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.
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.
Richard Lee Turits
In the past, scholars of Latin America often assumed that Spanish colonists abandoned the Caribbean for the bullion riches of Mexico and Peru almost immediately after their conquest, while many Caribbeanists have imagined that Barbados, colonized by the British in the mid-1600s, was the “first black slave society.” Yet, in fact, more than a century earlier in the colony of Santo Domingo (then officially known as la Isla Española or simply la Española), European colonists built the first major American plantation economy and society made up mostly of enslaved people. Those held in chains on the island reached into the tens of thousands by the mid-1500s, and Santo Domingo became a pivotal crossroads in the early modern Atlantic. At first the enslaved population included thousands of people the Spanish called “Indians,” taken from other parts of the Caribbean and the Americas, and even an occasional enslaved person of European (Orthodox Christian or Muslim) descent. But after the mid-1500s slavery in Santo Domingo became isolated to people of African descent. This contrasted with the preexisting demography of slavery in southern Europe, where the enslaved were of more diverse geographic origins. Santo Domingo thus initiated a trajectory of racial and plantation slavery whose contours would shape the course of history in the Americas overall. Santo Domingo’s slave-based economy would also, though, be the first to collapse, at the end of the 16th century, partly because of sustained resistance by the enslaved—their continual escape and rebellion—that was costly for planters. The enslaved had composed most of society in the prior century. Now the majority were escaped and, to a lesser extent, freed slaves, living with substantial autonomy as independent peasants dispersed across the countryside. These themes are illuminated through an exploration of one of the earliest freedom suits in the Americas. This suit was won on appeal in Santo Domingo in 1531 through remarkable transatlantic collaboration by family members and sailors as well as through the evident power of notarized documents in the Spanish Empire.