Manuel Zapata Olivella, Mestizaje and Black Politics in 1970s Colombia

This post is part of our forum on “Race and Latin America

Traditional fruit street vendors in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia. (Anamaria Mejia/Shutterstock)

Pan-Africanism is not typically associated with Colombia or even Latin America. But in August 1977, the city of Cali, home to one of the largest Black populations in the Americas, hosted the first of its kind in the region. “The First Congress of Black Culture of the Americas” was organized by Afro-Colombian intellectual and activist Manuel Zapata Olivella—the country’s preeminent thinker of Blackness and mestizaje (racial mixture). Zapata was a medical doctor by training, a pioneering anthropologist, and a highly regarded novelist. His work emphasized the histories and living cultures of people of African descent and other popular sectors in the country, as well as questions of race and ethnicity.1 Over 150 delegates from Latin America, the United States, Africa, and Europe traveled to Colombia, including Afro-Brazilian intellectual and activist Abdias do Nascimento, future Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, as well as representatives of Senegalese President and Pan-Africanist leader Léopold Sédar Senghor. Their participation foregrounded the remarkable and little-known Afro-diasporic networks underwriting this meeting and Afro-Colombian activism. The event itself highlights the centrality of Zapata as a political thinker and organizer at a time of radical debates and transformations in Latin America and the African diaspora.2

The Congress was part of a wider, vibrant landscape of Black politics in 1970s Colombia. Afro-Colombian activists established platforms and publications that affirmed Blackness, promoted self-determination, and opposed racial discrimination. Black youth, many of whom were high school or university students, were inspired by ideas and movements in the African diaspora. They created grassroots consciousness-raising organizations such as the Franz Fanon Center, the Center for Research and Development of Black Culture (CIDCUN), the Black Muslims group, and the Soweto Group. The Soweto Group, initially a study group, later turned into Movimiento Cimarrón, or Maroon Movement, a prominent civil rights organization that fought racism. Members of CIDCUN, influenced by the famous Pan-African magazine Presence Africaine, also founded Negritud (1975) and Presencia Negra (1978). These publications forwarded Black political ideas and organizations and documented the efforts of Afro-Colombian activists to link their struggles with others in the African diaspora. In one notable instance, the meeting of CIDCUN members with African American boxer and activist Muhammad Ali in Colombia was featured in an article in Negritud.

In the lead up to the Congress in Cali, Afro-Colombian activists also organized through electoral political channels. In 1977 the Council of the Black Population, made up of mostly Black professionals, launched the presidential campaign of Juan Zapata Olivella, a Black doctor and writer (and also Manuel Zapata Olivella’s brother). The campaign was not successful at the ballot box, but it garnered significant media attention because it was explicitly framed in racial terms, as part of what was named the Movimiento de Negritudes y Mestizaje, or the Movement for Blackness and Mestizaje. The Afro-Colombian activists involved with the campaign argued that it was time to offer an alternative political movement committed to addressing the broad structural inequalities facing non-white Colombians, people of Black and indigenous descent.

These developments and the Congress reveal the importance of Colombia for understanding the history of Black politics and anti-racist movements in Latin America and the African diaspora. According to Zapata, the First Congress sought to promote Black consciousness and solidarity while valorizing the culture, history, and contributions of Black people to their societies—which had long been belittled—and oppose the idea that there was no racial discrimination in Latin America. One of the main goals of the Congress was to combat racial discrimination. For Zapata, this required confronting the dynamics of racial mixture in Latin America. In the keynote speech in Cali, he called participants to fight the racial discrimination faced by “black and indigenous peoples” and “their mestizo, mulato and zambo descendants” on the whole continent. These terms, which can be traced to the history of Spanish and Portuguese colonialism in Latin America and the Caribbean, feature prominently in Zapata’s writings. For him, mestizaje was a tricultural process involving African, indigenous, and European people and their descendants. Broadly speaking, mestizo refers to a person of indigenous and African ancestry; mulato, a person of African and European ancestry; and zambo, a person of indigenous and African ancestry.

The Congress and the expansion of racially defined activism in Colombia reflected a broader shift in the region. In the 1970s Afro-Latin American activists spoke loudly against long-held ideologies of racial harmony and mixture as myths that concealed the existence of racial discrimination. Central to these ideologies was the notion that a mild history of slavery and extensive racial mixture had produced racially harmonious and egalitarian societies. These dynamics were often contrasted with the United States where slavery was deemed to be more brutal, racial hierarchies more rigid, and racism was legally sanctioned. In short for many observers across the Americas, the United States was racist and Latin America was not. By contrast, Zapata offered an alternative vision of the meanings of Blackness and mestizaje in Latin America. The various categories he used to discuss racism demonstrate his thinking about mestizaje and Black politics, which differed from more commonly circulated critiques.

Afro-Latin American intellectuals and activists emphatically opposed racial discrimination at the Congress. However, there were varying views towards mestizaje and its relationship with Black politics. A disagreement between Manuel Zapata Olivella and Abdias do Nascimento during the proceedings encapsulated the competing interpretations. During the drafting of one of the reports Zapata wanted to include categories such as “zambo” and “mulato,” which provoked opposition from several delegates. Zapata argued that these terms reflected “the cultural realities in Latin America” and as such they could not “suppress” their “ancestry.” Nascimento, however, disapproved of framing Latin America’s racial issues in terms of mixture saying, “that he did not want to acknowledge his white blood.” The First Congress was an exceptional event, in part, because it illustrates the rich dynamics of Afro-Latin American political thought that can be examined from a regional perspective.

This rift, however, reminds us that there was not a unified or single understanding of ideologies of racial harmony and mixture, even amongst Afro-Latin American activists. And that these ideas have their own national histories, meanings, and conflicts. For instance, ‘racial democracy’, which is often used as a kind of generic framework to describe racial dynamics across Latin America, was grounded in Brazilian history and politics. Our understanding of anti-racist struggles in Latin America in the 1970s has also been largely shaped by the experiences of Brazil and Nascimento’s courageous denunciations. Nascimento famously characterized racial democracy in Brazil as a racist myth and genocidal ideology that sought to erase Black people through assimilation and racial mixture.3 In the context of the dictatorship, his criticisms came at a high cost. He was forced into exile and authorities prevented him from joining Brazil’s official delegations in several international events, including at FESTAC in Nigeria in 1977. As scholars such as Paulina Alberto and Jerry Dávila have shown, the Brazilian dictatorial regime was invested in portraying Brazil as a racial paradise domestically and abroad. In fact, authorities barred most of the Brazilian delegation from traveling to the Congress in Cali. Nascimento was able to attend precisely because he was living in exile. Ultimately for him, ideas of racial democracy impeded Black self-determination.

The First Congress of Black Culture of the Americas was a triumph of Zapata and of Afro-Latin American political imagination. Despite the disagreement between Nascimento and Zapata, the Congress was characterized by a spirit of solidarity. Two other congresses of Black culture followed, one in Panamá in 1980 and another in Brazil in 1983. In these spaces, activists committed themselves to continue to fight against the legacies of slavery and colonialism in the Americas and the African diaspora. Their efforts draw our attention to a vibrant history of Pan-Africanism in Latin America.

  1. For examples of Zapata’s work exploring questions of race and diaspora, see He visto la noche (Bogotá: Editorial Los Andes, 1953); Changó, el Gran Putas (Bogotá: Ministerio de Cultura, 2010). For other works by Zapata dealing with ideas about race and nation, see ¡Levántate mulato! Por mi raza hablará el espíritu (Bogotá: Rei, 1990); La rebelión de los genes: el mestizaje americano en la sociedad futura (Bogotá: Altamir, 1997); and El árbol brujo de la libertad: África en Colombia—orígenes, transculturación, presencia (Bogotá: Ediciones desde Abajo, 2014).
  2. This essay draws from the research I carried out for my article, which examines at length the debates at the Congress and responses to it from the Colombian press. See, “Manuel Zapata Olivella, Racial Politics and Pan-Africanism in Colombia in the 1970s,” The Americas (Washington. 1944) 79, no. 3 (2022): 457–489.
  3. Nascimento explores these ideas in, Abdias do Nascimento and Elisa Larkin Nascimento, Africans in Brazil: A Pan-African Perspective (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1982); Abdias do Nascimento, Racial Democracy in Brazil, Myth or Reality? A Dossier of Brazilian Racism (Ibadan, Nigeria: Sketch Publ. Co., 1977).
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Laura Correa Ochoa

Dr. Laura Correa Ochoa is a social and political historian focused on issues of mobilization, race, and violence in the Americas, especially Colombia from the 19th to the 21st century. She is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Academy of Fellows at Rice University and in July 2023 will start as an assistant professor in the Department of History at this same institution. In 2021 she received a PhD in History from Harvard University and in 2013, graduated with a BA (Hons) in History and Political Science from the University of Toronto. She is currently writing a book manuscript examining black and indigenous mobilization in Colombia from 1930 to 2022.

Comments on “Manuel Zapata Olivella, Mestizaje and Black Politics in 1970s Colombia

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    Thank You for an excellent insight and historical perspective. As a friend of Rev. Jesse Jackson, I’ve heard of your work and joy to see it..

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