(Vintage blog from Dec 25 2006)
Whenever anyone thinks of the ethnic makeup of Bolivia, they immediately think of its dominating Indigenous culture, those of Spanish descent, or of the fusion of both in the Mestizo. But most don't consider and/or recognize the Afro-Bolivian population, and that is evident in many aspects even in this time of political and social reconstruction.
Like many other countries in the western hemisphere, Africans were brought to Bolivia to work as slaves upon colonization by the Spanish. At this time, the mining city of Potosí in Bolivia's southwest was considered one of the richest cities in the world because of the amount of gold and silver that was produced in the mines mostly through slave labor. It is said that millions of Africans were brought to work in the dangerous Bolivian mines. Millions of them also died, leaving the current Afro-Bolivian population to total around 35,000- 45,000 (although that number is not truly accurate, because Afro-Bolivians are not permitted to participate in the national census as their own ethnic group).
So fast-forward to 2006, where slavery still occurs, but in a different form according to Edgar, an Afro-Bolivian: "514 years of slavery in Latin America and we're still slaves. We're slaves of invisibility." Bolivia did not publicly recognize it's Afro population until only about three years ago, and to this day they are not considered in the national census. As for representation in the Constituent Assembly- zilch, they are not involved. The only time that they are visible seems to be when they play "Saya" during public events or in bars/clubs. Saya is the Afro-Bolivian style of music and dance that has taken about twenty years to be accepted well by the public. Edgar says that performing Saya is the only way that they can get out more cultural awareness. However, it can also be said that performing Saya is the only way that society permits them to get out that cultural awareness.The group Movimiento Cultural Saya Afroboliviano from La Paz performing Saya.
A part of this invisibility could be caused by location. Currently, most of the Afro population resides in a remote region called Los Yungas. This region is very mountainous, and because it borders the Amazonian jungle it is also very warm and rainy. Most of the roads to get to this region are not paved and are very dangerous. The main road is called "La Carretera de la Muerte" or the "Road of Death," which is said to be the most dangerous road in the world! There are numerous accidents where trucks/ buses fall off the very steep cliffs, so needles to say that there is not that much heavy traffic on it. It is because of this lack of access to the region (let alone lack of land line phones and other modes of communication) that there is not much interaction between them and the rest of the country. Whether it was self-inflicted or not, there is this clear sense of isolationism that is felt in regards to the Afro- Bolivian community in this physical sense and as well as in many other aspects.
However, today there is an influx of mostly Afro youth migrating to the major Bolivian cities, mostly in search for work. So in the cities you'll see spatters of Black people once in a while, and their increased visibility brings the racial issues that exist deeply in Bolivian society to light.
There are many instances of racial discrimination such as not being served well in hospitals and in other settings, the constant stares wherever you go, and the use of racial slurs. The most popular slur is called "Suerte, Negrito" or "Black Person, Good Luck," which is what Non-Afros (be it White, Indigenous or Mestizo) say whenever they see a Black person. They pinch each other and basically wish each other good luck, as if the Afro is not a person, but a good luck charm of sorts. It is said that this "tradition" was started by the Indigenous people, to symbolize their relief of no longer having to suffer enslavement once the Africans were brought to the country. This pinching probably seems very benign to some, but being an Afro-Latina myself I've experienced all of these things while living in this country. Believe me, being treated like in outcast eventually takes its toll on a person no matter how benign.This issue of being "Slaves of Invisibility" brings a new question to mind as far as where this country is going culturally and politically. Although there are many great reforms being enacted on other levels, there are many opinions that the Morales Administration seems to be showing signs of cultural bias, not only in reference to Afro-Bolivians but in regards to other cultures as well. Bolivia is a diverse country with many different cultures and ethnicities, including 36 distinct Indigenous nations most of which seem to be ignored socially and politically. Evo Morales is Aymara, which is the second biggest Indigenous nation in Bolivia second to the Quechuans, and there is a strong public concern that he is attempting to mold the country to reflect the culture of these two nations solely while ignoring the rest.
Is this true? It seems probable that not all 36 Indigenous nations let alone other groups, such as the Asian population, currently have representatives in the Constituent Assembly to help rewrite the Bolivian Constitution to reflect all Bolivians fairly. If this is true, then is it problematic for this "revolutionary" process?
It seems that an important reason why Bolivia is going under these massive reforms to begin with is to unify itself, and the public had that in mind when 54% of Bolivians voted Morales into office in 2005. So far, it doesn't seem to be going down that path according to many, and tension among the minorities is mounting. This issue is a major reason why some regions are fiercely demanding autonomy, which has the potential of destroying the entire country or at least all of the progress that has been made thus far. They are definitely walking on eggshells here.The plight of the Afro-Bolivian and the other "Slaves of Invisibility" is something that interests me very much and I think is an example of one area that this reform process is failing at this point. The goal of my project is to show the positive and negative effects of a revolutionary process, and this for sure is a negative effect that if not rectified soon can become very detrimental for Bolivia in more ways than one.
Thanks for reading.
Aug 26, 2008
The Plight of the Afro-Bolivian & Bolivia's Struggle with Cultural Bias (Vintage blog from Dec 25 2006)
(versión en español sometido antes abajo)
(Vintage blog from Dec 25 2006)