Given Bolivia’s recent gas nationalization, its upcoming Constitutional Assembly, and plans to redistribute land, the once ignored South American nation now sits in the international spotlight. At the center of these issues one finds Bolivia’s over seventy percent indigenous population, a group best known through the election of Evo Morales as president in December 2005. Morales, an Aymara, also enjoys a strong base of Quechua and other indigenous groups thanks to his career as a coca grower and union organizer.
While the press reports on indigenous issues in Bolivia, it fails to recognize an important ethnic minority: the Afro Bolivian population living mostly in Yungas, the traditional coca growing region in La Paz department. The descendants of slaves from Congo and Angola, Afro Bolivians arrived in Yungas around 1700 after failed attempts to exploit them as laborers in Potosi’s silver mines. Africans couldn’t survive in high altitudes and cold, thought the Spanish found them well suited to cultivate coca, coffee, and sugar in the tropical Yungas. Most lived in conditions of slavery until the 1950’s, and many people can recall their peonage to large land owners, or mayordomos.
Most Afro Bolivians today still live in extreme isolation due to geography, culture, and language. They’re often left out of Bolivia’s national rhetoric which focuses on the conflict between white elites and a poor indigenous majority.
This piece will portray Afro Bolivians as a vital, often forgotten population in Bolivia. Using photography, narrative, and interviews with Afro Bolivians—including the King of Mururata, from the town of the same name that still maintains an African royal tradition—we will describe this unique culture, its isolation, and the struggle for recognition as an ethnic minority.