The salsa comes out of the shadows

No Longer Invisible
May 10, 1996

This is a significant book. Its 15 country case studies on Afro-Americans in Latin America are very uneven in quality but they reflect the reality: a population that has rarely been acknowledged has also hardly been "researched", and much less by its own scholars. Compensating for the unevenness of the information is the common project, that of bringing evidence and thinking into the public domain and therefore making this population "visible". Engaged in this project are academics and activists and the result is a lively book that recounts the place of Afro-Latin Americans in Latin America's history and charts their contemporary efforts to gain recognition for that place and the rights denied them.

These Afro-Latin American populations have made a huge impact on Latin American culture, and particularly that part of the culture that has been the most resilient to imported influences and gone on to export itself, notably samba, salsa, merengue and other African rhythms. Exports and imports draw us back to the story of trade. The Afro-Americans were the labour force of Latin America's plantation-based primary commodity exports. The legacy of this experience weighs heavily on internalised as well as external perceptions of Latin America's black population.

The book's useful introduction offers a contextual framework for the case studies, pointing out that in the wake of independence from Spain, blacks were often associated with underdevelopment and backwardness. In contrast, "whitening" was often seen as a path to development and featured as a rationale for the Brazilian government's policy in the late 19th century of encouraging European immigration. The introduction and many of the case studies stress that black self-liberation is necessary if such systematic inferiorisation is to be overcome, but they also show its complexities. Discovering the positive value of "difference" and articulating it in relation to other ethnicities and the power structures they are embedded in is a real challenge for Latin America's African population. The case studies offer a rich comparative insight into the diverse approaches to this challenge, and stress the importance of improving our knowledge and understanding of the nature of race and ethnic oppressions in Latin America.

Jenny Pearce is in the department of peace studies, University of Bradford.

No Longer Invisible: Afro-Latin Americans Today

Editor - Minority Rights Group
ISBN - 1 873194 80 3 and 85 4
Publisher - Minority Rights Publications
Price - £29.95 and £12.95
Pages - 401

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