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Mon, 07.05.1576

The Afro Venezuelan Community, a story

 *On this date in 1576, we celebrate Afro Venezuelans. This South American community is Venezuelans of African descent. Between 1576 and 1810, 100,000 Africans were kidnapped by Spain and transported across the Atlantic to Venezuela via the transatlantic Middle Passage. These enslaved people belonged to various ethnicities from present-day Angola, SenegalGambia, Benin, Nigeria, and the Congo, such as Kalabari, Igbo, Yoruba, Kongo, Wolof, and more. Enslaved people were treated as units of commerce, referred to as piezo de India of their physique and potential for travel.

Throughout the sixteenth century, enslaved people worked in the gold mines for fishing and pearl diving. Small-scale agricultural plantations were also initiated in Venezuela, especially in the regions surrounding Caracas. In the 18th century, shipments of slaves were transported to Barlovento to aid the cacao industry, indigo plantations in the Venezuelan Llanos, and sugar plantations in Lara, Aragua, and Zulia, around Lake Maracaibo. In the history of slave revolts in Venezuela, the most extensive uprising occurred in the Buría mines in 1552. The rebellion was led by El Negro Miguel (also known as Rey Miguel), who founded a Maroons (escaped slave) settlement. He developed an army of 1,500 slaves to attack colonial establishments. 

Abolition of Slavery

There were several rebellions of enslaved people throughout the history of the colony. Numbers of runaway-slave communities continued to increase throughout the seventeenth century, and by 1720 there were between 20,000 and 30,000 cimarrones in Venezuela, as opposed to the 60,000 enslaved people still working on the plantations. Afro Venezuelans played a crucial role in the struggle for independence. Initially, enslaved people fought for the Spanish Crown, believing the landowning creole Republicans were their enemies. In particular, the notorious royalist battalion of General José Tomás Boves attracted many slave soldiers.

Bolívar, realizing the strategic importance of Black soldiers in the fight for independence, declared the abolition of slavery in 1812 and again in 1816, after promising Haitian president Alexandre Pétion that he would secure freedom for enslaved people in return for Haitian military aid. Bolívar freed 1,000 of his slaves and, in 1819, recruited 5,000 enslaved people into his army. Many members of cumbes fought on the rebels' side and abandoned their villages. José Antonio Paéz, a key figure in Venezuelan independence, led an army of Blacks from the llanos (plains). One of his most famous lieutenants, Pedro Camejo, has been immortalized in Venezuelan history as "El Negro Primero" because he was always the first to ride into battle. By March 24, 1854, the date of slavery's official abolition in Venezuela, less than 24,000 enslaved people remained. 


Afro Venezuelan religious practices have been adapted to Catholicism. Drumming and dancing, which figure in the celebrations of patron saints' days and other religious ceremonies, bear closely resemble various forms of African ancestor worship. Because the slave population was so heterogeneous, no single African religious system dominated, as it did, for example, in Cuba, Brazil, and, to a lesser extent, Trinidad with its Yoruba tradition. There has also been some intersection with indigenous cosmological systems. Figures such as duendesfamiliaries, and encantadoscuranderos (healers) derive their power and divine the future through contact with these beings. These beings are also responsible for the deaths and disappearances of various people.

Such beliefs are articulated in the oral traditions not only of Afro Venezuelans but of indigenous and mestizo peoples as well. Some Afro Venezuelans practice the African Diasporic religion of Venezuelan Yuyu, also known as Espiritismo. The faith involves possessions, drumming, healing ceremonies, and others. The influx of Cuban immigrants after the Cuban Revolution in 1959 has encouraged the establishment of the Afro Cuban religion Santería among Venezuelans of all cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Although this is a predominantly urban phenomenon, African influences in Venezuela continue to evolve through a dynamic and continuous migration of cultural practices and forms.   

Organized as they were around patron saints, Black cofradías were not simply social organizations but also religious ones. Some cofradías members would practice celibacy, abstain from alcohol, and perform various ablutions before "dressing" the saintly image. Since colonial times, magico-religious societies have also existed, employing multiple forms of brujería, or "witchcraft ."In Afro Venezuelan communities, as in the rest of Venezuela, there is a belief in brujos (sorcerers), who can cast spells and cause various forms of daño (harm). In Barlovento, healers are sometimes called ensalmadores and respected for their ability to divine the future and find lost objects and people. Afro Venezuelan ceremonies are primarily linked to the Christian calendar, and many Afro Venezuelan music, dance, and costume traditions are associated with specific church celebrations.

The Nativity, Holy Week, Corpus. Different religious holidays have emerged as critical local celebrations in Venezuela. In Barlovento, the Fiesta of San Juan Bautista (Saint John the Baptist) has been of singular importance since slavery. The three days of San Juan (23 to June 25) were the only three days of the year during which enslaved people were given a rest from hard labor and were permitted to gather freely. During the holiday, not only would enslaved people celebrate with drumming and dancing, but also plot insurrection and flight. 

Music Folklore

A great diversity of drums characterizes Afro Venezuelan musical expression. Most are of African origin, and many bear direct resemblance to the drums of the Bantu community and West African groups. In addition to musical, dance, and costume traditions, oral lore is essential to their expressive culture. Some of the best-known stories in Afro-Venezuelan oratory center around the exploits of Tío Conejo (Uncle Rabbit), who manages to outwit Tío Tigre (Uncle Tiger). In the twentieth century, a small body of Afro Venezuelan literature was established, including the works of novelist and folklorist Juan Pablo Sojo and the poet Manuel Rodrigues Cárdenas. Afro Venezuelans can be found all over the country, but the largest Afro Venezuelan population is in the state of Miranda.

Spanish terms designate Afro Venezuelans; no words of African derivation are used. "Afro-venezolano" is used primarily as an adjective (e.g., folklore afro-venezolano). "Negro" is the most general term of reference; "Moreno" refers to darker-skinned people, and "Mulatto" refers to lighter-skinned people, usually of mixed European-African heritage. "Pardo" was used in colonial times to refer to freed slaves or those of varied Euro-African-Indigenous backgrounds. "Zambo" referred to those of mixed Afro-indigenous background. "Criollo," which retains its colonial meaning of "being born in Venezuela," does not indicate any racial or ethnic affiliation.

About 4% of the Venezuelan population self-identify as "black" or "Afro-descendant," although many Venezuelans are mixed with African ancestry. This term sometimes refers to combining African and other cultural elements in Venezuelan society, such as the arts, traditions, music, religion, race, and language. Like Brazil, in Venezuela, people tend to be categorized by how they look. Encyclopedia Britannica estimates that at least one-tenth of Venezuelans (3 million) have relatively pure Sub-Saharan African ancestry.   

Throughout the twentieth century, Blacks in Venezuela have faced subtle forms of racial discrimination despite a philosophy of racial democracy and an ideology of mestizaje that contends all groups have blended to form a new, indistinguishable type, called the mestizo. Yet underlying this ideology is a policy of blanqueamiento, or "whitening," that has encouraged both the physical and cultural assimilation of Afro Venezuelans into a Euro-dominated mainstream. The emergence of Black intellectuals such as Juan Pablo Sojo and Manuel Rodrigues Cárdenas in the 1940s, and more recently of younger writers such as Jesús García, has helped counter the forces of blanqueamiento, or assimilation. A strong body of research in Afro-Venezuelan history and folklore has also been established by Venezuelan scholars, particularly Miguel Acosta Saignes (1967). Public festivals such as the Fiesta de San Juan have emerged as focal points in the re-appropriation of Afro Venezuelan culture, articulating current transformations in a living tradition of cimarronaje (resistance to the dominant culture, consciousness of being marginal). The date of This article was chosen to align with Venezuela Independence Day.

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