The Third Root
African Heritage of Central America
By Kent C. Williams
©2001 - Kent C. Williams, Santa Rosa, California
Guatemala is Central America's most populous nation, as well as the center of its former colonial government. The country is often associated with the culture of the Maya Indians. With 44% of its population of native American ancestry the association is correct. Other ethnic groups in Guatemala include a sizable mestizo community representing 54% of the population, an Afro-Guatemalan population which makes up about 1-2% of the population and a European or "white" population (mostly of Spanish and German ancestry) that numbers around 1%. There are also small communities of Arabic speaking persons as well as a small Jewish community.
Persons of African ancestry in Guatemala are descended from three groups: Afromestizos, Garifuna and Creole English speaking Afro-Antilleans (also known as "West Indians"). Some sources have placed the total Afro-Guatemalan population as high as 2% of Guatemala's population. One percent (110,000) seems to be more realistic. Other sources do not acknowledge any African presence in the country whatsoever.
The Afromestizo group is by far the largest, as well as the most ethnically assimilated of the three groups. Afro-mestizos are a mix of three racial groups. In addition to African, the Afromestizo also has native American and European ancestry in varying degrees and combinations. Some Guatemalan mestizos have very little or no African ancestry, being predominantly native American or European. Among those that do have some African ancestry many have little awareness of it.
It is likely that Pedro de Alvarado (the "Conqueror of Guatemala") had Africans with him during his invasion of Guatemala from Mexico in 1524. From the earliest days of the colony, African slaves were brought to Guatemala to labor for the Spanish Conquistador's. They have been a part of Guatemala's history for over 450 years.
During the early colonial period Spanish landowners established sugar, indigo and cochineal plantations, as well as large cattle ranches called haciendas. Many of these plantations and ranches were located along the Pacific "lowlands" with a marked concentration in the southern coastal and inland areas. Sugar plantations worked by African slaves became particularly important in and around the town of Amatitlan.
Africans and Europeans were not often found living in the "highlands" of Guatemala. This region is almost exclusively inhabited by native Americans. After the abolishment of slavery in Guatemala (1823) a number of slaves from neighboring Belize fled to freedom by crossing the border into the "highland jungles" of Peten in northern Guatemala. This resulted in an internal crises in Guatemala as to whether or not these slaves should be returned to their British masters. The slaves stayed in Guatemala and most eventually intermarried with the local native population.
During the 1620's an English Catholic explorer Thomas Gage observed, while sailing the southern coast of Guatemala, large numbers of black slaves working on haciendas and indigo plantations. What became of their descendants?
No more then 10,000 Africans were brought to Guatemala between 1524 and 1620. Some eventually escaped and fled into the more isolated areas of the colony, particularly the mountains of the Sierra de las Minas. Here, with bows and arrows, they attacked and harassed Spanish settlers throughout countryside. An entire military force from the capital was unable to subdue them, and they lived and mixed their blood with the local native population. This maroon community was not unlike others found at the same time in Panama and Mexico. Some runaway slaves reached the Caribbean coast and mixed with native Americans living in that region.
By the beginning of the 17th century Spanish landlords in Guatemala began questioning the desirability of continued slave importation and few Africans were brought to Guatemala after 1620. With the decline in slave importation during the 17th century, along with an on going miscegenation, much of the black population of Guatemala was gradually assimilated and absorbed into the mestizo (ladino) population. Their descendants today form a part of the mestizo population and no longer have a strong awareness of their African ancestry.
Some slaves during the 17th century were able to purchase their own freedom. A small but significant group of free blacks emerged in Guatemala. Some were land owners. One Afro-Guatemalan established a dairy farm to supply the capital and became quite wealthy. Others cultivated cacao, maize, sugar, tobacco and other crops.
One well known Guatemalan of mixed native, African and European descent was the dictator Rafael Carrera (1814-1865). Born in Guatemala City to a poor Afromestizo family, his father was a mule driver and his mother a servant. At the age of 12 he enlisted into the federal army as a drummer boy and rose to the rank of sergeant after fighting in several Central American wars. He married into a wealthy mestizo family in 1836 and started to organize the poor natives and mestizos of eastern Guatemala against the "liberal government" in the capital. Emerging as a conservative and leading the revolution of 1837, Carrera overthrew President Morazan in 1840. This resulted in the end of the Central American Federation. He served as president of Guatemala from 1844 to 1848 and then was elected to the presidency in 1851. In 1854 he named himself "president of Guatemala for life" and remained Guatemala's undisputed leader until his death in 1865. He was worshipped as a "god" by the Indians.
The national folk instrument of Guatemala is the marimba. The marimba and its descendants, the xylophone and vibraphone, are Guatemala's gifts to the musical heritage of the Americas. The marimba is also an important folk instrument in the traditional music of southern Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
Ethno-musicologists believe the marimba's origins are in Africa and that the instrument was introduced into Guatemala by African slaves around 1550. The first mentioning of it by a Guatemalan is in a description of a parade in the city of Antigua in 1680. According to Guatemalan music scholar Lester Godinez, the idea of grouping wooden keys together to form a melodic instrument was originally brought to Guatemala by slaves recreating a pentaphonic African instrument called the bailaphon. Native Americans adopted the instrument as their own, and it is played today by both natives and mestizos.
Some historians have speculated that the marimba might also have been developed by the mixed descendants of Africans and native Americans, the so called bi-racial "zambo" population of colonial Guatemala. As Mr. Godinez accurately points out "the marimba did not come ready-made. It is the combination of three cultures".
Garifuna & Afro-Antilleans:
The Afro-Amerindian population group known as the Garifuna live along a short stretch of coast in the eastern Caribbean lowlands of Guatemala. The Garifuna arrived from Honduras shortly after Guatemalan independence in 1823. Their story is outlined in greater detail in the section on Honduras. The Garifuna are of mixed African and native American ancestry. They speak a native American language showing influences from both Yoruba and French. The number of Garifuna speaking persons in Guatemala is estimated at 17,000. Many speak only Spanish or Creole English. A number of Garifuna have left the Caribbean coast to seek jobs and opportunities in the capital.
The three most important Afro-Guatemalan settlements along the Caribbean coast are Livingston (a Garifuna settlement), Puerto Barrios and Santa Tomas. All three towns have important Garifuna and/or Afro-Antillean communities. In Livingston the Garifuna maintain many of their Afro-Amerindian traditions in art, music and food. The population here numbers around 4,000 and every May 15th a festival is held to celebrate the arrival of the first Garifuna on the shores of Guatemala. The town celebrates with traditional music and dancing. The Garifuna are well known for their hand made drums as well as their punta music that is popular throughout Latin-America. Many Garifuna in Livingston speak Spanish as well as Creole English.
A small Creole English speaking community of Afro-Antilleans has also settled in Guatemala. During the first half of the 20th century a number of Jamaican and Belizian blacks immigrated to Guatemala for employment opportunities. The Guatemalan government placed immigration restrictions on these newcomers and many could only stay in the country in two year intervals.
The town of Puerto Barrios was built by the American United Fruit Company to ship bananas to New Orleans. The first United Fruit plantations in Guatemala were established in 1906, at the mouth of the Rio Matagua (near Puerto Barrios). Blacks from Jamaica were recruited to work on these plantations. Because they were English speaking, American employers favored the Jamaicans over the local Spanish speaking workers. The banana plantations latter expanded into the areas along the lower Rio Motagua and around Lake Izabal. During the 1930's the plantations were struck by disease and United Fruit moved its operations to the Pacific coastal area, moving the bananas by rail to the Caribbean ports.
In Guatemala City Afro-Antilleans came to work as farm and services laborers. A small post war migration of Afro-Antilleans was reflected in the Guatemalan census of 1950, which reported 1,530 Belizean born Guatemalans and 435 Jamaican. Others have continued to migrate during the past 50 years making the Caribbean "lowlands" of Guatemala the most African influenced region in the country.
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