Afro-Bolivians: Understanding Bolivia’s Invisible Minority

The hill villages of the Chulumani region are home to a high proportion of the country’s Afro-Bolivian population. An estimated 35,000 Bolivians are descended from African slaves who were brought to Bolivia by Spanish colonialists to work in the Potosí silver mines. An astronomical percentage died living underground for up to four months continuously. Because of the high death rate, enslaved Afro-Bolivians were deemed to be three times more expensive than local labor, and as a result the Spanish transferred them to domestic labor and farm work.

Simón Bolívar’s original Bolivian constitution technically ended the practice of slavery, but slaves were still indebted to their owners, and it wasn’t until 1851 that slavery ended. After slavery was abolished, many Afro-Bolivians were forcibly settled in the Yungas, where they were virtually enslaved under a sharecropper-style system for another 100 years. While Afro-Bolivians never fully assimilated into local culture – and remain one of Bolivia’s most marginalized communities both economically and politically today – they adopted the Aymará language and, for women, the Aymará traditional dress. Afro-Bolivians are recognized by Bolivia’s new constitution, but still lack a voice on the national stage.

In Afro-Bolivian saya music (a haunting hybrid of African, Aymará and Spanish styles) and funerary rites, you will see distinct African overtones. See www.solidarityinsaya.com for a documentary on how Afro-Bolivians are using saya music as a form of social protest.

Traditional Bolivian dance the morenada has its roots in a portrayal of an African slave train arriving at the mines. More information about Afro-Bolivian history and culture can be found on the Fundación Activos Culturales Afro website (www.programaacua.org).