Racism in Latin America

  • Latin America has not escaped the near-universal phenemenon of racism. As we've seen, early Europeans immediately pronounced the indigenous population of the Americas inferior and treated them accordingly. Some Europeans refused to acknowledge native Americans as human beings. We'll take up the issue of discrimination against Native Americans latger in the course. Africans also suffered from racism and slavery. Slave traders captured and forcibly transported almost 10 million Africans to Latin America. About two-thirds of that total ended up working on planations in Brazil or the Caribbean. Compare that number with the 400,000 brought to British North America, and you can quickly see the immense demographic and cultural impact of Africa on Latin America and the Caribbean. As you read course materials, look for evidence of the many African contributions to Latin American history and culture.
  • Long ago, some whites argued that people of other races were "natural slaves." Others marshaled bogus Biblical arguments to "prove" that Africans should be enslaved. What did Africans think? They resisted and fought against their dehumanizing conditions in many ways. Slaves fled, and thousands of them set up remote villages of runaways that resisted all attempts to retake them. Slaves also malingered, sabotaged, and in extreme cases committed suicide to deny their masters the satisfaction of extracting forced labor. The documents that follow provide many voices concerning the issues of racism and slavery. You will use several documents, along with your text readings, to examine this complex and painful part of Latin American history.
  • Read the two poems below, one by a Brazilan and another by a Cuban. They provide poet first-hand views from Latin America of the issues of racism and slavery. Next read the section at the bottom of this page on "DEFINITIONS, COMPONENTS, AND VARIETIES OF RACISM." This mini-course in the sociology of racism will provide you with some cognitive tools to analyze and better understand the other readings.

    Voice of Africa, abolitionist poem by Antonio de Castro Alves (Brazil, 1847-71)

    God! O God! Where are you that you do not answer!
    On what world, what star have you hidden yourself
    Veiled in heaven?
    For two thousand years I have cried out to you,
    In vain, it has echoed through an empty heaven . . .
    Where are you, Lord God?. . .

    Like Prometheus, one day you bound me
    To a desolate, blood-stained boulder,
    Perpetual galley-labor! . . .
    For a vulture--I am given the broiling sun!
    And the land of Suez--was the shackle
    That bound me by one foot . . .
    The weary mount of the Beduin
    Falls on its back beneath the- whip
    And dies on the open plain.
    My back bleeds, the pain trickles down
    Pierced by the lash of the simoom
    Your eternally punishing arm.

    My sisters are beautiful, they are happy . . .
    Asia sleeps in the voluptuous shade
    Of the Sultan's harem,
    Or rocked on the backs of white elephants
    She covers herself with jewels
    In the land of Hindustan.
    For an awning-the peaks of the Himalayas…
    The amorous Ganges embraces the banks
    Covered with the colors of her people
    The breeze of Mysora ignites the sky;
    And she sleeps in the temples of Brahma,
    Colossal pagodas…

    Europe-is always Europe, the glorious one! …
    The seductive and willful woman,
    A queen and courtesan.
    Artist--cuts the marble of Carrara;
    Poet--strums the hymns of Ferrara,
    Toiling for her glory!…

    Wearing the laurels of every contest…
    Now a crown, now the barrette-phrygio
    Flowers encircle her throat,
    The Universe pursues her-an excited lover
    Captive to the dizzying steps
    Of the noble whore.

    But I, Lord! ... I am sad, abandoned
    Wandering helplessly in the wilderness,
    Lost and marching in vain!
    If I cry . . . the hot plain drinks my tears!
    Perhaps ... all my weeping, O, merciful God,
    Is hidden from you in the earth! . . .

    I have neither the shade of a single tree,
    To cover me, nor a temple for sanctuary
    From my lonely immolation ...
    When I scale the pyramids of Egypt,
    In vain I cry out to the four windows of heaven:
    "Save me, Lord! . . ."

    Like the prophet whose face is blackened with ashes,
    I cover my head against the elements, where the
    Fierce Sirrocco turns . . .
    When I cross the Sahara in sack-cloth
    Ai'. they say: "There goes Africa veiled
    In her white albornoz. . ."

    None see that the desert is my sudarium,
    That my silent, solitary search
    Is for my own soul.
    There alone, where the thorn scarcely survives,
    The colossal stone Sphynx yawns,
    Staring dully at the sky.
    From the ruined columns of Thebes
    The stooped storks watch
    The endless horizon ...
    Where shines the wandering caravan
    And the droning, panting camel
    Kneels for Ephraim . . .

    Is this enough pain yet, o terrible God?!
    And perhaps your eternal spirit is not drained
    Of vengeance and rancor?
    What have I done, Lord? What horrifying crime
    Have I ever committed, that you oppress me
    With your double-edged vengeance?!

    It was after the flood. . . A nomad,
    Black, somber, weak, panting
    Came down from Ararat . . .
    And I say to the collapsing wanderer:
    "Ham! . . . thou art my most beloved husband . . .
    I will be your Eloa . . ."

    From that day the wind of disgrace
    For the color of my kinky locks, howls,
    Sends forth the cruel anathema.
    The tribes roam the open plains,
    And the voracious Nomad scores the land
    With the hooves of his swift steed.

    I beheld wisdom fleeing Egypt . . .
    I beheld the people that followed after- Judah cursed-
    Trek of perdition.
    After I beheld my disgraced progeny
    Snatched up by the talons of Europe
    Domesticated falcon.

    Christ! In vain you died on a mountain
    Your blood will not cleanse my brow of
    The original stain.
    Yet today, by unlucky fate,
    My children-beasts of burden for the universe
    I---pasturage for all.

    Today my blood feeds America
    Condor, you have made yourself into a vulture,
    Bird of slavery.
    She draws nearer, . . . traitorous sister!
    Which of Joseph's vile brothers, or the other
    Will sell his brother!

    Enough, Lord! Send forth your potent
    Arm, across the stars of space
    Forgiveness for my crimes!
    For two thousand years I have had one cry ...
    Listen to my protest from your everlasting throne,
    My God! Lord, My God!!!

    Guillén Poem Against Racism in Cuba

    Nicolás Guillén (1902-1989) was one of Cuba's foremost poets. Best known as an accomplished practitioner of Afro-Cuban verse, Guillén published many books on different themes: nature, love, history. He always exhibited a keen interest in social injustice and was a lifetime activist and Communist. Guillén, an immensely popular writer, won many national and international awards, and many of his poems have been set to music and become popular songs. In ''Ballad of Two Grandfathers,'' from his book West Indies, Ltd. (1934) Guillén use the poem to celebrate his mulatto identity, thus paying homage to his black and white grandfathers. He also makes it clear that his black grandfather suffered greatly from the cruel history of slavery.
    Shadows which only I see,
    I'm watched by my two grandfathers.
    A bone-point lance,
    a drum of hide and wood:
    my black grandfather.
    A ruff on a broad neck,
    a warrior's gray armament:
    my white grandfather.
    Africa's humid jungles
    with thick and muted gongs . . .
    ''I'm dying!''
    (My black grandfather says).
    Waters dark with alligators,
    morning green with coconuts . . .
    ''I'm tired!''
    (My white grandfather says).
    Oh sails of a bitter wind,
    galleon burning for gold . . .
    ''I'm dying''
    (My black grandfather says).
    Oh coasts with virgin necks
    deceived with beads of glass . . .!
    ''I'm tired!''
    (My white grandfather says).
    Oh pure and burnished sun,
    imprisoned in the tropic's ring;
    Oh clear and rounded moon
    above the sleep of monkeys!
    So many ships, so many ships!
    So many Blacks, so many Blacks!
    So much resplendent cane!
    How harsh the trader's whip!
    A rock of tears and blood,
    of veins and eyes half-open,
    of empty dawns
    and plantation sunsets,
    and a great voice, a strong voice,
    splitting the silence.
    So many ships, so many ships,
    so many Blacks!
    Shadows which only I see,
    I'm watched by my two grandfathers.
    Don Federico yells at me
    and Taita Facundo is silent;
    both dreaming in the night
    and walking, walking.
    I bring them together.
    Facundo!''  They embrace.  They sigh,
    they raise their sturdy heads;
    both of equal size,
    beneath the high stars;
    both of equal size,
    a Black longing, a White longing,
    both on equal size,
    they scream, dream, weep, sing.
    They dream, weep, sing.
    They weep, sing.


    [Don't try to change a tire with a toothbrush. Get the right tools for the job. For the job of understanding social interactions, the tools come from the discipline of sociology. I recommend taking a sociology course and acquiring the cognitive tools needed to understand how societies function.]


  • "Any attitude, action, or institutional structure that subordinates (oppresses) a person or a group because of their color . . . Racism is not just a matter of attitudes. Actions and institutional structures can be a form of racism, also." (From "Racism in America and How to Combat It," US Commission on Civil Rights, 1970.)
  • "Racism is different from racial prejudice, hatred or discrimination. Racism involves having the power to carry out systematic discrimination practices through the major institutions of our society." (From What Curriculum Leaders Can Do about Racism by Dr. Delmo Della-Dora, New Detroit, Inc., 1970.)

    Relevant Concepts


    "Institutions are fairly stable social arrangements and practices through which collective actions are taken." (Examples of institutions are government, business, unions, schools, churches, courts and police.)

    Institutional Racism

    "Institutions have great power to reward and penalize. They reward by providing career opportunities for some people and foreclosing them for others. They reward as well by the way social goods are distributed - by deciding who receives training and skills, medical care, formal education, political influence, moral support and self-respect, productive employment, fair treatment by the law, decent housing, self-confidence, and the promise of a secure future for self and children.' "One of the clearest indicators of institutional racism is the exclusion of black members of society from positions of control and leadership."


    The condition of belonging to a dominant social, racial, or ethnic group. In the United States, for example, merely being white and or male confers certain advantages. One begins every contest or situation with an automatic, built-in advantage. This condition exists whether you understand it and recognize it or not. In many cases, we don't directly perceive how social constructions affect our lives. We make blithe assumptions of equality, fairness, and democracy that do not really exist. Not convinced? Explore the discussions and data on the Exploring White Male Privilege.

    Opportunity constraints

    Those who do not enjoy privilege in a given society (most often people of color and women) face automatic disadvantages in any contest or situation. They must pay additional costs (monetary, social, political) and they face restrictions not imposed upon those who enjoy privilege.

    The above conditions, privilege and opportunity constraints, exist and function, whether an individual recognizes it or not. They are endemic and systemic.


    1. Stereotype: The word comes from the process of making metal plates for printing, and means a set image. When applied to people, the word means a fixed picture of a group of people. A positive or negative value is placed on these set images.
    2. Prejudice: Prejudice means literally to pre-judge." It is a state of mind in one person or group about another, tending to cast the other in an inferior light, despite the absence of legitimate evidence. Although these negative attitudes are irrational and based on misinformation, they become a way to justify mistreatment of groups of people. They become socially acceptable. The negative attitudes then become recycled through society as a form of education. In this way, for example, misinformation about people of color becomes a part of everyone's assumptions. The first two forms of racism--stereotyping and prejudice--involved attitudes.
    3. Discrimination: Discrimination is an Action or behavior based on prejudiced feelings. Discriminatory behavior attaches importance to physical differences between people and accords unfavorable treatment to people based on such feelings. Discrimination can be directed towards people who are perceived as part of a different group--women, handicapped people, people from different ethnic backgrounds--and has the effect of excluding or restricting their access to housing, jobs, education or participation in an organization. Discrimination can take the form of unfavorable treatment of one individual by another. If is important to remember that to discriminate, a group must have social, economic, and/or political power over another group.
    4. 4. Systemic Racism: Like sexism, racism is a form of discrimination. It is prejudice, plus the back up of institutional power, used to the advantage of one ethnic group and to the disadvantage of other ethnic groups. The critical concept differentiating any form of discrimination, including racism, from prejudice, is the "backup of institutional power." Racism is any action or institutional practice--backed by institutional power--that subordinates people because of their color or ethnicity.
    Discrimination can include both individual and societal pressures which exclude and demean. Systemic racism refers to the pervasive structures and practices that exclude groups on the basis of ethnicity, and that makes individual acts of discrimination acceptable.

    Some forms of systemic racism include:

  • Segregation means to separate or isolate certain members of a group from the main part of that group - in other words, to keep certain people apart from the rest of the society because of their religion, skin color or other differences from the dominant group. Native people have been victims of this form of systemic racism in many countries. During the Second World War, Japanese Canadians suffered such discrimination.
  • Expulsion goes one step further because it means that certain members of a group are driven but of society. Again, this was a feature of Japanese Canadians' and Japanese Americans' experiences during the Second World War.
  • Extermination is the killing of a whole group. A Canadian example is the extermination of the Beothuk Indians of Newfoundland.

    Reprinted by permission from Exploring Racism c.1989, The United Church of Canada, Division of Mission in Canada, Toronto, Canada. Obtained from EAR, Episcopalians Against Racism. Adapted and expanded by Richard W. Slatta, Professor of History, NC State University, Raleigh.