Latin America. He is also a member of the International Advisory Committee, African Diaspora Research Project.