Mexico and Peru: The Black Grandma in the Closet

In Mexico and Peru, Professor Henry Louis Gates explores the almost unknown history of the significant numbers of black people—the two countries together received far more slaves than did the United States.  The black populations were brought to these countries as early as the 16th and 17th centuries.  Gates explores the worlds of culture that their descendants have created in Vera Cruz on the Gulf of Mexico, the Costa Chica region on the Pacific, and in and around Lima, Peru.


The slave trade that changed the demographic face of Mexico began when King Carlos V began issuing contracts between the Spanish Crown and private slavers to expedite the trans-Atlantic trade. After 1519, the New World received bozales, or slaves brought directly from Africa without being christianized. For economic reasons, the black population in Mexico soared to over 20,000 by 1553.


The black population in the early colonial period was by far larger than that of the Spanish. In 1570, the black population is about 3 times that of the Spanish. In 1646, it is about 2.5 times as large, and in 1742, blacks still outnumber the Spanish. It is not until 1810 that Spaniards are more numerous.


In Peru, Afro-Peruvians occupy the lower echelon of the society. For the most part, in their four centuries in Peru they have been identified with poverty. With some rare exceptions, they generally live on the margin of society and are victims of both outwardly and subtle discrimination.


During much of colonial history of Peru, they made up half of the population of Lima and in some occasions outnumbered the Spanish. The first blacks arrived in Peru with Pizarro and through the early 1800’s more then 100,000 blacks would arrive in Peru as slaves. Many of the slaves were not sent directly from Africa but had already been assimilated into Spanish society in Spain with both language and Catholicism. In fact, many of the slaves had actually been born in Spain and a good percentage were mulattoes.


It is estimated the current black population of Peru is between 5%-9% and is still largely concentrated along the coast. Apart from Lima, with the largest concentration the Lambayeque Department in the north and the southern province of Ica and Tacna have the highest concentration of blacks. For the most part, they continue to struggle to exist economically.


Most Afro-Peruvians are still employed basically in the labor sector with very few moving into professional fields or being able to secure the education necessary to do so. Those living in Lima are primarily work as domestics, hotel services and watchmen. At most of the upper tier hotels, blacks work as the doormen and one has considered to have arrived if they have a black butler. Many of the blacks outside of Lima are involved in farming and are at tied to middlemen for much of their financing and seldom are able to break this noose.


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