A rising voice: Black populations in Latin America are undergoing a cultural and civil-rights awakening

Audra D.S. Burch – The Miami Herald

Copyright The Miami Herald
PEARL LAGOON, Nicaragua — In hidden fishing villages straddling the wide, muddy Kukra River along the Atlantic Coast, a quiet cultural and civil-rights movement flickers:
Almost six feet and dark-skinned, a 17-year-old whirls in her kitchen, enchanted by the intricate African beading on the gown she will wear in the village’s first black beauty pageant.
A 47-year-old reggae artist who chronicles the pain and hope of his people in song makes history as the first black to win his country’s highest cultural award.
A 30-year-old activist finally liberates her hair, lets it grow naturally, an act that screams race more than complexion ever could.
These stories are part of a slow but dramatic shift in consciousness among blacks here and throughout Latin America. In something akin to the civil-rights movement in the United States — without the lynchings, bombings and mass arrests — blacks are pushing for more rights and reclaiming their cultural identity.
“For years, it was just so much easier to not ‘be’ black, to call yourself something else,” says Michael Campbell, who grew up 18 miles downriver in Bluefields. “But the key to our future is to strengthen our identity, to say we are black, and we are proud.”
Latin American governments are listening and have finally begun to address racial inequities that have simmered since slavery.
Just four years ago, Brazil created a Cabinet-level position to deal with race. In Colombia, activists have won legislation legally recognizing blacks and their history. In Cuba, increasing numbers of non-political groups are forming to tackle race issues, including the Martin Luther King Movement for Civil Rights. And in the nearby Dominican Republic, some blacks are fighting state authorities for the right to be categorized as “black” on their passports.
Statistics show that blacks in the region are more likely to be born into poverty, to die young, to read poorly and to live in substandard housing.
Authorities are only now starting to count the black population, but the World Bank estimates that it numbers anywhere from 80 million to 150 million, compared with 40.2 million in the United States.
The new push for change is fueled by support from African-American politicians and civil rights groups through globalization — the technological ability to share common human experiences. Indeed, once isolated Latin American countries now have access to pop-cultural channels such as MTV and BET, which broadcast social messages worldwide.
Just last week, U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., led members of the Congressional Black Caucus in a nationally televised townhall discussion in Colombia with President Alvaro Uribe about the living conditions of Afro-Colombians.
“[Afro-descendants] can see what the outside world is doing. That’s caused a consciousness where they say, ‘We can do it, too,’ ” says Meeks, who is also working with blacks in Peru and Bolivia. “They can see what the civil-rights movement did in the United States and know that they have the ability to benefit also.”
The movement challenges a widely held belief that Latin America comfortably witnessed the civil-rights movement in the United States from afar because the region was not racist, and blacks were already integrated.
“The black movements have been able to get people to question that notion, and to acknowledge that racial democracy is a great idea and kind of wonderful dream, but it really doesn’t exist on the ground yet,” says George Reid Andrews, author of Afro-Latin Americans and a professor of comparative race at the University of Pittsburgh. “That, I think, is a real achievement.”
Nicaragua’s black population is the largest in Central America, but there is only one black member in its National Assembly, Raquel Dixon Brautigam, who was elected last year.
Only about one in five residents in Nicaragua’s predominantly black neighborhoods have access to clean water, versus the national average of three in five. Between 4 percent and 17 percent have electricity, compared with the national average of 49 percent.
Twenty years ago, the country recognized blacks and indigenous people through autonomy laws, making it possible for them to claim natural resources, demarcate communal lands, govern themselves and reclaim their ancestral identity.
For years, the struggle has been framed largely in regional terms — the Atlantic Coast, led by towns such as Bluefields and Puerto Cabezas, versus the Pacific Coast — English versus Spanish, Creole versus Spanish-indigenous mestizo. Creoles, descendents of English masters and their Caribbean slaves, often identify themselves as black.
“Race and region are inextricably linked,” says Juliet Hooker, a native of Bluefields and assistant professor of government at the University of Texas. “We have never really been acknowledged in the national narrative about identity. Much of the discrimination has been through the lens of the coast we live on.”
Now, for blacks — about 477,000, or 9 percent of the 5.3 million Nicaraguans — the movement is largely about visibility.
A Garífuna boy, kicking a soccer ball, is part of a dwindling group descended from shipwrecked Africans exiled to Honduras in 1797. (Patrick Farrell/Miami Herald)
Black leaders and activists say they are collectively defining, and redefining, what it means to be black here. They are working on an ambitious agenda that includes redistricting for better political representation, bilingual education and a black-history curriculum for public schools. And in March, the National Assembly passed a reform measure to include race issues in the new penal code.
Before now, there were no anti-discrimination or affirmative-action laws. Still, a bill that would outlaw institutional racism has languished in the assembly for more than two years, with not enough backers to push it through.
This isn’t the first time blacks have mobilized.
A black-power movement started along the coast as early as the 1920s through the nationalist message of Marcus Garvey.
In the 1960s, as the civil-rights movement was unfolding in the United States, blacks formed a coalition to negotiate better living conditions. That effort fell apart with the start of the Sandinista revolution in 1979. After the war, the Sandinistas promised to end racial discrimination and to promote regional cultures. At the same time, they were accused of precisely the opposite — oppressing groups already disenfranchised.
It would be almost three decades before meaningful steps were taken under the Sandinista regimes. Now, there is cautious hope with the return of that government.
Although the Atlantic Coast has been settled since the 17th century, the first road connecting the coast to the rest of the country opened only 50 years ago. It is still impassable during the rainy season and still doesn’t go all the way.
The last leg to Bluefields from Managua is by boat, along the Escondido River. Despite the remoteness, it has not been closed entirely to the outside world. Some residents talk on the telephone, listen to the radio, watch foreign programs on television and a few have access to the Internet. Much of the contemporary movement along the coast came from men who died long ago — Martin Luther King Jr. and Bob Marley. King’s unyielding message of equality and Marley’s social lyrics were delivered here starting in the 1970s by kids who got jobs on cruise ships and brought back books and music.
Pearl Lagoon’s unofficial leader, William Wesley, a warm guy with an easy smile, lives on the main road with a view of the village. Just inside his living room, a picture of King hangs near the phone.
“The kids came home, and they kept talking about these people,” says Wesley, a retired teacher. “I knew a little bit already. But I wanted to know more. I found myself in the teachings of King and Malcolm X. I discovered my Afro heritage. We have to take what they said to help us create a direction that we can all follow.”
In Bluefields, Carmen Joseph, more comfortably ‘‘Miss Carmen,” a caterer who is said to make the best potato salad in town, quickly steps outside a neighbor’s house. She sits on the front porch, this racial business too touchy for inside talk.
“Yes,” she whispers, never making eye contact. “Some folks don’t say they are what they are. You see, I am black, and I raised my family up knowing they were black.”
With eight children, Joseph has spent a lifetime trudging up and down the hills of Bluefields, establishing her place as one of the town’s matriarchs. “I am not ashamed. I never turned on my color, but some people do.”
To appreciate the story of race here, is to understand the kaleidoscopic legacy of slavery, the historic demonization and denial of blackness and the practice of racial mixing.
This portrait is complicated by the lack of reliable census data because of traditional undercounting and because some blacks decline to identify themselves as such.
The dynamic along the coast is a layered quilt of Miskitos, mestizos and blacks. The ancestors of other Afro-Nicaraguans were free blacks who immigrated from Jamaica and other Caribbbean countries, lured by the good, steady jobs available for English speakers.
Stories abound about people who have hidden behind ambiguously brown complexions, “passing” for Miskito Indians, or mestizo.
“It’s hard to mobilize when you are still recouping the identity and just starting to openly use the term black,” says Hooker, the University of Texas professor whose father was a regional councilman.
A year ago, Shirlene Green Newball, who grew up in Puerto Cabezas, allowed her perm to grow out. “I really wanted to show and know who I am,” says Newball, who works for a women’s organization.
Newball had thought for a while about what it meant to be black here. She considered all the terms morena, coolie, afro, chocolate, la negra. Then she decided that natural hair — an enduring barometer of ethnicity was the purest expression of blackness.
“You are seeing an authentic black movement along the coast, but things are moving slowly,” says Kwame Dixon, an assistant professor of African American Studies at Syracuse University.
In Pearl Lagoon, population 3,000, the dogs sleep on the dock, the main drag is more dusty path than street, the country-western music drifts from open windows and doors, and Koreth Reid McCoy rushes home from school.
She floats the whole way, more than a mile, to behold the lovely lavender gown with beads she is to wear at the beauty pageant. In the last decade, the coast has held annual black beauty pageants, but this is the first one — along with an African cultural festival — in Pearl Lagoon.
“I love the way it falls. I love the colors. I love the style,” Koreth says, her voice falling into a lullaby. “It reminds me of Africa. I’m so proud of my heritage and my ancestry.”
Leaving her house, Koreth steps into the road, and, carried by the giggles of barefoot little girls, makes her way toward the river and back, as poised and glamorous as she would be on anybody’s runway. All of a sudden, and maybe not so suddenly, she is more than a pretty girl in a pretty dress. Koreth is a symbol of cultural possibilities.
“I want people to know where we are from.”
Philip Montalban Ellis sings about his hometown, Bluefields. ‘I been trying to sing songs that say something and that uplift my people,’ he said. (Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald)
For as long as he can remember, and certainly when times were bad, Philip Montalban Ellis — beautiful dreadlocks to his waist and a guitar that rarely leaves his side — has been singing about the black experience.
. . . We gotta fight or we will die. . . . Lord knows we need liberation, Lord knows it’s the only solution. . . .
Today, Montalban sits on an old, rusted chair under a lime tree in his backyard, strumming away.
“I been trying to sing songs that say something and that uplift my people. We have struggled so long,” he says. “I have been charged with carrying the message of my people.”
Earlier this year, the Nicaraguan government recognized Montalban’s art, awarding him its highest cultural honor. Before now, the idea of an unapologetically black man even being considered was unthinkable.
“I feel like I am accepting the award for a whole race of people,” Montalban says. “I hope this means something.”
Miami Herald staff writer Pablo Bachelet and special correspondent Tim Rogers contributed to this report.

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