Alejandro de la Fuente.

Alejandro de la Fuente discusses his work as director of the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at Harvard.

Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

Nation & World

A minority turns on the light

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African-American Latinos increasingly make their presence felt

As Latinos of African descent, soccer legend Pele, former Red Sox star David Ortiz, and “Avatar” actress Zoe Saldana help make up a minority within a minority: Although they represent roughly a quarter of the Latin American population, African-descended Latinos are often largely invisible.

But times are changing. Over the past 30 years, social movements led by people of African descent in Latin America have managed to put issues of racial justice at the forefront. With sponsorship from the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at the Hutchins Center, representatives from 13 Latin-American countries in June launched an inter-American network of government officials to advance Afro-descendant issues in the region.

According to statistics, the slave trade brought 15 times as many African slaves to Spanish and Portuguese colonies than to North America. Roughly 42 million African-Americans call the U.S. home, but 130 million people of African descent live in Latin America.

The Gazette sat down with Alejandro de la Fuente, the Robert Woods Bliss Professor of Latin American History and Economics and director of the institute, to talk about the growing interest among researchers in Afro-Latin American studies, and the emerging social movement.


Alejandro de la Fuente

GAZETTE: Many Americans think that blacks in Latin America are a small population compared with blacks in the United States. Can you compare the two populations historically?

DE LA FUENTE: Less than 5 percent of the nearly 11 million Africans who arrived in the Americas during the slave trade were brought into what is now the United States. Ninety-five percent went to Latin America and the Caribbean, and two-thirds of those went to the former colonies of Spain and Portugal. That’s why the Afro-descendant population in Latin America is way bigger than the one in the United States.

GAZETTE: Why were many more African slaves brought to the Latin American continent than to the United States?

DE LA FUENTE: The Spaniards led the expansion to the New World, and they created the first slave plantation economies in what is now the Dominican Republic and Haiti in the early 1500s, almost a century before the first African slaves were brought to North America. And the Portuguese did the same in Brazil. The Spaniards kept their colonies until very late; in the case of Cuba, until the late 19th century. Brazil became independent in the 19th century, but slavery didn’t end until 1888, while the Emancipation Proclamation took place in 1863 in the United States.

“The institute is the only one of its kind in the United States. Our mission is to build the field of Afro-Latin American studies.”

GAZETTE: Can you compare the slavery system in the United States and in Latin America?

DE LA FUENTE: These two systems were never separated. There was a constant exchange among people, ideas, and products even after slavery was abolished in places like Massachusetts, where a judicial ruling in 1783 put an end to it. The Northeast kept trading with the slave economy of Cuba; most of the fish consumed by Cuban slaves came from the Northeast. And many slaves moved from one jurisdiction to another, sometimes with their masters and other times by themselves as they ran away and tried to find new ways to reinvent themselves.

GAZETTE: How different were the living conditions of slaves in Latin America from those in North America throughout the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries?

 DE LA FUENTE: It’s impossible to come up with a single metric to describe the lives of slaves in Latin America. The important legacy of slavery in Latin America is racialization, the creation of a population that was marked from the 16th century as a debased, uncivilized, inferior population. It was marked in the law, in an endless stream of local regulations, ordinances, always identifying blackness with debasement. And that terrible legacy would live on after independence.

GAZETTE: In that sense, the legacy of slavery in Latin America resembles that of North America.

DE LA FUENTE: This is very much an Atlantic story. This is not a story of just Latin America or the United States. Racism and black debasement are the common denominator. Slavery and racism are what connects these two regions.

GAZETTE: But there was not Jim Crow, lynching, or enforced segregation against blacks in Latin America. Why?

DE LA FUENTE: Latin America did not have the legally enforced segregated regime of the U.S. South, but segregation existed in many informal ways. People of African descent had no access to establishments, urban areas, neighborhoods, private schools, and educational facilities because many occupations were racially segregated. So even though there was no Jim Crow — and this is an important distinction and I don’t mean to trivialize it — it doesn’t mean that racism was not producing similar social results in Latin America as in the United States.

GAZETTE: How did racism against blacks unfold throughout Latin America?

DE LA FUENTE: It’s a very complicated story. In the 1920s and ’30s, there was a movement of nationalist intellectuals in Latin America that responded to a body of scientific research that was coming out from places like Harvard that depicted Latin Americans as racially inferior, hopelessly mixed, and doomed to failure because of their “poor stock.” It was quite a revolutionary response in some ways, but of course it tended to obscure differences within Latin American societies. People like [José] Vasconcelos in Mexico with his “cosmic race”; Gilberto Freyre in Brazil with his “Luso-tropicalism,” which proposed that Portuguese were better colonizers than their European peers; Fernando Ortiz with the Cuban “ajiaco”; and the “café con leche” in Venezuela, claimed that the mixing of the races was what made Latin America great, and that it was the continent’s passport to modernity and progress. These people were inventing national myths, which on one hand posited there were no racial problems in their countries. On the other hand, these were visions of a future that subordinate actors could use later on to articulate demands in the name of those national myths.

GAZETTE: Until almost 20 or 30 years ago, the population of African descent in Latin America was invisible. Did the prevalence of those myths obscure their struggles and demands?
DE LA FUENTE: Those myths of racial democracy didn’t encourage racially defined social movements. But people of African descent mobilized using other social identities. For instance, in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, people of African descent played key roles in the labor union movement that was so important in Latin American politics at that time, especially under populist regimes. Afro-Latin Americans populated many organizations that were defined primarily along class lines because those groups were recognized by the state and could interact with it in a way that a racially defined organization would have never been able to because of those ideologies of “racial democracy.” But Afro-descendants were always there. One of the dramatic changes in the last 30 years is that we have a growing body of scholarship that is recovering the presence and demands of all these actors, which were previously invisible to us because we were simply not looking in the right places or asking the right questions.

GAZETTE: What led to the birth of the Afro-Latin American movement?

DE LA FUENTE: In the 1970s, the national myths of “mestizaje” and racial democracy were collapsing everywhere. There was growing evidence of racism and racial inequality. People of African descent and indigenous descent were overrepresented among the poor. It was harder and harder to sustain that Latin America was a racial paradise. That, combined with a wave of democratization in Latin America, created new spaces for social movements to emerge, including some defined around racial agendas. These movements began to press for recognition, visibility, and racial-justice policies. The prime example of this happened in Brazil in 1978, when a small group of activists formed the Movimento Negro Unificado (Black Unified Movement). They began to denounce the myth of racial democracy in Brazil. It was never a mass movement, but they were able to create a political agenda around race issues and give voice to people of African descent. To address their demands, in the 1990s, under President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the government began implementing a system of affirmative action in universities. Universities are engines of social mobility, and they had been closed to Afro-Brazilians, whose access to the middle class was basically curtailed. The affirmative-action policies were polemical, but they were implemented, and were expanded under the Lula [Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva] administration.

GAZETTE: More than half of Brazil’s population is of African descent, and yet most Brazilians still struggle acknowledging their African heritage. Neymar, the famous soccer player, has said he is not black.

DE LA FUENTE: Individuals define themselves any way they want. But if one goes back enough in their ancestry, trust me, you, Neymar, and all of us are going to land somewhere in Africa. That’s the end of the story. I always tell my students that who we are depends on which point of reference we want to use to define ourselves. Blackness is not a real thing; it’s a construction of imperialism, colonialism, and empires. People who left Africa were not black; they were Bantus, they were Wolof, they were Yoruba. They were all those cultures, languages, and ways of living that were collapsed into one category to fit them all. That was an act of enormous violence. We should never forget that race is an invention loaded with power and debasement.

GAZETTE: Can you talk about the Afro-Latin American movement’s achievements over the past three decades?

DE LA FUENTE: In the 1980s, only Cuba and Brazil collected information about Afro-descendants in their census. Now, every country in Latin America does it, with the exception of one. Even countries that don’t have a large population of African origin, like Peru or Mexico or Bolivia, are now trying to provide platforms for the statistical visibility of this population. This is a result of social movements that have been demanding this kind of visibility because they realized that resources won’t be made available unless the state recognizes them as a group with a distinctive history. That has happened across the region. Many countries have now created specific days, sometimes even a month, for black culture, which one may dismiss as just some sort of folkloric step, but that is used by these movement to present their case and make themselves visible. And there are also institutions within the governments dedicated to protecting citizens of African descent and to preserving Afro-Latin American culture.

“Even countries that don’t have a large population of African origin, like Peru or Mexico or Bolivia, are now trying to provide platforms for the statistical visibility of this population.”


GAZETTE: What do you make of the fact that nearly half of the 31 members of the Council of State, Cuba’s top governing body, are black or mixed race? This is something you don’t see in other Latin American countries.

DE LA FUENTE: It’s a good sign, and it’s also good that now half of the vice presidents of the Council of State are women and half of them are of African descent. It’s indeed something you don’t see in other countries. The change in Cuba is meaningful. Someone asked me if what happened in Cuba was window-dressing. I’d say, well, if you dress a window in black and female, I’ll take it. It’s not just any dressing. It’s also very good news that the vice president of Costa Rica, Epsy Campbell Barr, is of African descent, and that she comes from the Afro-descendant movement. Things are beginning to change.

 GAZETTE: The Afro-Latin American movement is growing, as well as the interest of researchers in this field. What’s the mission of the Afro-Latin American Research Institute?

DE LA FUENTE: The institute is the only one of its kind in the United States. Our mission is to build the field of Afro-Latin American studies, and we do that with different knowledge-producers who come from various sectors of society, including academics and scholars from all over the Americas and beyond. But we also work with activists in the Afro-descendant movement in Latin America, and with international organizations such as the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Development Bank. We’re the place where all these actors can come together and talk to each other, and then we try to transform those conversations into research and teaching agendas that can feed and sustain the field. This only happens when you have a space for all these different actors to come together. Activists or even government officials don’t think about this in terms of research agendas, of course. But when activists demand visibility in a census, for example, they’re immediately creating important research questions. What we’re doing is providing an institutional platform, which I hope will continue to grow and prosper.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.