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date: 09 July 2020

Gender, Race, and Political Representation in Latin America

Summary and Keywords

Women, indigenous peoples, and Afro-descendant populations remain underrepresented in the national legislatures of Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Latin America. The descriptive (or numeric) representation of marginalized groups in national legislatures matters because legislatures make policy, check the president’s authority, and communicate who has full membership in the body politic. The inclusion of women, indigenous peoples, and Afro-descendants in legislatures sends information about the overall depth and quality of the democratic regime. Most legislatures have become more representative of women, primarily due to affirmative action measures designed to raise descriptive representation. As of October 15, 2019, every Latin American country except Guatemala and Venezuela had a statutory quota law for women candidates, resulting in women holding nearly 30% of seats in the region’s legislatures. However, such gains have not come without costs, including rising violence against women candidates and elected officials. Bolivia, Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela also use affirmative action to incorporate indigenous peoples into the national legislature, using reserved seats. However, reserved seats typically elect lower proportions of indigenous peoples relative to their population percentage. Afro-descendants face more barriers, as they must largely win legislative elections without the benefit of affirmative action. Afro-descendants remain excluded from formal politics even in Brazil, where the majority of the population self-identifies as black or brown. Indigenous and Afro-descendant women face barriers that emerge from both their gender and their race/ethnicity.

Keywords: political representation, elections, women, indigenous, Afro-descendant, Latin American politics


The most basic political rights have been understood as “the right to elect and be elected” (el derecho de elegir y ser elegido). Women in Latin America won suffrage in the mid-20th century, beginning with Ecuador in 1929 and ending with Paraguay in 1961. Yet the right to be elected was often granted separate from the right to vote: in El Salvador, for instance, women could vote beginning in 1939 but could not run for office until 1961.1 Many Latin American women could not fully exercise their citizenship rights until the 1960s, and informal practices continued to restrict their political participation well after. That women were systematically excluded remained unproblematized until democratization processes swept the region in the 1980s (Jaquette, 2009). The social movements involved in democratization criticized the entrenched structural and cultural biases that kept political power concentrated in the hands of elite men (Alvarez, 1990). The same informal—or what Hernández (2012) calls customary—disenfranchisement has shaped the political representation of Latin Americans of indigenous and African ancestry. Though not formally prevented from voting or standing for election (unless they were women), indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples have long remained excluded from formal politics.

Even in 2019, indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples, and especially indigenous and Afro-descendant women, have not gained political office at the same rates as European-origin women. Citizens and activists participating in Latin America’s democratic movements demanded more just and inclusive societies, decrying the disappointingly low numbers of women elected to the legislature following democratization (Piscopo & Thomas, 2017). As a remedy, women’s and feminist groups sought gender quotas for women candidates. Argentina became the modern era’s first country to adopt a gender quota law in 1991, mandating that political parties nominate 30% women to their candidate lists for legislative office. All Latin American countries except Guatemala and Venezuela had adopted quotas by January 2015.2 By 2019, women held over 30% of seats in half of Latin America’s lower and unicameral houses, with the regional average at 29%, compared with just 9% in 1990.3 Afro-descendant and indigenous representation, however, remains stagnant, comprising less than 10% of the national legislatures in most countries (Htun, 2016). Indigenous women and Afro-descendant women face even more pronounced barriers, given that they experience marginalization based on gender and ethnicity/race.

This chapter examines the descriptive (or numeric) representation of women, indigenous peoples, and Afro-descendant populations in the national legislatures of Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Latin America. Though chief executives often receive more popular attention in Latin America’s presidential democracies, legislatures matter enormously: legislatures make policy, check the president’s authority, and literally represent the body politic. The inclusion of women, indigenous peoples, and Afro-descendants in legislatures symbolizes the depth and quality of the democratic regime, which in turn shapes whose interests are considered when laws are made. Most legislatures have become more representative of women and women’s interests, and legislatures in certain countries have also made space for indigenous peoples. Yet the tendency to incorporate indigenous groups into the legislature via reserved seats rather than quotas limits this group’s numeric representation relative to their population percentage. Afro-descendants face more barriers: Colombia reserves two lower house seats for black representatives, but elsewhere Afro-descendants must win legislative elections without the benefit of affirmative action (in this context, “affirmative action” refers to policies designed to enhance groups’ access to the legislature, namely quotas and reserved seats). The lack of racial and ethnic representation in Latin America’s legislatures, and especially the underrepresentation of minority women, constitutes a democratic deficit.

Toward Gender Parity: Women’s Access to Elected Office

Latin America has pioneered the use of affirmative action to raise the proportion of women in legislative office. As of 2015, over 77 countries worldwide, from advanced democracies to democratic-aspiring and semi-authoritarian states, applied some form of quota law (Hughes, Paxton, Clayton, & Zetterberg, 2019). Yet Latin America remains in the vanguard: the region led the globe in adopting quota laws in the 1990s, and by the mid-2000s pushed the global conversation away from electing legislatures using gender quotas and toward having gender-balanced legislatures. Whereas quotas were typically framed as temporary special measures that would help women catch up to men, parity signifies that gender balance in political representation constitutes true democracy (Piscopo, 2016a). Parity laws impose a strict 50–50 gender balance on the composition of candidate lists for the national legislature; in some cases, this mandate extends to candidate lists for subnational legislatures and to nominees for the executive and judiciary. Eight Latin American countries—Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama—have exchanged their gender quotas for parity measures. Together, quotas and parity have raised the proportion of women in elected office, transformed politics and policy, and even altered public opinion (Schwindt-Bayer, 2018).

The Dynamics of Women’s Exclusion

Undergirding both quotas and parity is the understanding that Latin American women face systemic barriers to participating in formal politics, where formal politics captures work in party organizations and access to government positions (as opposed to informal politics, which refers to engagement via civil society and social movements). Women are not numerical minorities—after all, they comprise half the population—but they are structural minorities—meaning their life outcomes are profoundly and unequally conditioned by their female sex. Though each woman will interpret her gender identity in her own way, her placement in the subordinate social group of women is inescapable (Weldon, 2002). Latin American women’s profoundly unequal access to formal political power results from this social fact.

Women’s exclusion from political decision-making begins in the political parties. Women fill parties’ rank and file, but occupy only 23% of seats on parties’ national executive boards (Morgan & Hinojosa, 2018). Many national executive boards have achieved higher proportions of women only because of quotas: some political parties have internal quotas for candidates and for party offices, and some gender quota laws apply to candidate lists for party offices (in addition to candidate lists for legislative offices). Party quotas are often called voluntary quotas because their fulfillment and enforcement depends on the parties’ will: indeed, once all other factors explaining women’s nomination are controlled for, parties with internal quotas do not nominate more women than parties without internal quotas (Funk, Hinojosa, & Piscopo, 2017). Left parties also do no better than right parties. Though considered ideologically disposed toward gender equality, left parties neither nominate nor elect more women when compared to right parties, nor are left parties more likely to have women as national party secretaries or party presidents (Funk et al., 2017).

Women politicians in Latin America face systematic discrimination in all aspects of their job (Schwindt-Bayer, 2018). Research recounts that women politicians have their competencies belittled or dismissed (Franceschet & Piscopo, 2008), and even endure sexual harassment, sexual threats, and sexual violence from their men colleagues (Krook & Restrepo Sanín, 2016; UN Women, 2018b). Women remain excluded from the closed elite networks that choose candidates (Franceschet & Piscopo, 2014); are assigned to run in losing districts (Hinojosa, 2012); and receive dramatically unequal access to the financial and technical resources needed to mount successful campaigns (Hinojosa, 2012; Wylie, 2018). In congress, they receive less access to prestigious committee and leadership positions (Barnes, 2016; Schwindt-Bayer, 2010). From running for office to governing, women confront an unequal playing field.

Deepening Women’s Inclusion

These barriers persist, even as quota laws deepen and strengthen. Following Argentina, 11 more countries adopted quota laws in the 1990s: Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela. This “first-generation of quota laws” (Hinojosa & Piscopo, 2013; Piscopo, 2016a) was notoriously weak, explaining their passage. Party leaders resisting women’s exclusion received the public relations benefits of passing quota laws, while knowing that the laws’ loopholes would diminish their actual impact (Gatto, 2016). First-generation quotas lacked procedures for oversight and enforcement, and contained other escape clauses, such as not including rank-order mandates for women’s names on party lists. Argentina required that women not placed on candidate lists bring suit against the party themselves, which would be professional suicide (Jones, 1996). Mexico allowed parties to avoid the quota if they selected candidates via internal “democratic” practices, and parties could simply claim this exemption, as what constituted an internal democratic practice was never codified by the election authorities (Piscopo, 2016b). For these reasons, no first-generation quota law met its desired threshold in the first election.

Yet quota laws were destined to become stronger. Once elected, women legislators across the political spectrum collaborated, pressing party leaders to adopt further reforms. In the 2000s and 2010s, second-generation quota laws tightened enforcement, closed loopholes, and raised thresholds to 40% or parity. For instance, Brazil’s 1995 gender quota law remained largely unenforced and effectively ignored by parties until a 2009 reform required that the 30% quota be filled by women candidates, rather than merely reserving the slots for them (Wylie & dos Santos, 2016). During this period, five additional countries adopted gender quotas for the first time (Chile, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Uruguay). Venezuela and Colombia repealed their first-generation quotas, but constitutional reforms paved the way for readoption in Colombia in 2011 (Piscopo, 2015).4

As shown in Table 1, nearly every Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking country in the region has adopted quota or parity laws for women’s political representation. As of October 15, 2019, Bolivia, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua ranked in the global top 15 for women’s representation in single or lower houses, with over 40% women; Argentina, Ecuador, El Salvador, and Peru ranked in the global top 50, electing at least 30% women. Women hold over 40% of Senate seats in Argentina, Bolivia, and Mexico, and over 20% of the seats in Chile, Colombia, and Uruguay. At the same time, countries such as Brazil, Paraguay, and Panama elect disappointingly low proportions of women relative to their quota or parity laws, largely because of the measures’ persistent design flaws. The Panamanian quota applies to the primary elections only, for example. The regional success of gender quota and parity laws, however, cannot be denied. Women held 29.9% of seats in Latin America’s lower or unicameral houses, and 30.4% of seats in the Senates, in late 2019.

Table 1. Percentage Women in National Legislatures (as of October 15, 2019)

Global Ranking


Candidate List Rule

Lower or Unicameral House




























Costa Rica




Dominican Republic









El Salvador










































(*) Reflects election results under the 30% quota law, prior to the adoption of parity.

Source: Inter-Parliamentary Union (http://archive.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm)

These gains would have been impossible without affirmative action, given party leaders’ consistent marginalization of women as party members, candidates, and leaders. This marginalization persists in countries where quotas remain poorly designed and enforced (but also in cases where quotas have been successful). Women and feminist movements are working within and outside the legislature to demand gender balance in cases where countries still have underperforming quotas or have no affirmative action at all. A tripartite commission formed between Brazil’s congressional women’s caucus, the now-dissolved Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and feminist civil society groups achieved the 2009 quota reform, and the women’s caucus have continued to lobby for quota strengthening (Gatto, 2016; Wylie, 2018). Paraguayan women have formed the “Queremos Paridad [We Want Parity]” movement and the Guatemalan group Convergencia Ciudadania de Mujeres [Citizen Convergence of Women] has united women’s organizations, including organizations of indigenous Maya, Xinca, and Garifuna women, to push for electoral reforms that include parity. Women legislators have introduced parity reforms in nearly every country lacking the measure, including Colombia, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

Beyond Quotas and Parity

Quotas and parity have effects that extend beyond numbers. Women elected under quotas have the same qualifications as men (Franceschet & Piscopo, 2014) and can advance their interests in the legislature as effectively as men (Kerevel & Atkison, 2013). These findings counter criticisms that affirmative action sacrifices merit for equality.

More broadly, women’s inclusion in Latin American legislatures has transformed issue representation, bringing more legislative attention to questions of violence against women, reproductive rights, the social inclusion of women and girls, and other social issues (Hinojosa, Carle, & Woodall, 2018; Htun, Lacalle, & Micozzi, 2013; Schwindt-Bayer, 2010). Under gender quotas in Argentina, cross-party coalitions successfully pushed for the adoption of universal, free contraception coverage (Piscopo, 2014). Individual women legislators have supported abortion liberalization in Uruguay and Chile (Blofield & Ewig, 2017). Generally, scholars conclude that women’s increased legislative representation makes women citizens more politically engaged (Kittilson & Schwindt-Bayer, 2012) and more likely to believe they can govern (Alexander, 2012). Parity in legislative representation increases perceptions of democratic legitimacy for men and women citizens alike (Clayton, O’Brien, & Piscopo, 2019).

Overall, quotas and parity enjoy widespread support among Latin American citizens. A 2012 question on the Latin American Public Opinion Project asked citizens to agree or disagree with the following statement: “The state should require political parties to reserve some space on their lists of candidates for women, even if they have to exclude some men.” Regionally, the average agreement was 5 on a 7-pt scale, where 1 indicated “strongly disagree” and 7 indicated “strongly agree” (Barnes & Córdova, 2016, p. 675). In 2015, shortly after Uruguay applied its 30% quota for the first time, 80% of respondents in a nationally representative telephone survey thought the gender quota was a “great” or “good” idea, and 83% believed the gender quota should apply in the next congressional elections.5 Gender parity also enjoys widespread support. A 2011 survey of Latin American opinion leaders (academics, politicians, and activists) found that 80% of respondents endorsed parity (Johnson, Rocha, & Schenck, 2013).

Critics have noted that Latin America’s quotas and parity laws primarily benefit European-origin women, relative to indigenous women and Afro-descendant women (Sagot, 2010). Most women elected to Latin American legislatures are from high-status social groups, because electoral politics remains the province of the elite. Indigenous and Afro-descendant men are also underrepresented in the region’s legislatures, indicating that the problem lies with elite dominance of politics, not quotas and parity. In fact, evidence from Argentina suggests that, over time, quotas lead to more diversity among elected men and elected women (Barnes & Holman, forthcoming). Yet the overrepresentation of European-origin politicians remains, raising the question of why women have gained numeric representation while other descriptive groups have not.

The Descriptive Representation of Ethnic and Racial Groups

The notion of gender parity appeals to many stakeholders because it seems fair, notwithstanding party leaders’ resistance to democratizing the distribution of political power. Even though not all citizens will identify as men or women, awarding half the legislative seats to men and half to women matches the distribution of men and women in the population. Having the legislature mirror the composition of the polity thus appears straightforward when it comes to gender. But for indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples, the question of “how much” representation is “enough” remains unclear. For instance, 4% of the Chilean population self-identifies as indigenous (Funk, 2012, p. 128), but does this proportion mean indigenous peoples should receive 4% of Chile’s legislative seats, or would a higher percentage be justified, given indigenous peoples’ experiences of genocide?

Latin American state-building legacies further complicate questions about how indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples are identified and thus counted. Nineteenth and early 20th-century discourses and policies imbued whiteness with privilege, otherizing and subordinating both indigenous and Afro-descendant populations (Andrews, 2004; Dixon & Johnson, 2019; Marx, 1998; Telles, 2015). The state promoted the ideology of mestizaje (racial mixing), upholding mixing as morally superior to segregation, and making biological and cultural miscegenation central to national identity. Yet mestizaje was never just about racial mixing. Its homogenizing intent was rooted in assumptions of white supremacy: black and indigenous peoples were erased from—rather than blended into—the consciousness of the general population (Nascimento, 1979; Paschel, 2016; Telles, 2015). These legacies mean that non–European origin groups face high levels of structural discrimination throughout Latin America, even in the 21st century. Further, whether and how one identifies with indigeneity and Afro-descendancy varies dramatically based on personal attachments, political and ideological motivations, social class, and more. The landscape also shifts rapidly, as social movements’ and civil society organizations’ contestation of mestizaje transforms who identifies as indigenous and Afro-descendant and alters state policies toward racial and ethnic categorization on censuses and surveys.6

Women from these groups face distinct disadvantages. As compellingly chronicled by intersectional theorists, analyses that isolate race, gender, or other identities typically neglect the experiences of individuals at the intersection (Carneiro, 1999; Collins, 2000; Crenshaw, 1989; Hooks, 2000; Smooth, 2006). Gendered analyses of power tend to inappropriately universalize the experiences of white women, and analyses of race that do not consider gender often center men’s experiences. Intersectional approaches to understanding access to power are critical given the overlapping barriers confronted by minoritized women. For example, the gender wage gap varies by ethnicity and race: women from marginalized racial and ethnic groups tend to earn significantly less than white and mestizo women as well as less than Afro-descendant and indigenous men (Freire, Díaz-Bonilla, Schwartz Orellana, Soler López, & Carbonari, 2018). That reality persists despite Afro-descendant and indigenous women’s workforce gains and superior educational attainment relative to male co-ethnics (Atal, Ñopo, & Winder, 2009). In Bolivia, being an indigenous woman “is considered the most unfavorable condition when entering the labor market and securing wages” (Contreras & Galván, 2003, cited in Atal et al., 2009, p. 12).

These raced-gendered inequities carry over into the electoral arena. Just as gender quotas have benefited elite women, ethnic quotas have favored elite men (Hughes, 2011). Social movements representing indigenous or Afro-descendant groups often reproduce the patriarchal practices in their own communities, marginalizing women’s perspectives and concerns within the movement (Htun & Ossa, 2013; Rousseau & Ewig, 2017). In Brazil, white men candidates have received drastically more financial resources for their campaigns than Afro-descendant women (Gatto & Wylie, 2019; Wylie, 2018, 2020). At the same time, intersectional analyses of descriptive representation suggest that minoritized women may enjoy a strategic advantage relative to minoritized men (Bejarano, 2013; Hughes, 2016). Parties that run a minority woman diversify their slate by gender and race while only sacrificing one seat. Moreover, the negative stereotypes of minority men often do not attach to minority women (Bejarano, 2013). Latin America also faces rising levels of citizen discontent with traditional leaders and politics as usual, conditions which can favor women (Funk et al., 2017; Morgan & Buice, 2013). Minoritized women may especially allow beleaguered political elites to signal political change. Considering the descriptive representation of ethnic and racial groups thus requires considering how women fare in relation to their group as a whole.

Indigenous Peoples and Political Representation

State-building processes designed to homogenize nonwhite populations have legacies that affect indigenous peoples’ political representation. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, political elites pushed indigenous peoples to see themselves as “peasants” rather than “Indians.” This legacy, as well as widespread and systematic racism, affects whether and how indigenous peoples self-identify on censuses and surveys. At the same time, the rise of social movement politics in the 1980s helped many indigenous peoples reclaim their identity and demand more rights (Eisenstadt, Danielson, Bailón Corres, & Sorroza Polo, 2013; Madrid, 2012; Rice, 2017). Between 2000 and 2010, for example, the proportion of people identifying as “indigenous” on Mexico’s national census increased nearly 10 percentage points (CEPAL, 2014, p. 100). Of course, whether respondents self-identify on surveys will vary based on question phrasing and respondents’ trust in the survey administrators. Government officials throughout Latin America may still lack the technical capacity and the cultural competency necessary to count indigenous peoples accurately.

Consequently, while conventional understandings hold that Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil have high concentrations of indigenous peoples, relative to other Latin American countries, estimates of the exact proportions vary dramatically. For instance, the Organization of American States reports that indigenous peoples comprise 62% of the population in Bolivia and 24% in Peru, but just 7% in Ecuador, and 3% in Colombia (CEPAL, 2014, p. 98). Other estimates place the proportions in Ecuador and Peru as much higher, at 25 and 39%, respectively (Van Cott, 2003, p. 2). In Guatemala, 41% of the population self-identifies as indigenous, but unofficial estimates place the population at about 60% (Agrawal, André, Berger, Escarfuller, & Sabatini, 2012, p. 5). The fraught nature of counting indigenous peoples poses challenges for their political representation.

Increasing Indigenous Representation

Indigenous peoples face many barriers to participating in formal politics, as evidenced by their single-digit proportions in national legislatures throughout the region, with the exception of Bolivia. Even within the same country, indigenous peoples comprise many distinct groups, and divisions along geographic and linguistic lines can inhibit collective organizing. Colombia, for instance, has approximately 80 distinct ethnic groups (Agrawal et al., 2012, p. 222). Umbrella organizations such as the Permanent Conference of Peruvian Indigenous Peoples and Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador have played key roles in bridging differences and mobilizing indigenous peoples beneath one banner. These organizations have demanded and won reforms that benefit indigenous communities, including the rights to self-government and to prior consultation before government appropriation or use of native lands.7

Ecuador and Bolivia are significant success stories (Madrid, 2012). In Ecuador, the indigenous Pachakutik party formed a significant part of the alliance that elected Lucio Gutiérrez in 2002 (though Gutiérrez himself was not indigenous). In Bolivia, the indigenous party Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) elected indigenous leader Evo Morales in 2005, and again in 2009 and 2014. The election of significant numbers of indigenous peoples in both countries shaped the writing of the new constitutions. The new charters adopted in Ecuador in 2008 and Bolivia in 2009 included numerous protections for indigenous peoples and their land, as well as gender parity principles for all branches and levels of government. Though the gender parity mandates are ethnicity-neutral, MAS’s dominance in Bolivia has ensured the election of significant proportions of indigenous peoples, including indigenous women. Following the 2014 elections, indigenous representatives comprised 40% of Bolivia’s lower house, and indigenous women comprised 19% of that chamber (Rousseau & Ewig, 2017, p. 439). Overall, Bolivia elected 53% women in 2014, becoming one of the few countries in the world to have a majority-women legislature (see Table 1).

Indigenous peoples and movements elsewhere in Latin America have secured gains via affirmative action. Peru adopted ethnic quotas in 2002, requiring that indigenous peoples comprise 15% of candidates to the regional and municipal assemblies. The quota does not apply to the national legislature, where only eight indigenous individuals (three men and five women) were elected between 1995 and 2011 (Rousseau & Ewig, 2017, p. 439).

At the national level, most Latin American countries have preferred to guarantee indigenous representation using reserved seats, rather than quotas. Reserved seats guarantee representation, but usually at proportions lower than the group’s population percentage (and much lower than the proportions mandated by a quota). For instance, the 1991 Colombian Constitution reserves just one seat in the lower house and two seats in the Senate for indigenous communities (and the lower house reservation was not implemented until 2001). The 1999 Venezuelan Constitution divides the territory into three special districts, each of which has a single reserved seat for indigenous peoples. In both Colombia and Venezuela, any citizen may vote for the candidates contesting the reserved seats, but they must choose between casting their vote for the special district, which has the indigenous candidates, or for the “regular” districts, which have the “regular” candidates (Htun, 2016, p. 104). Allowing all citizens to vote in the special indigenous district recognizes how mestizaje legacies would make constructing an indigenous-specific voter roll problematic. Instead, Colombia and Venezuela require that the candidates themselves be recognized as indigenous. In Colombia, candidates must have held leadership positions in indigenous communities or organizations (Htun, 2016, p.106). In Venezuela, candidates must speak an indigenous language, have held a leadership position within a native community or native organization, and have acted to benefit this community (Fuentes & Sánchez, 2018, p. 14).

Panama and Mexico also have reserved seat systems, but more closely align the reservations to the territorial concentration of indigenous peoples. In Panama, the indigenous communities of the Ngöbe-Buglé and the Kuna Yala were granted autonomy in 1997 and 1998, respectively. Also known as conmaracs, these indigenous territories comprise electoral districts for the unicameral national assembly: the Ngöbe-Buglé elect three deputies and the Kuna Yala elect two (Castillo Díaz, 2007). In 2019, Petita Ayarza became the first indigenous woman elected in Panama, from the Kuna Yala community.

Mexico adopted its reserved seat system nearly a decade later. Mexico employs a mixed electoral system for the lower house, drawing new districts for its 300 single-member constituencies in 2004. Twenty-eight of these new districts were determined to have an indigenous population of 40% or more, and the electoral institute recommended that political parties consider these districts “preferentially indigenous,” meaning the parties should run indigenous candidates (Pie de Página, 2018). Parties failed to meet this target, and in 2017 Mexico’s federal electoral court—which retains final, constitutional authority over matters of electoral law—took action. The court focused on 13 of the 28 districts where indigenous peoples comprise 60% or more of the population. The court declared that parties contesting elections in these districts must run indigenous candidates, defining indigenous candidates as those with “roots and links” to native communities (Fuentes & Sánchez, 2018, p. 15). The reservations were implemented for the first time in the 2018 elections, but civil society organizations have questioned whether many candidates were “truly” indigenous (Pie de Página, 2018). Once again, debates over who counts as indigenous confound efforts to achieve but also measure indigenous representation.

A final question concerns whether the indigenous reservations facilitate efforts to represent indigenous interests more broadly, such as through the creation of ethnic parties. Scholars working in other global regions have suggested that ethnic quotas or reservations can strengthen ethnic parties (Bird, 2014), but the Latin American evidence is more mixed.8 Ethnic quotas and ethnic reservations can mobilize indigenous peoples, but whether this mobilization preserves existing ethnic parties or foments new ones varies greatly (Van Cott, 2003). In Peru, indigenous quotas did not strengthen indigenous parties, as mainstream parties looking to fill the subnational quotas poached indigenous candidates from ethnic parties (Htun, 2004). In Colombia, however, several indigenous parties have fielded candidates in national as well as subnational elections (Htun, 2016, pp. 109–113). Indigenous parties like the Pachakutik in Ecuador also run candidates and maintain electoral support without reserved seats or quotas (Madrid, 2012). Overall, ethnic parties help bring indigenous peoples to office, whether or not countries have reserved seats or quotas.

Forward and Backward for Indigenous Women

The Mexican case reveals how indigenous movements’ claims to territorial autonomy may complicate the political rights of indigenous women. Since 1995, the state of Oaxaca has allowed indigenous communities to govern themselves under usos y costumbres (customary law, known by its Spanish acronym UC). About three-quarters of Oaxacan municipalities use UC. In the early 2000s, official data reported that about one in five UC municipalities formally excluded women from voting and running for office, though researchers believed the count should be higher, given that many community members would not admit women’s exclusion to state officials (Danielson & Eisenstadt, 2009, pp. 156–157). Indeed, even in UC communities that formally allowed women to participate in politics, women told researchers that “only men participated in local elections” (Danielson & Eisenstadt, 2009, p. 157). Further, many UC and non-UC municipalities use a community service (cargo) system to create a pipeline to elected office: only those with prior cargo service may stand, and women’s traditional exclusion from cargo opportunities further reduces their eligibility for elected office (Danielson, Eisenstadt, & Yelle, 2013).

Certainly, many indigenous communities and movements provide space for women. Zapatista women in the Mexican state of Chiapas led the group’s rebellion against the civilian state in 1994, and participated in the redaction of the autonomous community’s new laws, adding a gender perspective (Hernández Castillo, 2010). Yet other groups remain committed to customs and traditions that prevent women’s political participation. When Elisa Zepeda, a young, indigenous woman from Oaxaca, began organizing women in her municipality to vote, men attacked her and her family members with machetes, saying “this is what happens when you get involved in matters that don’t concern you” (UN Women, 2018a). Zepeda’s story echoes reports from Bolivia, where many indigenous women seeking to benefit from the constitutional parity mandate have faced physical and sexual violence (Domínguez & Pacheco, 2018). The violence is especially pronounced at the local level, where the Association of Bolivian Councilwomen, a nongovernmental organization representing municipal-level women officials, received 89 complaints of violence and harassment over 21 months in 2016–2017 (Campaignolle, Escudero, & Heras, 2018). Councilwoman Juana Quispe was kidnapped, beaten, forced to sign her own resignation papers, reinstated to her position by electoral authorities, and ultimately murdered (Krook & Restrepo Sanín, 2016).

As in Bolivia, the application of Mexico’s parity law to the federal, state, and municipal levels for the first time in 2015 raised the stakes considerably. During the course of the 2014–2015 electoral process, Mexico’s electoral court issued multiple sentences to resolve disputes over candidate selection in indigenous municipalities, all ruling that UC municipalities must follow the constitutional mandate for gender parity (TEPJF, 2014). Given that many municipalities elect their executive and legislative positions via a single list, the courts’ decisions effectively applied parity to both branches of government (Piscopo, 2017). The electoral court’s commitment to protecting indigenous women’s political rights boosted the number of indigenous women candidates. Half of the 13 legislative candidates in the reserved seats were women. Elisa Zepeda was elected mayor of her municipality.

At the same time, indigenous leaders in many Mexican municipalities continue to circumvent affirmative action for women. In 2018, party leaders in native communities took advantage of indigenous traditions that allow individuals to cross genders. Nineteen men dressed as women were presented as candidates to meet the parity requirement, leading to litigation. The electoral institute investigated the authenticity of the candidates’ claims to a female gender, finding no evidence that 17 of the 19 candidates had expressed a transgender or transsexual identity prior to being nominated. These 17 candidates were declared fraudulent, and the institute required the parties to substitute women candidates (Sánchez & Mateo, 2018). Women’s right to stand for election was protected in the end, but the case—alongside accounts of violence reported by women politicians such as Zepeda—illustrates how many indigenous leaders and communities distort customary practices and even use violence, in order to resist women’s political participation.

Afro-Descendants and Political Representation

Afro-descendants face many challenges similar to those confronted by indigenous peoples, from having accurate counts of their presence in the population to obtaining political representation. Political exclusion makes Afro-descendants’ minority status even more pronounced. Even in the three countries with black majorities—Brazil, Dominican Republic, and Venezuela (Telles, 2015)—Afro-descendants’ access to formal political power remains limited, which in turn restricts the passage of policies that could ameliorate racial inequities.

Patterns of Marginalization and Exclusion

Eighty percent of the 6.2 million enslaved Africans who survived the middle passage to Latin America disembarked in Brazil (Voyages Database, 2009). Brazil has the largest population of people of African descent outside of Nigeria, with the majority of Brazilians claiming black (“preta”) or brown/mixed-race (“parda”) identity as of 2010 (Black Women of Brazil, 2013).9 In most other Latin American countries, the Afro-descendant population is numerically small. According to their latest national censuses, Afro-descendants comprise between 7 and 11% of the population in Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Panama, and Uruguay, and between 0.1 and 3.5% of the population in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Peru (Freire et al., 2018; Telles, 2015).

Where demographic and development data disaggregated by race exist, they demonstrate a tight correlation between race and poverty. In most countries, Afro-descendants are more likely than non-Afro-descendants (not including indigenous peoples) to live in precarious housing with diminished access to basic services (Freire et al., 2018). Poverty rates are two to ten times higher for Afro-descendant populations, relative to non-Afro-descendant populations, in Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru (Freire et al., 2018). A wage gap, which in some places increases with education, maintains such racialized inequities and lowers prospects for social mobility (Freire et al., 2018). With the exception of Panama, throughout the region, such race and/or color-based disparities also exist in income, education, and health (Caldwell, 2017; Dixon & Johnson, 2019; Freire et al., 2018; Hernández, 2012; IAHCR, 2011; Telles, Flores, & Urrea-Giraldo, 2015), posing formidable barriers to Afro-descendants’ political participation (Dixon, 2016; Dixon & Johnson, 2019; Hooker, 2005; Mitchell-Walthour, 2017; Paschel, 2016).

Across Latin America, the marginalized status of Afro-descendant populations fuels and is compounded by a paucity of formal political representation, with the World Bank characterizing Afro-descendants as “the most underrepresented minority in the region” (Freire et al., 2018, p. 29). The exclusion of Afro-descendants poses challenges for democracy: the disproportionately low presence of (structural) minorities in elected office deprives them of voice in the governing process and can increase political alienation (Pantoja & Segura, 2003). Latinobarómetro and AmericasBarometer data demonstrate that Afro-descendants, on average, express lower levels of confidence in democratic institutions and less satisfaction with their country’s democracy, when compared with non-Afro-descendants (Levitt, 2015). For instance, almost half of Afro-descendants (47%) are deeply dissatisfied with democracy, compared with 28% of non-Afro-descendants (Freire et al., 2018). Literature from the United States indicates that racial and ethnic descriptive representation can increase political efficacy, perceived legitimacy, and trust (Leighley, 2001; Segura & Bowler, 2005). Conversely, low political representation undermines efficacy, legitimacy, and trust—and Afro-descendants’ political representation is disproportionately low.

As of 2014, Afro-descendants held between 1 and 7% of lower house seats in Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela, and 20% in Brazil (Htun, 2016). In Ecuador and Peru, the percent of Afro-descendants in the legislature approximated their population share, but in the remaining countries, Afro-descendants were underrepresented relative to their presence in the population (Htun, 2016). For example, Costa Rica and Uruguay both have 7.8% Afro-descendants in their population, but in 2014, just two Afro-descendant legislators served in Costa Rica and only one Afro-descendant deputy served in Uruguay (Htun, 2016; Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones, 2014).

The political trajectory of Afro-descendant politicians reflects the tendency of parties to exclude them from their upper ranks. Some Afro-descendants have convinced change-resistant party elites of their viability by counting on support from powerful mentors and by converting their own popular name recognition into political capital. In Costa Rica, for example, a former president of the country and leader of the dominant party made sure at least one of their priority candidates each election was Afro-descendant, facilitating the election of 17 black legislators (Htun, 2016). At least one Afro-descendant has served in the Costa Rican assembly since democratization in 1953, totaling 19 different individuals and including 5 women. Epsy-Campbell Barr is the only Afro-descendant Costa Rican woman to have been elected twice (in 2002 and in 2014), beginning a term as vice-president of the country in 2018. In Peru, all three of the country’s Afro-descendant legislators serving as of 2014 were former women volleyball players (Htun, 2016). Several Afro-Ecuadorian legislators were soccer players or media figures (de la Torre & Sánchez, 2019).

Only in Colombia, Afro-descendants’ descriptive representation has been guaranteed, but not without struggle. In 1993, Colombia recognized the territorial autonomy and cultural rights of Afro-Colombians; this reform included the creation of two reserved seats for “black communities” in the Chamber of Deputies (Hernández, 2012; Htun, 2016; Paschel, 2016).10 The constitutionality of the former was challenged in 1996, with the Constitutional Court eliminating the reserved seats in 1998. The seats were reinstated via law in 2001, and Afro-Colombian representatives have been elected consistently since 2002, including several women. Most candidates have emerged from Afro-Colombian parties and social movements (Jacobo Cortes & Escandón Vega, 2012).

Indeed, social movements have given voice and leadership opportunities to Afro-descendant people—especially women—across the region (Falcón, 2016). Yet Afro-descendants in Latin America often lack a collective black identity and racial consciousness (a perverse legacy of mestizaje). Outside of Colombia, Latin American states and publics are generally reluctant to see Afro-descendant people as comprising a distinct cultural group meriting special group rights (Bailey, 2009; Dixon & Johnson, 2019; Hooker, 2005). Brazil’s black movements have advocated for racial equality and equity. In contrast, indigenous movements—as well as black movements in Colombia—have tended to emphasize territorial rights and a right to cultural difference (Paschel, 2016), an emphasis that seems to have been more successfully parlayed into affirmative action. Indeed, in stark contrast to the regional norm of gender quotas and ethnic reserved seats, the only Latin American country with racial affirmative action provisions for electoral office is Colombia. Together, the challenges of mobilizing based on a shared identity and socioeconomic racial inequities help explain the extreme underrepresentation of Afro-descendants in Latin America.

The Political Representation of Afro-descendants in Brazil

There are important exceptions to these trends, most notably in Brazil, where Afro-descendants—especially black women—are mobilizing for their rights in both the streets and the ballot. Since the 2014 elections, electoral officials in Brazil have requested that candidates self-declare their racial identity, leading to unique insight into Afro-descendant representation. The decision was the fruit of mobilization led by Luiza Bairros, then Minister of the former Special Secretariat of Policies to Promote Racial Equality. Her actions illustrate the ways in which official accountings of power can choose to make race legible in ways that support equity. The data allow for a more thorough examination of racial representation, permitting disaggregation by state and by party for candidates as well as for elected officials.11

Brazil’s Afro-descendants constitute the majority of the population but are profoundly underrepresented (Mitchell, 2009). In 1999, only 7% of federal deputies were Afro-descendant (Johnson, 1998, 2015). After the 2018 elections, Afro-descendant federal deputies attained 24% of seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Yet whites remain drastically overrepresented, comprising 47.9% of the population, but 74.9% of those elected federal deputy in 2018. In contrast, people identifying as pardo/a (brown) and preto/a (black), respectively, comprise 43.2 and 7.4% of the population, but just 20.3 and 4.1% of elected federal deputies, respectively. Underrepresentation varies by state, generally conforming to the population (Campos & Machado, 2017). In Amazonas, the state with the largest proportion of nonwhite inhabitants, just 25% of federal deputies elected in 2018 identify as white, and in Rio Grande do Sul, the state with the second smallest share of nonwhite inhabitants, the delegation was 100% white. There are, however, states with marked disproportionality. In Bahia, for example, nonwhites constitute 78% of the population but only 46.2% of their federal deputies. Differences between brown and black representation are noteworthy: while all but three states elected some federal deputies identifying as brown, most (17 of 27) states have zero federal deputies identifying as black, and only Bahia and Rio de Janeiro elected more than one or two black federal deputies.

There is also variation across parties, although it does not correspond to ideological tendencies or party size. The parties electing the greatest share of Afro-descendant deputies include left and non-left parties, large and small alike. Of the 30 parties winning a seat in the 2018 Chamber of Deputies elections, 7 had delegations with at least 30% Afro-descendant deputies, whereas 9 elected less than 15% Afro-descendants. Again, differences between brown and black representation are instructive: while 25 of the 30 parties elected at least 1 brown federal deputy, 20 of the 30 parties elected 0 black federal deputies. Seven of the 10 parties electing black federal deputies elected just one or two. Five (24%) elected black federal deputies belong to the major leftist party (the Workers’ Party), and seven black deputies belonged to right-wing parties (the evangelical affiliated Brazilian Republic Party and the nationalist Social Liberal Party). Federal deputies identifying as part of the black caucus tend to conform to one of two trajectories, with backgrounds in social movements and/or religious organizations (Wylie, 2018).

Just 13 of the 125 Afro-descendant federal deputies elected in 2018 were women (10.4%). Although individuals identifying as preto/a generally face heightened socioeconomic disparities relative to pardos/as, black (preta) women were actually better represented among black deputies (5 of 22) than brown (parda) women were among brown deputies (8 of 103). Furthermore, gendered campaign finance discrepancies existing among brown and white candidates did not hold for black candidates in the 2018 Chamber of Deputies elections (Gatto & Wylie, 2019; Wylie, 2020). Afro-descendant women nonetheless remain underrepresented in Brazil’s political institutions. While Afro-descendant women constitute the plurality of the population, as of 2018 they held just 2.5% of seats in the Chamber of Deputies.

The few black women elected have served as important role models (Mitchell, 2009). One of Brazil’s most prominent women politicians is Benedita da Silva, the first black woman to be elected to the Chamber of Deputies (in 1986) and the Senate (in 1994). da Silva’s political trajectory began with her work in the neighborhood association for her favela, Chapéu Mangueira. She entered electoral politics in 1982, winning election to Rio’s municipal council, and then serving in municipal, state, and federal government. She was Brazil’s first black woman to serve as governor (2002–2003) and as cabinet member (Minister of Social Assistance under Luíz Inácio Lula da Silva, 2003–2007). In 2018, da Silva was elected to serve her fifth term as federal deputy. Her background as a multiple minority—poor, black, woman, and progressive evangelical—has exposed her to intense discrimination, and throughout her mandates, da Silva has fought for the rights of Brazil’s most marginalized (da Silva, Benjamin, & Mendonça, 1997; Schumaher & Brazil, 2000).

Marielle Franco was another trailblazing woman from Rio, elected to the municipal council from the leftist Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) in 2016. Again illustrating the violence that befalls many women politicians, Franco was assassinated in 2018. As a young, black lesbian from a Rio favela, Franco faced multiple forms of oppression. Her political goals had prioritized empowering black women, reducing police brutality, and enhancing the lives and dignity of Brazil’s impoverished Afro-descendant population (Daflon, 2018). In her life and death, she inspired other black women to fight for these and other justice-oriented goals (Antunes, 2018; Daflon, 2018). Her assassination led to widespread protests (Prado, 2018). In the 2018 elections, several black women candidates won election with the PSOL, centering Franco’s platform and image in their campaign: three black women from Franco’s staff were elected to Rio’s state assembly, and two black women were elected to the Chamber of Deputies (Antunes, 2018; Daflon, 2018).

Conclusions and Moving Forward

The descriptive representation of women and marginalized racial and ethnic groups has increased markedly since Latin America’s (re-)democratization, which began in the 1980s. Latin America pioneered the use of affirmative action for candidates from traditionally excluded groups, including gender quotas and gender parity laws for women, and reserved seats for indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants. Yet affirmative action mechanisms to promote women’s descriptive representation are more widespread than measures to increase indigenous peoples’ and Afro-descendants’ descriptive representation. And while women’s numeric access to Latin America’s legislatures remains impressive, these gains have not come without resistance and even backlash. Gender quotas and gender parity laws have countered elite resistance by becoming stronger over time, with more women benefiting from affirmative action. Yet with few exceptions, most women elected come from their country’s dominant racial and ethnic groups, indicating that the representation of indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants—especially indigenous and Afro-descendant women—undermines the quality of Latin American democracies.

Improving the descriptive representation of marginalized racial and ethnic groups depends first on making inequities visible. Throughout Latin America, the availability of data disaggregated by race/ethnicity and gender has increased, but gaps remain in scholars’ and policy makers’ ability to identify and count groups. For non–European origin women, data are also needed to better reveal and understand how they experience their intersecting identities. Brazil is the first country in the region to gather self-declared racial identity from candidates for electoral office, enabling empirical examination of the negative effects of Afro-descendancy and gender on electoral prospects. Such findings may inform and strengthen calls for the development of affirmative action policies for electoral office, which have heretofore been largely absent for Afro-descendants.

Future studies should systematically evaluate how race and ethnicity, and the intertwining of race/ethnicity with gender, affects the recruitment, candidacy, election, and governance of non–European origin men and women. Scholars have studied the consequences of women’s political incorporation, from women’s (lack of) empowerment within the legislature to their ability to shape policy outcomes, but paid less attention to intersectional dynamics. Very little is known about the party incorporation and legislative behavior of indigenous and Afro-descendant men and women politicians, beyond the case studies of individual politicians. Whether and how the increased descriptive representation of ethnic and Afro-descendant minorities translates into substantive representation remains an open question. Initial research suggests that the presence of social movement organizations is critical for helping ethnic legislators, especially women, push forward policies that benefit their communities (Paredes, 2015; Rousseau & Ewig, 2017). Yet achieving “intersectional representation” in the legislature requires concrete work, even in contexts where indigenous women hold significant proportions of the legislative seats: women’s interests vary by race, ethnicity, and class, and hammering out policies that truly benefit women from all social groups requires coordination across elite and popular sectors of society (Ewig, 2018).

Research on how members of traditionally excluded groups move between informal politics and formal politics also remains sparse. Even as whites and mestizos have dominated formal politics, indigenous and Afro-descendant social movements have flourished. Many participants in these movements have attained access to elected office, though for most indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples, informal politics has constituted an alternate, more inclusive arena of political participation (Dixon, 2016; Dixon & Johnson, 2019). Future research should more carefully theorize why indigenous peoples and Afro-descendant populations have remained largely excluded from formal politics, despite their leading roles in Latin America’s popular social movements. The experiences of the pioneering individuals who gained office against all odds indicates that nonwhite politicians are bringing their social movement backgrounds and norms into formal politics. Their increased presence is key to deepening democracy in Latin America.

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(1.) See Women Suffrage and Beyond (2007–2011).

(2.) Though Venezuela applies quotas for subnational legislatures.

(3.) The 1990 data are from Htun and Piscopo (2014).

(4.) The electoral institute in Venezuela applies a 50% quota, but this initiative is not dictated by statute, and information about its application is difficult to obtain.

(5.) Data courtesy of Magda Hinojosa and Miki Caul Kittilson.

(6.) By the 2010s, only the census in Dominican Republic did not ask about indigeneity. In the 2010s, only the censuses of Chile, Dominican Republic, and El Salvador did not include questions about Afrodescendancy. The addition of questions about Afro-descendant identity to most censuses marks a stark contrast from just three decades earlier, when only censuses in Brazil, Colombia, and Cuba asked about Afrodescendancy (Dixon & Johnson, 2019; Htun, 2016).

(7.) In this piece, the terms “native” and “indigenous” are used interchangeably.

(8.) Importantly, Bird argues that this relationship is contingent upon electoral rules, and cautions that ethnic parties may transform into vehicles serving the interests of the leaders, rather than the community as a whole.

(9.) Brazilian government officials, activists, and academics typically collapse people identifying as preto/a and pardo/a into an aggregate “Afro-descendant” (or “negro”) category. However, some critique this conventional practice because many (if not most) people identifying as pardo/a would not claim Afrodescendancy (Hernández, 2012; Htun, 2016; Loveman, Muniz, & Bailey, 2012; Telles, 2014). Data on vote share, success rates, and campaign finance, however, seem to support the aggregation; while people identifying as pardo/a do occupy a middle ground between pretos/as and whites, they fare more comparably to former than the latter (Gatto & Wylie, 2019; Janusz, 2017; Wylie, 2020).

(10.) The state initially defined black communities as “rural communities living on Colombia’s Pacific Coast” (Paschel, 2016, p. 12).

(11.) Prior to the availability of those data, racial representation was determined by researchers with photographs of candidates or elected officials, an inherently fraught process for identifying race, especially in a country with widespread miscegenation (Johnson, 1998, 2015).