Afro-Latin America 1800-2000


Afro-Latin America 1800-2000

George Reid Andrews (2004)

Oxford University Press

Written by University of Pittsburgh Professor of History George Reid Andrews,
who has previously published titles including The Afro-Argentines of Buenos Aires, 1800-1900 (1981) and Blacks and Whites in Sao Paulo, Brazil, 1888-1988 (1992). You can read about him here.

This 284 page book covers more than the last two hundred years indicated by the title and looks further back into history as the occasion arises. Andrews examines how, over time, slaves organized themselves to attain better conditions and, ultimately, their freedom. The changing political climate is considered in light of slave actions, especially roles and attitudes during the various wars of independence in the region. The processes of “whitening”, “browning” and “blackening” and their impact upon cultural identity are also explored.

Why you might buy it:

This is the first written history of the African diaspora in Latin America that covers this time period and it offers a wealth of information and insightful comment throughout. Extremely well researched and full of interesting facts and observations. Whilst not a book “about Latin music” it interesting to note that the three countries with, arguably, the richest musical heritage of the region; Cuba, Brazil and Puerto Rico, were the last three to abolish slavery. Therefore, readers of books “about Latin music” will be able to make their own connections and potentially add considerably to their understanding of the historical, political and cultural contexts in which the music has developed.

Why you might leave it:

Aimed, primarily, at the more academic end of the market, it really depends on your ability to stay with a book that challenges your perceptions and causes you to re-read material in order to fully appreciate what is being said. It is not a book about music, dance or cultural performance – though all feature – and you might wish to spend your book allowance elsewhere simply because of that. As is typical of books aimed at the scholarly market at least a quarter of the content consists of appendices, glossary, references, index etc, so as a read you only get 201 pages.


Chapter 1: 1800
Chapter 2: “An exterminating bolt of lightning”: The wars of freedom, 1810-1890
Chapter 3: “Our new citizens, the blacks”: The politics of freedom, 1810-1890
Chapter 4: “A transfusion of new blood”: Whitening, 1880-1890
Chapter 5: Browning and blackening, 1930-2000
Chapter 6: Into the twenty first century: 2000 and beyond
Appendix: Population counts, 18000-2000
Selected bibliography

Selected extracts (from):

Chapter 1: 1800

The right of spirit possession was in turn connected to the Santana slaves’ final demand, that they be free “to play, relax, and sing any time we wish, without your hindrance nor will permission be needed.” With this the Santana slaves articulated one of the most deeply held of all slave aspirations: the desire not just to rest from hard labor but to “re-create” themselves through African music, song, and dance. Music and dance were healing on almost every level, a balm for body and mind. The graceful movements of dance, movement done purely for pleasure and enjoyment, were the antithesis and direct negation of the pain and exhaustion of coerced heavy labor. And when performed collectively, as they usually were, African song and dance removed, at least for a moment, the degraded social status of slavery and created alternative, deeply healing senses of person – and people-hood.

Thus at a street dance in Montevideo celebrating the Christmas season of 1827, a French traveler was struck by how “more than six hundred blacks seem to have gained for a moment their nationality, in the heart of that imaginary country, whose memory…made them forget, for one single day of pleasure, the pains and sufferings of long years of slavery”. A British traveler left a vivid description of a similar occasion in Rio de Janeiro in 1808. “Onward pressed the groups of the various African nations…Here was the native of Mosambique, and Quilumana, of Cabinda, Luanda, Benguela, and Angola.” As the singing and dancing intensified over the course of the afternoon, “I [knew] not whether the energy of the musicians, or that of the dancers was most to be admired.” Bystanders, overcome with the rhythm, “with a shriek or a song…rushed in and joined the dance. The musicians played a louder and more discordant music; the dancers…gathered fresh animation;…the shouts of approbation and clapping of hands were redoubled; every looker-on participated.” Small wonder that, as the Buenos Aires city council bitterly complained in 1788, slaves “think of no other thing but of time when they can go dance.”

Chapter 2: “An exterminating bolt of lightning”: The wars of freedom, 1810-1890

In Brazil, as in Cuba and Puerto Rico, both slavery and the plantation economy survived intact through the first half of the 1800’s and into the second, poised for the most intense period ever of growth and expansion. Between 1800 and 1850 Cuban sugar exports increased tenfold (from 29,000 tons per year to 295,000), and Brazilian exports sixfold (from 20,000 tons per year in 1800 to 120,000 in 1850). Puerto Rico’s output was much lower, but the rate of increase was more dramatic: from less than 1,000 tons per year in 1810 to over 50,000 in 1850. Slave imports increased accordingly. Between 1800 and 1850 Brazil received 1.7 million Africans, as many as during the entire 1700’s. Cuba received 560,000 (and an additional 150,000 between 1850 and 1867), and Puerto Rico some 50,000.

These were the largest numbers of Africans ever to come to those countries – or to any Latin American country – and the impact of their arrival was strongly felt. In all three countries the African character of black community life was greatly reinforced, as evidenced by a proliferation of African based cultural institutions and practices.

In Cuba, African membership organizations, the cabildos afrocubanos, had existed since the late 1500s, and by the mid-1700s at least 21 such organizations existed in Havana. During the first half of the 1800s the number of cabildos in the city more than tripled, reflecting the increasing size and diversity of the African population. The cabildos filled a wide range of economic, political, and cultural functions. Most provided mutual-aid benefits when members became sick or disabled; all provided some form of death benefits, helping to cover the cost of funerals and financial assistance for the members family. Over time some cabildos acquired buildings and other real estate from which they derived rental income. That income, combined with dues and other contributions, was then used to help members buy their way out of slavery or set up businesses.

Chapter 3: “Our new citizens, the blacks”: The politics of freedom, 1810-1890

Lower labor demands meant greater leisure time, which could be spent at rest or in the many ritual activities that organized the cultural and spiritual life of the black villages. The synthesis of African and European religion that had taken place under slavery was now complete, producing forms of folk Catholicism that, while following the Catholic religious calendar and acknowledging the authority of the church, were powerfully African in content – so much so that tension and conflict continued between priests and parishioners over proper forms of religious observance. Drumming, dancing, and music played on African instruments were necessary parts of such observance for black worshipers, and over time the church grudgingly accepted these aspects of black religiosity.

What the church could not accept was the African practice of “bringing down” the saints through ritual trance and possession. To be sure, this practice bypassed the authority of the priests by giving lay people direct access to the gods and saints. Ever worse, it gave profound spiritual authority to women, since it was mainly they who served as conduits of channels for the holy spirits. Rejecting the practice of spirit possession as devil worship, the church tried actively but unsuccessfully to stamp it out. Instead, peasants held their velorios (acts of devotion) in private homes, where parishioners gathered to worship the Virgin, St. John, St. Anthony, and other popular saints.

Chapter 4: “A transfusion of new blood”: Whitening, 1880-1890

The war on African-based culture was applauded not just by whites but by the black middle class as well. Upwardly mobile blacks and mulattos were struggling to cross the great divide separating the world of working-class poverty from that of middle-class respectability. African-based culture was powerfully identified with precisely that working class world of slums and favelas that this “talented tenth” was trying to escape. Admission to the world of the middle class therefore required the complete rejection of that culture and the wholehearted embrace of European models of civilization and progress.

Members of the white upper and middle-classes worried constantly about the subverting, “contaminating” effects of “Africanization” on their societies, but in keeping with the racial determinism of the times they could always claim a kind of inherited immunity to the encroaching menace of blackness. Upwardly mobile Afro-Latin Americans could make no such claim. In societies that regarded race as a biological fact, their skin, their hair, their facial features signified a direct ancestral link to African-based culture. In order to meet the requirements for admission into civilized society and the national middle class, their rejection of that culture had to be even more empathic than that of their white counterparts.

The black middle class’s anxious relationship with African-based culture is vividly captured in Afro-Cuban journalist Rafael Serra’s ominous metaphor of “Africanism” as an “enormous octopus of innumerable and immeasurable tentacles that stretches out completely and increasingly over all our body.” Struggling to escape those tentacles, Serra insisted that “we, who are born in [Cuba]…owe absolutely nothing to Africa” and reject “everything that clashes with culture, civic awareness, and love of good and beauty.”

Chapter 5: Browning and blackening, 1930-2000

Very much in need of new symbols of national unity during a period of economic and political crisis and rising class conflict, populist regimes actively sought to attach themselves to these new symbols of popular culture. Shortly after his election in 1925, Cuban president Gerardo Machado issued a public statement in support of son, endorsed the first public festival of the music, and invited the Sonora Matancera band to play at his birthday party. As part of his own campaign of nation building, dictator Rafael Trujillo declared merengue the “national music” of all the Dominican Republic. All dance bands, including those in elite social clubs, restaurants and hotels, were required to play merengue, and upper-class Dominicans were required to dance it, much to the glee of lower class onlookers. Trujillo’s brother Petan headed the nations foremost band, as well as the country’s largest radio station, which broadcast 12 hours of live dance music daily, including more than 300 merengues composed in Trujillo’s honor.

Chapter 6: Into the twenty first century: 2000 and beyond

Along the Caribbean coast of Colombia, Venezuela, and Costa Rica, the tourist industry is the primary economic force driving black peasants off their land. At first glance tourism can look like a godsend to depressed rural regions, enabling the peasants to sell their land for high prices and then go to work in the hotels, restaurants, and other enterprises that service visitors to the region. But as soon becomes apparent, tourism exacts a very high price from the localities that depend on it. Overbuilding and poorly planned construction have led to serious environmental damage in parts of coastal Colombia and Venezuela. The jobs generated by tourism are for the most part low-skilled and low-paid, and they do not begin to cover the greatly increased cost of living in tourist zones. Higher wages can be earned through paid sex or drug dealing, but with disastrous consequences for black family and community life.

[end of extracts]

Other Reviews:

The Historian by Jose C. Moya (2006)
Like any good teacher–or scholar–Andrews then elucidates his categories, beginning with that of the title. What is Afro-Latin America? One normally associates this term with the tropical lowlands of the region, the main sites of plantation economies and African slavery where blacks and mulattoes have historically formed the majority of the population: the Caribbean islands and basin; coastal Brazil north of Sao Paulo; and parts of the Pacific coasts of Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. Much of the book does concentrate on this “core” (minus the non-Hispanophone Caribbean), but Andrews’s definition of Afro-Latin America is more encompassing: all countries where people of African origin represent, or represented at some point in time, more than 5 percent of all inhabitants, the level at which he feels “blackness” becomes a visible element in social systems of stratification and in national cultures. This inclusive definition may derive from Andrews’s previous research (on Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo) and present project (on Uruguay), places where blacks represented a minority, but it seems too ample. It would have included all of Latin America except Bolivia at the start of the period the book covers, and countries such as Ecuador and Uruguay at the end. What logic could warrant defining nations where over nine-tenths of the population is of Amerindian and European ancestry respectively as “Afro” rather than “Indo-Mestizo” or “Euro”? One would have to argue that the African influence was so pronounced that it overwhelmed that of the majority groups. Andrews does not do so, and the conceptual conundrum may originate in a misleading title. This is a book about Afro-Latin Americans rather than Afro-Latin America. Overall, this is an excellent and engagingly written historical synthesis that manages to be both nuanced and broad. It combines a wealth of empirical information with incisive analysis and should appeal to students and scholars alike.

American Historical Review (2005)
George Reid Andrews’s tour de force draws on a breath-taking range of scholarship published in and on Latin America to make a powerful argument about the contributions of blacks and mulattos to national and regional histories. This book pays as much attention to class as to race. Andrews carefully differentiates among the varied experiences and strategies of poor and middle-class Afro-Latin American women and men, and he voices some provocative opinions about their past and future political mobilization. In addition to consulting the English-language literature, Andrews draws from many works in Spanish and Portuguese that have remained largely unknown to Anglophone readers. Importantly, the book places Brazil in constant counterpoint to its Spanish-American neighbors (rather than the common practice of comparing Brazil primarily to the United States). Attention is paid to Afro-Latin American populations in diverse countries ranging from Uruguay to Costa Rica to Cuba. Andrews’s lively writing style, moreover, makes this material accessible and appealing to a wide audience. Ideally suited for college students, the book challenges their stereotypes with vivid anecdotes framed within a coherent yet complex narrative.

Johns Hopkins University by Franklin W. Knight
Afro-Latin America is a deftly balanced and impressively nuanced study that is remarkable for its geographical span, covering the area (except for the non-Hispanic Caribbean) from Mexico to Argentina. This highly accessible, magisterially authoritative account fills a long-standing void in the bibliography for Latin American Studies, American Cultures and the history of the Americas in general. Insightful, intellectually provocative, and engagingly written, this book should find a wide audience among both specialists and non-specialists.

The Americas
The title and the text of the book may be brief, but Reid Andrews’ latest work is an impressively thorough survey of the experiences of Afro-Latin Americans from the independence era to the present. In 200 pages he places the experiences of the “black” and “brown” descendents of the area’s slaves in the major political and economic developments of the time, and traces how they have both affected and been affected by those developments. Coherently presented and clearly written, this will probably remain the definitive overview of the history of modern Afro-Latin America for years to come.


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