Blacks and Blackness in Central America: Between race and place ed. by Lowell Gudmundson and Justin Wolfe, and: Labor and Love in Guatemala: The eve of independence by Catherine Komisaruk (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive on 2014-08-01 19:58Z by Steven

Blacks and Blackness in Central America: Between race and place ed. by Lowell Gudmundson and Justin Wolfe, and: Labor and Love in Guatemala: The eve of independence by Catherine Komisaruk (review)

Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History
Volume 15, Number 2, Summer 2014
DOI: 10.1353/cch.2014.0025

Julia A. Gibbings, Assistant Professor of History
University Of Manitoba, Canada

In his classic Spanish Central America, Murdo MacLeod reflected upon the importance of African slaves in the region and queried, “what happened to these black populations?” These two books, Blacks and Blackness in Central America and Labor and Love in Guatemala, seek to answer that question. In doing so, they uncover the silencing of Blackness as free people of color and their descendants disappeared from the sociocultural landscape or were cast into the geographic and cultural margins of the nation. In pointing to the multiple and complex forces that suppress Blackness, the authors call into question the predominant Indigenous/Ladino (non-Indigenous) binary in Central America. Recentering Blackness in the heart of Central American nations, these authors challenge even some of the most innovative scholarly works on the postcolonial period that have elided the existence of Afro-Central Americans and assumed that to be Ladino was equivalent to being Mestizo.

Blacks and Blackness in Central America, edited by Lowell Gudmundson and Justin Wolfe, originated from an international conference on the history of African Americans in Middle America that took place at Tulane University in November 2004. The result is an impressive collection of essays that contributes equally to African diaspora studies and Latin American historiography. This work adds to a new scholarship, such as Ileana Rodríguez-Silva’s Silencing Race: Disentangling Blackness, colonialism, and national identities in Puerto Rico, that seeks to uncover the powerful historical processes at work in societies where African-descended populations do not self-identify as such or have been systematically written out of national histories. The volume also contributes to Latin American historiography more broadly by participating in the rethinking of national mythologies of mestizaje. In addition to a relational approach to racial identity formation, many of the authors emphasize the racialization of space and place, illustrating how, for example, the Nicaraguan Mosquito Coast was racialized as Black and how Afro–Central America deployed the language of place and “rootedness” to make claims upon the nation-state.

Blacks and Blackness is divided into two parts, addressing the colonial and postcolonial periods, respectively. In Part I, “Colonial Worlds of Slavery and Freedom,” chapters on colonial Guatemala by Paul Lokken and colonial Costa Rica by Russell Lohse illustrate how Afro–Central Americans were participants in some of the most dynamic economic sectors—sugar and liquor in Guatemala and cacao and cattle in Costa Rica. Catherine Komisaruk’s work on colonial Guatemala and Rina Cáceres Gómez’s work on the Omoa fort in Honduras illustrate how slaves had a great deal of economic autonomy. Karl Offen’s particularly rich chapter demonstrates how the autonomous Afro-Amerindian and Amerindian populations of Nicaragua’s Mosquito Coast challenged emerging ideologies of race by interacting with the British and Spanish as equals and highlights crucial internal differentiations and hierarchies within Mosquito society. By highlighting the African origins of many Ladinos, Lokken and Komisaruk challenge the idea that modern Ladinos are exclusively of mixed Spanish and Indigenous descent.

In Part II, “Nation Building and Reinscribing Race,” the contributors take up the postcolonial nineteenth century with chapters on British West Indians, Central American banana enclaves, the racialization of Nicaraguan regions and Afro-Nicaraguan participation in liberal politics. In three chapters on Nicaragua, Justin Wolfe, Lowell Gudmundson and Juliet Hooker examine the varied meanings of Blackness and the political engagements of Afro-Nicaraguans. Wolfe illustrates how Afro-Nicaraguans engaged a republican vision that challenged the conservative oligarchy and came to dominate political struggle in the decades after independence. Their demands for equality led them to deny the question of race and thus ultimately participate in the silencing of Blackness. Gudmundson augments Wolfe’s discussion through a fascinating analysis of Nicaragua’s 1883 census and by illustrating how charges of blackness became associated with challenges to honor and masculinity, which led some to abandon the category altogether and helped institutionalize the nonexistence of racial difference and the myth of homogeneity. Hooker illustrates how the conceptualization of the Nicaraguan nation as civilized emerged out of and against the representation of the Mosquito Coast as savage. This spatialization of race, she further argues, legitimated the disenfranchisement of certain racialized peoples. Next, Lara Putnam and Ronald…

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Black into White in Nineteenth Century Spanish America: Afro-American Assimilation in Argentina and Costa Rica

Posted in Articles, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive on 2012-08-09 01:45Z by Steven

Black into White in Nineteenth Century Spanish America: Afro-American Assimilation in Argentina and Costa Rica

Slavery and Abolition: A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies
Volume 5, Number 1 (May 1984)
pages 34-49
DOI: 10.1080/01440398408574864

Lowell Gudmundson, Professor of Latin American Studies and History
Mout Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts

In his masterful study of racial attitudes in Brazil, Thomas Skidmore has shown how the Brazilian elite consciously preferred, and pursued through the foment of European immigration after 1850, a “whitened” society in which the African element would be progressively reduced. Given the historical realities of Brazilian society such a policy could perhaps be implemented, but only with great regional variability and never fully eradicating what the elite saw as the “inferior” African element represented by Negro and colored (mulatto) Brazilians.

Such a semi-official policy of whitening was common to both Luso– and Hispanoamerican elites of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with the curious symbiosis of a paternalistic acceptance of race mixture and its “beneficial” impact (unlike segregationist or apartheid views in the United States and South Africa at that time), and a belief in the innate inferiority of those of African descent (in this they shared the basic racism of the abovementioned societies). However, most Spanish American societies, just as northeastern Brazil, would not receive the mass of European immigrants who inundated the Brazilian southwest, or such Spanish American nations as Cuba, Uruguay, and Argentina. And yet, except for those areas continuing the African slave trade (Cuba and Brazil in particular) nearly everywhere there was a long term proportional decline, over the nineteenth century, of the Afro-American population, whether through race mixture and “passing“, or simply as a result of a decreasing Afro-American biological component within the general population. Thus, the desired goal of the Brazilian and Spanish American elites – “whitening” or bleaching” of the population—did not always require massive European immigration for its realization.

While modern Spanish American society was whitened in general, regional experience was extremely diverse. The Indo-American areas of Mexico, Guatemala, and the Andean republics produced a mestizo more often than a mulatto population, with all such admixtures coming to be referred to as “casta”, “ladino”, or simply “mestizo”, with some mention of phenotype appended for clarification if need be. In these Indo-American areas the numerical predominance of the Indian population during colonial times, especially in the Guatemalan and Andean countrysides, meant that whitening of the general population would proceed very slowly there if at all during the nineteenth century, although Afro-American assimilation took place much more rapidly…

…Race Mixture

While miscegenation has been characteristic of all multiracial societies to one degree or another, Latin American experience has been notable in both the pervasiveness of this phenomenon and, more importantly, in the position accorded to those of mixed origin. Hoetink most clearly expressed this point, regarding the dual features of widespread “passing” across an ill-defined “color line” and the social acceptance of those of light color by local Iberoamerican whites as marriage partners. In these societies the local defmition of whiteness tended to include many of those of light color and, just as importantly, marriage or long term common-law unions (as distinct from more informal or surreptitious concubinates and liaisons) across what in other contexts would be perceived as racial lines (white vs. colored) was far more frequent.

Thus, added to the quite requent extramarital unions spanning racial lines, Latin American societies also witnessed the growth of a significant population born to both Church-sanctioned and common-law unions between Afro-Americans and the non-colored. The frequency of this latter phenomenon varied widely by time and place perhaps, but it was an ubiquitous feature of Latin American societies and could reach quite substantial levels in some cases, as we shall see below.

In both Argentina and Costa Rica there is abundant evidence of the existence of such a relatively flexible “color line”, subject to surprisingly rapid redefinition over time, even in the case of individual lifetimes. Moreover, it is worth noting that exactly the same terminology is used to describe cases and individuals in Argentina and Costa Rica in the freeing of “white slaves” or in describing the physical appearance of these individuals when still enslaved. Andrews notes the use of terms such as “white mulatto, white, white slave” in manumission documents, as well as descriptions emphasizing “blond” or “straight” hair and white color. In Costa Rica references were repeatedly made to “whiteness” or “amber” coloration (“trigueño”, exactly as in Buenos Aires and other Spanish American countries somewhat later) as well as “burnt blond hair”, etc. Moreover, the use of color identification as a means of implicitly raising or lowering an individual’s social rank was also a common feature of contemporary discourse, in reference to those of high and humble social, albeit racially suspect background.

Perhaps one of the clearest possible indications of the decided tendency of Iberoamerican society to classify light-coloreds as white can be found in the late colonial Costa Rican censuses. Therein the population is divided and enumerated as “Spanish”, “Mestizo”, or “Mulatto and Negro”. However, no clear and binding descent rule is used in order to assign the children of mixed unions. Most often, when the mother was “mestiza” or Spanish and the father Afro-American, the children would be registered in the mother’s racial category, although there were exceptions to this rule as well. In the case of Afro-American women married to or living with Indian, mestizo or Spanish males their children would usually be listed with them as “mulatos y negros”, but even here exceptions could be found, logically enough since their listing as mestizos could have been socially and administratively advantageous for them.

Miscegenation may have been most common outside of formal unions such as these, but more stable, recognized relationships were very frequent as well, involving all racial groups in Spanish American society. As we shall see below, Afro-Americans’ urban location and the feminine predominance which resulted from this fact, when added to pervasive racial preferences in the selection of marriage partners, assured that this group would have the most difficult and delayed access to marriage. In societies in which concubinage was the rule rather than the exception at all social levels, this could only foment extramarital miscegenation as well. Indeed, nearly all of the studies of Afro-Americans in urban Latin America would indicate “whitening” in the selection of both marriage and liaison partners to have been the norm.” In Costa Rica illegitimacy among the Afro-American population was approximately double the average, reaching the level of a third to a half of all Afro-Americans baptized and a fifth to a quarter of all illegitimate baptisms at the end of the colonial period; this without taking into account those children not baptized and likely illegitimate as well. Important here too was the urban location of Afro-Americans, raising illegitimacy levels regardless of race, contributing to the differentiation of the community from mestizo villagers and lowering its replacement capacity. Presumably, a large number of these illegitimate children were the result of race mixture tending toward whitening…

Read the entire article here.

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Blacks and Blackness in Central America: Between Race and Place

Posted in Anthologies, Books, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Slavery, Social Science on 2010-06-24 21:47Z by Steven

Blacks and Blackness in Central America: Between Race and Place

Duke University Press
September 2010
400 pages
21 photographs, 14 tables, 4 maps
Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4787-3
Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8223-4803-0

Edited By:

Lowell Gudmundson, Professor of Latin American Studies and History
Mount Holyoke College

Justin Wolfe, William Arceneaux Associate Professor of Latin American History
Tulane University

Contributors: Paul Lokken, Russell Lohse, Karl H. Offen, Rina Cáceres Gómez, Catherine Komisaruk , Juliet Hooker, Lara Putnam, Ronald Harpelle, Mauricio Meléndez Obando

Many of the earliest Africans to arrive in the Americas came to Central America with Spanish colonists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and people of African descent constituted the majority of nonindigenous populations in the region long thereafter. Yet in the development of national identities and historical consciousness, Central American nations have often countenanced widespread practices of social, political, and regional exclusion of blacks. The postcolonial development of mestizo or mixed-race ideologies of national identity have systematically downplayed African roots and participation in favor of Spanish and Indian antecedents and contributions. In addition, a powerful sense of place and belonging has led many peoples of African descent in Central America to identify themselves as something other than African American, reinforcing the tendency of local and foreign scholars to see Central America as peripheral to the African diaspora in the Americas. The essays in this collection begin to recover the forgotten and downplayed histories of blacks in Central America, demonstrating the centrality of African Americans to the region’s history from the earliest colonial times to the present. They reveal how modern nationalist attempts to define mixed race majorities as “Indo-Hispanic,” or as anything but African American, clash with the historical record of a region considered by many to be one of the most successful cases of African American achievement, political participation, and power following independence from Spain in 1821.

Table of Contents

Introduction / Lowell Gudmundson and Justin Wolfe

Part I. Colonial Worlds of Slavery and Freedom

Part II. Nation Building and Reinscribing Race 

  • “The Cruel Whip”: Race and Place in Nineteenth-Century Nigaragua / Justin Wolfe
  • What Difference did Color Make? Blacks in the “White Towns” of Western Nicaragua in the 1880s / Lowell Gudmundson
  • Race and the Space of Citizenship: The Mosquito Coast and the Place of Blackness and Indigeneity in Nicaragua / Juliet Hooker
  • Eventually Alien: The Multigenerational Saga of British Western Indians in Central America, 1870-1940 / Lara Putnam
  • White Zones: American Enclave Communities of Central America / Ronald Harpelle
  • The Slow Ascent of the Marginalized: Afro-Descendents in Costa Rica and Nicaragua / Mauricio Meléndez Obando


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African Americans and National Identities in Central America

Posted in Anthropology, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Papers/Presentations, Social Science on 2010-02-10 21:41Z by Steven

African Americans and National Identities in Central America

Rina Cáceres, Professor of Diaspora Studies Program at the Centro de Investigationes Historicas de America Central
Universidad de Costa Rica

Lowell Gudmundson, Professor of Latin American Studies and History
Mount Holyoke University

Mauricio Meléndez

An interdisciplinary, multinational research program to reconceptualize and document, both visually and textually, the history of people of African descent in Central America.

Supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities Collaborative Research Program, Mount Holyoke College and The Center for Central American Historical Research at the Universidad de Costa Rica.

Our collaborative research project seeks to reassess the historical presence and contributions of peoples of African descent to the national histories and identities constructed in Central America over the past two centuries. In choosing a color for the cosmic race, modern nationalist thinkers in the region systematically emphasized the European and Indigenous origins of its peoples, in terms of both historical fact and group agency. Thus they radically discounted not only the importance, role, and presence of any African heritage but also as the centrality of racial or ethnic conflict within the historical experience of non-indigenous sectors of society…

Visit the project website here.

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