Liberty and Equality in Caribbean Colombia, 1770-1835

Liberty and Equality in Caribbean Colombia, 1770-1835

Liberty and Equality in Caribbean Colombia, 1770-1835

Liberty and Equality in Caribbean Colombia, 1770-1835

Synopsis

After Brazil and the United States, Colombia has the third-largest population of African-descended peoples in the Western hemisphere. Yet the country is commonly viewed as a nation of Andeans, whites, and mestizos (peoples of mixed Spanish and indigenous Indian ancestry). Aline Helg examines the historical roots of Colombia's treatment and neglect of its Afro-Caribbean identity within the comparative perspective of the Americas. Concentrating on the Caribbean region, she explores the role of free and enslaved peoples of full and mixed African ancestry, elite whites, and Indians in the late colonial period and in the processes of independence and early nation building.
Why did race not become an organizational category in Caribbean Colombia as it did in several other societies with significant African-descended populations? Helg argues that divisions within the lower and upper classes, silence on the issue of race, and Afro-Colombians' preference for individual, local, and transient forms of resistance resulted in particular spheres of popular autonomy but prevented the development of an Afro-Caribbean identity in the region and a cohesive challenge to Andean Colombia.
Considering cities such as Cartagena and Santa Marta, the rural communities along the Magdalena River, and the vast uncontrolled frontiers, Helg illuminates an understudied Latin American region and reintegrates Colombia into the history of the Caribbean.

Excerpt

In 1991 Colombia adopted a new democratic and pluralistic constitution that recognizes the ethnic and cultural diversity of the country, protects minorities, and acknowledges the existence of Indians in the nation by assigning two senatorial seats to the indigenous communities. Finally putting an end to the 1886 constitution, which for more than a century provided Colombians with a highly centralized political system that denied diversity, the new constitution admits de facto that the forces of regionalism have won over centralism and that the process of whitening Colombia's population through mestizaje (racial mixing) and Catholic education have not been fully achieved. the creation by the 1991 constitution of two senatorial seats for indigenous communities acknowledges the longstanding organization of Indians who have held to their land, traditions, and languages since the Spanish conquest. However, the new constitution does not challenge the image of Colombia as a patriarchal mestizo (of mixed European and indigenous ancestry) nation. Nor does it break the silence that Colombian elites have kept since the early nineteenth century over the substantial contribution of people of African descent to the formation of the nation, except in Transitory Article 55. This article, adopted reluctantly by the Constitutional Assembly to respond to the grassroots mobilization of the nonrepresented black associations, announced that within two years the government would legalize the traditional communal landholdings of "black communities" located on the Pacific Coast.

In the summer of 1993, after much activist lobbying, Colombian blacks eventually gained some legal recognition, in Law 70 of Negritudes "sic". This law focuses on the "black communities" along the rivers of the Pacific Basin; it acknowledges their ancestral communal land ownership and protects their cultural identity. However, by stressing "Afrocolombian ascendancy" cultural homogeneity, and distinctiveness, as well as location in a specific rural riverine region, the law de facto excludes blacks in other areas as well as zambos (of mixed African and indigenous ancestry) and mulattoes from "blackness." Interestingly, Colombians of mixed African ancestry . . .

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