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…

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