In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Black Experience in Modern Latin America

  • Introduction
  • Mexico
  • Colombia
  • Ecuador and Peru
  • Uruguay
  • Argentina

Latin American Studies The Black Experience in Modern Latin America
Ben Vinson, Greg Graves, III
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 April 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0023


The concept of race has been profoundly important to the development of Latin American societies in modern times. From the early to mid-19th century, the caste relationships that had been a feature of the colonial period were reworked (and in many cases eliminated) as new states emerged. While this process unfolded, new conversations were generated regarding the profiles of various national citizenries, their socioracial background, and their future. Much of the public debate and discussion on these matters took place as ideas about race were being consolidated globally and as pseudoscience began to influence state decisions about social policy. At the same time, throughout Latin America slavery was being abolished, racial mixture was increasing, and peoples of African descent were attempting to locate themselves politically among other newfound citizens. As Latin America grappled with these phenomena, it began reconceiving of itself and its heritage, ultimately leading to the development of ideologies embracing miscegenation and heralding of racial mixture as the bridge to a bold new future for the hemisphere. These ideas (especially in the early 20th century) depicted Latin America as the home of “racial democracy,” where racism and discrimination were muted (if not altogether absent) and where all races had fair and equal opportunities to advance. A string of black politicians and public figures proved that this rhetoric was at least partly based in reality. However, with the celebration of racial mixture came an unfortunate correlate: miscegenation emphasized “whitening” as a goal. Hence, Afro-Latin America was placed in the unique position of being able to thrive in circumstances that affirmed black social mobility, while at the same time constraining and disdaining blackness in favor of upholding an idealized, white somatic type. Many of the titles presented in this bibliography offer perspectives into these circumstances. An insightful set of texts examine black cultural and religious institutions. Equally important are studies of black political struggles. Nearly all the books touch upon Afro-Latin American accomplishments and contributions. To a lesser extent, the literature explores transnational and diasporic connections blacks have made. Work on Haiti is notably absent from this bibliography, given its interstitial position as a nation falling slightly outside the orbit of the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world. But its central importance to blackness in the hemisphere merits special, individual treatment in a separate module. In no uncertain terms the study of the black experience has been a tremendously vibrant field, one that is developing quickly as the 21st-century story of Afro-Latin America continues to unfold.

General Overviews

Without a doubt, the best early-21st-century overview of the black experience in Latin America is Andrews 2004. A brilliant and ambitious survey, this text produces an easily navigable narrative of the saga of the black condition from the 19th through the 20th century. Wade 1997 offers an equally authoritative examination of the ideological issues surrounding blackness in modern Latin America. Tracing the evolution of the idea of race, and comparing the experiences of blacks, mestizos, and Amerindians, Wade succinctly summarizes the anthropological, historical, and sociological literature on the subject, while providing a powerful theoretical framework that can be used to conduct further research and reading. Both Wade and Andrews build upon scholars from previous eras. Looming large among these texts is Harris 1964. Apart from identifying several core regions where black populations emerged prominently, and differentiating among them in order to provide a typology of the black experience, Harris concluded that racial boundaries were more permeable in some areas than others. This led to greater opportunities for social mobility. Harris’s observations, although now dated, did help steer the conversation on race relations and provided a template for future comparative studies. Some subsequent works, rather than taking on the entirety of Latin America as a whole, opted to explore chunks of the region for comparative analysis. Carvalho-Neto 1971 was a relatively early work that attempted to draw attention to parts of South America that had received little attention previously. The bibliographic references are still valuable today. Whitten 1974 set forth to demonstrate how the zone encompassing northern South America (Ecuador, Colombia) and lower Central America (Panama) constituted a special area for Afro-Latin American development. In a similar vein, but using a much broader territorial horizon, Knight 1974 set out to provide a typology of the black presence based upon the degree to which certain regions of Latin America had been settled. Resembling Harris somewhat, Knight was able to demonstrate differences in ideological outlook (and black demography) based upon the extent to which distinct zones were urbanized. Finally, Stephens 1999 offers an extremely useful synthesis of racial terminologies used in Latin America, providing a semantic and philological outlook on the incorporation of blacks into the vocabulary of classification in different societies.

  • Andrews, George Reid. Afro-Latin America, 1800–2000. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    Perhaps the best early-21st-century survey of the black experience in modern Latin America. Examines most countries in the region. Excellent on political and cultural transformations and on how the African diaspora impacted the burgeoning national identities of distinct nations. Strong on economic history (labor unions) and late-20th-century black political mobilization.

  • Carvalho-Neto, Paulo de. Estudios afros: Brasil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Ecuador: Apuntes biográficos, crítica, bibliografía, antologías, cultura material, poesía folklórica, prosa folklórica, fiestas, antropología física, sociología. Caracas: Universidad Central de Venezuela, 1971.

    Examines African contributions to Latin America. Divided into four parts, three of which provide bibliographic overviews of the literature on blacks in Uruguay, Paraguay, and Ecuador. Although many works have appeared since its publication, this book remains invaluable for providing perspectives into a previous generation of scholarship, especially in Spanish.

  • Harris, Marvin. Patterns of Race in the Americas. New York: Norton, 1964.

    Pioneering study of race relations. Employs a comparative approach. Divides Latin America into three regions, according to the distribution of ethnic/racial groups. Compares Latin America with the United States and concludes that racial boundaries were more permeable south of the Rio Grande. Although the data are dated, still a pathbreaking work.

  • Knight, Franklin W. The African Dimension of Latin American Societies. New York: Macmillan, 1974.

    Comparative analysis of race relations in the Americas. Argues that the history of settlement patterns is the key distinguishing factor of divergent racial histories. Relatively unsettled areas (some of which were thickly populated by blacks) offered greater mobility to Afro-Latin Americans. More settled areas developed stronger proslavery ideologies.

  • Stephens, Thomas M. Dictionary of Latin American Racial and Ethnic Terminology. 2d ed. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999.

    Valuable reference tool for English-speaking scholars. With approximately 2,000 entries, this compendium includes Spanish, Portuguese, and French terms that have been employed to denote different racial and ethnic groups throughout Latin America. Great for students and scholars. Good for deciphering archaic terms no longer in use today.

  • Wade, Peter. Race and Ethnicity in Latin America. Critical Studies in Latin America. London and Chicago: Pluto, 1997.

    Historical overview of how race and ethnicity have been understood (theoretically) in Latin America, especially focusing on the 20th century. Highlights differences between indigenous and black experiences. Posits that Amerindians are comparatively more institutionally accepted than the more ambiguously defined and marginal black populations.

  • Whitten, Norman E., Jr. Black Frontiersmen: A South American Case. Cambridge, MA: Schenkman, 1974.

    Analyzes Afro-Latin Americans in Pacific coastal areas of Ecuador, Colombia, and Panama. These areas are considered a distinctly “Afro-Hispanic” zone, developed in response to shifting economic tides. The book puts forth that blacks here are pioneers, at the frontiers of national society; marginalized, yet developing adaptive strategies to the market.

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