Reflections on the Afro-Chilean Social Movement: We Entered as Blacks, and We Left as Afrodescendants...and Afro-Chileans Appeared on the Scene

By Cristian Alejandro Báez Lazcano

A family portrait, Cristian Báez Lazcano on right.
A family portrait, Cristian Báez Lazcano on right.

 

A saying popularized by the Afro-Uruguayan leader Romero Rodríguez comes up again and again in the history of the Afro-Latino and Afro-Caribbean movements: “We entered as blacks and left as Afrodescendants.” It’s not just about words. At the December 2000 conference in Santiago de Chile on racism, xenophobia and other forms of discrimination, the term “Afrodescendants” was adopted through consensus after much discussion. And that’s when we Afrodescendants in Chile realized we were Afro-Chileans.

So many terms had been imposed by the colonizers to describe us: negro, zambo, mulato, zambaigo, moreno. With the term Afrodescendant, we get to define ourselves as “people of African origin who were brought as slaves during colonial times and who historically have been victims of racism, racial discrimination and slavery, with the consequent denial of their human rights, experiencing conditions based on marginalization, poverty and exclusion that are expressed through the profound social and economic inequality under which they live,” in the words of the Declaration of Santiago. And here, in Chile, we are still trying to be counted.

The term Afrodescendant—as set forth in the Declaration of Santiago and adopted in the 2001 Declaration and Plan of Action of Durban, South Africa—was officially recognized as both a legal and political term by many countries and the United Nations.

Following the words came action. The first non-governmental Afro-Chilean organization, founded in December 2000, was Oro Negro—Black Gold—led by the then-mayor of a community in the north of Chile, Sonia Salgado Henríquez. The very establishment of this organization called into question the myth that blacks did not exist in Chile; had they ever been there, however, they must all have perished because of the cold, hostile weather. Oro Negro made Afrodescendants visible in the social, cultural, legal and political realms in this long, narrow country perceived by many as exclusively white.

The movement began as a social and cultural one. Archives and academic studies about Afro-Chileans are few and far between. Thus, in the first stage of the organization (2001-2007), research became a priority. Customs, traditions, history and territories were documented in an attempt to define and promote the legacy of Afro-Chileans. In 2003, the Lumbanga organization was set up to conduct oral histories and to promote the living and intangible patrimony of Afro culture in Chile. The point was clear: “We Afro-Chileans are here and present and we haven’t disappeared.”

It was not only a matter of convincing others that Afro-Chileans existed; in many cases, it involved self-recognition, because many descendants of slaves in Chile simply had not acknowledged their race. We needed to reconstruct from the inside to develop and feel ourselves Afrodescendants.

At the same time, Afrodescendant organizations had to implement the plan of action formulated at the world conference in Durban, which was more technical and political than the initial cultural agenda. The Afro movement in Chile formed the Alliance of Afro-Chilean

Organizations to articulate local issues and negotiate with the Chilean state. In addition to Oro Negro and Lumbanga, other groups such as Arica Negro, Seniors Club Julia Corvacho and the Luanda Afrodescendant Women’s Collective joined the network.

We had to come up with a plan, developed along many fronts:

• A legal framework that recognizes the presence and contribution of Afro- Chileans.

•An institutional framework with the creation of a public entity to deal with the demands and needs of the Afrodescendant community.

•A political framework to justify immediate social, cultural and economic actions on the local level in favor of Afrodescendants.

•A statistical framework that defines technically the number of Afro-Chileans at the present time and our economic and social situations.

•We recognize the plethora of local actions by Afrodescendant organizations, especially in the provinces of Arica and Parinacota, where the largest communities identifying as Afro-Chilean are found, but I want to share some experiences that indicate the challenges still facing the movement.

 

BUILDING COMMUNITY THROUGH LAW AND INSTITUTIONS

We’ve found that few legal instruments exist to obligate the Chilean state to put into effect measures for inclusion and for making the Afro-Chilean community visible, although an article in our Constitution, similar to that of many countries in Latin America, establishes that people should not be discriminated against because of race or religion. An indigenous law, passed in the 1990s about native peoples, does not apply to us because we are a transplanted people who came to Chile at the same time as the colonizers, but as slaves.

One of the strategies was to take advantage of Chile’s post-dictatorship commitment to human rights issues in the international arena to pressure the country to initiate actions of inclusion in favor of Afro-Chileans. We had to research agreements, pacts, conventions, declarations, protocols and other political and legal instruments to which Chile was a subscriber and to commit government of cials to apply these measures within its borders.

The Afro-Chilean political movement had to venture forth into the world to become politically mature and to form alliances, especially with our more experienced counterparts in

Latin America and the Caribbean. Our organizational leaders learned about the currents of political-ethno/racial discourse and became more black- identi ed, able to make greater strides within Chile because of alliances and knowledge from beyond its borders.

During its 17 years as a political movement, Afro-Chilean organizations have made three attempts to get a law recognizing the identity of Afrodescendants in Chile. In 2005, congressional representative Iván Paredes, under the aegis of Lumbanga, gathered historical arguments to justify such a law, but the effort never got off the ground. Later Lumbanga and Oro Negro both put together a document to be presented by congressional representative Antonio Leal, but the bill was shelved, even after another representaitve, Orlando Vargas, lent his support.

Finally, in 2016, the bill was revamped with additional legal, historical, anthropological and political arguments. This became bill N° 10625-17, a document that would guarantee the individual and collective rights of Afrodescendants in Chile. The bill, submitted by representative Luis Rocafull in April 2016 and approved by the human rights and citizenship commission, passed into consideration by the Chamber of Deputies in the Chilean Congress.

The Chilean government in 2014, through the Culture Ministry, invited the Afrodescendant groups to participate in a “prior consultation” process in the context of agreement 169 of the international Treaty on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. This was an important step in the recognition of Afrodescendants as a “tribal people,” opening up a new legal space in which to argue for human rights.

Prior to these measures, the first Office of Racial Equity, designed and proposed by Oro Negro and Lumbanga, opened in 2011 in the municipality of Arica. The Durban action plan calls for such offices to be created both on the national and local levels. 

THE STRUGGLE FOR STATISTICS

In 2001, following the Durban meeting, Oro Negro had tried to get Afrodescendants included in the 2002 census. But the census was only a year away, so the effort was postponed until 2005, when a pilot program took place in the Arica region to get Afrodescendants to identify as such in preparation for full inclusion of the Afrodescendant category in the 2012 census, working together with the National Institute of Statistics (INE).

The effort was underway to include the census question, “Do you consider yourself Afrodescendant/black?” with the possible answers of “yes,” “no,” or “don’t know” in the 2012 census. But a technical analysis, based on the pilot program and subsequent focus groups, concluded that it was premature to include the question because people did not understand the meaning of “Afrodescendant” and that it was preferable just to use the term “black.”

This official decision by INE did not definitively end the debate about Afrodescendant inclusion in the 2012 census; we denounced the exclusion as having a racist component, and international organizations began to listen to our arguments, resulting in negotiation with INE to carry out the census on a limited regional basis. It was found that in 2014, in the region of Arica and Parinacota, 8,415 people self-identified as part of the Afrodescendant culture, the first recognition by the state of our community through statistics.

The 2012 census in Chile was annulled, and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) recommended a new “shortened census” to be carried out in April 2017. Again, we entered into a struggle for statistics—the right to be counted—but this time, much strengthened because the census tools were more sophisticated and inclusive. We also had other types of modern historical and anthropological academic studies to bolster our efforts, as well as certain international legal and political instruments that would oblige INE to include at least one category or variable about Afrodescendants in this shortened census. 

To our surprise, we found that INE had not included the question about Afrodescendant identity nor even the category, justifying the exclusion because the census itself was abbreviated. This act of exclusion forced the Afro-Chilean community to denounce the census in local and national legal venues. Both the Chilean Appeals Court and the Supreme Court rejected the petition, and we have brought the case before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. We are still fighting to be counted and recognized.

Cristian Alejandro Báez Lazcano, an Azapeño Afrodescendant Chilean, is the founder of the NGO Lumbanga. He works as a researcher and territorial coordinator of Afrodescendant Patrimony at the University of Tarapacá in Arica, Chile. In 2004, he received the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) Youth Award for his project, “Research, Recovery and Dissemination of Afrodecendents in Chile.”