The African Diaspora in Latin America

Historical Overview

The Latin American and Caribbean regions were the first areas of the Americas to be populated by African immigrants. African immigration to the Americas is likely to have begun before European exploration of the region. Indeed, Christopher Columbus had African crewmates sailing with him on his first expedition in 1492. Except in the Caribbean islands, the demand for African slave labor in Latin America was modest until the last quarter of the sixteenth century. Between 1519 and 1650, Mexico only imported about 120,000 African slaves, or slightly fewer than 1000 per year. From 1650 to 1810, Mexico received an additional 80,000 Africans, a rate of 500 slaves per year. Mexican slave owners bought no more than 50,000 slaves during the entire eighteenth century, when the transatlantic slave trade was at its highest. Chile imported about 6,000, about one-third of whom arrived; most were utilized in agriculture around Santiago. Argentina and Bolivia brought in about 100,000 Africans. Import figures to all these areas were low compared with those for Brazil and the West Indies.

An estimated eight to fifteen million Africans reached the Americas between the sixteenth and nineteenth century. The need for manpower increased towards the end of the sixteenth century largely due to the rapid decline of the indigenous population in the main centers of the Spanish empire, Mexico and Peru. Only the youngest and healthiest Africans were taken on the ‘middle passage’ of the triangle trade. A slave’s age and health was important for two reasons; the younger and healthier slaves were worth more in the Americas and, they were also the most likely to reach their destination alive. Conditions aboard the ship were dreadful. Slaves were jammed into the hull and chained to one another in order to stop revolts. As many as one in five passengers did not survive the journey. Diseases were capable of causing huge problems on ships. Therefore, when one of the enslaved people was stricken with dysentery or smallpox, they were cast overboard.

Upon reaching their destinations in the Americas, a harsh life and future quickly became apparent. Slaves worked long hour mainly in gold panning, on plantations or in domestic service sector with little to eat and drink. Families were often split up, and the Africans were not allowed to learn to read or write.

The extent to which African slaves were introduced into the South and Central American societies can be directly linked with the extent to which they were needed. In the Caribbean and Brazilian sugar plantations where a high supply of labor was always needed and in and around the Caribbean lowlands where the native population had died, there was a larger introduction of African slaves. However in such areas as in southern Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, and Colombia slavery was relatively unimportant to the economy. Also in central Mexico and the highlands of Peru, a sufficient number of the Native American inhabitants survived to satisfy the labor demands of the new colonists. Because slavery played such an important role in the New World economy between 1600 and 1850, the number of Africans who came to the Americas of their own accord is often forgotten.

By the 1780s, the concept of slavery was being attacked by several sources for different reasons. Evangelicals condemned it on the grounds of Christian charity and the assumption of a natural law of common humanity. Economists saw it as a waste of valuable resources, while political philosophers saw it as the basis of unjust privilege and unequal distribution of social and corporate responsibility. This led to a succession of events which led towards the abolishment of slavery.

In 1788, a bill was designed to restrict the number of slaves that ships could carry, in order to reduce the inflow. The same year also saw the founding of the ‘Société des Amis des Noirs’ (Society of the Friends of Blacks) by French abolitionists. After 1824, slave trading was declared to be the same as piracy and until 1837 people involved in it faced the death penalty. During the struggle of Spain’s American colonies for independence from 1810 to 1826, both the insurgents and the loyalists promised to emancipate all slaves who took part in military campaigns.

Mexico, Central American, and Chile abolished slavery once they were independent. In 1821, the Venezuelan Congress approved a law reaffirming the abolition of the slave trade, liberating all slaves who had fought with the victorious armies, and establishing a system that immediately emancipated all children of slaves, while gradually freeing their parents. The last Venezuelan slaves were freed in 1854. In Argentina the process began in 1813 and ended with the ratification of the 1853 constitution by the city of Buenos Aires in 1861.

Facts and Figures

Although some countries with large Afro-Latino populations, such as Brazil and Colombia, disaggregate socioeconomic data by race, most countries do not, making it extremely difficult to find good quantitative data on Afro-Latinos. Despite these data limitations, household surveys and anecdotal evidence from across the region point to a correlation between African descent and political, economic, and social marginalization.

Continent / Country Country population Afro-descendants
South America/Central America 425,664,476 23.90%
Belize 301,270 31.00%
Guatemala 13,002,206 2.00%
El Salvador 7,066,403 0.01%
Honduras 7,639,327 2.00%
Nicaragua 5,785,846 9.00%
Costa Rica 4,195,914 3.00%
Panama 3,292,693 14.00%
Colombia 45,013,674 21.00%
Venezuela 26,414,815 10-26.5%
Guyana 770,794 36.00%
Suriname 475,996 47.00%
French Guiana 199,509 66.00%
Brazil 191,908,598 44.70%
Ecuador 13,927,650 3.00%
Peru 29,180,899 3.00%
Bolivia 9,247,816 1.10%
Chile 16,454,143 0.1%
Paraguay 6,831,306 0.1%
Argentina 40,677,348 0.1%
Uruguay 3,477,778 4.00%

Continent / Country

Country population








Dominican Republic









Trinidad and Tobago



Puerto Rico



The Bahamas






Netherlands Antilles



Saint Lucia



Saint Vincent and the Grenadines



Virgin Islands






Antigua and Barbuda






Saint Kitts and Nevis



Cayman Islands



British Virgin Islands



Turks and Caicos islands



The Current Situation of Black Immigration

Today, African descendants form significant ethnic minorities in several Latin American countries. However, in many of the Caribbean nations the situation has arisen where the previous minority has actually become the majority. Over the centuries, African descendants have added their original contributions to the cultural mix of their respective societies and thus exerted a profound influence on all facets of life in Latin America. A strong African influence pervades music, dance, the arts, literature, speech forms, and religious practices in Latin America and the Caribbean. Africans, whether as slaves or free immigrants, brought a variety of different cultural influences to the New World.

Like all other immigrant groups, they abandoned some aspects of their culture, modified others, and created new forms. Until the nineteenth century, the annual celebration of carnival was confined to the Afro-Latino population; the upper classes deplored carnival and tried to destroy it as a public festival. By the early twentieth century, however, it had attracted all classes and races, and it currently has official government support in the Bahamas, Cuba, Trinidad and Tobago, and Brazil. Although carnival has become respectable, the chief participants are still black.

Many dances that are associated with Latin America culture can be traced back to Africa. The origin of the Argentinean Tango is partly African, while Spanish Fandango is really Moorish. The other source is an African inspired dance called the Candombe, the feature attraction of Afro-Argentine festivals during and after the period of slavery. Brazilian music is thoroughly imbued with African themes, and illustrious composers such as Heitor Villa-Lobos have long found inspiration in the African musical heritage. Many Caribbean musical styles have become widely known, including the Mambo from Cuba, Salsa from Puerto Rico, Reggae from Jamaica, and Calypso from Trinidad. African Americans have left a deep impression on the tradition and literature of Latin America.

In some parts, such as Brazil, popular tales and legends are to a great extent of African origin. Themes dealing with slavery have always been popular with Afro-Latino and African American writers. Some, such as the Brazilian poet Luis Gama, were also active in the abolitionist movement. Antônio de Castro Alves was identified as the “poet of the slaves” for his treatment of slavery in his writings, while João da Cruz e Sousa, the son of emancipated slaves, is considered one of Brazil’s greatest poets.

The Modern Day Caribbean

The Caribbean has a huge presents of the African Diaspora. In fact, in some countries one can find over 90% of the population having African heritage. However what makes the Caribbean different from most of the Diaspora communities is their search for a national identity. Unlike other groups of Diaspora which combine their host nationality with that of their African past, many Caribbean countries just focus on their home nation’s new identity. This is not to say that their African past is forgotten, but rather that is has been integrated so deeply into the new society’s identity that there is no need for them to openly define their new nationality as an African one.

Since the decolonisation, there have been challenges for Caribbean people to redefine their nationality. This is mainly due to the impact from other countries cultures as a result of globalisation. In his article, “National Identity and Attitudes to Race in Jamaica”, Rex Nettleford describes the feelings of Jamaicans,

“We are neither Africans though we are most of us black, nor are we Anglo-Saxon though some of us would have others to believe this. We are Jamaicans! And what does this mean? We are a mixture of races living in perfect harmony and as such provide a useful lesson to a world torn apart by race prejudice.”

One can see from this that Jamaica’s national identity is based on its understanding of racial prejudice. Instead of segregating themselves through racial definitions, they have created an ‘open-arms approach’ whereby no one is judged. Indeed, Jamaican leaders attempt to promote non-racialism an important national symbol by declaring at home and abroad that Jamaica and the West Indies are

“made up of peoples drawn from all over the world, predominantly Negro or of mixed blood, but also with large numbers of others, and nowhere in the world has more progress been made in developing a non-racial society in which also colour is not psychologically significant.”

Associations and Current Leadership

Afroamerica XXI is a participatory, non-hierarchical coalition through which African descendant communities have defined their goals for the next century. Having designed an Action Plan (Plan de Acción) to collectively fight the problems of racial discrimination, marginalization and exclusion, they promote their interests nationally and internationally and form links and support one another. Afroamerica XXI is made up of NGOs and politically elected Afro-Latin American leaders representing their communities. The specificity of this strategy is based on its cultural roots. The action plan is tailored to suit the present circumstances, cultural strengths, the assets and current limitations of Afro-Latin Americans.

The Organization of Africans in the Americas (OAA) was established for charitable and educational purposes to improve the opportunities and conditions of communities of African descent with special regard for those populations who speak Spanish and Portuguese. It is the only African American NGO from the United States that has actively participated in the inter-American system with respect to Latin America. The OAA was the first institution to present a status report to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on human rights facing the Afro-Latino community.

The Inter-American Foundation (IAF) is an independent agency of the United States government that provides grants to non-governmental and community-based organizations in Latin America and the Caribbean for innovative, sustainable and participatory self-help programs. This institution has agreed to match grants of amounts up to US$ 300,000 per country to Afro-American groups in each Latin American country. The resulting amounts will create "endowment funds" to be used in community development.

USAID is an US-agency to extend assistance to countries recovering from disaster, trying to escape poverty, and engaging in democratic reforms. It is an independent federal government agency that receives overall foreign policy guidance from the Secretary of State. USAID has specifically designated Afro-Latinos as a target group and has recently expanded its policy to include helping all those of African descent.

Notable Afro-Latinos

Sylvia del Villard (1928 – 1990) was an Afro-Puerto Rican activist, actress, dancer and choreographer. She studied sociology and anthropology in Tennessee and Puerto Rico. In 1981, she became the first and only director of the office of the Afro-Puerto Rican affairs of the Puerto Rican Institute of Culture. She was known to be an outspoken activist who fought for the equal rights of the Afro-Puerto Rican artists.

Edison Arantes do Nascimento aka Pelé (1940) is a Brazilian football player. He is felt by many people to be the greatest football player of all times. In Brazil, Pelé is hailed as a national hero. He is known for his accomplishments and contributions to football in addition to being officially declared the football ambassador of the world by FIFA and a national treasure by the Brazilian government. He is also acknowledged for his support of policies to improve the social conditions of the poor.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide (1953) is a Haitian politician. As a priest of the Salesian Order he was elected as a president in the first free presidency election of Haiti in 1990. In 1991, he was dispossessed by a military putsch, then went into exile and could only return to Haiti in 1994 as a result of international military pressure and protection by the USA. In 2000, he was re-elected for a further term of office but was forced to resign due to violent domestic conflicts and escaped in 2004.

Mariah Carey (1970 - ) is an US-American pop-singer from New York. She is the daughter of Alfred Roy Carey, an aeronautical engineer of Afro-Venezuelan descent. Along with Whitney Huston and Madonna, she is one of the most successful singers of the USA.

Wyclef Jean (1972 - ) is an American Reggae and Hip-Hop artist from Haiti. He came to the USA at nine years old with his parents. He taught himself the guitar and in 1987 he founded the Hip-Hop-Trio “The Fugees” together with Samuel Prakzrel “Pras” Michel and Lauryn Hill. He has also produced several solo-albums and collaborated with other musicians such as Missy Elliott, Bono, Shakira, Destiny’s Child and The Black Eyed Peas.

Brian Charles Lara (1969 - ) is a retired cricket player from Trinidad. While playing for the West Indies, he topped the Test batting rankings on several occasions and he holds the record for highest individual innings. He also holds the record for the highest individual score in first-class cricket, with a total of 501* for Warwickshire against Durham at Edgbaston in 1994, as well as the highest individual score in a test innings with 400 not out.

Robert "Bob" Nesta Marley OM (1945 - 1981): was a Jamaican musician, singer/songwriter and Rastafarian. He is the most renowned reggae singer and is celebrated for spreading Jamaican music around the world. His father, Norval Sinclair Marley, was a white English Jamaican and his mother, Cedella Booker, was a black Jamaican.

The Afro-Latin Population by Countries


Afro-Latinos represent 45% of the population of Brazil but constitute 64% of the poor and 69% of the extremely poor. With respect to education, 18% of Afro-Brazilians have completed secondary school as compared to 38% of those who self-identify as white. Afro-Brazilians have, on average, roughly five years of schooling, whereas whites have completed nine years of school. They earn, on average, some 44% less than non-blacks. 41% of Afro-Brazilians live in houses without adequate sanitation and 21% lack running water, versus 18% and 7% of white households. The maternal mortality rate of Afro-Brazilian women is three times that of their white counterparts. Afro-Brazilians have lower life expectancies than whites (66 years as compared to 71.5 years) and nearly twice the homicide rate of whites. One recent study found that violence is becoming the leading cause of death for Afro-Brazilian men.

Colombia has the second largest Afro-descendant population in Latin America after Brazil. While most analysts assert that Afro-Colombians constitute between 19% and 26% of the Colombian population, only 11% of the population self-identified as Afro-Colombian in the country’s 2005 national census. Most Afro-Colombians reside in rural areas on the country’s Pacific Coast, but many have also fled to poor neighborhoods in the country’s large cities as a result of the country’s ongoing armed conflict. Some 80% of Afro-Colombians live in conditions of extreme poverty, and 74% of Afro-Colombians earn less than the minimum wage. Chocó, the department with the highest percentage of Afro-Colombians, has the lowest level per-capita of government investment in health, education, and infrastructure. Around 30% of the Afro-Colombian population is illiterate, with illiteracy in some rural Afro-Colombian communities exceeding 40%. The Colombian health care system covers only 10% of Afro-Colombian communities, versus 40% of white communities. Despite their marginalized position in Colombian society, Afro-Colombians reside on some of the country’s most bio-diverse, resource-rich lands.

Afro-Latinos represent between 5% and 10% of the Ecuadorian population. Some 69% of Afro-Latinos in Ecuador reside in urban areas, primarily in the coastal regions of Guayas and Esmeraldas. Afro-Ecuadorians generally live in slightly better conditions than the indigenous population, but both groups post poverty rates significantly above the country’s average (90% and 74% respectively as compared to 62%). This poverty is perpetuated by a lack of access to health care, sanitation, education, and well paying jobs. For example, Esmeraldas, a region whose population is 80% Afro-Ecuadorian, has infant mortality rates double the national average. At a national level, only 15% of Afro-Ecuadorians aged 18 and over have completed secondary school as compared to 23% of the general population. As a result, although Afro-Ecuadorians have a high labor participation rate, the vast majority are employed in low-wage jobs.

Afro-Latinos represent roughly 2% of the population of Honduras. The Afro-Honduran population is primarily composed of Garifuna and Afro- Antilleans. 80% of Garifuna reside in rural communities along Honduras’ northern Atlantic coast, while 85% of the Afro-Antilleans reside in the Bay Islands. The 2001 Honduran census reports that these regions, though poor, have lower poverty levels than the rest of Honduras’ departments. According to the national census, some 55% of Garifuna households and 63% of Afro-Antilleans report having their basic needs met. In addition, while the national illiteracy rate is estimated at 20%, the illiteracy rate for Garifuna is 9% and for Afro-Antilleans is 4%. The Garifuna are a high-risk group for HIV/AIDS, with over 8% of the population infected (as compared to the national prevalence rate of 1.8%).

Afro-descendants constitute roughly 9% of the Nicaraguan population. Nicaragua is the second poorest country (behind Haiti) in the Western Hemisphere. Although Afro-Nicaraguans do not reside in the poorest regions of the country, their communities are located in some its most isolated coastal regions. Most Afro-descendants reside in the Caribbean lowlands of Nicaragua, a region that was never part of the Spanish empire but rather a de facto British protectorate from the 17th through the late 19th centuries. As recently as 1993, there were no paved roads connecting lowland Caribbean communities to Nicaragua’s Pacific region. The World Bank has recently reported that although an average of 60% of Nicaraguan households has access to potable water and 49% have electricity, comparable figures for the Atlantic coast are 21% and 17% respectively.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic
Haiti and the Dominican Republic have the fourth and fifth biggest populations of African Diaspora. Haiti's African decent population stands at 97.5% and 84% of Dominicans are thought to be of black or of a mixed race. However, official census figures show that only 11% of Dominicans are of African descent. This springs from a deep-rooted Dominican belief that they are of Spanish ancestry and Haitians are of African descent. Therefore many Dominicans consider any ‘blacks’ in the Dominican Republic to actually be Haitians, and this antagonizes the long-standing divide between the two countries and encourages waves of 'Antihaitianismo' or Anti-Hatianism. In Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, less than 50% of children undergo basic schooling and unemployment exceeds 30%. The situation is very similar in the Dominican Republic and is exacerbated by the fact that it is a key in the illegal smuggling of drugs from Columbia to the US and Europe.

For further information:

Bowser, Frederick P. 1984 “Africans in Spanish American Colonial Society.” In Cambridge History of Latin America. Vol. 2, ed. Leslie Bethell, 357-379. London: Cambridge University Press,1984. Online. DSL. 10 December 2008.
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