LA PAZ, BOLIVIA- Did you know Afro-Bolivians are still around today? They are Bolivian people of Sub-Saharan African heritage in South America; descendants of Black slaves transported to the Americas via the middle passage.
Landlocked between Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil, Bolivia is often ignored by its South American neighbors, but it’s an undeniable gem. This country is home to majestic mountains, beautiful rainforests, and rich cultures.
Located outside the Capital City of La Paz is an area known as the Yungas Region. Because of the jungles and rivers, it’s not an easy area to reach, but it’s home to the Afro-Bolivian community: one of the last remaining tribal kingdoms in the world, recognized by the government and led ceremonially by a king, whose lineage goes back to dark ages of African monarchs. Census data from 2012 shows that there were 23,330 Afro-Bolivians.
According to one theory, when Africans first began arriving in Bolivia, the natives believed that darker skin was more attractive, which is why they were intrigued by the skin of the Africans. For this reason, it comes as no surprise that numerous Afro-Bolivians have intermarried with Aymaras, adopted numerous aspects of their culture, and even developed into an Aymaran-speaking subculture.
In 1544, the Spanish Conquistadors discovered the silver mines in a city now called Potosí, on the base of Cerro Rico. As a result, the natives were enslaved as mine workers. However, the health of the natives working in the mines gradually deteriorated. The Spanish began to bring African slaves to help work the mines.
During the 17th century, 30,000 Africans were brought to work despite being more expensive. In Bolivia, the cost of an African worker would reach 800 pesos. The reason was, that they were bought from eastern slave ports and had to trek from cities like Cartagena, Montevi-de-o, and Buenos Aires to Bolivia. Slaves were forced to work under difficult conditions, some did not survive more than a few months, and we’re not used to working at such a high altitude.
Toxic smelter fumes and mercury vapors they inhaled while working the mines led to the death of many Native and African workers. Slaves worked in the mines for an average of 4 months. They were also blindfolded upon leaving the mines to protect their eyes, which had become accustomed to the darkness.
Children under the age of 18 worked fewer hours in mines, despite the requirement for Natives and Africans over 18 years to work 12-hour shifts. Despite working fewer hours, these children were still exposed to asbestos, toxic gases, cave-ins, and explosions.
According to estimates, eight million Africans and Natives died working the mines during the colonial period, from 1545 to 1825. Several newly brought slaves died as a result of bad weather and harsh conditions. To strengthen the slaves against the conditions, the Spaniards gave them coca leaves to chew. Chewing coca leaves decreased their sensitivity to cold, dampened their hunger feeling, and relieved their altitude sickness.
Similar to the mines of Potosi, coca plantations became a significant cash crop for the region. Like Julio Pinedo’s ancestors, thousands of slaves were sent to cultivate and process coca leaves on Haciendas, a cocoa plantation in the Yungas region of Bolivia in 1924 where historically cultivation had been done using African slave labour. Although these Afro Bolivians were free, they still faced difficulties maintaining their culture.
Many aspects of their culture began to fade away and become endangered. The colonial aggression and exclusion of their post-emancipation culture forced them to fight very hard. Aspects such as feasts, their creole language (which has since been decreolized), and religion that survived colonization have since gone extinct, even though fragments have remained.
As a result of their isolation from much of Bolivia, Afro Bolivians speak a dialect of Bolivian Spanish, similar to Black English in the United States.
Additionally, to being Roman Catholics, Afro Bolivians also incorporate aspects of African diasporic religions such as rituals from the Macumba and Voodoo religions which have influenced their practice of Christianity, primarily in the towns of Chicaloma and Mururata. (Through their music and dance, they were able to preserve this culture.)
To this day, Afro-Bolivian identity is defined by the musical traditions with ancestral origins in Sub-Saharan Africa, such as dances, instruments, and techniques. It has been estimated that in the Yungas lives about 25,000 Afro-Bolivians. Their culture is very important to them, and they have fought hard to preserve it. There is, in fact, a continuing Afro-Bolivarian monarchy under Julio Pinedo in the town of Mururata that has maintained its traditional culture.
As Afro Bolivians spread east, they settled in Cochabamba and Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Despite the efforts working to preserve their culture, the Afro Bolivian community experienced racism, isolation, and intolerance. As Afro Bolivians have struggled to ratify laws against racism and discrimination, the first anti-discrimination law (law 45) was implemented in 2010 and met with violent protests and riots.
Former president Evo Morales amended the national constitution in 2009 to outline the rights of Afro-Bolivians and guarantee their protection. Also included in the amendments was the inclusion of indigenous peoples, and the official recognition of Afro-Bolivians as a minority group in Bolivia even though they were not included in the national census three years later.
Formwr Bolivian President Evo Morales not only updated the country’s constitution in 2009, but he also created a Vice Ministry for Decolonization to create policies intended to criminalize racism while promoting literacy and better race relations. In addition to dismantling colorism and racism influenced by European colonization, the Vice Ministry for Decolonization promotes a philosophy of “interculturality,” whereby citizens of the nation acknowledge the contributions of ethnic groups to society through their traditions and cultural practices.
There are many things to see, but there are even more mysteries and hidden treasures that you might not discover in Bolivia. If you delve beneath the tourist attractions and dig into the history, you’ll discover the Afro-Bolivian Community’s story.