Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

PARAGUAY: Afro-Descendants Affirm Their Identity

Natalia Ruíz Díaz

ASUNCIÓN, Jan 28 2010 (IPS) - Black communities have for the most part remained out of sight and out of mind in Paraguay, but now they are organising and claiming equal economic and social rights, while building an Afro-Paraguayan identity.

“The Paraguayan state does not recognise us as an ethnic minority,” José Carlos Medina, the general secretary of the Kamba Kuá (“black people’s hollow,” or “cave,” in Guaraní) Afro-Paraguayan Association, told IPS.

The first survey of Afro-descendants in Paraguay was carried out in 2006-2007 in order to gain a basic knowledge of the characteristics of this group, and as a basis for the social struggle against their historical neglect in Paraguayan society.

The Kamba Kuá Association was the prime mover of the initiative, with support from the government census office (DGEEC) and the United States government’s Inter-American Foundation.

The survey found 8,013 persons of African descent, equivalent to 0.13 percent of the 6.1 million people in this landlocked South American country. (Besides tiny white and Asian minorities, the rest of the population is of mixed Spanish and Guaraní Indian descent.)

The data in the survey were collected in three specific areas in eastern Paraguay: Kamba Kuá in Central province; Kamba Kokué, which means “black people’s farm” in Guaraní, in Paraguarí province; and Emboscada, in the province of Cordillera.

Out of the total number of blacks, 5.6 percent live in Kamba Kuá, 4.9 percent in Kamba Kokué and 89.5 percent in Emboscada.

These settlements originated in the Spanish colonial period. In 1782, Afro-descendants made up 11.2 percent of the total population of what was then the Province of Paraguay, to which slaves had been brought from Africa since 1556.

Emboscada, now a municipality of 14,000 people, was founded in 1740 with the name of Emboscada de Pardos Libres (“place of ambush of free blacks” in Spanish), because ambushes frequently took place there, and its first settlers were 500 freed people of black and indigenous ancestry.

Similar communities grew up in Paraguarí and other places in the region, where slaves were kept on cattle ranches belonging, for example, to the Jesuit missions.

Kamba Kuá was settled by members of a regiment of 250 lancers, both men and women, who in 1820 went into exile in Paraguay with General José Artigas, the revolutionary independence leader of the Banda Oriental (now Uruguay).

This is the best-known Afro-descendant community in Paraguay, because of its staunch loyalty to its identity and culture, promoted through its traditional festivals.

“The survey prompted closer relations between the communities, and so we formed the Paraguayan Afro-descendants Network (RPA), because we were convinced that if we were united, our demands would be more effective,” said Medina.

He said their main demand is recognition as an ethnic minority by the Paraguayan state, and their immediate goal is to include specific identification of the Afro-descendant population in the next national census, to be carried out in 2012.

To this end, members of the RPA are holding conversations with the DGEEC, but Medina complained that the process is getting bogged down.

The Report on Human Rights in Paraguay 2009 by the Paraguayan Human Rights Coordinating Group (CODEHUPY) contains an article presenting, for the first time, the living conditions of blacks in this country.

It says the state is guilty by omission of racism, in that it has neglected to formulate specific policies for this population group. It also points to racial prejudice and discriminatory behaviour in mainstream culture.

“Our children have great difficulty in constructing their Afro identity when, at school, they are so often discriminated against, either because of their skin colour or their clothes,” he said.

Access to education and health are two key demands of the communities. They emphasise that 7.4 percent of the Afro-descendant school-age population is illiterate, while only 15 percent of this ethnic group has health insurance.

In Kamba Kuá, the school drop-out rate is a major concern. The community has no primary school of its own.

Lorena Medina, a young mother of two and a member of the Kamba Kuá ballet, dropped out of secondary school for financial reasons.

“This is the reality for many young people in our community. We drop out of school because we can’t afford to continue studying,” she told IPS.

Most of the women in the community are domestic employees, while the men are construction workers, have low-level jobs or are informal street vendors.

José Carlos Medina said the communities have been working in a coordinated fashion since the RPA was set up, which is increasing their visibility as they participate in society as organised groups.

“We are proud of our identity and origins, and we want the Paraguayan state to recognise us as the Afro-Paraguayan population we are,” he concluded.

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