It is 2007, and the whole time we are in southern Chile, I keep trying to write a poem about my mother’s hands. Light brown, sinewy, and freckled in some places, her hands remind me of my Tata’s, and being here in Villarica makes me think about Mami’s lineage in a way I haven’t yet. They are her father’s hands, I write in my journal—a spiral-bound notebook with a map of the New York City subway system printed on the cover—and maybe someone else’s before that. I am just a couple months shy of thirteen, and still struggling to find language to articulate my own relationship to race.
One day, while my brothers and I are walking around town, a group of white children, all small boys, approach us to ask where we’re from. They note our brown skin and curly hair, our Blackness—or proximity to it, depending on who is looking and where— and try making guesses. Brasileños? One of them says. We laugh, and tell them our mother is from Chile, just like them. The boys don’t seem to believe us, and as we walk away, they continue watching.
Twelve years later, in 2019, I am on the phone with Cristián Báez Lazcano, listening as he talks to me about the politics of recognition. He’s on the road to Santiago de Chile, and with his voice slightly clipped but energized over WhatsApp, he explains that the mass uprising seizing Chile over the past few months has opened up unexpected space for his community—Afro-Chilenos in the northern province of Arica.
Báez is the co-founder of Lumbanga, a community-based cultural organization focused on Afro-descendants, and he’s currently en route to a meeting with organizers involved in the #Chiledespertó movement that erupted after a rise in metro fares in October. “Estamos justo en un proceso de aprobar la ley de reconocimiento,” he tells me, noting that his group is just about to get a law passed on the constitutional recognition of Afro-Chilenos, a shift made possible both through decades of organizing and through this current moment of coalition-building. Months of protests have forced the Chilean government to begin a process of constitutional revision, which may also provide a path for the formal inclusion of Afro-Chilenos.
The metro fare increase ignited a widespread rebellion of Chileans responding to a half-century tide of privatization that has strangled the country’s working class, even as international reputation boasts Chile as an “oasis” of economic stability. Chile’s political upheaval has exposed these cleavages, drawing those at the margins toward the center and demanding a different vision for the country. Afro-Chileno activists like Báez, who have long been fighting for state recognition, are placing themselves in that vision, while insisting, too, that they’ve always been there.
Historically, Blackness has occupied a place of invisibility in Chile; if I’m being honest, I felt more Chilean before I ever visited. More Chilean boarding the plane for the first time than after I landed. Growing up in New York City, I knew Chile mostly through the refracted memories of my mother, a mestiza from a small, working-class mining town in the southern part of the country, who had immigrated to the US as a child and spent most of her life since then among Caribbean friends on the East Coast. My father is Black—West Indian by way of Panama—and when we all visited Chile together for the first time, we were struck by the extent to which we seemed unrecognizable to people we encountered, including members of our own extended family.
Indeed, Black people in Chile do not have a large demographic presence, though we probably occupy even less space in its racial imaginary. As Afro-Chileno community activists emphasize, Afro-descendants have never even been acknowledged on the national census. Such exclusion means that one cannot simultaneously claim Chilean and Black identity. I remember four years ago, on a trip to visit my friend, I met a woman in Valparaíso—that famously hilly and colorful city by the sea—who could not believe that I had a Chilean mother. “So what city was your mother born in?” she asked, though even after I told her, she remained doubtful, her eyebrows knit together as though she was discovering a lie. “And your father, where is he from?” When I answered this question, the woman’s face seemed to settle. She smiled—“Ah, eres Panameña.”
When we look at Chile’s racial history, this silence and equivocation around Blackness is perhaps unsurprising; since its founding, Chile has largely asserted itself as a white country. Like other settler-colonial states in the Americas, its national narratives have rested on a logic of white supremacy that deems European conquest a worthy claim to land, resources, and cultural dominance. But Chile is often understood as being especially white; it’s not a myth of mestizaje or “harmonious” mixedness that prevails— though that does exist—as in other Latin American countries. Instead, Chile has fashioned a self-image as European kin.
This persona has in part justified itself through about a century of immigrant policy meant to attract Europeans and “whiten” the population. It has also, of course, relied on the cultural and geographic marginalization of indigenous groups–including the Mapuche and Aymara, the two largest groups. The same Pinochet dictatorship-era laws that have allowed such a powerful military response to the current protests have also, for many years, facilitated the harsh criminalization of Mapuche land reclamation activists. And in these configurations of race, it’s almost as if Black people in Chile do not exist.
Blackness is seen as foreign, outside the possibility of Chilean citizenship or belonging. But Africans and Afro-descendants have lived on the land since Spanish colonizers first arrived several centuries ago, bringing enslaved people with them. In Arica, an area formerly claimed by Peru, Black people have long formed a significant part of the population. However, after Chile conquered the province from Peru during the War of the Pacific, the new government ignored their presence, ushering in a period of Chileanization.
Lumbanga founder Cristian Báez Lazcano describes this period as one of “blanqueamiento,” or whitening, and as a time of enormous psychological violence. Chileanization imposed a particularly narrow definition of Chilean identity onto the communities living in the north, as part of an assimilationist and anti-Peruvian project. Drawing on his own family’s collective memory, Báez recalls stories about abuelos hiding both Black ancestry and the cultural practices that came with it. These were acts of self-protection in response to a regional policing of Blackness that linked it to border conflict. Chileanization insisted on the public expunging of racial difference, and on the conflation of national loyalty and investment in a singular, Chilean Whiteness.
But this approach is beginning to change (or, at least, it’s beginning to reveal itself in explicit terms). Afro-Chilenos in the north are now fighting for recognition, Indigenous groups continue to organize against state violence, and growing numbers of Black immigrants—especially Haitians—cultivate community in the face of virulent anti-Blackness. The current political agitation has at times been led by Mapuche organizers; in one viral image from November 2019, protestors gather around a statue of a conquistador while one person stands atop, holding up the Mapuche flag against a burning sky, hazy with smoke and sun. Indeed, the uprising has wrenched open space for a reconsideration of what it means to be Chilean, and perhaps for an unfixing of Chilean nationhood itself. Because what kind of commitments does the wedding of Whiteness and nationalism inspire?
I think of my grandfather, my Tata. Brown-skinned, with features that didn’t necessarily read as European, I’m not sure others saw him as White. But it often seemed like he wanted to be. Though Tata didn’t speak much English, he loved to watch old Westerns and appeared to imagine himself more as John Wayne, policing the frontier, than as the Native people to whom it belonged.
And years after arriving in the US, Tata legally changed his first name—from Luis to Louis.
I think, too, of my Tía Rosa in Santiago, and her frequent suggestions about what to do with my hair. She’d often mime scissors, as she tried to explain to me what thinning shears could do. I think of those moments of distance with my extended family, in which I’ve felt like a welcome visitor but not always kin. It’s not just a stretching of boundaries that Chile needs, but a reckoning of their construction.
“Trabajamos en una frontera,” Dr. Alberto Díaz Araya tells the audience. “A hot zone, a border of conflict.” We are in downtown Boston at Endicott College, where Cristian Báez Lazcano and Dr. Díaz, a historian at the University of Tarapacá, have both been invited to speak about their work on Afro-descendants in Chile. The crowd is small, but deeply engaged. People joke that all of the Chileans in Boston have come, and some lament that the food is Caribbean, not South American—they were hoping for some empanadas, at least.
Díaz explains that to understand Chile, and questions of racial identity within the country, we have to engage with border history. In northern Chile, the area on which his research focuses, conflicts over territory have shaped regional racial identity. He suggests that both scholarship and activism around these issues need to similarly contend with nationhood and with land. Báez, who is clear that he sees himself first and foremost as a community organizer (even in his collaboration with researchers) expands on this point. “We’ve been on this land long before the Chilean republic, or the Peruvian one, were established. We are also an original people,” he says. “From great African cultures.”
Báez’s organization, Lumbanga, invokes this cultural legacy even in its name, which is shared with an Afro-Chileno neighborhood in Arica that, according to local memory, may have taken its own name from Lubango city in Angola. Lumbanga is one of a few Afro-Chileno NGOs in northern Chile–the first one, Oro Negro, was founded in 2000 and has since been led by sisters Sonia Henriquez Salgado and Marta Salgado. Most of the organizations have focused at least part of their mission on official recognition of Afro-Chilenos; this goal offers a possibility of both affirmation and greater decision-making power.
Much of their work has also involved cultural advocacy and ancestral celebration. During the lecture in Boston, Díaz and Báez noted that some organizations have begun stylizing “Arica” with an inserted f, such that it becomes “Africa.” It’s an announcement of lineage—of dual home—and places Blackness into Chilean geographies too. Lumbanga itself operates on two fronts of policy and culture, the latter of which involves reclaiming community practices. Báez often talks about relationships to land, about the cultivation of certain plants and trees. Like “el chololo,” for instance, the fruit of which is used as a hair paste, and tends to signal Blackness among those in the north. He talks about food too–like arroz moreno, which is made with olives and is typical among Afro-Chileno households. Báez says that when non-Black Chilenos refer to these dishes simply as “northern,” without noting which northerners have created them, they participate in a kind of erasure.
Erasure, dismissal—these are some of the major challenges to organizing among “los Afros,” as Baéz refers to his community. Collectively, the northern organizations have launched three attempts to get a law passed on state recognition, but each time, the proposed bills have been undermined in some way; they’ve been put off with reassurance for future consideration, or else passed on one level without actual implementation. Though a limited, regional census in 2014 found 8,415 people who identified as Afro-descendants in the north, the 2017 national census still did not include any categories to acknowledge that ancestry.
Díaz says that among academics, their mission is to declare, with numbers, that “en Chile, hubo población Afro. Y muchos.” To be clear that Africans and their descendants have long existed in Chile. One of the struggles here, however, with establishing claims to longevity and to a type of tribal status, has been opposition from some Indigenous groups. Some folks maintain the notion that Afro-Chilenos are settlers, precisely because they arrived in Chile with the Spanish. To that, Baéz responds, a note of frustration in his voice, “we were brought here, taken here.” Displacement of a people through slavery, he argues, is distinct from settler colonialism. Moreover, he insists, Black and Indigenous histories in Chile are, in several areas, overlapping.
The current political movement perhaps draws on this legacy, carving out additional avenues for cross-group solidarity. Black immigrants, often the most visible targets of anti-immigrant sentiment and legislation, have also entered these conversations about government repression and structural racism. On Facebook, pages on Haitian-Chilean community proliferate, and some have turned toward public dialogue. One post on “Haitianos en Chile,” draws a connection between the anti-corruption demonstrations in Haiti and what’s happening in Chile: “we’re in the same revolution,” it reads. Other posts continue to denounce the death, two years ago, of Joanne Florvil, a Haitian woman who died in police detention from unexplained brain damage after an unfounded arrest. Black feminist organizers have taken on this second issue with great urgency, including Paola Palácios, the Afro-Colombian founder of Negrocéntricas, an organization focused specifically on Black immigrant women in Chile.
#Chiledespertó has provided unprecedented amplification for Afro-Chilenos, as well as revealed spaces for collaboration across multiple intersections of identity and power. Chile is changing—rewriting itself so that the periphery becomes the center. The coming constitutional referendum, the first of which is happening in April, is a particularly important step towards creating systemic change. “La oportunidad tremenda para nosotros,” Baéz explains to me over our first WhatsApp conversation, “es ser reconocido.” We’re going to be recognized, he says.