The creation of the University Consortium for Afro-Latin American Studies was announced in December, a move expected to transform the study of the history and culture of peoples of African descent in Latin America and the Caribbean. The Gazette interviewed Consortium Director Alejandro de la Fuente, founding director of the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, and the Robert Woods Bliss Professor of Latin American History and Economics, about the new initiative and its ground-breaking approach. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Alejandro de la Fuente
GAZETTE: Can you tell us why the University Consortium for Afro-Latin American Studies is significant?
DE LA FUENTE: What makes the consortium unique is that for the first time ever, universities across Latin America and the United States that have been working on issues of race and racial stratification in Latin America for many years are now joining forces to promote the development of the field of Afro-Latin American Studies, something that has never been done before.
As a concept, the consortium basically demolishes the barriers that typically separate the academia of the Global North and the Global South. The Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh and the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at Harvard represent the Global North, and AFRO Núcleo Pesquisa e Formação Raça, Gênero, Justiça Racial, CEBRAP (Brazil), the Centro de Estudios Afrodiaspóricos, Universidad ICESI (Colombia), the Grupo de Estudios Afrolatinoamericanos, Universidad de Buenos Aires (Argentina), and Afrodescendientes y Diversidad Cultural, INAH/UNAM (Mexico) represent the Global South. They all now will jointly pursue the development of the field of Afro Latin American Studies, which is to say, to center the Afro diasporic experience in the history and the cultures of Latin America. But, let me be clear: We did not create this field. People were producing knowledge and excellent scholarship on the Black experience in Latin America, but they didn’t have spaces where they could come together and share results with other scholars, practitioners, activists, etc. What I and my colleagues discovered since we created the Afro-Latin American Research Institute within the Hutchins Center, back in 2013, is that we were giving an academic home to something that was already out there.
GAZETTE: There are three times more people of African descent in Latin America (130 million) than in the U.S. (42 million), and yet the complexities of the African presence in Latin America are not well-known. How important is the African influence in the region?
DE LA FUENTE: Of the almost 11 million Africans who arrived enslaved in the New World between the 16th and the 19th centuries, over 95 percent came to what is today Latin America and the Caribbean, two-thirds to the former colonies of Spain and Portugal. Brazil is the second-largest Black nation in the world after Nigeria. People of African descent are central, even to the histories of countries that we do not associate with the African Diaspora, such as Argentina, Peru, or Mexico. Lima and Mexico City were home to substantial African populations in the mid-17th century. One-third of the population of Buenos Aires was of African descent as late as 1800. People forget that 75 percent of the people who arrived in Latin America during the colonial period came from Africa; they didn’t come from Europe. We should know more about the kingdom of Congo or Angola than what we know about Spain. That’s the promise of Afro-Latin American Studies. We are really dealing, as activists have tirelessly demanded for years, with centuries of erasure and visibility here. The field is correcting what we think of Latin America — even the name Latin America erases African contributions.
GAZETTE: Why did it take so long for academics to take interest in studying this aspect of Latin America?
DE LA FUENTE: On the one hand, in Latin America for many decades public intellectuals and educational and governmental authorities were quite reluctant to talk about race or racial stratification in the region. The great Brazilian sociologist Florestan Fernandez called it “prejudice of having no prejudice.” We did not want to acknowledge that race was a problem in Latin American societies; we wanted to think that race was an American problem. That, of course, discouraged studies about race and racism in Latin America. On the other hand, the development of Latin American Studies in the U.S. was averse to studies on race. The field of Latin American studies developed as a child of the geopolitical needs of the United States in the context of the Cold War. The great questions were development, political stability, democracy, mobilization; race was not central to the scholarship. Therefore, there was no stimulus for this production to happen, except that after the 1990s, both Afro-descendant and Indigenous activists in Latin America began to push for knowledge production in these areas, and they began to voice complaints against exclusion and racism in their own societies. It was activism that pushed this agenda into academia.
GAZETTE: Even if the African presence in Latin America goes back to the 16th century, it’s only recently that we have seen the emergence of Afro-Latin American figures in politics: Epsy Campbell Barr was vice president of Costa Rica until last year; Francia Márquez is the current vice president of Colombia, and Marina Silva is minister of environment in Brazil. What accounts for this development?
DE LA FUENTE: In some ways, the collapse of the populist regimes in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s created a vacuum that was filled by other social movements, including racially defined movements. But I want to say that there’s nothing terribly new about these forms of mobilization; they acquired new visibility after the 1990s, but they have very deep roots in the region. One of the things that we have begun to change is the perception that there were no instances of mobilization of people of African descent after slavery. In most traditional histories, enslaved Africans would rebel from time to time; there are some runaway slaves, then came abolition, and that was the end of the story. With this new wave of scholarship, we are recovering those histories of mobilization and realizing that some of the demands that became visible after the 1990s were, in fact, old demands that had been articulated by Afro-descendant activists, sometimes not in in racially defined organizations, but in class-based organizations such as unions. Women were always central to those processes. The recent election or appointment of women of African descent to positions of power must be understood in the context of these long-term struggles.
GAZETTE: What are your hopes for the field of Afro-Latin American Studies?
DE LA FUENTE: The consortium is an attempt to transform these academic homes for Afro-Latin American Studies into permanent homes. The field will only grow going forward because unfortunately, neither racial stratification nor racial injustice will disappear from Latin America in the foreseeable future. I’m very happy to be partnering with the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard, and I’m grateful to the Ford Foundation for supporting this endeavor with a $1.7 million dollar grant. These are all interventions designed to empower junior scholars and to tell them that what they do is important, which is something I didn’t have when I was a junior scholar. I spent a good part of my adult life explaining why I do what I do. The question was sometimes formulated in ways that I do not want to repeat here, which was, “Why do you study …?” You may fill in the blank. Well, I want to create spaces where these junior scholars don’t have to answer that stupid question.
This is an investment in the future of Latin America because the way that Latin America has been conceived and narrated privileges the European contributions to the region and erases the contributions of people of African descent. Everybody knows Phillip II of Spain, but nobody can name the king of Congo, and yet it was the subjects of the king of Congo who were arriving in droves in Latin America in the 1580s and the early 1600s. Imagine young kids of African descent in Latin America who are going to school and don’t learn anything about their ancestors, who were the ones who made these colonial societies rich and prosperous. This is not just an effort to correct that; this is really an invitation to rethink Latin America from and through the contributions of people of African descent in the region.