George Reid Andrews. Afro-Latin America: Black Lives, 1600-2000. The Nathan I. Huggins Lectures Series. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016. Maps, graphs, tables. 136 pp. $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-73759-4.
Reviewed by Ronald Schultz (University of Wyoming)
Published on H-Empire (September, 2017)
Commissioned by Charles V. Reed
People of African birth and ancestry have been largely absent in most accounts of life in Latin America. Yet they were always there, often in high numbers. Like several recent grassroots voices, George Reid Andrews seeks a number of paths to correct this absence. Afro-Latin America begins with a brief history of Afro-Latin America with a focus on visibility/invisibility, showing how invisibility reigned in the eras of mestizo mix and postrevolutionary racial democracy with their lack of data collection on Afro-Latin Americans. It ends in the present state of local groups and nations attempting to reconstruct African-descendant lives.
The second chapter, “On Counting and Not Counting,” takes up this long attempt to find records that will tell us something about the statistics that can be derived from them. After a brief look at the past’s lack of data and the gradual emergence of it in the late 1900s, the chapter turns to data coming from the gradual acceptance by Latin American nations that they needed to account for African derivatives in their populations. Guided by indigenous and African-based social groups and movements, the states began to experiment with giving census participants choices in naming themselves. The initial results of the 2010 censuses, which make up the “Measuring Inequality” section of this chapter, tell us some important, although expected, things about Afro-Latin America. In a series of tables and charts, Andrews brings the widespread poverty in which the majority of African-derived subjects live into focus. This information, followed by access to sanitation structures, literacy rates, and high school and college attendance, points to a mixed bag of results, with most identifying the lower social position of African-descended people. The chapter ends with a map showing the number and percentage of the state’s total population made up of African-descendants. This map speaks volumes about the undeclared stories of millions of Afro-Latin Americans, stories that are shared in the following chapter.
The chapter “Afro-Latin American Voices” takes up the story on the micro-level of towns, communities, and individuals. It begins in Lima with the diary of Úrsula de Jesús, a slave and later freed servant in the Convent of Santa Clara. Úrsula lived and served at the center of one of the most important institutions for women in Latin America. Although a servant, as a member of a convent she was free to explore and discuss the spiritual nature of Catholicism. In her diary, she described a number of regular conversations with Jesus and a handful of saints as well as a large number of visions of hell and especially purgatory. This Catholic construct was the home of nearly every person who had died with some sins on the record of their souls, and Úrsula recounted seeing all sorts of people, rich and poor, tortured there. These visions and conversations with Jesus to mitigate the time and degree of these souls’ punishments made Úrsula an important and powerful figure in her convent, much like many other African-derived women throughout Latin America who used spiritual power to similar ends.
Following a century and a half after Úrsula, the second story is that of Jacinto Ventura de Molina, an Afro-Uruguayan shoemaker, soldier, and lawyer. Unlike Úrsula, Molina’s writing was a series of petitions to the king and, later, to the revolutionary state authorities. The son of two slave parents, Molina was early taken on as a “son” of his parents’ employer, General Josef de Molina, and treated and educated as a person of the general’s status. As he grew to adulthood, Molina served in the armies of Spain, Portugal, and Brazil, reaching the rank of sergeant major. Over the years, Molina petitioned to be appointed a legal representative of Montevideo’s African and Afro-descendant population, and in 1832 the Uruguayan Ministry of Interior recognized his legal degree. One of his most significant legal tasks was the defense of the collection of African and African-descendant mutual aid and religious societies, known collectively as the Congos de Gunga. His defense of these societies dismissed the standing notions among whites that the organizations were backward and declared instead that they were the product of modern republican civil society.
Moving ahead to the wars of Cuban independence at the turn of the twentieth century, we find Ricardo Batrell Oviedo, a man who fought in the African units that made up most of the combat units in the liberation war. In his memoir, Batrell emphasized the forgotten experience of black combat troops and their subsequent lack of acceptance in republican society. Drawing on themes in the left-wing of the Liberal Party, Batrell wrote again and again about the proper place of African and African-descendant people and their important place in the new Cuban society.
The last voice is that of Maria de los Reyes Castillo Bueno, who called herself Reyita. As a child, Reyita witnessed the putting down of African-descended organizations and parties, absorbing the deaths of family and family friends in the power struggle against blacks. In the 1940s, Reyita joined the Communist Party and in the 1950s supported her two sons who joined the fight against Fulgencio Batista’s Cuba. In the early 1960s, she was given a house in Cuba in recognition of one of her son’s, Monín’s, death in the independence struggle. Throughout her long life, Reyita’s most important asset was her family. Reyita made sure her eight children were educated and saw her family as a rainbow of whites, blacks, and mulattoes. Life in Cuba saw a lessening of racial prejudice, but not its elimination, and Reyita spoke out about the African-derived people not hired in favor of white applicants. Reyita acknowledged both parts of the Cuban revolutionary inheritance: the positioning of dozens of social programs that favored Afro-Cubans and the continued legacy of racial prejudice and discrimination.
The fourth and last full chapter deals with US African American views and experiences in Afro-Latin America. For the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, American blacks looked to Haiti, Cuba, and especially Brazil as nearby havens of racial democracy. There were cautions authored by visitors such as E. Franklin Frazier and the journalist George Schuyler, who had found hotels and middle- and upper-class institutions closed to blacks, but Brazil remained as a much more equal place than the United States. This view began to change in the decades following the 1960s, however, as activists and journalists began to question the equality of Afro-Latin Americans in Brazil. The Movimento Negro Unificado (MNU), for example, noted the similarity between the civil rights movement in the United States and their own efforts to end discrimination in Brazil. The MNU pointed to police brutality, blacks’ exclusion from public places, the degradation of jobs and educational opportunities, and a number of other points that overturned the widespread vision of Brazil’s racial democracy. Afro-Latin Americanists in Brazil did not follow the program of the United States, however, but based their look at their society through the lens of culture and racial democracy, leading Andrews to suggest that in the future scholars will need to examine the particularities of Afro-Latin Americans’ views of their societies and their place in it. This perspective is presented in the fifth chapter, a brief epilogue that addresses some of the very recent attempts of Afro-Latin Americans to bring their societies toward a true racial democracy.
This is a fine and well-written book that should encourage scholars to look more closely at every aspect of Afro-Latin Americans and the lives they have led.
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Ronald Schultz. Review of Andrews, George Reid, Afro-Latin America: Black Lives, 1600-2000.
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