February 26, 2008

The origins of the myth of racial harmony in Latin America

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Nationalism and racial harmony forged one of Latin America's most powerful racial ideologies—the myth of racial democracy, says Case Western Reserve University historian Marixa Lasso. The assistant professor of history in the College of Arts and Sciences reconstructs the evolution of this myth as the central theme of her book, Myths of Harmony Race and Republicanism during the Age of Revolution, Colombia, 1795-1831 (University of Pittsburgh Press).

Lasso takes a different approach from other historians in the field of Atlantic history, who have challenged the myth, to instead ask the question of why Latin America has the myth and why did it develop. She also examines the myth's link to the "Age of Revolution" that swept the Atlantic seaboard countries as local citizens toppled monarchical governments for self rule.

In that struggle for freedom, racial harmony developed differently in Latin American countries than it did in the United States. While many African Americans were still under the yoke of slavery, the Afro-Colombians, outnumbering the creoles (Latin Americans of Spanish descent) were needed in the fight to gain independence from Spain.

The myth of racial harmony grew its roots as the Spaniards and Afro-Colombians joined together.

"During the War of Independence, Colombian patriots declared an end of colonial caste laws and decreed legal racial equality among all free citizens," writes Lasso.

She added that any ideologies that "denounced" this racial harmony were considered "unpatriotic."

After independence was won for Gran Colombia (now modern-day Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela) in 1810, Colombians began to discuss and legalize these rights with the 1812 Constitution of Cartagena. This enfranchised Spanish and Afro-Colombian men of means with property, professions or trades.

The years following independence "represent a foundational moment in the history of modern race relations in Latin America," explains Lasso, as Gran Colombia designed one of the first government policies outlining racial equality, which was also coupled with a national rhetoric of harmony and equality.

But she cautions, legal harmony did not mean the end to racial discrimination as slavery continued until the 1850s, which "emphasized the emptiness of this rhetoric."

Because the new constitution did not allow for identifying people by race, much of Colombia's historical records do not give an adequate picture of day-to-day racial relations.

 Myths of Harmony
Race and Republicanism during the Age of Revolution, Colombia, 1795-1831

As a way to circumvent this problem, a section of Lasso's book gives one of the first historical examinations of these court trials of colonial Afro-Colombian accused of instigating race wars and upsetting the racial harmony by challenges to the legal system. "The judicial records offer rich insights into the racial politics of the early republican period," she said. "They provide a glimpse into the lives of Afro-Colombians during this period and give us a sense of how they understood and lived in changing times."

She writes, "Judicial cases illustrate what changes pardos expected the Republic to bring and how they sought to pressure that govern to bring these changes about through petitions, pamphlets and the support of political figures in the streets."

Lasso made trips to the National Archives in Bogota as well as the archives in Seville and Madrid, Spain, to examine personal diaries, newspaper articles that chronicled military speeches and manumission ceremonies and court records of pardos (freed peasants) who had been charged with inciting racial wars.

Lasso began her research while a graduate student at the University of Florida, with fellowship support from the Social Science Research Council/American Council of Learned Societies, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research and the University of Florida.

For more information contact Susan Griffith, 216.368.1004.

Posted by: Heidi Cool, February 26, 2008 11:19 AM | News Topics: Authors, College of Arts and Sciences, Faculty, HeadlinesMain, Provost Initiatives, Public Policy/Politics

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