Monday, June 2, 2014


Someone asked me if Bolivia is a monarchy. I said ‘No’.

Bolivia has a King. Surprisingly, he is not one of indigenous origins, but African. Julio Bonifaz Pinedo was crowned by his own community as Afro-Bolivian King in La Paz in 2007. Pinedo found out that he was a direct descendent of Bonifaz I, a tribal King from Central Africa. He is now the country’s first Afro-Bolivian King in 500 years. (Schipani, 2011)
The first sub-Saharan African slaves arrived to South America in the early 16th century brought by the Spanish to work in the mineral deposits of Potosí, first known as Alto Perú, then Audiencia de Charcas, and after colonial independence as Bolivia. Many reports show that there was a high mortality rate due to the harsh work conditions, altitude and severe weather (snow and cold). In any case, the African slave population was never large, as many mixed with indigenous or European residents. This resulted in a steady decline of the cultural, linguistic and demographic profile of Afro-Bolivians. In the 17th century, Africans nearly represented 5 % of the Bolivian population (Lipski, 2009, p. 1). Despite weather conditions and overwhelming hardships and the time period of over four centuries in a primarily indigenous and mestizo nation, a small but vivacious Afro-Bolivian community has survived to the present day.

Today, 30,000 individuals out of all 35,000 African descendents or Afrodescendientes can be found in many parts of Bolivia. However, many live in scattered communities in the provinces of Nor Yungas and Sud Yungas, in the department of La Paz, where the climate is more similar to Sub-Saharan Africa.  The Yungas, where most of Bolivia’s coca leaf is grown, are tropical valleys a three-hour car ride journey from La Paz. Surrounded by some of the most challenging Mountain terrain, nearly vertical geography, the  lack of safe roads, and frequent mud and rock slides, have historically cut off the Yungas communities from the rest of Bolivian societies (Lipski, 2009, p. 3). The two municipios of Nor Yungas, Coroico and Coripata, include the most important Nor Yungas black communities which are Tocaña, Mururata, Chijchipa, Dorado Chico, Coscoma and Khala Khala (Lipski, 2009, p. 2). In Sud Yungas the main Afro-Bolivian/black community is Chicaloma.

The Yungas region of Bolivia

Yet, the history of Afro-Bolivians is not as polished as it seems. According to the World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, most Afro-Bolivians are poverty-stricken farmers, cultivating coca-leaf, coffee and citrus fruits. Afro-Bolivians are considered to be the poorest ethnic group in Bolivia, the poorest country in South America (2014). Uneducated and secluded Afro-Bolivians feel left behind. Up to 2006 the Afro-Bolivian community did not figure in the Bolivian Constitution and it was not included in the official population census.
With the election of the first indigenous president, Evo Morales in 2006, Afro-Bolivians are now included in the new Constitution and included in the official population census. However, some Afrodescendientes still feel that the government fails to recognize and appreciate the contribution of black communities to Bolivian society. Therefore, the crowning of Julio Bonifaz Pinedo in 2007 is seen as a political move to make the world aware of Afro-Bolivians. The Afro-Bolivian community celebrated in big style in the streets of La Paz in December. It is reported that for a full morning in December, dances, chants and drums of Saya music inundate the streets of the Bolivian capital (Schipani, 2011). La Saya or Saya music is the biggest African influence in Bolivian culture and it used to be a form of expression by the African slaves. Nowadays, Afro-Bolivians use the Saya to celebrate their History and ancestry, but also as a form of protest to reclaim their rights within Bolivian society. In this black consciousness movement, the Saya has functioned as a way of expressing and solidifying Afro-Bolivian identity among black Bolivians, indigenous groups and the rest of the Bolivian population. The Saya has also worked as a way of expressing Afro-Bolivian identity in the context of national social movements based on ethnic identities (Nosotros los de la Saya, 2014). As a matter of fact, on June 14th 2011 the Afro-Bolivian Saya was declared as Intangible Historic and Cultural Heritage of the Plurinational State of Bolivia by the first indigenous President ever elected in Bolivia, Evo Morales. This declaration intends to recover and conserve the dance and music of La Saya Afro-Boliviana, which not only identifies the people, but the entire region of the Yungas and La Paz.

Saya dancers

As an African descendent or Afrodescendiente born and raised in Portugal, as soon as I arrived to Bolivia I felt a great connection to the Afro-Bolivian communities. Not for the fact that I shared the same skin colour as them. But, for the fact that I share the same historical ancestry as them. Also for the fact that they identify themselves as African and Bolivian as I identify myself as African and Portuguese.
To learn more about the Afro-Bolivian History and culture I interviewed Fundación AFROBO (AFROBO Foundation), a non-governmental organization that aims to better the quality of life of the Afro-Bolivian community by promoting its values and customs. Founded on April 4th 2013, AFROBO was born through the initiative of the first Afro-Bolivian photographer Carmen Angola Campos and her husband Eddy Vasquez. It all started with Desde mi Mirada (From my Perspective), a photography project with children from different communities from The Yungas. It is through photography and an unconventional education approach that Fundación AFROBO intends to reach to different communities and inform people on the Afro-Bolivian culture and heritage. More importantly, the AFROBO Foundation believes that teaching Afro-Bolivian children about their values, culture and traditions is the best way to promote and preserve the culture of the Afro-Bolivianos. In par with its objectives, Fundación AFROBO provides workshops on Afro-Bolivian traditions and customs, provides legal support to vulnerable individuals and families, provides educational support to children in The Yungas and La Paz and it publishes Afros, a monthly magazine that aims to engage the general public with the Afro-Bolivian community. Through their work Fundación AFROBO is developing an educational curriculum based on the Afro-Bolivian values and principles, which is to be implemented in the Yungas region and other regions where there is a prevalence of Afro-Bolivian communities.
Although, there is work to be done, the Afro-Bolivian community celebrates itself as a people that is overcoming obstacles and what is more, a community that is steadily succeeding in being heard and being represented, as well as being active citizens. The recognition of the Afro-Bolivian communities in the New Political Constitution of the State marks a new beginning for Afro-Bolivian history. A challenge fully accepted by Afros to be part of a new inclusive Plurinational Bolivia that recognizes and celebrates Afro-Bolivians.

Written by Ana Có

Special Thanks to Fundación AFROBO


Banks, E., (2010) Conflict and Consensus: The Anti-Racism and Discrimination Law in Bolivia; Part I: Content and Justification of the Legislation (online) http://ain-bolivia.org/2010/10/conflict-and-consensus-the-anti-racism-and-discrimination-law-in-bolivia-part-i-content-and-justification-of-the-legislation/

La Saya: Patrimonio Historico Cultural e Inmaterial Del Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia (2014) http://www.yungas.com.bo/la-saya-patrimonio-historico-cultural-e-inmaterial-del-estado-plurinacional-de-bolivia/

Lipski, M. J., (2009) Afro-Bolivian language today: the oldest surviving Afro-Hispanic speech community. Iberomaerica

Nosotros Los de La Saya (2014) http://www.nosotroslosdelasaya.com/

Projeto Parelelo Quinze (2014) http://projetoparaleloquinze.blogspot.com/

Schipani, A., Afro-Bolivian Royalty, Quarterly Americas (2011) Americas Society and Council of the Americas

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous  Peoples (2014)  http://www.minorityrights.org/2406/bolivia/afrobolivians.html

No comments:

Post a Comment