Far from monolithic, the seven Central American countries—Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama—each have unique cultural traditions and historical trajectories. Their different geographies, while not deterministic in any facile manner, influenced their development in ways that continue to shape their national characteristics. The cataclysmic 16th-century Spanish Conquest introduced new peoples and cultural traditions to the region. African slaves, primarily from the sub-Saharan region, accompanied the first Spanish ventures, and, later, as the colonies consolidated and grew, peoples of African descent, both enslaved and free, became a part of the area’s economic and cultural landscape. Starting in the late 18th century, African peoples from the Caribbean—whether forcefully exiled or as a result of searching for economic opportunities—traveled to Central America. Despite a contemporary collective historical amnesia that imagines Africans isolated in specific regions, namely the Caribbean coast, peoples of African descent can be found throughout the Central American nations. Rather than addressing each country, a thematic approach that focuses on the Spanish Conquest, slavery, emancipation, the ethnogenesis of African connected cultures, the historical erasure of Africans, and the contributions of peoples of African descent helps to understand the complex ways that peoples of African descent have impacted the history of modern Central America. For far from isolated to small populations along the Caribbean, the African presence can be discerned throughout the region, even in places often perceived as entirely devoid of its influence.
The population of African descent in Brazil has always maintained vibrant associative communities, whether in the form of mutual aid societies, confraternities, and religious brotherhoods that existed since the time of slavery or in the form of other voluntary associations that appeared later, such as recreational societies, civic centers, literary guilds, musical groups, carnival blocos, and the black press. For Afro-Brazilians, the associative experience throughout the 20th century contributed to a sense of group belonging and a consciousness of a shared identity and experience of racial discrimination. Furthermore, these relationships enabled Afro-Brazilians to begin claiming rights as citizens, protesting against what afflicted them as a community. These joint efforts fueled collective acts of resistance and self-determination that, while evident for centuries, acquired new meanings and manifestations following the abolition of slavery in 1888. Black associations did not limit themselves to denouncing problems or detecting their causes and consequences. They tried to point out ways to overcome them by proposing several solutions: the moral elevation of Afro-Brazilians, which implied a preoccupation with their image in the various sectors where they acted; improving their educational and instructional level; valorizing their race and, by extension, black identity; and emphasizing the need to react to injustices, and even to act politically. However, the main solution was the union of black Brazilians, a sine qua non for this segment of the population to strengthen and thus be able to claim and gain space in society, improve living conditions, and even overcome persistent challenges. Understanding the history of black associative life in Brazil during the 20th century is necessary in order to grasp the struggles and challenges Afro-Brazilians have faced around common interests, particularly since these collective actions are an integral part of the black experience and, in some respects, overlap with it.
Color and race are important references for assessing the privileges and barriers that sustained or impeded the social ascension of New Christians, Africans, Indians, and mestiços in the Portuguese world. Questions of race and color had profound links with the Catholic faith and with social exclusion, especially of Afro-descendants. The ideas of race and racism are not static, but were forged over time. Initially, they were strongly influenced by Catholicism and later were incorporated into the scientific knowledge of the 18th and 19th centuries. Therefore, the terms “race” and “racism,” based on 19th-century biological determinism, are not suitable for discussing social relations in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Martha Abreu and Eric Brasil
Carnival is one of the most powerful images of Brazil in the contemporary world, a party marketed by tourism agencies as a unique spectacle, filled with rhythm, humor, fun, and free spirits that brings the entire population together, marked by infectious joy, sensuality, and irresistible samba. This perception of the party, however, is far from its history since colonial times. While Carnival has always been present in large cities and small towns from one end of Brazil to the other, it has taken many forms and included many sounds, meanings, traditions, and social subjects. To understand the history of Carnival in Brazil, one must take another approach: the celebration of Carnival as an expression of many differences, a variety of forms, and numerous conflicts. For many years, interpretations viewed Carnival as a space in which Brazilians come together to celebrate commonly held cultural traditions or as an effective escape valve allowing common people to forget the woes of everyday life. More recently, historians and anthropologists have studied Carnival celebrations as windows that offer a glimpse of the tensions, rivalries, and alliances of an entire year, brought to the fore, magnified and played out in public on the festival days. Whether through masks, costumes, and individual hijinks or through Carnival associations, various social groups have taken advantage of Carnival in various historical contexts of Brazilian society to assert their identity and take action on various political projects that aim to transform (or subvert) current reality and debate the very history of Brazil. The study of the history of Brazilian Carnival, or rather Carnivals, thus provides an innovative and original epistemological approach to understanding social transformations and the meanings of Carnival revelers’ political actions at various times in history, whether they be members of the economic and intellectual elite or urban workers, enslaved people, freed people, and free people. The article prioritizes the period between the late 19th century and the early 20th century, when Carnivals came to more closely resemble their modern form through intense disputes between those who sought to civilize the festivities and revelers who sought to act out their traditions and customs. The history of Carnival the article intends to tell engages in intense dialogue with struggles for black people’s citizenship before and after the abolition of slavery, stretching into the second half of the 20th century, when Samba Schools emerged as one of the principal features of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro and, by extension, throughout Brazil.
Kelly E. Hayes
Belief in the power of feitiçaria or black magic has both endured and continually changed over time in Brazil. However, black magic is a peculiar and protean thing. Rather than defining a specific set of ideas, practices, and objects, or a systematic body of knowledge, black magic is better understood as a type of discourse the social function of which is to stigmatize its referent as maleficent, immoral, or evil. Because of its negative connotations, black magic typically is a discourse of accusation rather than self-affirmation: People accuse others of practicing black magic rather than describing their own practices this way. Nevertheless, the dangerous potential attributed to black magic means that some people openly claim it as a source of power in certain circumstances. Focusing on the various intersections of black magic and sexuality in Brazilian history reveals aspects of social life and categories of persons that elite authorities, in the effort to civilize and reform Brazil, identified as problematic. Because these shifted over time, different constellations of black magic and sexuality emerge as especially salient in different historical periods. In the colonial period (1549–1822), women’s love magic troubled ecclesiastical authorities as the Catholic Church struggled to establish its patriarchal vision of social and moral order over an unruly colony. Under the empire (1822–1889), black magic was associated particularly with the threat of black sorcerers whose perceived promiscuity and primitivity threatened the civilized society that elites envisioned. During the first Republican period (1889–1930), public officials used black magic as a catchall designation for a broad range of popular spiritual practices deemed illicit by the state in its struggle against social degeneracy and other ills. The first few decades of the 20th century saw the consolidation of the Afro-Brazilian spirit entities Exu and Pombagira as distinctive apotheoses of black magic and sexuality in the Brazilian cultural imagination. Forged in the conjuncture of African and European traditions, these controversial yet extremely popular entities are said to work with both the “right hand” and the “left hand” and are called upon in situations marked by moral ambiguity. Their prominence in Candomblé and Umbanda is one reason that evangelical Protestant churches like the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (IURD) consider Afro-Brazilian religions to be instruments of the devil and target Afro-Brazilian religious practitioners, objects, and spaces in their campaigns of spiritual warfare. More recently, discourse about black magic among evangelical Christians has centered on the violence and sexual immorality associated with the drug trade that has flourished in many Brazilian cities. As a moral discourse that defines the licit by identifying the illicit, black magic is used in situations marked by struggles for social legitimacy and the access to resources and influence that such legitimacy enables. The protean nature of black magic means that it is endlessly adaptable to different social realities, from the struggles of Portuguese colonists in a new land to the urban violence associated with contemporary drug trafficking. And because questions of power are deeply embedded within the term, accusations of black magic seem to burgeon precisely in moments of social transformation when the status quo is in flux, centers of influence are being formed, and new patterns of social division or alignment are being established.
Pablo F. Gómez
In the early modern Spanish Caribbean, ritual practitioners of African descent were essential providers of health care for Caribbean people of all origins. Arriving from West and West Central Africa, Europe, and other Caribbean and New World locales, black healers were some of the most important shapers of practices related to the human body in the region. They openly performed bodily rituals of African, European, and Native American inspiration. Theirs is not a history uniquely defined by resistance or attempts at cultural survival, but rather by the creation of political and social capital through healing practices. Such a project was only possible through their exploration of and engagement with early modern Caribbean human and natural landscapes.
Nicole von Germeten
Free and enslaved Africans played an important role in developing a unique form of participatory Christianity in New Spain’s mining towns, especially Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi, and Parral. Afro-Mexicans founded, organized, and led religious organizations, called cofradías, shaping them to their own needs and understandings of the sacred and its connections to social ties, gatherings, and celebrations. The practical goals of cofradías included helping sick members and paying for burials and funerals. Historians observe a kind of Latin American African-influenced Baroque piety in cofradías, with embodied practices concentrating on annual flagellant processions held during Holy Week, and an evolving internal gender dynamic, which suggests assimilative goals, even as cofradías strengthened Afro-Mexican communities.
Although the slave trade to Brazil did not end until 1850, and slavery itself lasted until 1888, the practice of freeing slaves had been common from the time of first colonization by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and the children of freed women were born free. The result was that, by the time of a national census in 1872, there were 4.25 million free blacks and mulattos in the country, accounting for over three quarters of all those of African descent and two fifths of Brazil’s total population. To understand the willingness of Brazilian slave owners to free so many one must first consider the general nature of Brazil’s social structure and the paradigms that ordered it. For most, society was not thought of as being made up of individuals equally protected in their rights and mobile in relationship to one another, but by castes, ranks, corporations, guilds, and brotherhoods, layered one atop another or arranged side by side. Almost everyone could feel superior to someone else, even if inferior to others. The nuanced distinctions of ranks somewhat restrained the threat to social order that free and freed blacks might otherwise have been thought to pose. “Free-and-equal” was not a phrase heard in Brazil. There is overwhelming evidence that race was an important variable affecting one’s position, and discrimination against blacks was widespread and constant. The government reinforced the prejudices of white Brazilians, acquiesced in maintaining a hierarchy based on color, and presented obstacles to the ambitions of free African Brazilians. Civil service positions were usually denied to them, regardless of their qualifications. Recruitment for the army was focused on the poor, that is, on African Brazilians. Yet, it is also true that many individuals found their way around those obstacles and rose to positions of some importance, for skin color was just one of the many characteristics to be considered. There are multiple examples of freeborn mulattos (and some freed and freeborn blacks) who succeeded in 19th-century Brazil. Some became doctors, pharmacists, journalists, and teachers. Others entered politics and rose to positions of real power. A few worked energetically to bring about the end of slavery.
From the 15th century onward, the Caribbean has been populated with different ethnic groups, cultures, flora, and fauna in a way that is constantly changing the visual sensibilities of the space. The mixture of ethnic and nation groups that had settled by the 20th century produced a range of iconographic symbols, use of colors and forms that would signify the Caribbean aesthetic. This included a style of Caribbean painting which is referred to as Caribbean expressionism, the latter which included the group of artists known as intuitives or primitives. With few formal schools or institutions for instruction or opportunities for critical review, the Caribbean visual palette was established largely through the creativity of those involved in various festivals or ritual practices. Artistic expressions resemble performance or installation art rather than the classic forms of painting or sculpture. This work is somewhat iconoclastic in the interpretation of a Caribbean aesthetic and focuses on the homegrown artistic expressions that merge, collide, contradict, and emerge to create originality in this cultural space.
Maria Lygia Quartim de Moraes
In the early twentieth century, Brazil depended on coffee exports, its slave regime had just been abolished, and most of its inhabitants lived in the countryside. The Catholic Church exercised the moral direction of society, and White landowners virtually established the rules of sociability and controlled economic and political life. A woman’s social position was fundamentally determined according to their social class. Wealthy and White middle-class women had access to some form of education, and when they left the family home, it was to marry and raise a family, being completely dependent on their husbands, with no political rights, and only allowed to work upon marital authorization. With rapid urbanization, wretched working conditions, as either a domestic servant or a textile worker (the two female labor niches), worsened the lives of poor women in the city. Access to education, the struggle for labor rights, and the right to vote were the pillars of the long women’s emancipation process that was in progress. In 1964 a military coup plunged Brazil into a long dictatorship that only ended in 1985 with the return of democratic institutions and the election of a civil president. The conquest of democracy was made with the broad participation of the various women’s groups and movements, especially the feminist movements.