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Turf WarsTerritory and Citizenship in the Contemporary State$

Bettina Ng'weno

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780804755962

Published to Stanford Scholarship Online: June 2013

DOI: 10.11126/stanford/9780804755962.001.0001

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Suspect Nationals

Suspect Nationals

(p.99) Four Suspect Nationals
Turf Wars
Stanford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter looks at the conceptualizations of Africa and Africans, as well as the link between Africa and Afro-Colombians and between Colombia and Afro-Colombians. It shows that this link has a history of rejecting Africa and forming a social order within Colombia. The Indigenous model, the referent to Blacks within Colombia, and the local definitions of ethnicity and race are also discussed. This chapter ends with a study on the different ethnic categories in Buenos Aires and the contrast between the Black and Indigenous communities.

Keywords:   ethnicity, race, Indigenous model, Africa, Africans, ethnic categories, Black communities, Indigenous communities

In 1996 I lived for two months in the municipality of Buenos Aires. I traveled to different parts of the municipality to get an idea of the land tenure situation and the stakes involved in the land claim for Cerro Teta. Stopping at schools, health points, demonstrations, and community celebrations in the various veredas surrounding the hill, I met with a number of different people, including leaders of the Community Council of Black Communities of Cerro Teta, social workers, schoolchildren, politicians, teachers, miners, and farmers. I took pictures at some of the meetings that we attended, with the intention of remembering my friends and the work that I had been doing. I was handing out some of the pictures when Don Rómulo, the president of the Community Council of Black Communities of Cerro Teta, told me with a lot of nostalgia and happiness: “I am going to Africa. I am going to Africa even if it is in a photo!”

These words remained in my mind for a long time and made me think of the relations that Afro-Colombians of northern Cauca have with the idea (p.100) of Africa. An idea of Africa that could produce such emotional words circulates though images of Africa in the media, history books, and local historical and nationalist imaginings. These emotional attachments to a distant place also circulate among ideas of national boundaries, borders, and territories. Intersecting with concepts of race and ethnicity in Colombian society, these longings produce complex, layered, and yet ambivalent and internally conflicting perceptions of community and self-identity.

Conceptualizations of Africa, the people of Africa, and the connections between Afro-Colombians and Africa and between Afro-Colombians and Colombia reflect a social order in Colombia and a history of rejecting Africa. Since 1492 governments in the Americas have been preoccupied with the classification and characterization of their populations as a way of institutionalizing power. Nevertheless categorical preoccupations have changed with changing ideas of race, nation, people, and ethnicity. Laws have framed rights on the basis of the classification of people—for instance, classifications such as people who can vote, those who can own property, or people who can be Indigenous. States in the Americas have used the categorization of people to indicate status among members of the population, some of whom merit citizenship and all associated rights, others of whom needed to be assimilated, and still others who could be ignored. It is also a way to mark, measure, and control populations and to incorporate them and their associated territories into the state. These categories have been legally produced through the process of colonialism, slavery, nation building, and modernization.

From the categorization of Africans as enslavable (unlike Indigenous people) until manumission, Afro–Latin Americans were generally categorized as separate from Indigenous people but a particular part of the Spanish and later republican nation (Wade 1993; Safford 1991). This categorization included laws that expressly forbade marriage between slaves and Indians primarily but in some areas between free Blacks and Indians. Wade (1993)argues that “it is the slippage between including Blacks as ordinary citizens and excluding them from the heart of nationhood which characterizes the position of Blacks in the Colombian racial order” (p. 36). Afro-Colombians are and have been defined in different ways through time: by color, by status—for example, slaves and freemen (libres)—or by region, such as chocoana or costeño. As libres Afro-Colombians have been hierarchically structured into (p.101) castas or kinds of mixtures with restrictions on property ownership (especially land) and social rights. The nineteenth- and twentieth-century notion of race, biology, and eugenics consolidated some of these distinctions into a racial distinction. Race itself, however, was not a legal category, and there were no obvious statutes that institutionalized it, increasing the difficulty of addressing racism legally.

By changing legal classifications, the Colombian governments have tried to consolidate state power at different points by incorporating the population as subject or citizen. However, the present recognition of Afro-Colombians as ethnic communities is structured in relation to other people and comes at the price of historical classifications of the Colombian population. The constitutions of Colombia and the laws associated with them have used longstanding lay, academic, and legal perceptions of peoples to form their legal categories. Afro-Colombians have had to present their claims to ethnicity and land in a particular manner because they have had to confront both a history that did not permit their vocalization as Afro-Colombians and a politics that nowadays determines the markers of cultural difference.

Because today the Indigenous model presents ethnicity as a distinct difference from “the rest of Colombia” both in time and in space, Afro-Colombians have to posit their claims within a similar kind of difference. While trying to fracture the legal, academic, and lay conceptualizations of both Black and ethnicity to make claims to equality, Afro-Colombians have to operate within this framework of categories as well. Thus they must operationalize their past (Africa) as ethnic difference to make claims on the future (through territory) for national equality.

In Buenos Aires, Afro-Colombians express an attraction to Africa on the one hand and an antagonism to Africa on the other, both framed by the organization of regional and national society through racial and ethnic categories. Specifically, the idea of Africa is articulated at the local and departmental levels within the ethnic politics and policies in play since the new constitution was adopted and within the structural racism and classism of the greater Colombian society. These relationships concerning how Africa symbolizes race or ethnicity are often expressed in conflicting moral or sentimental understandings of Africa. These conflicting emotions also characterize how I was perceived, received, and treated in Buenos Aires as an ethnographer from Kenya.

(p.102) Afro-Colombians and Colombia

Afro-Colombians make up 26 percent of the national population (Comisión para la Formulación del Plan Nacional de Desarrollo de la Población Afrocolombiana 1998) and are dispersed throughout Colombia, but they have higher populations in the Valle-Interandino zone, where the majority live, and along the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. The largest numbers of Afro-Colombians live in the departments of Valle, Antioquia, and Bolívar and are primarily urban populations. Cali, for instance, has more than 1 million Afro-Colombian inhabitants, which is about half the population of the city. The department of Chocó, on the Pacific coast, has the greatest Black population (85%), followed by Magdalena (72%) and Bolívar (66%), both on the Caribbean coast.1Although the Pacific littoral running from Panama to Ecuador is the main region where Afro-Colombians form an absolute majority, in areas such as northern Cauca and southern Valle they constitute regional majorities. Many of the inhabitants of Cauca and the Pacific coast are descendants of enslaved Africans who worked on the highly lucrative gold mines of Popayán and Antioquia, and they have retained gold mining as a primary occupation and part of their identity. Others came to the Valle-Interandino zone as slaves on cattle ranches and as boatmen operating barges on the Cauca and Magdalena rivers.

Africans first came to Colombia as slaves in the early 1500s. From the first years of the Spanish arrival the position of Africans as slaves has been tied to the question of the status of Indigenous people. This association was determined not only through contact between Africans and Indigenes in the Americas as two subjugated peoples but also in Spain, as part of the successful expulsion of the Moors and Jews in 1492 and the consolidation of Castile and Aragon. Africans (in particular, Muslims) were considered peoples who had rejected Christianity rather than people who had never heard of it. Thus the debate over the status of Indigenous people between de las Casas and Sepúlveda not only sealed the fate of the Indigenous people (Pagden 1982; Florescano 1994) and defined Africans as enslavable but also began a process of classifying people that continues to shape governing practices today.

In the seventeenth century slavery was occasional in Cauca and limited to domestic work and a few mines in the Popayán region. With the discovery (p.103) of gold in the Chocó in 1680 there was a huge increase in the number of slaves in Pacific and southern Colombia, with 9,400 slaves sold in Popayán alone from 1680 to 1800. Slaves were working in mines in what is now Cerro Teta by 1713 (Colmenares 1979). Many mine owners in Cauca operated a triangular relation among the mines, the haciendas, and the town, with Indigenous labor on a tributary basis producing food in the haciendas, slave labor producing gold from the mines, and the owners living in the town (Díaz 1994). With the large increase in mining and the greater distance from the hacienda, slave families, freed men, and Indigenous people produced more and more of the food on land surrounding the mines. There was a relatively high rate of manumission through self- and family purchase, so that, combined with slave revolts (such as the 1761 revolt in La Balsa), by 1778, 21 percent of the Black population of Grand Cauca were free men.

In the mid-eighteenth century mining profits decreased greatly, and by the nineteenth century slaves had been moved from mines to haciendas. The price of slaves steadily dropped, and slaves were relied on more and more for the production of food. This changed the landscape into small farms surrounding the peripheries of haciendas.

The wars of independence in the first two decades of the nineteenth century were a de facto massive liberating force for slaves, through enlistment and then through the subsequent freedom of birth decree (Wade 1993). The promises of freedom (to slaves) and retention of land (to Indians) were used by all sides in the wars of independence and made race, land, and categorization essential concepts of the new republics (Sanders 2004a; Andrews 2004). Simón Bolívar promised the slaves and freemen absolute freedom if they would fight for him.2However, at independence Bolívar presented to the congress of Cúcuta not the option of absolute freedom but rather the gradual ending of slavery through the manumission of children born from that time on. It was not until 1851 that slavery itself was ended.

By 1851 the state of Cauca (which included the Chocó and Amazonas) had 10,620 slaves. This was 64 percent of the slave population of Nueva Granada (Colombia, 1831–1856, after separation from Venezuela, and Ecuador), of whom 39 percent were in the Chocó (Colmenares 1979). At the same time, in 1851, 61 percent of the Black population were already free men. These freemen moved to the hills and shores of the Cauca River and its tributaries, where they set up their farms.

(p.104) The categorization of both Afro-Colombians and Indigenous peoples was not consistent throughout the republican era, because the end of slavery, the ideas of progress, and later the scientific ideas of race changed how those in power and other Colombians saw these populations. A constant trope used in categorization was the idea of civilized and uncivilized peoples (Correa Rubio 1992; Safford 1991; Appelbaum 1999; Wade 1993), making the distinction an excuse for “progress.” Thus geographers, writers, and administrators by the mid-nineteenth century divided the population “between the ‘savage’ (for the most part forest Indians) and the ‘civilized,’ which included sedentary Indians and Afro-Colombians as well as Europeans and mestizos” (Safford, 1991, 24). Although Indigenous Colombians and Afro-Colombians usually fell on different sides of this divide, this positioning was not always constant. For instance, in the late nineteenth century Afro-Colombians in the Chocó were given collective titles to their land as communities who had lived there “from time immemorial,” positioning them as Indigenous.

“Progress” included the idea of private property that called for the abolition of both slavery and Indigenous collective territories known as resguardos(Sanders 2004a). Resguardo transformation into private property, legislated in 1850, turned many Indigenous people into landless proletarians. In southern Cauca the Indigenous people protested the liquidation of resguardos, causing a crisis in governance, and Cauca's rulers pleaded for the suspension of the decision and the restoration of tribute (Safford 1991). However, in the northeastern and northwestern parts of Cauca (present-day Caldas and Chocó), under the guise of bringing progress and modernization, the Cauca elite actively encouraged settlement from Antioquia so as to “whiten” the population and to break up the Indigenous landholdings (Appelbaum 1999). Appelbaum argues that in the process of making the distinction between civil and uncivil, through tropes of order versus chaos, family versus unbridled sexuality, and industrious versus lazy, Cauca became portrayed by the politically powerful as Black, whereas Antioquia became portrayed as White.3At the center of this racial regionalization between White and Black was the attempt to break up Indigenous landholdings, which were associated with the colonial state and therefore with backwardness. Thus, in an effort to alienate Indigenous land, all three categorical groups were operationalized as a form of governance. Cauca's Blackness demanded progress, which could be obtained through the settlement of White (Antioqueño) colonists on Indigenous land.

(p.105) Indigenous and Afro-Colombians, then, have been differently affected by changes in governance depending on their categorization, at times affecting each other's relation to the state. The categorization of the Indigenous communities as culturally distinct (not civilized) peoples, a continuous postcolonial preoccupation, allows for the provision of specific laws in their territories. In other words, the categorization combines ideas of cultural distinction and territoriality to justify two distinct legal frameworks while including Indigenous communities as part of the nation-state.

Afro-Colombians have been largely invisible with regard to the legal statutes. Nevertheless, the law has been used to institutionalize racial discrimination precisely by using these absences. The Afro-Colombian activist group Social Movement of Black Communities (Movimiento Social de Comunidades Negras; MSCN) sees this as betrayal (Hernández Palomino and Ortiz Jaramillo 1998). The MSCN argues that Bolívar's turnaround on ending slavery was the first betrayal of Black citizens by the Colombian republic and the start of their erasure as citizens through racial discrimination of the legislature. Antivagrancy laws and restrictions on social meetings, commercial transactions, and how people could spend their money followed modifications to the freedom of birth decree, returning libres to conditions of slavery. The second betrayal occurred when slaveholders were compensated for the ending of slavery but the enslaved received nothing.

One of the more glaring examples of the lack of recognition of the existence of Afro-Colombians by the legal system was Law 2 of 1959. Law 2 classified the Pacific basin, including the lands occupied by (and often previously titled to) Black communities, as forest reserves or unowned public lands (baldíos).4With this move, Law 2 ignored and invalidated the legal battles won by Afro-Colombian campesinos for land before the 1930s, and this expropriation by the government meant that Afro-Colombians living in the Pacific basin could not profit from Land Reform Law 135 of 1961. Although unstated, the lack of recognition of the ownership of land by Black campesinos in the Chocó amounted to a categorization of them as expendable and as citizens without the rights (including the rights to private property) of other citizens of Colombia. This shows that the absence of a stated category does not necessarily mean the absence of an implied category, which can have equally powerful legal consequences.

(p.106) Visible Race

Until I spoke, it was not necessarily obvious in Valle de Cauca and Cauca that I was not from Colombia. Although my clothing, movement, gestures, and hairstyle did not resemble those of the countryside, the first day I traveled by bus to Buenos Aires the person sitting next to me asked if I was going to visit relatives. I was struck by the fact that I was not placed as being foreign but rather immediately related to the place to which I was traveling. Not from there, but related.

Because of the security situation, Colombia had few foreigners in 1999 and, with the exception of Cartagena, almost no foreign tourists. Foreigners who might work in development or aid are visible but are considered White, European, or American and rich.5This notion of wealth contrasts sharply with the notion that Blacks, Africans, Afro-Colombians, and other people of color are poor. By color I was most likely not wealthy and therefore not foreign. I was most likely more related to the village in which I chose to do my work than to a place beyond Colombia's borders or even the capital city of Bogotá. This gave me an ease of movement and security that allowed me to enter spaces that others might not have been able to enter because of their particular physical appearance.

For example, after I had been in Buenos Aires for more than a year, a friend of mine came to visit from Kenya. I told three acquaintances at the mayor's office in Buenos Aires of her upcoming visit, and one suggested that I take her to las montañas, knowing I had just come from Alsacia. Another acquaintance immediately admonished the first, saying I could not possibly take my Kenyan friend there, the guerrillas are there and it is not safe for foreigners. I was standing there thinking, “Hey, wait a minute, what about me, aren't I a foreigner? Why wasn't it unsafe for me to travel there?” The third person said, “Her friend is from Kenya, she is from Africa, she looks just like you and me, and no one will ever know she is not from here. It is perfectly safe for her to travel to Alsacia.”

Such comments taught me a lot about the notions of race in relation to class and to the insecure situation of the Colombian countryside. With time I realized that what I looked like and where I came from mattered to the kind of information people provided and the way they structured this information. The structuring of information takes place in a context of an (p.107) emotive historicity of Afro-Colombians concerned with discrimination, dispossession, betrayal, and neglect.

When I told people I was from Kenya, many people did not know where it is and I had to add that Kenya is in Africa. Africa is recognizable on a different scale as a known place of significance. However, it is lumped together as one country of some imprecise distance away from Colombia. To everyone, however, race and Africa are not separable in interesting ways. When I first arrived, people in Buenos Aires would say to me, “You are from Africa, we are the same people [misma raza] and have the same blood [misma sangre],” making historical and racial connections at the same time. Others found it difficult (reflecting a global perception) to see me, because of coloring, as African. All these notions are reflected in the following short conversation at the end of an interview in 1996 in Mira Soles. All the speakers are Afro-Colombian, with the exception of Doña Elena.6Someone had just mentioned that I would be leaving for home soon, and a newcomer who had been standing for a while listening to the interview asked where I was from:

Doña Elena:

  • She is African, from Kenya.
  • Newcomer:

  • She is African?
  • BN:

  • From Kenya.
  • Memo:

  • African from Kenya.
  • Doña Elena:

  • From Kenya.
  • BN:

  • From the country of Kenya.
  • Memo:

  • Kenya is a country?
  • BN:

  • Yes, Kenya is a country. Kenya.
  • Memo:

  • A country in Africa.
  • BN:

  • Yes, yes.
  • Newcomer:

  • You are directly from Africa. [He expressed amazement and disbelief.]
  • BN:

  • Yes, yes.
  • Newcomer:

  • You hear that! Really, truly straight from Africa!
  • Doña Elena:

  • We are nearby. The same! Look [pointing to me]! The same people [misma raza].
  • Don Guillermo:

  • The same people [raza].
  • Newcomer:

  • Maybe we already …
  • (p.108) Don Guillermo:

  • Because we don't know now, African origin …
  • Memo:

  • We are of African origin.
  • Doña Elena:

  • Of African origin.
  • Newcomer:

  • From Africa.
  • Doña Elena:

  • Because from there is where they brought the Blacks to here.
  • Newcomer:

  • When one talks of Africa, well, one knows it is the land of the Blacks [los negros] …
  • Doña Elena:

  • Of the Blacks, of the Black race [raza negra].
  • Newcomer:

  • But you, you appear, well …
  • Doña Elena:

  • Because she is mixed [cruzada].
  • Memo:

  • The Blacks of Africa are not as one thinks.
  • Doña Elena:

  • She is mixed. Her father is Black and her mother French.
  • As the interview indicates, Africa was significant not just to place me but also to place the people asking me questions. Most conversations around this topic were similar, except that almost no one else asked why I did not look like their perception of Africans. That is not to say that the question was not present, but they did not voice it. Rather, I was surprised at the willingness of people in Buenos Aires to reframe their conceptualization of Africa, a topic I return to later. In the interview Memo explains that “the Blacks of Africa are not as one thinks” to account to the newcomer for why I do not look as expected. He implies that what they imagine is not all that there is in Africa. My Kenyan friend's visit, however, allowed the hidden question of coloring and Africa to resurface. Here was someone who “really” looked like the imaginings of Africa, and she was very well remembered as a result.

    Although race and Blackness are tightly intertwined in imagining both Africans and Afro-Colombians, few people in Buenos Aires referred to themselves as Black (negro), a color term among a range of colors, or as African (africano). Alternative terms such as trigueño, mulato, or moreno were not used either, and I only rarely heard the use of niche.7I started all interviews by asking people to say who they were and to tell me something important to them. Adelmo Carabalí, an activist in the Afro-Colombian political movements, began “I am a Black man [soy un hombre negro].” He was the only person in all my interviews who referred to himself or herself in this way. Rather, negro was used to describe aggregates, for instance, Black (p.109) people (la gente negra, or los negros) and communities (comunidades negras). Equally often used was the word negritud(Black people), which refers to people in general but may imply more than just people.

    Blackness was the assumed norm in the region of Cauca where I lived. Other categories took on significance only in relation to Blackness and were thus remarked on. For instance, two categories that may have been significantly distinct from each other in other parts of Colombia, those of White and Mestizo, were not distinguished in Buenos Aires. Everyone who was not Black or Indigenous was referred to interchangeably as White or Mestizo. White/Mestizo was a residual category after the two populations that mattered, Black and Indigenous. Nevertheless Blackness was only a partial reference for race in Buenos Aires because of the ever-present greater national society where Whiteness is the significant reference against which all is measured. The paradigm of mixture and of a national Mestizo society was not overturned, just shifted to one side.

    Bonairenses' (people from Buenos Aires) lack of self-reference as Black, or any other self-reference, contrasts with the extensive commentary on physicality in everyday conversation. Colombians obsess over minute details of physicality that make precise distinctions between people. People describe others with the most obvious physical characteristic possible: the fat, the thin, the Black, the fair, the Indian—la gorda, la flaca, el negro, el mono, la india. These references are not usually considered insulting or derogatory, but this can depend on how they are said. In addition, they are all relative terms used differently by region and even within families. The nicknames, used as if they were first names, of three cousins I knew were Mona, Negra, and India. In another part of Colombia maybe all three cousins would be seen as negra, but the cousin with the lightest skin was Mona, the one with darkest skin Negra, and the one with the straightest hair India. I was often called mona(which may mean blond, fair, light, white, or cute) because of my brown (rather than black) hair color. Others, regardless of hair or skin color, would be called mona because of light-colored eyes (ojos sarcos).8Race in Latin America has often been talked about as being based on ancestry rather than appearance. Nevertheless this is counterbalanced by highlighting small differences of physicality that hold precise moral significance and is framed around the physical reference to fairness that indicates a better kind of person and a goal to strive for.

    (p.110) Physicality also determined how people placed me in Buenos Aires. Considering the ideology of mestizaje(mixture) so tightly held by Colombians, I was surprised that the few “biracial” people of my age asked me when we first met, “Is one of your parents White and the other Black?”9I replied yes, and they would say “Mine too” or “My father is Black and my mother Indian.” What surprised me was that in a place where the ideology of mixture is so strong, this mattered to them enough to ask immediately, and being “biracial” was rare enough to be remarkable. The bus driver even told his cousin, whom I had just met on the bus for the first time, “Look, she is just like us. One of her parents is Black and the other White.”

    The connections between Africans and Afro-Colombians were not just made by Afro-Colombians, nor were they always positive. In fact, there was a nasty slippage in imagining Africa and imagining Afro-Colombians by the wealthy and the powerful in Colombia. A continuity of people was often assumed. For instance, taking a break from fieldwork, I was cooking at a friend's house in Bogotá for a dinner with guests of her parents. The guests, who were in their fifties, highly educated, wealthy, and part of what is referred to as the political class, asked me where I was from and I replied Kenya. I was washing some vegetables and suddenly out of the tap flowed thick black mud, because the aqueduct on the mountain had broken. One guest pointed out that I should be used to black mud coming out of my pipes into the kitchen sink because I was from Kenya. I assured her that in my home I had never seen such a thing. Oh? she smiled knowingly.

    She then asked me what I was doing. I said I was an anthropologist. She said, “Oh, so you study the Indigenous?” “No,” I said, “I am looking at claims to land by Afro-Colombians.” She said, “Oh. But why do they want land? If they worked, they would be better off.” I replied that they do work. She said, “They are lazy, aren't they? Is it the same in Kenya?” She slipped between Africa and Colombia as if she were talking about the same people all lumped together as backward and lazy. This slippage is not accidental but part of the way racism works in Colombia. The slippage unites Africa and Afro-Colombians in a powerfully negative and derogatory conceptualization that serves to separate Africa, Africans, and Afro-Colombians through the stigma of the association. More important, these imaginings in society influence legal categorizations.

    (p.111) Buenos Aires as a Racist Place

    In a country in which the idea of mestizaje or race mixture is the predominant ideology of national composition and to which the Black element is not seen as a positive contributor, Blackness, although always fluid and contingent, has been erased and racism remains intense (Wade 1993). The residents of the municipality of Buenos Aires presented racism as a feature of living in Buenos Aires, through casual and not so casual comments on the town in general and on specific people who were considered racist and the few who were not considered racist. In Buenos Aires racism was often a topic of conversation, unlike in the White middle-class neighborhoods of Cali or the predominantly White wealthy Bogotá.

    The visibility of racism in areas such as Buenos Aires is decreasing because of the new decentralization of government-elected positions, which allow local majorities to vote for municipal mayors, and the increased availability of education. Although once a rarity to have one Black student, now most of the students in the Buenos Aires schools are Black and the majority of people under 20 finish twelve years of basic education. Until 1986 the governor of the department appointed municipal mayors. In Buenos Aires these mayors were all White, although 90 percent of the population is Afro-Colombian. Since 1986 and with the advent of local elections, all the mayors with one exception have been Afro-Colombian. When a new mayor is elected, a totally new administration comes to occupy the mayor's office. Direct elections, then, not only changed the color of the mayor but democratized the personnel working in local government. This, however, was not an easy transition, as Nimia Aponzá describes:

    This municipality was super-racist…. When the first Black mayor was voted in, people said they would have to enter the mayor's office with candles because of how dark the office had become. Now they talk about entering with lamps. But now it doesn't matter; the mayor, the human rights ombudsman [personero], the whole secretariat is Black. Now most people are Black, even the priest in the church. They have changed a lot of things.

    The new constitution, Law 70, and its decrees are understood within a society predicated on racial hierarchy and local direct racism. As such, the legal statutes are seen as legitimate or illegitimate depending on the viewpoint of the observer. Doña Elena would often remind me that Law 70, “the (p.112) Law of the Blacks” (ley de las negritudes), was justification and vengeance for racism. In 1996 I interviewed Albeiro Torres, a Mestizo man who worked in the attorney general's office, about the specifics of Law 70 and the new constitution. He said that there are two takes on the law. One group claims that it is a racist law because it signifies or singles out one ethnic group, giving them different rights from the rest of the country. Others think of the law as providing reparations to rectify past wrongs brought about by racial discrimination.

    What is striking about the two views of Law 70 is the way that they interpret equality and history. The first take, that Law 70 is racist, assumes equality horizontally between all Colombians as rights-bearing citizens and argues that they need to be treated equally. In this view the notion of rights rests on the idea that this equality is obtainable. Historical positioning of ethnic groups does not figure into this take at all. Instead, proponents view the law as racist because of the inequality it sets up among otherwise equal citizens in the present.

    The other take, that Law 70 is reparations, assumes the inequitable historical positioning of ethnic groups and argues that the law rectifies this situation. This take is by nature a historical one in which a question of rights (among equal citizens) is replaced by legitimacy and justice (because of being unequal citizens). Both perspectives judge Law 70 according to a particular imagining of the nation, but also of the state, of Afro-Colombians, and of the relationship among the three.

    The Black Pacific

    The most common referent to Blacks in Colombia is the Pacific basin. Much like Africa, the Pacific basin is considered to hold the “Black people of Colombia” and is known as a “Black region.” It is seen as a place of Africanisms, tradition, and to some extent, premodern culture. On hearing that I was an anthropologist from Kenya, educated people would invariably assume that I studied Indigenous communities. After all, that is what anthropologists do. When I said I was working with Afro-Colombians, they would assume that I was studying in the Chocó (in the Pacific basin). They would assure me that the people of the Pacific area have retained African traditions and customs. (p.113) Even when I said I was working in the Andes, they would suggest trips to the Pacific basin and remind me that people there (in the Chocó) have not “lost” their culture as have Afro-Colombians of the Andes. One of the assumptions that underlies these attempts to improve my scholarship was that anthropologists study “traditions” and “primitive peoples,” that my main purpose was the discovery of Africanisms within the cultures of the Pacific basin. This placing of the anthropologist first in the ball court of Indigenous people and then in the Black Pacific implied that Indigenous people, Pacific Afro-Colombians, and Africans are proper subjects of study for anthropologists; in other words, they lie in the realm of the “primitive” or premodern and definitely not national.

    The Pacific basin is the only area of predominantly Black population in Colombia where Afro-Colombians make up more than 85 percent of the population (Comisión para la Formulación del Plan Nacional de Desarrollo de la Población Afrocolombiana 1998). It is also a center of a kind of Black politics and diverse active community organizations. Such politics included the Cordobismo movement of the 1930s and 1940s. Diego Luis Córdoba started his own party, which had the support of the predominantly Afro-Colombian masses. He integrated schools, increased the number of educated Afro-Colombians in government, and managed to make the Chocó a department of its own (Wade 1993). He made the majority Black vote count as it never had before. Because of the large migration of people from the Pacific zone to the interior since 1951, people from the Pacific basin had an effect in cities such as Medellím, Cali, and Bogotá. For these reasons (the field of the anthropologist, the strong Black politics, and the effect of Law 2 of 1959), the Pacific basin is important in the articulation of categories of ethnicity and race and in the territorial politics that affects all Afro-Colombians.

    At the same time, however, Afro-Colombians have been living in Buenos Aires for more than 300 years. The oldest graves in Black settlements of the vereda of San Joaquín in Buenos Aires date to the early eighteenth century. Some of the first land sales recorded when Buenos Aires obtained its own public registry from Caloto in 1821 are by Afro-Colombians who were selling property well before the abolition of slavery. The population today is a mixture of descendants of enslaved Africans who arrived to work in gold mining from Popayán (rather than from the Pacific zone), descendants of (p.114) those who left the haciendas of the Cauca valley, and descendants of free frontiersmen who have slowly moved to the mountains from the Cauca River, opening new lands for cultivation. The population has been and continues to be Andean both in origin and in politics.

    There is a misplaced and until recently un-self-aware centering of the Pacific basin in academic works on Afro-Colombians and in the politics surrounding the new constitution, both of which make generalizations about Afro-Colombians that exclude the Andes.10This centering is an extension of the vertical separation of race that assigns Blacks to the coasts and Indigenous people to the mountains. We need to rethink not only the Pacific zone but also the entire Andes with an African American presence, not just now but since the Spanish arrival. Rather than searching for unending similarities in token premodern regions, we need a serious engagement with history and our own categories as Latin Americanists to understand what it means to be Afro-Colombian today.

    International organizations, in particular the World Bank, have helped to reaffirm this already existing racial spatialization of Colombia. The World Bank was instrumental in financing and realizing Provisional Article 55 in the form of Law 70 and the titling of land for Black communities as part of its Natural Resources Management Program in the Pacific basin. However, because the program was limited to the Pacific basin, as was the financial backing, the Pacific basin was the only area of interest. From the viewpoint of the World Bank this makes sense. However, it is difficult rationally to justify from the viewpoint of the Colombian nation. What in fact does ethnicity mean if you can be Afro-Colombian and ethnic in the Pacific basin and Afro-Colombian and not ethnic in the Andes? What are the boundaries to ethnicity? Are they territorial or cultural? What makes one ethnic in Colombia?

    Constituting Ethnicity and Race on the Ground

    Afro-Colombians in the Valle-Interandino zone are often accused of not being really Black, not just by politicians, White society, or Indigenous groups but by other Afro-Colombian groups as well, especially those from the Pacific basin. The explanation is that the Afro-Colombians from the Andes have lived too close to other people and have not retained a separate culture (p.115) and as such do not know who they are. Not knowing who they are was often attributed to too much mixing with Mestizo culture or mestizaje in general.

    The idea that the Andes was mixed and that the Pacific basin held some authentic strong Black culture was also pervasive in the Andes themselves. People in Buenos Aires often referred to their mixed nature and lack of real community organization as Black communities. The separation between the Pacific basin and other areas of Afro-Colombian populations reaffirms the “authenticity” of Blackness in the Pacific zone while ignoring and downplaying the possibility that the politics of the Andes has anything to do with race. It is a mechanism to control Blackness and the definition of categories in specific ways for regional reasons. It is another example of how lay, academic, and legal categories become intertwined and lived.

    Distinctions about the authenticity of Blackness also get played out on the local level. In Buenos Aires the marginalization of certain areas and their inhabitants, because of perceived confusion of identity, fell most strongly on the vereda(smallest administrative unit) of Mira Soles. Mira Soles is the most racially diverse vereda, with a large Indigenous population, and is at the same time an important site of identity formation in Buenos Aires. Because it borders Las Delicias, it faced the greatest threat of conflict with the Indigenous communities. Afro-Colombians in Mira Soles thus had the most at stake in the conflict over Cerro Teta, but they also had the most options with material consequences for identity choice. Identity here is not just utilitarian—that is, not just about resources—although all choices of identity have resource consequences. Rather, identity is economic, political, and social and is limited by historical positioning, perceptions of others, and long-held perceptions of self. Thus the continuous displacement of authenticity or assertion of the lack of authenticity is part of a struggle over identifying with Blackness because Blackness contains both strong positive and powerful negative connotations.

    Many of the meetings of the Community Council of Black Communities of Cerro Teta were held at the Calypso Grill, a bar owned and run by Carlos Solarte in Buenos Aires. Carlos is the brother of Don Guillermo Solarte and uncle of Memo (Guillermo) Solarte of Mira Soles. Memo is a founding member of the Miners' Cooperative of Buenos Aires and the Community Council of Black Communities of Cerro Teta as well as president of the JAC (Communal Action Group) of the vereda of Mira Soles.

    (p.116) In early December 1999 people from the corregimiento of San Ignacio, which includes Mira Soles, blockaded the mayor's offices and the main town square in Buenos Aires from the rest of town. The blockade forced local administrators into a twelve-hour consultation with the leaders of the corregimiento of San Ignacio over the planned municipal budget. It was a gray stormy day, and the people who made up the blockade stood linked together with sticks in the rain for hours. Tents were quickly erected in the park, a stage was set up, and music and speeches were broadcast by microphone under the banner of the Nasa Indigenous nation and the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC). The only people who moved with impunity across the boundary were the presidents of the JAC of the veredas pertaining to San Ignacio and staff-bearing officials of the cabildo(Indigenous governing council) of Las Delicias. Anyone else caught inside could leave only with the express permission of the cabildo leader.

    I was watching the rapid setup of the blockade from in front of the Calypso bar when Carlos's daughter Mary Luz called out, “Hola, Tío!”—“Hi, uncle! How are you?”—to the staff-bearing cabildo leader, who paused to greet his niece. At first this familiar greeting surprised me; then I remembered her brother, Arturo, describing his parents as “my father is Black and my mother Indigenous.” Nevertheless, the family connections are more complex than just one marriage would indicate. I watched Memo cross the line with impunity as president of the JAC of Mira Soles and a tall “Black” man, Francisco Solarte, who was a member of Las Delicias and president of the JAC for the vereda of Bello Horizonte, do the same. I decided to try to understand what is meant by Black communities and Indigenous communities in Mira Soles, where these definitions are most porous and dynamic, to better understand the contours and edges of these categories as they are lived by people in Buenos Aires.

    Mira Soles is far from Buenos Aires, yet I rode all the way without running into a single person on the road. The road up to Santa Catalina is in fairly good condition, but then it becomes quite horrid, very rocky and with streams that cut across it. I remember wondering how people transport crops anywhere at all. The isolation is one of the striking things about Mira Soles, which is why most people grow crops to consume rather than to sell. As a result, they also grow a tremendous amount of different crops compared to other areas, especially vegetables and horticultural products. (p.117) The plots are large, extending an average of thirty hectares, and appear little farmed in relation to the area closer to Buenos Aires town.

    As I looked from house to house in Mira Soles, I noticed that everyone is married to someone of a different coloring. Most important, I could not tell who counted as Indigenous and who was not. How is race or ethnicity understood and counted, especially when people are so mixed and yet on the frontier of the conflict? Memo posed to me the most difficult case. I wanted to know how he managed to be both an important leader for Black communities and the elected president of the JAC in a multiracial area and coming from a multiracial family. I posed this question to him in an interview in January 2000:

    It is extremely difficult to manage. Because Mira Soles is a vereda in which there live basically two ethnic groups: one is the ethnicity of Black communities and the other is the Indigenous. There are two separate communities that have distinct cultures. Before, it was easier to manage this because the Indigenous community did not have an interest in working in mining. And now, when the interest in mining was born, well, they have tried to seize the territory for themselves. That makes it even more difficult to come to an accord with them. Another type of difficulty that presented itself was the arrival of people from other areas, from foreign zones…. Thus from then, for us, and for me as a leader, we began to have many problems, and from there we started to form organized groups to make us stronger.

    Further in the interview I pushed Memo for an answer to how he as a leader deals with the fact that the population is diverse and intermarried. At first hesitant to answer the question, Memo historically positions the ethnic interactions within a moral framework.


  • How is that part managed? For each person, no? For example, yourself or whoever, you have to work with the Indigenous as president of the JAC and you have family that are Indigenous, thus what is …
  • Memo:

  • For example, in San Ignacio they are more in tune with the Indigenous because there, there are few Black people. Look, Mira Soles is also a small vereda and has few Black people, but then on the part of the leaders, we are Blacks. And thus it has been that we have always had them [the Indigenous community] at our side. We are already very familiarized with the Indigenous, including that we live together with women who are … who have the Indigenous race [raza indígena]. But they are also on our side (p.118) because overall they see that what the Indigenous are trying to do is not just. And one, well, one has to be on the side of justice.
  • Memo understands Mira Soles to be divided into three ethnic groups, one Black, one Indigenous, and one outsiders (who invariably are Mestizo or White). He sees the Indigenous groups' new ambition to become miners, which was brought about through an alliance with outsiders, as a principal threat to the peaceful coexistence of the different ethnic groups.

    Local Meanings of Race and Ethnicity

    In Buenos Aires ideas of race and ethnicity were not expressed through declarations of self-identity but rather in discussions and comparisons with White or Mestizo and Indigenous communities and with Africa. So as not to make the mistake of assuming my own understanding of the use of negro or Black, I made it part of my methodology to ask who people meant when they referred to “Black communities” (the most common usage of the term) or “the community.” This question was never easy for anyone to answer. The difficulty that people had in answering pointed to the multiple meanings of the word negro, but especially to a racial meaning that was juxtaposed with a political ethnic one.

    The difference can be understood as juxtaposing negro as a racial category constructed through looks, blood, and discrimination in opposition to a White or Mestizo category on the one hand, and negro as an ethnic category constructed through political alliance, occupation, and territory in opposition to an Indigenous category and carrying new valence since the 1991 constitution on the other hand.

    The racial notion is articulated in opposition (and at times alliance) to Whites/Mestizos, which although a residual category in Buenos Aires, is an indication of power, status, and privilege nationally. Blackness is then understood within this context of racial hierarchy and structural positioning. It is expressed through reference to physical looks (color and physical features), to discrimination (in employment, in government representation, in education, and in church), to stereotypes (ideas of laziness and negativity), to politics (organizing, voting), to culture (names and festivals), to occupation (p.119) (mining), to space (the Pacific basin, the north of Cauca, Puerto Tejada), and finally to history (in particular, slavery and Africa).

    In 1999 the most famous Colombian salsa group, Grupo Niche (niche meaning Black people), released a song commenting on the racism in Colombia called “Han Cogido la Cosa” (“They have become accustomed to”), which became a national hit for months. The song starts:

    • Han cogido la cosa que pa' reirse
    • se burlan de mí
    • Han cogido la cosa que pa' reirse
    • me agaran a mí
    • Que tengo grande la boca y la nariz
    • Que nada bueno me encuentran a mí
    • Que yo soy negro, que soy Carabalí
    • Pero orgulloso me siento yo así
    • They have become accustomed to amuse
    • themselves they ridicule me
    • They have become accustomed to amuse
    • themselves they attach to me
    • That I have a big mouth and big nose
    • That nothing good can they find in me
    • That I am Black, that I am Carabalí
    • But as such I feel proud to be

    With this humorous song Grupo Niche targets the characteristics used to negatively stereotype Black people in Colombia, stressing looks and moral qualities. The “they” speaking in the song references the majority society. Grupo Niche replies in defiance that they are proud to be Black and all things associated with it. At the same time, they point to a cultural marker of racial difference, saying “They attach to me … that I am Black, that I am Carabalí.” This use of the surname Carabalí demonstrates its evocative strength as a reference of Blackness and implies stereotypes associated with the name.

    For the people of the departments of Valle del Cauca and Cauca, names such as Carabalí are easily recognized as Afro-Colombian. For instance, they are a way of tracing race when looking up land records. They were also strongly associated with Africa by Afro-Colombians. Sitting amid bottles of aguardiente the second day I was in Buenos Aires, I watched a group (p.120) of relatively drunk miners draw up a list of African surnames common to the area.11Throughout my stay in Buenos Aires people proudly told me that their last names were African. In these cases people referred specifically to African (africano) and not to Black (negro). However, they would also say to me, “You are from Africa; we are the same people [misma raza] and have the same blood [misma sangre].”

    What is more important, the comments that people made were not only commentaries about last names but also commentaries and questions about a group of things related to Africa. For example, they would tell me that in northern Cauca the Black people have a tradition of the adoration of the Christ Child held in the first months of the year. During these adorations people dance the fuga, a dance unique to the north of Cauca. They asked me, “It's true, isn't it? This dance is from Africa?” As with the African last names, the problem was that I had no idea if it was true or not.

    Nevertheless, people's expectations put me in the position of being an expert on Africa, and I had to look for answers about the origins of last names and dances. Some of the last names are easy. Those such as Angola, Congo, Viáfara, and Mandinga are common and important words in Africa: names of ethnic groups, countries, and regions. Books and maps in universities in Cali informed me that names such as Ararát were from Ghana, that Lucumí referred to people of Yoruba origin, that Carabalí referred to people who embarked from the port of Calabar in Nigeria, and that Mina referred to people who left from the Portuguese slave fort El Mina in Ghana.12Yet it was not until my sister came to visit me in Colombia that she, having been to Ghana, told me, “People's last names here sound Ghanaian.” I decided to ask a Ghanaian friend about the group of names she was talking about. He said, “My uncle is Aponzá,” pronouncing the name exactly the same as is done today in Colombia, while confirming that Guazá, Golú, Amú, and Popó are also last names in Ghana, although I could find no books that mention these names. These names (and their connections with Africa) were one way that Afro-Colombians of the north of Cauca identified and created community.

    My being from Africa made Africa a prominent topic of conversation, not only in the form of constant questions about Kenya and Africa in general but also in the form of information and shared identity. Beyond asking about names, people in Buenos Aires showed an incredible hunger for (p.121) information about Africa because the educational system provides little information about Africa. With the help of the Community Council of Black Communities of Cerro Teta, I organized an educational exhibition about Kenya in the cultural center in Buenos Aires, with the aim of responding to the many questions people had. The exhibition consisted of photos, artwork, textiles, crafts, and other everyday useful items from Kenya and Cauca, music, dance, and basket-weaving demonstrations, and historical and political lectures to contrast and compare livelihood, art styles, and social makeup of rural people in the two regions. Teachers and artisans gathered together many of the objects from Cauca and wrote out explanations and commentaries about the histories of the art and artisans while I provided explanations for the items I displayed.

    Africa as a topic of conversation might not have turned up if I was not from there. But that does not mean that Africa is not a significant part of identity, because it came up too often and with too much emotion. The emotional attachment to and distancing from Africa show a certain underlying historicity, which became visible because of my national and continental origin. It points to the importance of the perceived identity of the anthropologist as an issue in ethnographic methodology. It brings another perspective that allows me to delve into the meanings of race and ethnicity in Colombia in a particular way.

    Not only do Africa and my origins give me a perspective from which to view what I encounter, but they also give people a perspective from which to frame their interpretations and descriptions of daily life. People place other people in order to have control over the ways they present themselves. The parameters of understanding that shaped my whole study were structured by how people understood my origins, and my analysis is likewise structured not only by training but also by where I come from. These parameters frame the perspective from which I make sense of what I was told, observed, and participated in. People actively participated in structuring information, and as they gained more information on Kenya and Africa, they could change the type of structuring. This can be referred to as the mechanisms of old-fashioned rapport, but I think it is important to recognize the type of scholarship that these different structures produce. I cannot then escape the relation between Africa and Afro-Colombians as negotiated through me in my research and the kind of result that I can present.

    (p.122) At the exhibition photographs of presidents Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Arap Moi of Kenya and of Nelson Mandela of South Africa and the pictures of coffee farms were the most popular. I remember the surprise and happiness at the sight of a Black president. I was asked: “He is the president?” “The president is Black?” I could not wrap my head around this question because it seemed illogical to me. Why would an African president be otherwise? After hearing this reaction many times, it dawned on me that the image of a Black president appeared impossible in Colombia. I realized that some of the surprise and happiness expressed was imagining the space for this possibility.

    I would argue, however, that it was more than just imagining a Black president in Colombia. People often made comments on the little news they heard about Africa to me, saying such and such had happened in my country. For instance, I was told we had a new president in my country when Olusegun Obasanjo became president in Nigeria, and when Miss Botswana was crowned Miss Universe, I was asked if I had seen my beauty queen win Miss Universe. In addition, having gotten used to me (who did not fit the model “African”) as African, people freed up a space in which to imagine Africa as not just, to use the local term, “Black Black.” At times the freeing of the idea of Africa from race was taken to an extreme. I was terrified once when I was told to hurry and come look because there was war in my country. I went running to the TV, and there were pictures of fighting in Kosovo. Kosovo? Kenya? I didn't get it. I said, “That's not Kenya. Kosovo is not even in Africa; it is in Europe!” “Oh. It's in Europe? But there are people fighting!” Some of the surprise at the Black presidents, then, was surprise at a place where not everyone was “Black Black” but where a “Black Black” person was nevertheless president. It was a sad reminder of the extent to which racial hierarchies become structural limits.

    People compared the similarities and differences in things at the exhibition, asking what kind of coffee was grown, agreeing with me that it looked like Arabica, and so on. Kenya was of course a great disappointment because we have no gold. A photo of the Asantehene of Ghana draped in gold ameliorated the quest for the origin of the strong mining component of Black identity in Buenos Aires. Nevertheless, the most impressive moment was when a person in the photos looked like someone in Cauca. With similar emotion to Don Rómulo's wish to go to Africa even if in a photo, my friends (p.123) would say, “Look at the family of such and such a person! Look at so and so! I know this lady, I have seen her in such and such a place!”

    In their reactions and my efforts to present something that I felt resembled Kenya in photos, I came to realize how representative of the modern-premodern global divide were books, photos, texts, and music videos bought in Kenya and taken from Kenyan television and magazines. I was stunned that the tools of self-presentation were so limited and reflected to such a large extent the universal tropes of modern and premodern that place the “real Africa” in the premodern. The modern-premodern divide also gives significance to categories beyond their explicit signification as it plays into the search for authenticity.

    Ethnic Distinctions

    The ethnic notion of negro is articulated in opposition to the Indigenous category, and consequently the White/Mestizo category loses significance. Blackness is then understood within a context of cultural distinction and territorial positioning. It is expressed through reference to cultural distinction (language, music, dance, poetry, Africanisms), to organization (as a community, self-government), to stereotypes (about organization or lack thereof), to the environment (as stewards), to politics (organizing, governing, autonomy), to occupation (mining), to territory (ancestral and collective lands), and finally to history (graves, stories, and other markers of long-term occupation). The construction of negro in this case depends very much on the construction of Indigenous as ethnic and as distinct (usually premodern) from the rest of Colombia. Ironically, instead of being different from this difference, the ethnic construction of negro must be similar to the Indigenous community to remain distinct from other Colombians.

    In contrast, Indigenous enters into the racial construction of negro in placing both Black and White Colombians on the side of modernity, with the Indigenous in a position of backward tradition. This separation between the modern and the Indigenous holds true for both Black and White Colombians, although slippages are made that place Afro-Colombians back in the premodern by associating them with Africa.

    The understanding of ethnicity as this particular cultural difference is a (p.124) legacy of the colonial dual-nation system of rule (between the republic of the Indians and the republic of the Spanish) and the nineteenth-century unitary republic that came with independence. As such, it is a typical problem of postcolonial countries. The problem stems from the specification of difference as a means of rule during colonialism, which later develops into distinctions of modernity—of the premodern and the modern. Latin American nationalism imagined a quintessential modern state after independence. This imagining was both a definition and a goal and was meant to change all past relations among the population and the state. Although the remaking of Indigenous communities as citizens implied the negation and displacement of “separate rights and colonial ‘privileges’ and status derived from membership in the colonial republic” (Thurner 1997, 18), the postcolonial state selectively reproduces aspects of the colonial administration. Writing about Africa, Mamdani (1996)argues that the colonial distinctions of differences, which set up race (modern) and ethnicity (premodern) to refer to specific peoples, were inherited with the institutions of the colonial state at independence. These institutions perpetuate the division between race and ethnicity, modern and premodern, and, for Mamdani, urban and rural in the postcolonial state.

    The notions of premodernity and insurmountable difference associated with Indigenous communities were brought home to me in a strange manner. I often showed photos of Kenya to whoever asked me, and I noticed that in regard to certain pictures the same question was coming up over and over. For instance, one picture was of two Maasai women standing next to each other in preparation for a wedding. They have shaven heads, red ocher makeup, and necklaces of multiple wires of beads in various colors around their necks that form a wide band across the chest, with the centerlines of beads falling to knee length. On seeing this picture, people asked me, “You have Indigenous people in Kenya [or Africa]?”

    I never knew what to reply. The pictures I had were from some tourist book on Kenya from which I had cut out a few pictures to show people. Although other pictures were of people in non-Western clothes and even ceremonial dance clothes, only the pictures of people in excessive amounts of beads elicited the question about Indigenous people. I began to realize that my interlocutors were envisioning particular Indigenous people who live in Cauca, the Guambiano, who wear multiple beaded necklaces that fill their neck and chest with color. What interested me was that the people in my (p.125) pictures from Kenya were seen as Indigenous rather than Black. Here the important referent was not descent, not origin, not even color, but type of clothing that reflected a “traditional” or “premodern” cultural distinction. It is surprisingly similar to the hegemonic notion of what constitutes Indigenous that gives, for instance, the Maasai a position of Indigenous in preference over other people in Kenya. These different understandings of Indigenous, Black, and Africa show that categories are fluid and can be contradictory. How one comes to deploy markers of difference has to do with historical understanding and associations as well as the present politics of a particular region.

    Negotiating Categories in Buenos Aires

    Negro as an ethnic category is a political and legal category that must find its authenticity both in difference from and in structural likeness to Indigenous, because Indigenous is the founding model of the legal category of ethnicity. That is, in order to be really ethnic, Black communities must be both culturally distinct from Indigenous communities and culturally distinct from everyone else like Indigenous communities. What is interesting and important is that both the racial and ethnic understandings of Blackness are lived simultaneously by the same people on an everyday basis. In the following pages I try to describe how these notions were voiced to me.

    The distinctions between Black and Indigenous communities were often expressed as distinctions between political units. Marysol Loboa, a social worker from La Balsa, for instance, said that to be Indigenous meant that you live under certain rules and regulations and that you live with the community in a certain territory. But those who do not want to live under these laws and who identify with “the Black ethnicity” (la etnia negra) are not Indigenous. Ethnicity in this description is chosen and practiced rather than given or inherited. Race was also incorporated into discussions of ethnicity in interesting ways, as the following excerpt from an interview with Omar Balanta and Pedronel Caicedo demonstrates. Here, Blackness is visually distinct, but it is also a political category that can contain others who are not visibly distinct.


  • When you talk of Black communities, who are you talking about?
  • Omar:

  • Well, yes, here we are talking basically of wholly Black communities [comunidades negras netamente].13Because, well … the experts talk about (p.126) Mestizos mixed with Black, mixed with Indian [mestizos revueltos con negro, revuelto con indio] but here basically the community here is almost [all] Black. It is still Black.
  • Pedro:

  • : No. But there is a community within the Community Council of Black Communities [of Cerro Teta] that does not correspond to skin pigmentation.
  • BN:

  • Who?
  • Pedro:

  • A community here in the Community Council that does not correspond by skin color … those of Chambimbe. They are …
  • Omar:

  • Mestizos.
  • Pedro:

  • Mestizos. They …
  • BN:

  • Yes?
  • Omar:

  • They are not colored [pigmentada].
  • In this first segment of their conversation Omar and Pedro use ideas of skin color and political affiliation to talk of Black communities while negating ideas of mixture and skin color as definitional. Although Omar calls on “experts” to answer my question, he disagrees with them and searches for another understanding. Pedro argues that skin color is not enough; rather, other things are also important. He defers again to an outside categorizer—in this case the government—before returning to his own definition. He emphasizes Black community as about custom, territory, and vision but also equates it with campesino identity:


  • So what is the distinction? That is to say, how is the idea about the Black communities about which you are talking? This is very important.
  • Pedro:

  • The Black community is not only the skin pigmentation. Like, us, we come from Black communities as we share a custom, a territory, a culture, have the same ideals or the same principles. Isn't it? For us, Black community is the identity that is essential if one has to be human facing all this. For instance, the government points us out, the campesino community, the Black community, right? If there are five Mestizos within the Black community, the government makes no distinction. They treat us equally…. If we were in the Indigenous community, they would treat us as if we were Indigenous. Or rather, the government makes no distinction between us, because we are going to make the distinction. All of us who have the same identity, that have …
  • BN:

  • But really? The government does not make a distinction?
  • (p.127) Omar:

  • Yes! The government basically does make a distinction. Because they make, let's say, they invent the communities, as much the Indigenous, as the Mestizo, as the Black…
  • Pedro:

  • No, yes … but …
  • BN:

  • But if there are, for instance, five Black people, I don't know, that are living in the resguardo, from the point of view of the people in the government, all are Indigenous, or no?
  • Omar:

  • . Yes!
  • Pedro

  • : Yes!
  • BN:

  • Yes?
  • Pedro:

  • You see when five or twenty Blacks live within the resguardo or territory of the Indigenous communities, they are of … well, they are associated [vinculado] with the Indigenous.
  • Omar:

  • As Indigenous.
  • Pedro:

  • Right? There are those who don't agree with the rites or measures, or norms; they have to leave the territory. That is, they lose the right to be in an Indigenous community.
  • BN:

  • So it is more or less the same for the Black communities, right?
  • Omar:

  • Yes!
  • Pedro:

  • Yes!
  • Omar:

  • The person who feels, let's say, or the person that is Mestizo or White and has their territory within ours, and this territory is declared as a territory for Black communities, they have to look to agree with our customs and our ideas.
  • Pedro:

  • Yes, of course, or if they don't agree…
  • Omar:

  • They have to leave.
  • Pedro:

  • They have to leave.
  • Omar:

  • They have to leave because, well …
  • What is striking about this conversation is that Omar and Pedro emphasize Black and Indigenous identity as political and territorial but do not mention cultural distinction, which is heavily emphasized in legal documents. Most important to them is the political organization, the structure of governing, and the territory. As such they can be said to be inserting “liveable meaning into racial-cultural identity labels that elites have produced” (de la Cadena 2000, 7). As the discussion demonstrates, the ethnic notion of Black is tightly bound to understandings of Indigenous, community, and (p.128) territory. This is partly because the Cerro Teta claim was complicated by the fact that the conflict was directed against Indigenous groups. However, Pedro and Omar use racial and ethnic notions of Black and Indigenous in the same sentences without contradiction.

    Not All Grounds are Equal Grounds among Ethnics

    The understanding of ethnicity as a marker of something other than the modern national citizen and thus the creation of a premodern space is essential to the justification for separate legal status and thus rights over resources. Because Indigenous status, conceptualized precisely in these notions of distinctions of language, dress, history, and culture, is seen to overlap with ethnicity, in Colombia Indigenous communities that can demonstrate distinction are considered a baseline for ethnicity. Indigenous people (and others) who are unable to demonstrate difference along these lines find themselves in a conceptual bind that limits their ability to self-define or to secure resources. Ironically, already being in control of territory is essential to the ability to demonstrate distinction.

    Modeling their access to resources on the first recognized ethnic groups in Colombia, Black communities have pushed for the goal of getting what Jackson (1995b) describes for Indigenous communities as “not only equal rights before the law but special rights based on cultural difference” (p. 303). Although Afro-Colombian claims do not have the appeal of restorative justice as Indigenous claims, Wade (1995)puts this historical reconfiguration within another international context: “new definitions of democratic nations” (p. 351). So what is the model being followed?

    The Indigenous model consists of recognition in the form of rights and territory based on distinct laws. Colombian law has always recognized Indigenous peoples as culturally and legally distinct societies within the greater national society, and as such Indigenous peoples are holders of fundamental rights (Roldán Ortega 2000). Although the primary intent of Law 89 of 1890 was the cultural integration of Indians into the dominant society, it delineated the administrative contours of communal property and has served as a support to Indigenous communities intent on preserving their territorial autonomy (Rappaport 1994, 26). Law 89 was the centerpiece of (p.129) resguardo law until 1991, when the new Colombian constitution replaced all previous Indian legislation.

    Since the 1960s, Law 89 has also included land designated as resguardos and land allocated by the state to Indigenous communities (such as land in the Pacific basin and the Amazon) who did not previously have titles to resguardo land. The Agrarian Reform Law 135 of 1961 recognized the full rights of Indigenous people to property over their traditionally occupied lands. In the late 1960s INCORA implemented this law, titling seventy-three resguardos covering 1 million hectares. Although a sizable portion of this land was in the Pacific basin, this law did not mention Afro-Colombians. Importantly, in the Andes the very existence of resguardos has allowed for the recognition of the existence and continuation of communities as Indigenous communities and ethnic groups. The titles act as proof of historical continuation of peoples. Without these titles and territories Indigenous people are caught in a catch-22 situation where they need to prove their identity in order to claim land, but the land is their proof of identity without which they cannot claim land.

    Since the 1960s, different Indigenous communities have been pressuring the government to convert Indigenous reserves into resguardos, the majority of which were converted in the 1980s. Although Afro-Colombians did not have legally recognized territorial rights as ethnic groups until the 1991 constitution, they too mobilized to have those rights recognized, because some of the concessions to Indigenous communities made Afro-Colombians' land tenure less secure. The Indigenous model, then, is one of long organized communities, expanding territorial rights, self-government, and autonomy based on separate laws because of cultural distinction, unified with the moral weight of original occupation. Afro-Colombians find that they need to defend claims to this form of ethnicity on multiple fronts.

    Territory and the Politics of Identity

    Not all people in Buenos Aires were happy with either my presence or my research, because my study was about property relations and territory and I was from Africa. The connection with Africa was a worry for many people in the rural areas. Many people wanted me to confirm that there (p.130) were no people like them in Africa. The people in Africa were different, and Afro-Colombians looked different from Africans. They told me, “The people there are Black Black, and the people here are mixed with Indigenous and White and therefore different. Right?” They assured me that there are no pure Africans in Colombia. “We are all mixed.” Following de la Cadena's (2000)argument about Peru, we could say that this idea of mixture allows class redeployment, where mixture is redefined as an empowering alternative that escapes rejection as Black yet distances the person from Blackness as well.

    The first time that I heard this reasoning was when I was in the vereda of Santa Rita in Caloto, also in northern Cauca. Santa Rita is an interesting community of Black farmers who live on land that was a huge hacienda where their ancestors used to work. Their homes are centrally grouped together in one part of the land, with farms some distance from their houses. On three sides are the ever-expanding plantations of sugarcane. Next door on one side is the Indigenous resguardo of Tóez, where Nasa Indigenous communities were resettled after a terrible mudslide in the 1980s. This resettlement on the land of the hacienda owner resulted in the loss of jobs for employees of the hacienda who were predominantly Black. A young woman, who had an uncanny resemblance to a friend of mine in Kenya, asked me if she would fit in in Africa, if the culture is similar to that in Colombia, and if the people would accept her. I did not understand why she was asking me this until she said, “Los indígenas here tell us to ‘go back to Africa.’” She was insisting that they are not African but Colombian. They do not belong there but rather here. In this instance the Indigenous people were expressing a local conflict in terms of nationality rather than ethnicity. The conflict over local territory was expressed as a conflict of rights of nationality, rights to be Colombian.

    The comments in Santa Rita were not isolated incidents. Many times I heard “Los indígenas told us to go back to Africa.” Why is it easier to say to an Afro-Colombian “go back to Africa” than to say the equivalent to other Colombians? The lack of recognition of Black people as part of Colombian society facilitates a form of exclusion that is not limited to Indigenous people but rather reflects a structural conception of the nation. Wade (1994)argues that the development of national ideologies of identity in the nineteenth century changed the relative position of Indigenous and Black peoples in (p.131) Latin America, producing a shift toward an “Indigenous” identity for all of the nation that repositioned the Indigenous population positively. As he puts it, “In these representations of national identity, it is clear that recourse is much more readily made for symbols of nationhood and its roots to images of Native Americans than to Blacks or Africa” (Wade 1994, 431). However, I discussed this question at a conference in Popayán in 2000, where the discussant, Tulio Rojas, pointed out that during territorial disputes between Indigenous people in Cauca, the Guambiano were accused of not being Colombian but Peruvian (because of supposed historical ties to the Inca empire) and told to “go back to Peru.” Why is this distancing from nation such a powerful and often used tool? Can it be used against anyone?

    To Be Indigenous or Black?

    As mentioned earlier, most Afro-Colombians live in the Valle-Interandino region. In the department of Cauca the majority of the rural population is either Indigenous or Afro-Colombian. This is rare for Colombia, where these populations make up 1–2 percent and 26 percent, respectively. Because most of rural Cauca is made up of ethnic groups rather than nonethnic groups, the definition of one ethnic group in Cauca affects the definition of the others. The distinction is not ethnic versus nonethnic but between ethnics. It is not by accident that Indigenous and Black communities are now pitted against each other in a deserted countryside. Nor is this an isolated incident in Colombia or the rest of Latin America. As states change their basis of rule in efforts to reincorporate populations and territory, they are creating new categories into which some people fit better than others.

    As I show in this book, distancing from nation can be mobilized against those who are never taken for granted as the subjects in whose name the nation-state exists or depends. Africa (in the case of Afro-Colombians) and Peru (in the case of the Guambiano) are easy distancing mechanisms precisely because of their historical strength, regardless of their current importance to identity. Yet as a distancing mechanism they operate in conjunction with land and have less efficacy outside rural areas. For instance, in urban centers such as Puerto Tejada and Villa Rica in the middle of sugarcane plantations, where Black peasants became landless proletarians in the 1970s (p.132) because of the expanding plantations (Taussig 1980), there was more of an identification with Africa.

    For people in this region who no longer occupy or own land and who participate in large-scale capitalist production, the stakes in identity are different. Africa allowed for cultural distinction, even pride, without having the distancing effect from nation because it was not combined with rural land. Here, antidiscrimination-based Black youth organizations were eager to see similarities in culture with Africa and to fight for national recognition as Blacks through cultural and historical ties to Africa, establishing a place for Black people in Colombia. Yet they had difficulty in articulating this culture. A young man from Fundación Cultural Afro-Colombiana Maasai in Puerto Tejada said that he knew that there was a connection between Africa and the societies of the Pacific, but he could not put it into words. It was a feeling, something present but intangible. This present absence adds to the difficulty of getting national recognition for Black culture, which is marked by its lack of representation in media and national rhetoric.14

    Black rural communities in the Andes that are making claims to land, unlike those in urban areas and despite their understanding of identity, must make these claims in a way that makes them distinct from other Colombians without drawing on things that would distance them from the nation. The process of making difference matter through instituting identities inscribes ethnicity in the place of other kinds of claims, such as class and race. We could use Peters's (1994)phrasing and say that at issue here is not a neat technical choice between traditional and modern, or private and collective systems, “but a profoundly political dilemma of competing claims among different social groups over valued resources” (p. 220). The state is the context of the competition. Constitutional changes and legal categories affect the complex interplay between lay, academic, and legal categories in a social space that is racialized and classed in specific ways.

    For the people of rural northern Cauca, underneath everything else there is land—lands that often people possess but do not own. To be able to make claims, this community has to demonstrate an ethnic and cultural difference from the rest of national society that may be found through a similarity with Africa. However, this association with a distant continent, even when it is in an exclusively cultural sense, can be used against Afro-Colombian communities to distance them from their property and the nation. As an African (p.133) anthropologist I was frequently implicated in people's efforts to sustain or refute connections with Africa. In their ambivalent emotions of antagonism and attraction, Afro-Colombians demonstrate the intense and emotional force of local ethnic politics, national racism, and the dreams and yearnings of groups and families. (p.134)


    (1.) All statistics on Afro-Colombian demographics are taken from Comisión para la Formulación del Plan Nacional de Desarrollo de la Población Afrocolombiana (1998).

    (2.) At the initial stage of the independence movement, Bolívar, low on resources, turned to the Maroon city of San Basilio de Palenque, as the first free town, and Haiti, as the first Black republic in the Americas, for help. They supplied him with men, arms, and equipment for the war effort. In the last of the three voyages that Bolívar made to Haiti, President Alexandre Pétion asked for the abolition of slavery in Colombia as payment. Bolívar ratified this agreement, which he sent to Petión.

    (3.) So effective was the whitening of Antioquia that when I was in Colombia, many people spoke of Antioquia as purely White despite Antioquia's senator, Piedad Cordoba, being Afro-Colombian.

    (4.) Today, the MSCN, which also sees Law 2 of 1959 as a third betrayal, demands compensation through special programs that promote social progress and elevate the standard of living of Black communities (to rectify the second betrayal of compensation to slave owners) and the recognition of Afro-Colombian existence and property rights in the Pacific basin (to rectify the last betrayal of Law 2).

    (5.) What is more, the foreigners do not ride buses, walk city streets, or have activities that make them visible to most Colombians. “Foreigner,” then, is not an expected category. In addition to the lack of visible visitors, the disparities between city and country are pronounced, but the spaces are nevertheless integrated. What might be seen as foreign style or attire can easily be fitted into this expected difference between city and country.

    (6.) All people I do not identify by race or ethnicity would be considered Black in the region.

    (7.) I did not hear trigueño and mulato in the northern Cauca or southern Valle area. One person, when making a comment on the use of negro, said he refers to himself as moreno, but I heard no one else use the term.

    (8.) Ojos sarcos means blue, green, and gray eyes and does not include honey-colored eyes. People with ojos sarcos are seen as better kinds of people.

    (9.) Of course, it is hard to say biracial in the case of Colombia, but I use the referent more to indicate how people saw themselves.

    (10.) Agudelo (2005), Pardo Rojas et al. (2004), Offen (2003), the special issue of the Journal of Latin American Anthropology titled “The Colombian Pacific in Perspective,” edited by Peter Wade (2002), Grueso et al. (1998), Escobar (1997), Wade (1993, 1994, 1995), Friedemann (1989), Motta (1995), and Arocha (1992)are examples of this emphasis on the Pacific basin. Some interesting exceptions to this have been the studies done by Sanders (2004b), Urrea and Hurtado (1999), Castellanos and Atencio (1984), Atencio and Castellanos (1982), Taussig (1980), and Mina (1975), who write about the people who live along the Cauca valley.

    (11.) The last names considered African include Carabalí, Mozorongó, Ocoró, Charrupí, Ararát, Lucumí, Popó, Mina, Guazá, Amú, Golú, Angola, Mandinga, Caracas, Aponzá, Corcino, Kaniki, and Mezí.

    (12.) For instance, see Colmenares (1979).

    (13.) Note the difficulty of phrasing what is meant by Black communities through the use of the same words to define the community.

    (14.) There is an effort to distinguish oneself from other Colombians as unique while asserting that the things that Black communities had been distinguished for—slavery and being from Africa—were universal conditions of mankind and not specific to Black populations.