SANTIAGO – Although Afro-Chileans fought in the War of Independence, their culture was never recognized in Chilean law. That changed last week. A new law was published in the Diario Oficial, identifying Chilean Afro-descendants as a group with their own culture, history, and traditions.
Although a small percentage of the Chilean population, Chileans of African descent were a part of the army that liberated Chile. They were even there when the country was “discovered” by Spain. But despite their contributions during the War of Independence and their presence in the country ever since, their culture was never recognized by law. Or, as Cristian Alejandro Báez Lazcano, wrote in Harvard Review of Latin-America: “We entered as blacks and became Afro-descendants … and turned out to become Afrochileans.”
But last week, a new law was published, granting legal recognition to the Chilean people of African descent. Chileans with African blood are now by law a part of Chile with their own recognized culture, history, and traditions. From now on, the State of Chile will also include this group in their periodic censuses.
According to the new law, “traditional knowledge, medicine, languages, rituals, symbols and clothing of Chilean people of Afro-descent will be respected and promoted by the State, recognizing them as cultural heritage of the country”. Four centuries these Chileans waited for cultural recognition by the Chilean State, and they were there the day Chile was born.
From “Discovery” to Liberation
Historian Francisco Antonio Encina wrote that part of the group that joined Diego de Almagro, when he explored Chile, was of Afro-descent – 13 percent according to Encina. At the end of the 16th century, according to memoriachile.cl, at least 20 percent of the Chilean population had African ancestors.
Apart from the discovery of Chile, two other developments stand out when looking at the history of Chile with people of Afro-descent: The War of Independence and the slave trade. Various infantry regiments of the Liberation Army of Bernardo O’Higgins, which crossed the Andes to fight the Spanish Empire, consisted entirely of black men – estimates as high as 3,000 soldiers.
Although one could state that Chile was freed partly thanks to the black people who accompanied O’Higgins on his epic expedition, one of the things that connects Chile with the so-called “Afrochileans” is the slave trade in Latin-America. Thousands of African men and women were brought to South-America at the main slave port, Cartagena de Indias, in Colombia, and sold to interests in the northern parts of Chile, such as Arica (which was part of Peru until the War of the Pacific), as well as Coquimbo and Valparaíso.
Although slavery is an unmistakable part of the history of Chilean Afro-descendants, Chile is notable as the second country in the world to prohibit slavery, in 1823. Manual de Salas, one of the founders of Chile and an influential politician, read the following ad in a newspaper in 1811:
“For sale: 22 to 24-year-old mulato, nice condition, good price. For those interested, please contact Felipe Santiago del Solar”.
The ad shocked de Salas, and within twelve years slave trading was officially illegal – although according to human rights organizations the slave trade continued in certain places, including Valparaíso.
Black Chile: Arica
Partly because of the slave trade in the north, and partly because of voluntary immigration, the city of Arica has received thousands of people of Afro-descent since it was founded in 1570. According to the Oro Negro Foundation, a free black man named Anzúrez was even elected mayor of Arica in 1620 (six months later, however, Peru’s viceroy, don Francisco de Borja y Aragón, declared this nomination to be completely annulled). The large black population found in Arica became part of Chile in 1929 when the city officially became part of the country. And now, ninety years later, the population has also become part of Chile by law.
Editor-In-Chief Boris van der Spek is the founder of Chile Today. He worked in Colombia, Surinam and the Netherlands as reporter and works with international media during major events, like the social crisis, the elections and the Pope’s visit.