Central America: Variations on a Theme, Part One

The nations comprising Central America are Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. Until the 1650s Africans comprised a larger portion of the population than European and mestizo combined in Santiago de Guatemala (Guatemala) which was the Spanish Empire’s capital for all of Central America. Although Africans and their descendants have lived throughout this region for more than five hundred years only Nicaraguans easily acknowledge their Black ancestry. Others are so mixed or in such a state of denial that by the 19th century as one visitor stated, the elites of Central America were a “mongrelized mixed race leadership masquerading as White.” This applies across the board in many areas of Latin America.

Terms in official records specify persons with a mixed heritage although in some countries certain categories ceased with national independence: “mulatto” and “pardo” used during colonial times were replaced systematically by “mestizo” and “ladino” as deemed appropriate or necessary. This transition after independence may have reflected an easy method of suppressing an African ancestry while broadening a national multi-ethnic identity. Latin America is the most racially mixed area of the Western Hemisphere.

Labels for Afro-Latinos reflect regional histories:

1. Garifuna (specifically Afro-Caribs) – Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua;

2. Mestizaje (African, Native and European) – throughout Central America;

3. Mulatto (African and European) – throughout Central America;

4. Zambo (African and Native) – throughout Central America; and

5. Zambo Miskito (African and Miskito) – Honduras, this mixture is not recognized by the Miskito people however.

Typically in the Spanish Empire, Africans already living in the Iberian Peninsula accompanied Europeans as explorers and conquerors. African Diego Mendez sailed with Columbus, and in 1502 landed on the coast of Honduras at present day Trujillo and Bay Islands. In 1524 Gil Gonzalez de Avila landed near Puerto Cortez and the first Spanish settlement, La Ensenada, was established near Tela by Cristobal de Olid. The first recorded arrival of African slaves during this period came about when a storm forced the landing of a Spanish ship from Jamaica.

Spaniard Pedro de Alvarado was a busy man in the 16th century. He founded San Salvador (El Salvador) in 1526, and helped establish Honduras as a slave trading center where Africans from Spain’s Caribbean colonies were imported and dispersed throughout Central America. Primarily they were sent to work in mines and on sugar plantations. Coffee and indigo were cultivated in later centuries and determined the eventual location of many Africans in these nations. Until trading was developed, Alvarado brought his personal slaves from Guatemala to work gold mines in the western part of Honduras. The Spanish Empire granted a license for Bishop Cristobal de Pedraza to consign 300 Africans to Honduras in 1547.

This license to Honduras was an attempt to deflect a portion of the slave trade activity from El Salvador which had been granted permission in 1541 to import Africans. In 1548, the “Jurisdiction de Los Confines” freed all Native slaves in El Salvador and the Spanish American Empire, and recommended that Africans replace them. For the next seventy-five years more than 10,000 Africans were imported. During the 1540s and 1550s most Africans worked the mines around San Miguel in El Salvador and later were assigned to plantations.

Central American plantations began to dominate the landscape in order to produce sugar, cotton, tobacco, coffee, indigo and cocoa for export, and certain areas quickly experienced heavy concentrations of Africans. In Guatemala, Amatitlan, Palencia, San Geronimo and its Pacific Coast maintained the largest plantations in Spanish America resulting in both enslaved and free workers. According to census records, until late in the 19th Century, the population of Granada, Nicaragua was majority African descent. In Omoa, Honduras, the Dominican Order owned Africans and used them to build a castle and defend it. This Black presence actually defined Honduras as a nation separate from Guatemala and Nicaragua. Oral history among the people of Omoa relates how the Dominicans during the 16th through the 18th centuries branded their enslaved ancestors with the casimba symbol to mark them as their property. These cities in Central America during the 19th century were considered to be the most African and least Creole in the entire region.

 

 

 

 

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