Black people: Struggle for equality continues

Commentary by Alvin Williams, Mid Ocean News, 28 Feburay 2003, Tuesday 4 May 2003

THERE are a number of ethnic black communities or peoples who can trace their ancestry to the continent of Africa living in various parts of the world. While some are very well known—such as African-Americans, the black peoples living in the Caribbean; as well as smaller communities living in Canada or in Britain or even Bermuda—there are some whose existence borders on anonymity.

One such group of peoples of African decent live in Central America and they form small but important minorities in a host of countries in the region. However, for the most part they are the most marginalised members of their societies and suffer when it comes to socio-economic drawbacks as a result of their race. They remain largely invisible in the countries in which they live despite having great influence in social, economic and cultural development of those same societies.

Stretching from as far north as Mexico to the far south of Central America in the Republic of Panama, it is estimated that some 1.5 to 11.8 million people may have some degree of African blood coursing through their veins.

How did they get there? And what have been some of the influences they brought to bear on the countries in which they live?

The answers to those questions are not too hard to find if you are prepared to seek some knowledge on the subject outside the traditional bounds of study. To begin with, African peoples were for the most part brought to Central America by the Spanish and to a lesser degree by their British rivals as both countries struggled for colonial control of the region.

It is not generally considered that Mexico has peoples of African descent living within its borders. But, in fact, an African presence may have predated slavery, when it is generally accepted that Mexico received its first wave of African peoples who came with the Spanish as slaves.

In the Mexican state of Tabasco archaeological diggings have unearthed giant stone heads with negroid features. Other archaeological evidence of a negroid or African presence (established through trade or commerce, maybe) was excavated in Tres Zapotes and San Lorenzo in Vera Cruz, which suggests there may have been an African presence in Mexico long before Columbus set sail on his voyages of discovery—indeed, before he was even born.

Other archaeological evidence of a similar nature has been found in present-day Honduras and in Costa Rica and are thought to be artifacts from the great Olmec civilisation which existed in that part of the world thousands of years ago.

The modern presence of African peoples in Mexico does have its origins beginning with the slave trade but African influences in Mexico are unmistakable. They can be found in Mexican folk tales, religions, medical practices, cooking styles and, most importantly, in music and dance. An example of that is the hit song La Bamba which was first sung by the black people of Vera Cruz as early as the late 16th century.

Nicaragua is another Central American country that can boast of having a population of peoples of African descent, the most famous being those peoples who live along its Mosquito Coast.

In fact, most peoples of African descent in Central American settled along the coastline. They share one feature that links the non-white people of the region and that is the prevalence of a great deal of race-mixing which in many instances have, in fact, created new peoples.

Nicaragua boasts three Afro-Latin American ethnic groups. There are the Creoles descended from African slaves and their white English masters, a people known as the Garifuna descended from escaped African slaves and the indigenous Caribs and Arawak peoples of the Antilles, as well as a people calling themselves Miskitu, again a mixture of runaway slaves and the indigenous people living on Nicaragua coast.

Costa Rica also has a population of African descent but, interestingly, the old slave population was boosted by the arrival of black migrant workers from the Caribbean, the first of many such migrations from the Caribbean to the region.

IN 1870 that country's president, Tomas Guardia, obtained a loan from the British to build a railway line to link with the port of Limon and for many years thereafter Caribbean migrant workers came to work in the region. However, racism ensured that the Afro-Caribbean population remained largely isolated from the rest of the country and they remained without Costa Rican citizenship up until 1949 when, in the aftermath of a civil war which saw the black people fight on the side of the eventual victors, a new constitution recognised their right to be Costa Ricca citizens.

Honduras borders Nicaragua and also shares the Mosquito Coast with that country. It is the home of the Garifuna. They live in some 43 towns and villages.

It is said that the British were responsible for the present Afro-Carib population living in Honduras. When they took over St. Vincent, they expelled these people. The Garifuna had put up much resistance to British designs for their land so it was far easier to evict this troublesome people and hope they would cause problems for Britain's Spanish rivals in Honduras.

The Garifuna did fight for the Spanish and were given some privileges under their rule but when revolutions broke out throughout Latin America between liberal reformers and conservatives, the Garifuna chose to fight on the side of latter. In this instance, they threw their lot in with the losing side and once again they faced expulsion. That has been their history . . . war and eviction.

Panama, located on the Panamanian Isthmus, could be said to have been a country created to build the Panama Canal since it was nothing more than a rather poor province of the Republic of Colombia before work on that massive engineering project began.

In 1903 the American Congress gave President Teddy Roosevelt permission to buy the region from Colombia for the express purpose of building the Panama Canal. This resulted in large-scale migration from the Caribbean during the course of the construction of that great waterway. Thousands were to lose their lives, mostly due to malaria.

Full of swamps hosting millions of mosquitoes, it was not until an American doctor discovered that these insects were the carriers of the malaria plague that steps were taken to drain the swamps and the death toll began to fall. Today Panama has a large black population, mostly the descendants of those early Caribbean workers.

Belize, formerly British Honduras, has the distinction of being a black majority country in Central America. It was first settled by British sailors and loggers because the region boasts some of the best hardwood in the world.

African slaves were brought in to work the land and it is their descendants who now control the country of Belize. However, the old struggle between the British and the Spanish for influence in the area to this day necessitates the presence of a British military force to deter designs on Belize by its large neighbour Guatemala, which has persistently claimed the territory.

So what of the black communities of Central America today? They have faced varying degrees of racial discrimination, even in the 21st century. When the Americans invaded Panama going after the dictator Manuel Noriega many poor Panamanian communities were destroyed. Hundreds of mostly black Panamanians were killed and their leaders jailed by the Americans.

In Nicaragua the former Sandinista regime promised autonomy for Miskitu, which some accepted while others joined the American-backed revolt again the Communist Sandinistas. Once the Sandinistas lost the free election which had brought to an end the Contra war, the new rulers did not carry out reforms but reverted back to the old days of discrimination and broken promises for the Mosquito Coast peoples.

The black peoples of Central America have been influenced by Garveyism, the Black Power revolt of the Sixties and even Rastafarianism, all in an attempt to rediscover or reinforce an African heritage. While Central American countries do not openly proclaim themselves to be societies that discriminate against people of colour, the struggle for equality for black people continues.