The recent tragedy in Haiti has brought photos of its people to the international stage. If you didn’t know where Haiti was on a map, you might at first glance assume that it was somewhere in Africa, but it’s not. Most people don’t realize that there are African descendents all over Central and South America and not just in the Caribbean. The remnants of the slave trade go beyond ethnic heritage, however, and are still evident in the almost culturally engrained racism that permeates the region.
While in South America I was shocked and appalled at how blatantly racist those around me were and with what appeared to be little recognition of the fact that there was anything wrong with it. Can you believe I was actually made fun of (on multiple separate occasions) for liking “darks” in Bolivia because I stopped to take more photos of dancers of African descent at an entrada?!
Racism in Latin America is not limited to those of African descent, however, as indigenous populations have also been routinely discriminated against. But even though there are 150 million African descendents in Latin America as opposed to 28 million indigenous peoples, there has been considerably less international attention given to the struggle for rights by African descendents. Why the disproportionate interest? I’m not sure. Maybe because the rest of the world doesn’t even realize they are there.
Did you know that an estimated 26% of Colombians are Afro-Colombian? I didn’t, until I got there. They also make up 75% of Colombia’s poor according to the World Bank. Recent studies by UNESCO also show that black populations in Latin America have considerably less access to basic healthcare, education and employment.
There have been steps taken in the right direction, for example Law 70 was passed in Colombia in 1993 granting Afro-Colombians collective land titles (the right to own land) for the land they have been farming for generations. But that law didn’t pass until 1993!! And according to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, Law 70 is not always enforced, resulting in incredibly large numbers of internally displaced persons as a result of the guerilla drug war and mega businesses wanting to use the land.
Unfortunately racism and discrimination happen all over the world, I just wasn’t aware of the extent of it in South America until I got there. It’s one thing to read statistics and another to drive through and stop in a little village and see nothing but black people and a few rundown remnants of buildings and realize that not only are there no options other than the one open pit grill with fried pork skin for your meal, but that there are no schools, no grocery stores, no restaurants, no shops and no options for the people that live there their whole lives, even though the next town 40 km away has all those things and more.