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Fri, 02.09.1500

The Afro Bolivian Community, a story

*Afro Bolivians are celebrated on this date in 1500. They are Bolivian people of Sub-Saharan African heritage in South America. They are descendants of Black slaves who were brought to the Americas via the middle passage.

"Afro Bolivian" also refers to historical or cultural elements in Bolivia that originate from their community. It can also refer to the combination of African and other cultural elements found in Bolivian society such as religion, music, language, the arts, and class culture. Afro Bolivians are recognized as one of the ethnic groups of Bolivia by the country's government and are ceremonially led by a king who traces his descent back to a line of monarchs that reigned in Africa during the medieval period. They numbered 23,330 according to the 2012 census.

In 1544, the Spanish Conquistadors discovered the silver mines in a city now called Potosí, on the base of Cerro Rico. They began to enslave the natives as workers in the mines. However, the health of the natives working in the mines became very poor, so the Spanish began to bring African slaves to work in the mines. During the 17th century, 30,000 Africans were brought to work though more expensive. In Bolivia, the cost was upwards of 800 pesos. This was they were bought from eastern slave ports and had to trek from cities like Cartagena, Montevideo, and Buenos Aires to Bolivia. Slaves were put to work in difficult conditions, some survived no more than a few months, and we're not used to working at such a high altitude.

Many of these Native and African workers' lives were cut short because of the toxic smelter fumes and mercury vapors they inhaled while working the mines. Slaves worked in the mines for 4 months on average. Also, they had to be blindfolded upon leaving the mines to protect their eyes, which had become adapted to darkness. Although a requirement for Natives and Africans over 18 years of age to work in the mines for 12-hour shifts, younger children work in the mines. These children worked fewer hours but were still exposed to asbestos, toxic gases, cave-ins, and explosions. It is estimated that as many as eight million Africans and Natives died from working the mines between 1545 and 1825, the end of the colonial period. Many newly brought slaves died due to harsh conditions and weather. The Spaniards fortified the slaves against the conditions by providing them with coca leaves to chew. Chewing coca leaves numbed their senses to the cold and dampened the feeling of hunger and relieved altitude sickness.

Just like the mines of Potosí, coca plantations became a cash crop of the region. Thousands of slaves were shipped to cultivate and process coca leaves on Haciendas, like the ancestors of Julio Pinedo. A cocoa plantation in the Yungas region of Bolivia in 1924 where historically cultivation had been done using African slave labor. Although these Afro Bolivians were free, they still had difficulty in trying to maintain their culture. Many elements of their culture began to disappear and become endangered. They had to fight very strongly against the colonial aggression and exclusion of their post-emancipation culture. Aspects such as feasts, their creole language (that has since been decreolized), a religion that survived through colonialism have since gone extinct, culturally, although fragments remain. Afro Bolivians due to isolation from much of Bolivia speak a dialect of Bolivian Spanish, akin to Black English in the United States.

Afro Bolivians, in addition to being Roman Catholic incorporate elements of African diasporic religions such as rituals in the Macumba and Voodoo religions that have influenced their practice of Christianity, mainly prevalent in the towns of Chicaloma and Mururata. One of the ways that they were able to hold on to this culture was through their music and dance. Musical traditions such as dances, instruments, and techniques with ancestral origin in Sub-Saharan Africa, to the present day, define Afro-Bolivian identity.  It has been estimated that 25,000 Afro-Bolivians live in the Yungas. They are proud of their culture and have fought very hard to preserve it. In fact, in the town of Mururata, the Afro-Bolivians managed to maintain their traditional culture, to the point of maintaining a continuous Afro Bolivian monarchy currently led by Julio Pinedo.

Afro Bolivians spread to the east in Cochabamba and Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Despite the Afro Bolivian community working to preserve their culture, they experienced racism, isolation, and intolerance. Laws that criminalize racism and discrimination in Afro Bolivia have slowly been ratified as the first anti-discriminatory law (law 45) was passed in 2010 and was met with violent protesting and rioting. In 2009 President Evo Morales added amendments to the national constitution that outlined the rights of Afro-Bolivians and guaranteed the protection of such liberties. The amendments also generally extended to indigenous peoples and officially recognized Afro-Bolivians as a minority group in Bolivia despite them not being included in the national census three years later.

In addition to the country's constitution being updated in 2009, President Morales created the Vice Ministry for Decolonization to create policies that criminalize racism while working to improve literacy and create better race relations in Bolivia. The Vice Ministry for Decolonization also works to dismantle colorism and racism influenced by European colonization while also promoting the philosophy of "interculturality" in which citizens of the nation recognize every ethnic group’s tradition and cultural practices as contributions to society.


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