The term "Afro-Bolivian" was adopted as an auto-descriptive label during the rising of a movement that will have to do with "Afro" consciousness and identity in the 90s. Up to that moment, Afro-descendants considered themselves as just ordinary Bolivians, while their fellow countrymen saw them as "blacks" (Spanish, "negros") or "dark persons" (Spanish, "morenos"). By 1996, estimates of the population of Afro-Bolivians ranged from 20,000 to 30,000. They were mostly settled in the warm valleys known as yungas to the east of La Paz department: in the villages of Coroico, Tocaña, Mururata and Coripata, and in the communities of Chijchipa, San Joaquín, Santa Ana, Santa Bárbara, Marca, Suapi, Coscoma, Cala Cala, Dorado Chico, Dorado Grande, Arapata, Chilamani, San Félix, Yarisa and Ciénagas (Nor Yungas province); and in the villages of Chulumani, Chicaloma and Huancané and the communities of Colpar, Naranjani and Villa Remedios (Sud Yungas province).
During the last two decades, due to their poor living conditions, part of the population moved to the capital and other big cities like Cochabamba, Sucre and Santa Cruz de la Sierra. There they gathered together regularly in associations and groups of immigrants, who continued to suffer racial discrimination and hardship until very recently.
Generally speaking, (rural) Afro-yungueñas communities are scattered on the foothills; each one includes 25 to 50 families usually related to one another through bloodlines. Most houses are made of adobe bricks (which are made of clay and straw) and wood, topped with corrugated iron roofs. Small villages do not have public sanitary sewers and there are a few larger ones where sanitation has been improved through community toilets. Only large villages have electric power supply. In general, Afro-descendants cook with wood, use lanterns and kerosene lamps to light up the inside and get water from wells and community tanks.
Afro-Bolivians farmers are among the poorest and most vulnerable in the country. Although the lands where they live are fertile and produce abundant harvests of tropical fruit (plantain, citrus fruits, papaya and others), coffee and cassava, farmers cannot afford to send their crops to the big markets (due to higher transportation costs and lower product prices); hence, many make the decision to grow coca and sell it to intermediaries.
Their social organization is family-based and determined by intra-communities relations as well. There are also local unions, groups and organizations, such as MOCUSABOL and CADIC. In addition, Afro-Bolivian people have a symbolic king, Julio Pinedo, the only one of his sort in South America, descendant of an alleged king of Congo who was brought to Bolivia as slave.
Afro-Bolivian culture (including not only music and dance but history, literature, language, etc.) has been strongly influenced by the Aymara, who have introduced a lot of changes, ranging from the language to the attire. In fact, broadly speaking, it might be said that many Afro-Bolivians are Aymara with darker skin. However, while Afro-descendants from the Sud Yungas province speak Aymara and marry with Aymara or mestizo people (as a means to improve their children social status), those from the Nor Yungas province are mostly endogamic and racial and social tension between them and neighbouring Aymara are still prevalent.
There is not traditional Afro-Bolivian attire; as it was mentioned above, they usually dress the same way as Aymara, especially the women, who wear the style of clothing worn by Aymara women, including voluminous skirts, multi-coloured blankets tied on their backs and bowler hats.
Neither there are elaborated handicraft works, though the construction of musical instruments might be considered as such. Especially those instruments used to play the saya, including the cuanchas (scrappers) and the colourful jawq'aña or drum sticks. Another local craft was the making of carpets, which, in the old times, were made of cojoro (plantain tree fibre). Today, musical instruments and improvised poetry are part of their artistic repertoire.
Food preparations from this region include traditional dishes from the Altiplano as well as local products like cassava, banana, and broad beans. Among the most popular Afro-Bolivian dishes are ají de poroto (beans and garlic), pisao de plátano (mashed plantains), ají de chiwa (chiwa and garlic), ají de arvejas (peas and garlic) and fritanga (fried pieces of meat).
Traditional medicine is based on the knowledge of the local pharmacopoeia, and the use of plants by healers and midwives.
Only the mauchi funeral chant retains the very few traces of the original language spoken by Afro-descendants. The traditional Afro-Bolivian funeral ceremony includes singing this chant after the burial. The lyrics contain words that are not in Spanish, which would allegedly come from Kikongo and Kimbundu languages.
Today, Afro-descendants living in the province of Sud Yungas speak Aymara and the mixture of Spanish and Aymara usually spoken in La Paz department, while those living in Nor Yungas speak a sort of "Afro" Spanish in danger of disappearing, which includes a number of characteristic features that make it so recognisable and unique.
Afro-Bolivian communities share the same beliefs (Catholic syncretism) as the rest of rural communities in Bolivia. The churches scattered throughout the yungas celebrate masses (baptism, weddings, funerals, etc.) and other celebrations. Each community is under the patronage of a particular saint, to whom honour is due according to the Catholic calendar. The mauchi is the only religious custom that does not came from Christianity itself. This funeral chant is sung after the burial, upon return from the cemetery, and repeated at All Saints. Men take each other’s hand in a circle; the singing is conducted by an elder whose chant is responded to by the choir of men.
Some authors point out that this region still has vestiges of an old African heritage of religious practices similar to the Cuban santería or the Brazilian umbanda, however the statement lacks any sort of proof or basis for it.
Today, Afro-Bolivian population suffers from high rates of illiteracy (due to the lack of schools and teachers), poor living and health conditions, lack of infrastructure, sanitation, etc. Afro-Bolivian social movements have long been voicing their needs and claiming their rights as citizens while attempting to bring a long-term socio-political change that will give them back their dignity and their identity. Taking the saya as a flag, they strive to achieve their purposes.
Afro Bolivian, in Wikipedia.
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Article. "Afro-Bolivians: A forgotten people in South America's poorest country", by Yasmin Khan.
Article. "Afro-Bolivians". In EveryCulture.
Article. "Afro-Bolivians". In World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples.
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Article. "Parecemos extranjeras en nuestra propia tierra, totalmente desconocidas por el resto de la población: Condición de las mujeres afrobolivianas". UNIFEM (Fondo de Desarrollo de las Naciones Unidas para la Mujer) [es].
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Thesis. "Impacto del pueblo afroboliviano en el reconocimiento de sus derechos humanos en el proceso Constituyente de Bolivia 2006-2008", by María Martínez Mita. Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar (Ecuador) [es].
BBC's Photo journal: "Afro-Bolivian family".