Just as Afro-Argentinians, Afro-Venezualans, Afro-Mexicans, Afro-Panamanians, Afro-Ecuadorans, Afro-Brazilians, and many other black citizens of the so-called New World are ignored and not validated for their humanity and accomplishments and contributions to the world, as well as invisible and marginalised in many peoples minds around the world, so too, are the Afro-Bolivians of Bolivia. Black people have made their presence well-known all across this hemisphere, but it is maddeningly infuriating that so many people prefer to give a white face to much of Latin America. Here is an article that speaks to the lives of black Afro-Bolivians.

(Note: the slavery Diaspora did more than just deposit black bodies all across this hemisphere. What enslavement could not destroy, many African people held onto, and richly contributed to the world of not only North America, the Caribbean, but, also to Latin America.)

And that includes Bolivia as well.

But the Bolivians, like many black people across this hemisphere are still suffering from racism in their own countries.

Here is their story.


A forgotten people in South Americas poorest country
Friday, March 14, 2008
Story and Photos by Yasmin Khan

Twenty minutes up a jarring, narrow strip of dirt road slicing though rainy-season mountain jungle grasses, Giovanna Zabala hacks through tough sugar cane hide with a wood-handled knife.  She sits outside the 30-family community of Tocaña in the shade of her “woman-made” lean-to—four branches supporting a rusted corrugated roof perched between the dusty yellow road and the drop off of a steep hill—waiting for a thirsty customer to buy her sweet cane juice. The heavy smell of wet grass and smoke from burning Bolivian rainforest smothers the lean-to like a blanket. The rasping of overheated crickets competes with the sounds of Perey and Carlos, both five years old, playing in the dust and sun. The boys periodically stop to rake their nails over their arms and legs covered in tiny bumps and itchy bug bites. Perey’s right ear is bleeding from bug bites in two places and there are open sores on his closely shaven head. His oversized, once-white T-shirt hangs off his thin, coffee-colored shoulders. 

“There is a lot of racism here. I want people to see my children as any other person, not as some strange insect,” says the 26-year-old coca farmer, who was trying her hand at selling cane juice for the first time. “City people don’t know we exist.”

Giovanna is one of approximately 3,000 to 10,000 African descends living in Bolivia. The rough population estimate is just one of the problems plaguing Bolivia’s least recognized and most discriminated-against ethnic group, one of 36 different ethnicities in South America’s poorest country.  Afro-Bolivian leaders are working to change the dire situation of their people, who say their communities sorely lack schools, health care, infrastructure, and basic services such as electricity and water. Jorge Medina, director of the Afro-Bolivian Center for Community and Development (CADIC in Spanish), in La Paz, says lobbying for Afro-Bolivian rights to be included in the country’s new constitution is an uphill battle.“The new (Morales) government was supposed to represent all the communities that didn’t have a voice. But it wasn’t that way for the Afro-Bolivians,” says Medina, thumping his fist on his desk and leaning forward in his chair. “For this government, Bolivia is indigenous. They don’t recognize us because we came here as slaves. But we worked day and night and now we have an article in the new constitution that recognizes us as an ethnicity of Bolivia.”

Medina’s 12th floor office window looks over the city center and out onto the Andes Mountains that separate chilly La Paz from the sub-tropical Yungas where most Afro-Bolivians live. Posters of Che Guevara, Bob Marley and King Pinedo—the Afro-Bolivian farmer-king who lives in the Yungas—cover the walls. His two teenage nephews, hip-hop rappers dressed in white and green track suits, sit across from Medina and nod emphatically at everything he says.

“People think that because we were bought here as slaves from Africa, that we are not Bolivian,” Medina says. “But we’ve been here 10 generations.”

Tens of thousands of African slaves were brought to work in the silver mines of the southern city of Potosi in the 16th century—one of the world’s richest cities at the time. Many slaves died because of the high altitude, bitter cold and brutal treatment.  When Spanish slave traders realized they were losing money on their dying workers, they sold the slaves to hacienda owners in the warmer, lower regions of the Yungas. Roughly 17,000 Africans were sent to the Yungas where they worked as indentured servants as domestic help or in the coca fields, until the Agrarian Reform in 1953.

The reform took the huge plots of land from the Spanish haciendas and divided it among the poor, mostly Afro-Bolivian workers. Since then, Afro-Bolivian communities have been largely ignored by the government.

Medina says he most pressing concerns for Afro-Bolivians are the lack of education and health care. Most young people leave the rural villages to find work in large cities like La Paz and tropical Santa Cruz. Most Afro-Bolivian communities have schools, but no teachers or health posts but no nurses or doctors.

“Our communities get teachers that are interns from the high plains. They know nothing of our culture. These are people who barely finished high school,” Medina says. “We have bright students, but how are they going to compete for jobs without an education?”

Parents in Afro-Bolivian communities say without trade schools where students can learn skills to help their communities, such as nursing and tourism, their situation will never improve.

Lack of health care in impoverished Yungas communities leave both indigenous and Afro-Bolivian poor susceptible to diseases like tuberculosis, which affect about 180 out of 100,000 Bolivians countrywide, but hit people in the Yungas at the rate of 500 per 100,000 people.  Afro-Bolivians are particularly susceptible to Leishmaniasis, a deforming and potentially fatal disease spread by insect bites. Tocaña recently suffered a deadly wave of Hepatitis B, prompting USAID to provide vaccinations and a newly-built health post to the community. 

“Children die of diarrhea. Many women die in childbirth. Some communities have a health center built by the government but there are no doctors, no medicine,” Medina says. “It’s like having a car, but no money for tires or gas. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“We are all of the Saya”

Martina Barra, a Saya dancer and activist for the Afro-Bolivian people of the community of Chicaloma, says that besides health care, education and infrastructure, Afro-Bolivians need to preserve and promote their culture, something that will eventually bring recognition and money into Afro communities. The Saya, Afro-Bolivian’s signature drum music and dance, is gaining popularity around the country.

“The Saya…we carry it in our blood.  They can’t take it away from us,” she says, sitting in the shade outside her house. “I am proud to sing the Saya. I know our brothers and sisters are proud to breathe this music.”

Both children and adults dance the Saya, dressed in a combination of Aymara and African clothes and using only their voices and wood drums.  Accompanied by homemade drums, women spin in their white Aymara-style skirts and petticoats. With a pastel blue shawl folded over their right arm and a black bowler hat in the other hand, the dancers sing about bringing their African roots and rhythms to Bolivia.

Barra wants to translate the Saya lyrics into an African language, saying that it was originally African but her ancestors were forced to sing it in Spanish. She and her neighbors want their children—and all children in Bolivia ideally—to learn the history of Afro-Bolivians.  “It would be nice to work with an African-American from the United States. We want to hear how they fought for equality in the states. We want to learn how to do that too.”

Yasmin Khan is a freelance writer and photographer living in La Paz, Bolivia. A former daily newspaper reporter in the U.S., she left the states in search of fodder for feature stories about real people around the globe. She can be contacted at




REFERENCES:Pizarroso Cuenca, Arturo (1977). La cultura negra en Bolivia. La Paz: Ediciones ISLA.



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