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Latin American Connections and Contrasts

Throughout Latin America, African and Native peoples have interacted with each other and with white culture for centuries. As in the United States, this shared history began in slavery and discrimination. But Latin Americans defined race differently. Racial categories took into account mixed descent rather than “one drop” of African blood.

Contemporary identities take on distinctive forms. Nationality or regional culture can be as much a factor as color or biological racial origin. Cultural blends are sometimes more overt than in the U.S. because traditional practices that originated in Africa were not as consistently outlawed in Latin America, and more Native peoples live in Latin America than the U.S.

Today, African-Native American peoples in Latin America are deeply diverse. Some, like the Garifuna and Miskito, identify themselves as indigenous peoples, who speak their Native languages. Others, like the Afro-Bolivians of Yungas Province, adhere more to an African root. And many acknowledge all of the strands woven together in their complex experience.

Aidee Iriondo Alacid

Aidee Iriondo Alacid—Afro-Bolivian persistence

In the 1500s, Spaniards brought enslaved Africans to mine silver in Bolivia’s mountains. Harsh conditions and high altitude killed many; survivors were sent to plantations in the subtropical forests of the Yungas Province.

Today, Afro-Bolivians are an unrecognized ethnic minority. Their unique culture blends African and Native roots. They still elect a king based on enduring African traditions, but many speak the Native language Aymara. They have begun to press for their rights as a distinctive people, with the goal of overcoming widespread poverty and discrimination.

Courtesy Peter McFarren