ETHNONYMS: Costeños, Gente de Color, Gente Negra, Libres, Morenos, Morochos, Negros

Identification. Afro-Colombians do not form a single cultural complex. The term is a general category referring to people with variable proportions of African descent living in several regions of Colombia. More difficult still to categorize are the native inhabitants of the islands of San Andrés, Providencia, and Santa Catalina, Colombian possessions about 165 kilometers off the coast of Nicaragua. These people belong historically and culturally to a West Indian cultural complex formed under British colonial influence but have been subject to increasingly intense colombianización since early in the twentieth century. This essay will not deal with them (but see Cifuentes 1986 and Wilson 1973).

Terminology is morally and politically charged, and therefore usage is complex. Many people, especially among the educated, use the term "Afro-Colombian" as a fairly neutral term to identify others; fewer use it to identify themselves. The term "Negro" (Black), although common, can be used disparagingly; some people, Afro-Colombians or not, avoid it; others use it as a noun; a few use it only as a qualifier (e.g., "Gente Negra," Black people). Since the late 1980s, with increasing Black politicization, the term "Negro" is more common, although reference to "Comunidades Negras," Black communities, has been institutionalized to some extent by a 1993 law that refers to them as such. Some people use the euphemistic "Moreno" (Brown) or "Morocho" (Dark), others the general "Gente de Color" (Colored people), to identify themselves and others. People may avoid all reference to color and instead use regional terms. In the department of Chocó in the Pacific region, Black people often refer to themselves as "Libres" (free people), a usage dating back to colonial times. The term "Costeño" (coastal dweller), is often used to imply blackness, since many Afro-Colombians live in coastal regions. In the English-language literature, the terms "Black" (sometimes "black") or "Black person" are more common than "Afro-Colombian."

Location. Black people in Colombia are all descendants of Africans originally brought as slaves to work in mining and agriculture in colonial New Granada. They are concentrated in three main areas. The Pacific coastal region, a very humid, heavily forested zone, is criss-crossed with myriad rivers. It is very poor and infrastructurally underdeveloped, and the population is reckoned to be 80 to 90 percent Black, with smaller populations of indigenous peoples, Whites, and mestizos (mostly immigrants from outside the region). The Caribbean coastal region is the second area of concentration, especially along the coastal belt itself and along the banks of some of the major rivers, the Magdalena, the Cauca, and the lower Sinú. This is a mostly flat, fairly dry region, more urbanized and infrastructurally developed with large cattle-raising and agricultural enterprises. The third area is the upper-central Cauca Valley (especially in northeastern Cauca and southwestern Valle del Cauca departments). Much of this is sugarcane territory, with huge capitalist plantations. Black people work on these, or as small peasants on land sandwiched between them, or in the towns and cities of the region, especially Cali.

Apart from these three main concentrations, Black people have also migrated in increasing numbers to major cities, such as Bogotá and Medellín. The African descent of people all along the banks of the Magdalena and the Cauca rivers, except in their uppermost reaches, is also noticeable.

Demography. Reliable estimates of population are not available. The last national census to include racial categories (Black, White, Indian, and mixed) was in 1918, and then two major provinces refused to make returns in these categories. The 1912 and 1918 census returns reckon "Blacks" to be about 10 percent of the total. Subsequent estimates (based on guesswork) have often used a figure of about 4 percent, whereas a 1992 estimate, based on the Britannica Yearbook, gives a range of 14 to 21 percent.

Linguistic Affiliation. All Black people in Colombia speak Spanish. In certain areas, such as the Pacific region, there are specific features of accent, vocabulary, and syntax that make the Spanish spoken there distinctive. In Palenque de San Basilio, a single village in the Caribbean region, palenquero is also spoken (often as a first language); migrants from this village to other areas may also speak it. It is a Spanish-based creole language with African and Portuguese elements; in the early 1990s the Ministry of Education began to finance an ethno-education program aimed at reversing the apparent trend toward the loss of palenquero.

See also Afro-Hispanic Pacific Lowlanders of Ecuador and Colombia


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