Shipwrecked Identities: Navigating Race on Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast

Shipwrecked Identities: Navigating Race on Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast

Shipwrecked Identities: Navigating Race on Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast

Shipwrecked Identities: Navigating Race on Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast


Global identity politics rest heavily on notions of ethnicity and authenticity, especially in contexts where indigenous identity becomes a basis for claims of social and economic justice. In contemporary Latin America there is a resurgence of indigenous claims for cultural and political autonomy and for the benefits of economic development. Yet these identities have often been taken for granted.

In this historical ethnography, Baron Pineda traces the history of the port town of Bilwi, now known officially as Puerto Cabezas, on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua to explore the development, transformation, and function of racial categories in this region. From the English colonial period, through the Sandinista conflict of the 1980s, to the aftermath of the Contra War, Pineda shows how powerful outsiders, as well as Nicaraguans, have made efforts to influence notions about African and Black identity among the Miskito Indians, Afro-Nicaraguan Creoles, and Mestizos in the region. In the process, he provides insight into the causes and meaning of social movements and political turmoil. Shipwrecked Identities also includes important critical analysis of the role of anthropologists and other North American scholars in the Contra-Sandinista conflict, as well as the ways these scholars have defined ethnic identities in Latin America.

As the indigenous people of the Mosquito Coast continue to negotiate the effects of a long history of contested ethnic and racial identity, this book takes an important step in questioning the origins, legitimacy, and consequences of such claims.


Don Paco Mendez owns and operates a store among the strings of general stores that line the calle commercial (commercial street) of Puerto Cabezas—the port and capital of Nicaragua's recently formed North Atlantic Autonomous Region (la raan as it is known locally). One afternoon I stopped by his store to do an informal interview with him about his life. He told me that his family was one of the founders of Puerto Cabezas during the period that is known locally as “company time”—an idealized period from the 1920s to the 1970s in which us and Canadian banana, lumber, and mining industries operated on a large scale in the region. His Costa Rican mother and Nicaraguan father migrated from the Pacific side of Nicaragua to establish a general store in the burgeoning Caribbean port city that in the 1920s was converted from a small Indian village called Bilwi to the Nicaraguan headquarters of the largest employer in Nicaragua, the Standard Fruit Company.

He was quick to remind me that although he had been born and raised en la costa, on the Mosquito Coast, he was, in an existential sense, profoundly del Pacifico, from the Pacific. Although he referred to himself as an indígena and an indio, he explained to me, with more than a trace of prejudice, the fundamental superiority of the Pacific Indian vis-à-vis the Moscos de aqui (literally, flies from here), as he perjoratively referred to the Miskito Indians.

Don Paco explained that he had spent some time in the campesino (small-scale agriculturalist) villages of the mountainous Nicaraguan interior that he regarded as being part of the Pacific Coast, an important distinction in the context of Nicaragua where all Nicaraguans regard the country as being divided into two fundamentally different . . .

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