Afro-Chileans Hidden in Plain Sight

The year we lived in Chile, our friends talked about their mestizo heritage; combination of Spanish and Indigenous ethnicities. I’ve read recently about heritage groups like the Afro-Chilean Alliance, Oro Negro, Arica Negro and Lumbanga. I realized I know little about Afro-Chileans.

Looking at history, free and enslaved Africans arrived in Chile beginning in 1536, some were soldiers for explorer Diego de Almagro. As of 1570, there were 7,000 Afro-Chileans. By 1590, the number was 20,000. In Santiago in 1695, 29% of the population was of African heritage. By 1811, Chile had 25,000 people of African descent. A regiment of Black soldiers from Chile was key in securing independence from Spain in 1818 (this is a theme, African soldiers were key in Mexico as well, see my Black President post).

When Chile won the War of the Pacific and expanded their territory to the north in 1883, they annexed the city of Arica. Many Africans, both enslaved and free had worked there in mining and agriculture when it was part of Peru. A Black neighborhood called Lumbanga existed then in Arica. The census in 1907 recorded the population of the barrio as 1900 people. According to interviews of children whose parents had lived there, many Black women were domestic workers and Black men ran small businesses. That part of Arica no longer has the same ethnic composition. Many Chilenos doubted the story of a Black neighborhood until researchers found supporting documents and oral history that proved it existed. That struggle is small window on the racism that Black Chileans experience every day.

Slavery was abolished in 1823 in Chile. However, after that point there was no census category that allowed for Chilean and African race. Groups like the Afro-Chilean Alliance dismiss that practice as whitewashing the nation. For at least 8 years, Afro-Chilean groups have requested the government add a census category to represent their heritage. So far, their petition has been denied. They want to be counted and they do not want to be invisible any longer. How many Chileans of African descent are there today? One estimate is 3-6% of the population; 576,000-1,151,200 people. The numbers are only guesses, however, until the advent of a representational census or universal DNA testing.

What are your thoughts? Gracias , Rebecca

Arica Negro at Carnival, Chile Photo: Andrea021

¡Olé!

Rebecca Cuningham

21 thoughts on “Afro-Chileans Hidden in Plain Sight

  1. That’s fascinating. Like many Brits, I have only the sketchiest knowledge of South American history, and that tends to come from the years when Europe was busy colonising it and removing its natural assets. I certainly didn’t know anything at all about Chile’s Afro-Chilean history, nor that it extended so far into the past. Do you think that with the BLM movement, Chileans of African heritage might finally get the official recognition they seek?

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Margaret. Social awareness shown in the BLM movement and the Chile Awakens (Chile se despertó) movement over the last year that sparked the Constitutional Congress vote are important to empower people of African descent in the Americas. I think next year, when Chile will elect a new president will be key. The president now is of the ilk of the US president, and is not a supporter of diversity. Cultural events like the one shown in the photo are raising awareness, but a census question about race is central to bringing African heritage in Chile to light.

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  2. Interesting and tells me that people, whether white, mixed or black are everywhere and all the same. I really wish to see the day when labels are removed and Chileans are all Chileans and Americans are all Americans without hyphens. Lovely post Rebecca, thank you for such a well researched article. All the best 😊,
    F

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  3. Excellent post and I do hope that the Afro-Chileans are able to obtain the recognition they seek. It is more than long overdue. I remember how much shock and pride I felt when I visited Uruguay and saw the Afro-Uruguayans who look like me proudly marching with the flag and to a drummer’s beat. And I also was fortunate to learn about the candombe musician Ruben Rada. There’s so much about Latin America that needs to be told and this post shows how it can be done!

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    1. I really appreciate your comments and compliment! The message of this post, endeavoring to recognize all the heritages of the Americas is central to the mission of Fake Flamenco – to build bridges of understanding. Thank you for the story about witnessing an African cultural event in Uruguay. What an affirming and powerful march to witness. I am grateful for your participation in the blogging community. PS I’ll look up Ruben Rada – thanks for the tip.

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    1. My Dancing Librarian strikes again! Awesome article and cool video (rated PG). The information is extensive and historical, only wondering about the use of the phrase “black blood” at one point instead of “African heritage.” 99% perfect article with great cultural information. Gracias! R

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    1. Thanks for your comment, John. True, countries should teach history including the chronicles of slavery, prejudice against, and exclusion of Black and Brown people. However, since that has not happened in Chile, black-skinned people are ostracized and told they are not Chilean. The citizens of African descent are fighting for inclusion in the story of Chile.

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