Celia Cussen urges us to acknowledge the contributions made by Afro-descendents in Chile Returning to the Past to Prevent a Modern “Social Death”


“By welcoming these men and women from other parts of Latin America, we are called upon to reframe our own history and to understand its connection with the great continental African Diaspora from which immigrants also descend.”  That is how historian Celia Cussen sees the recent immigration phenomenon.  A migration that has increased in movement and numbers—although still quite below worldwide averages—and which during the last decade has tended to flow from Latin America and the Caribbean towards Chile, which is a country that often fails to remember that it is profoundly Latin American.

Ximena Póo

Director of Extension and Faculty Member of the Instituto de la Comunicación e Imagen Universidad de Chile. PhD in Latin American Studies

Translated by Natalia Tranchino and Anthony Rauld

Memory is built on connection, relationships, facts, perceptions, projections, searches, utopias, euphoria and pain. On erasure and valorization. Memory is built on that and more. Hence, the present history is anchored to the past in order to discover, in that ellipsis, that which is residual, emergent or dominant. It seems easy, yet it is not. And if memory is whitened, locked up and abducted, then emancipation as a project becomes even more complex.

Celia Cussen—Associate Professor of the Department of Historical Sciences at the Faculty of Philosophy and Humanities since 2002, PhD in History from the University of Pennsylvania and BA with honors in International Relations and Economics from Stanford University, Palo Alto, California—has specialized in the colonial history of Spanish America, African slavery in Chile, and religion during the Hispano-American Baroque epoch.

Her background allows her to trace the links between racisms and migrations, expanding our knowledge with regards to what it is that has happened to us as a society as we neglect the memory of African descendants, which is also a part of us.

Author of various articles, Cussen has also written books, including Martín de Porres. Santo de América (Lima: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 2016); Black Saint of the Americas: The Life and Afterlife of Martín de Porres (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014). In addition, she was editor of Huellas de África en América: perspectivas para Chile [Traces of Africa in America: perspectives for Chile] (Santiago: Editorial Universitaria, 2009) and Co-editor of Del nuevo mundo al viejo mundo: mentalidades y representaciones desde América [From the new world to the old world: mentalities and representations from America](Santiago: Fondo de Publicaciones Americanistas/Facultad de Filosofía y Humanidades de la Universidad de Chile, 2007).

Her words return in the book Racism in Chile. The Skin as a Mark of Immigration (Published by Maria Emilia Tijoux in alliance with Editorial Universitaria and the Vicerrectoría de Extensión y Comunicaciones): “(…) one of our ancestors, six generations away, could have been African. If these ancestors are unknown, forgotten or denied by today’s Chileans, it is not because in colonial times they came across an insurmountable wall of racial discrimination. On the contrary, and as we have seen, dark skin was only one of several factors which determined the social relations during colonialism, and none of them was an obstacle for the integration of African and Afro-descendants into the broader society”.

 Since colonialism is a seamless process, what persists in Chile from the time of slavery and from the contributions made by freed slaves towards the construction of a nation, which tends to insist—although less than before—on its whiteness?

I think it is essential to establish a sustained dialogue between the past and the present with respect to the issue of Afro-migration in Chile. Thus, our present concerns regarding the current immigration issue can lead to questions regarding integration as enslaved Africans from the 16th to the 19th centuries experienced it. At the same time, we can reflect on the links that may exist between that past, reconstructed from the archives and from our collective memory, and the way we react today to the arrival of Afro-descendants from other Latin American contexts.  During colonial times, the boundaries between groups were not formulated simply on the basis of their ancestral origins. Instead of applying a biological or “scientific” standard, the social position of a person, understood to be their “quality”, was configured on the basis of several factors such as their economic activity, the clothes they wore, their ability to articulate Hispanic customs, or their participation in a military service or brotherhood, in addition to the color of their skin. After gaining their freedom, Afro-descendants could climb up the social ladder through the strategic use of these factors, as well as by marrying people of different backgrounds, which was a very real possibility. Nevertheless, the stain associated with being a descendant of slaves was very difficult to erase. The construction of the nation during the 19th century implied a move away from the heterogeneity of the society and produced a homogenization of the roles of every social group—they all became Chileans—which contributed little to end the discrimination that was aimed at those with African or indigenous roots. They were all whitened in our collective memory, and this created the myth of the Chilean race, which denied the role Afro-descendants played in the formation of the society. Accordingly, this negation makes us ill prepared to value the present arrival of black immigrants.

What has Chile lost by not recognizing its constitutive blackness?  What is fortified when recognizing it both culturally and politically?

The Chilean society that was formed almost 500 years ago incorporated the Afro population from the start.  The archives are filled with documents depicting the presence of enslaved and free Africans since the first European incursions into Chile, where they served as assistants of the Spanish military. The contributions of Afro-descendants are undeniable in all areas of life, during the centuries of colonialism and since then. With their voices and drums they enlivened the religious events in the city of Santiago; they made the altars that adorned several churches in their workshops and they joined in assemblies for the material and spiritual well being of their members.  Free blacks, enrolled in militias, patrolled the cities, and many women, both enslaved and free, prepared the food and nursed the children in the manor houses of the epoch. Excluding them from the Chilean narrative about our past is a self-inflicted wound.  It means denying Chile’s biological, social and cultural DNA. Rescuing these contributions, and shining a light on them, serves to guide our path today. When we understand the complex process of integration of the Afro-Chileans throughout the nearly 300 years of colonialism, we will be in a better position to engage in the acceptance and inclusion of the new immigrants.  Concurrently, by welcoming these men and women from other parts of Latin America, we are called upon to reframe our own history and to understand its connection with the great continental African Diaspora, from which immigrants also descend.

What recommendations can you make on how we can become familiar with our history, from a critical perspective, at the school and university level, incorporating colonial narratives of slavery and emancipation that are relevant to us today?

I think we need to give the story of African migration in Chile a face, in the past and present context.  The study, and teaching, of history, has to foster an understanding and empathy towards those who have lived through oppression and injustice. For that reason, it is worth studying the lives of those that managed to overcome obstacles and secure a path towards freedom. Also, it is important to understand the political decision, in 1823, to emancipate slaves throughout the territory.  Being sensitive to these processes allows us to understand the struggles immigrants face today to overcome language barriers, to find jobs, and to confront their unequal status in relation to the Chilean state.

What is your reflection on the contributions made by the great continental African Diaspora in Latin America and the Caribbean?  What examples can you give?

In about 350 years, 11 million people from the African continent were forcibly taken to America in a horrifying two to three month journey to work mainly in the plantations that supplied the worldwide consumption of commodities like sugar, cotton and tobacco. As in the case of Chile, some of them ended up immersed in the urban life of the continent as domestic servants or craftsmen. But whatever their fate was, both the trauma of being violently taken from their homes and the conditions of their submission destroyed their sense of identity and belonging to their communities. Orlando Patterson calls this a “social death”, which is in fact one of slavery’s intrinsic characteristics. It seems to me that their capacity to both actively and creatively overcome these abject circumstances constitutes the greatest contribution of the African and Afro-descendant population to the continent. After the complete break with their past, they began to reformulate their own identities. Indeed, the willingness to overcome these adverse circumstances began during the same journey, where enslaved men and women created bonds with their companions. Then it continued on the mainland through the building of relations with other groups on the basis of compadrazgo, for example. In addition, and as part of the process of rebuilding their lives in Latin America, enslaved people were able to establish a resistance against the violence and the sterility of a life of subjugation, with both individual or group expressions, which are part of the legacy left by the African Diaspora in this continent.  Religious syncretism, like candomblé, santería or vudú, and the “lascivious” port dances, like the Peruvian marinera, and its Chilean version, cueca, are only the most evident reformulations of an African past that became rooted in Colonial America. Especially in the mining towns and regions, Africans and their descendants struggled to gain their freedom, but despite this important step towards integration, they continued to hold on to the new identities they configured in America. These formed the basis for a companionship found in the “pardo” mixed race militias, for example, or in the brotherhood of “mulatos” of the Convent of San Agustín in the 17th century which, in turn, connected them in different ways to the rest of society through charity works and public celebrations.  There were also many contributions made in public kitchens and hospitals, where the healing and caring hands of Afro-descendants, who were specialists in innovative surgery and healing techniques based on Spanish, indigenous, and presumably African elements, were very much appreciated. Thus, engaged in a dialog with other groups, Afro-descendants managed to establish roots in new regions.  Finally, they also took advantage of the porosities in the colonial society by choosing a mestizo, indigenous, or even a Spanish spouse. To a great extent, this mixture explains the absence of a group clearly identifiable as Afro-Chileans. However, it is undeniable that African traces remain in our genetic matter, as shown by the study conducted by Soledad Berríos, recently published in The DNA of the Chileans.

 Do you believe those contributions can be learned and understood in Chile, a country that has turned its back on its origins?

It is true that knowing that the average Chilean has an ancestor who arrived from Africa as a slave clashes with the usual narrative we hear of the foundation of this nation.  But if we accept this alternative history, which is more complex but closer to reality, then it becomes possible, I believe, to achieve a greater sensitivity in relation to the history of slavery across the continent, to which we all belong to and from where the current immigrants come. All in all, understanding the circumstances and consequences of the first great African Diaspora can lead us to a greater connection and empathy towards these people, who for various reasons have been forced to pursue new directions. Their complete integration into Chilean society protects them from having to suffer a modern version of  “social death”.

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