The saya dance of the Afro- Bolivians

Anthropology: The Afro-Bolivians History and Culture

Trek up the highest capital in the world, Bolivia’s La Paz, and you’ll stumble into a group of villages. Here, nestled in the forest of Yungas is the kingdom of the Afro-Bolivians, a community that remained unrecognized by the world for almost two centuries. The Afro-Bolivians are Bolivians of African descent and live deep in the forest where jaguars, bears and tapirs prowl around.


The silver mines today, Potosi, Bolivia
credit@ SunnySideCircus

In 1544, in the town now called Potosi in Bolivia, the Spanish Conquistadors discovered silver mines. To start working in the mines, they enslaved the natives of the area. However, the mines were not a favourable place to work in, and the health of the slaves suffered. Rather than halt the work, the Spanish began recruiting new slaves- the Africans. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Spanish barons and mine owners brought a huge number of African slaves to work in the mines, along with the native slaves who could still work.

The Africans fared no better than the natives. Working for over twelve hours a day, the working conditions were horrible and many of the slaves only survived for a few months in the mines. Death came due to the inhalation of vapours and the toxic smelter fumes while working in the mines. Regular cave-ins and explosions occurred. And the high altitude and cold did not make things easier. To protect their eyes while leaving the mines, they had to blindfold themselves. The workers only lasted for an average of four months in the mines. According to later reports, from 1545 until the end of the colonial period in 1825, the mines claimed the lives of around a million slaves. It wasn’t just the toxic environment that killed the slaves- overwork, exhaustion and starvation claimed lives too. Although the slaves had to be above eighteen years old to work in the mines, children were known to work there too, though for relatively fewer hours.

The Spaniards found a way to fortify the slaves to work in the harsh conditions was to provide them with cocoa leaves for chewing. Cocoa was an important staple in Bolivian culture. It was an important agricultural product in their lives, from which they also processed cocaine. Chewing cocoa leaves made the slaves’ senses numb to the cold. Apart from that, it also curbed their hunger pangs and helped fight altitude sickness.

The Afro-Latin population in Bolivia are descendants of the slaves brought in by the Spanish. They migrated to the Yungas when mining declined, only to work as slaves on the Spanish haciendas (a plantation with a house). It was here while working on the plantations that an unofficial kingdom was formed among the Afro-Bolivian slaves in 1820. The slaves were emancipated in the 1950s. Since attaining their freedom, a large number of Afro-Bolivians have migrated to La Paz, Yungas, Santa Cruz and Cochabamba.

Migration and settlements

Many of the Afro-Bolivians migrated to the Yungas after their emancipation in the nineteenth century. The Yungas wasn’t very far from La Paz, and it was where much of the country’s cocoa was grown and cultivated. And before the arrival of the Afro-Bolivians in the Yungas, it was inhabited by the Aymara people (indigenous to the area) and the mestizos (people of European and Native mix).

The Yungas mountain side today
credit@ Tours and Foods

The homes of the Afro-Bolivians are scattered on the sides of a mountain and connected by dirt roads. The village has a few stores, a church and a schoolhouse. The houses are as such- either a single two-storey structure or a couple of single-storey structures. There is no compartmentalization of the dwellings- the living, dining and sleeping areas come under one roof. The second storey of the house is mostly used as a storage space. If it’s a single-storeyed house, a separate building exists for storage. The kitchen is always built as a separate structure- it can either be a simple covered fireplace or a distinct building complete with a steel roof and door. During their early settlements, many of the villages housed some of the poorest neighbourhoods. Each house sat on a tiny plot of land. Most families did not have access to running water, sanitation or electricity.


Cultivating coca leaves, Bolivia
credit@ El Tiempo

The Afro-Bolivians are primarily agriculturalists. Among the cash crops like coffee, cacao (seeds from which cocoa and its butter and chocolate are made), citrus fruits and numerous varieties of bananas and plantains, coca leaves remain the primary crop. Coca leaves are the raw material from which cocaine is extracted. Chewing it turns it into a mild stimulant and suppresses thirst, hunger, pain and fatigue. Unlike the other crops, coca leaves can be harvested many times a year. They are hand-picked, dried in the sun, bagged and sold in the regional markets. Although the coca leaves can be harvested many times a year, the market value does fluctuate according to the quality of the leaves. During the harvest season of fruit and coffee, trucks arrive from the cities to take the produce to the markets. The truck owners are the middlemen who pay the Afro-Bolivians a part of what they earn while selling the products in the city.

Cultivating coca in the mountain
credit@ Rio Francis

Agriculture being the primary livelihood of the Afro-Bolivians, many of the families also raise poultry. Men hunt in the forest and the market provides them with the most basic school, household and agricultural supplies.

Afro- Bolivian women in the local market
credit@ Wikiwand

Afro-Bolivians face racial discrimination in the cities. Owing to this, they struggle to find proper jobs. While women mostly work as domestic servants, the men work as shop clerks or drivers. Those who live in La Paz maintain links with the villages of Yungas and travel back during the harvest season. Working in the fields helps supplement their meagre income. Men, women and children labour in the fields. While both men and women deal with chopping, burning, clearing and harvesting the fields, women have the additional task of taking care of pre-school children. Men and women inherit land equally.

Each family has several plots in different parts of the mountain. While the sunny sides of the mountains are used for drying the coca leaves, the bananas and plantains are grown in the denser parts of the jungles.

Language and Religion

All the Afro-Bolivians are fluent in Spanish. While the rural Black agriculturalists speak in their own dialect of Spanish, the Afro-Bolivians maintain a vocabulary of African origin. When the first migration to the Yungas occurred, the Afro- Bolivians also became fluent in the indigenous Aymara language and culture.

Afro-Bolivians are Christians. However, the rural Afro-Bolivians attend the Catholic Church only for ceremonies like baptisms and other life-cycle rituals. A priest occasionally visits the rural agricultural communities to say Mass. Each of the villages of the Afro-Bolivians has a patron saint, as does most of the rural Bolivian villages. The communities worship and celebrate these saints by conducting fiestas which last up to many days.

One of the religious practices of the Afro-Bolivians is their mauchi (funeral music) tradition during a burial in the community. It is sung by the men after the burial while the friends and relatives of the deceased walk back to the village from the cemetery. The men join their hands, forming a large circle. A community elder leads the singing while the rest of the men respond.

Cultural arts and ceremonies

With the migration to the Yungas and mixing with the indigenous Aymara tribe, the Afro-Bolivians adopted their language and culture. This led to their own language and culture comprising dance, music and arts becoming less distinctive. Apart from this, their emancipation from the colonialists resulted in exclusion and aggression that wiped out their language, spirituality and ceremonies. However, the Black Consciousness Movement in the twentieth century led to the revival of the Afro-Bolivians’ saya dance. In 1994, The Movimiento Cultural Negro was formed to raise cultural awareness amongst the Blacks. Out of this movement came the birth of groups such as Casa Afro-Boliviana in Santa Cruz and the Centre for Afro-Bolivian Development in La Paz. The most notable one is the Movimiento Saya Afro Boliviano and its aim includes recuperating, strengthening and promoting the cultural identity and values of the Afro-Bolivians.

Saya dancers
credit@ Medium

Music, song, dance and poetry are much celebrated in the Afro-Bolivian community. Before the revival of their cultural arts, their brass- band tradition became an important part of the culture of the Bolivians till the late twentieth century. The revival brought back saya, which is a song- genre that preserves the Afro-Bolivians’ oral history. Other traditional music includes the mauchi mentioned above, baile de Tierra (wedding music) and the zemba. Zemba is a combination of drums and dance, initially associated with the monarchy of the community. Except for mauchi, all the other traditional music are accompanied by different drums. Saya is additionally accompanied by bells and scrapers.

Saya dancers dancing to the beat
credit@ Pinterest

A community exists for creating musical instruments, which the Afro-Bolivians consider an art. Among the instruments, the most important are saya drums, haucañas (Aymara term for colourful drum mallets) and cuanchas (bamboo scrapers). There are different kinds of saya drums, each playing a unique rhythm that complements the other two. When performing saya, men and women dance in separate groups. The captain who leads the dancers wears bells on each of his legs- the bells on the left leg pitch higher and lead the women, while the ones on the right have a lower pitch and lead the men. The bells don’t just produce music- they also symbolize the chains and shackles their ancestors wore during their enslavement by the Spanish.

Poetry (both writing and reciting) is highly valued in the community. During public musical performances, poets in the community recite their poetry. Often, the poems address the community’s struggles against racial discrimination.

Afro- Bolivians celebrating the Virgen de la Candelaria
credit@ Rove. me

One of the festivals of the Afro-Bolivians includes celebrating the Virgen de la Candelaria or Virgin of Candelaria on October 20th. According to the local legend, it was the Virgin of Candelaria who saved the Bolivians from the Spanish Royalists and conquerors during Bolivia’s independence struggle. The locals had to abandon their homes surrounded by the Spanish and went to the church and prayed. The Afro-Bolivians believe that Virgen de la Candelaria came down from the sky on a cloud with an army of patriots, defeating the Spanish forces. So on October 20th, the Afro-Bolivians gather in the town of Corocia and pay tribute to their saviour by singing and dancing.


Queen Angélica and King Julio today
credit@ The New York Times

The Afro-Bolivian Royal House, the ceremonial monarchy of the community, is centred in the Yungas. The crown was handed down through a long lineage of kings.

During the early twentieth century, King Bonifacio Pinedo was the king of the Afro-Bolivians. Upon his death in the 1960s, the throne sat empty for many years as he had no son. In 1982, it was his grandson, Julio Pinedo, who became king. However, unlike King Bonifacio, who wore a cape and crown during ceremonies, Julio believes himself to be more of a tribal leader and representative than a king. He lives in Mururata, the centre of the kingdom of Afro-Bolivians. No tax or police force exists within the community, and like many other Afro-Bolivians, King Julio manages a grocery store along with his wife and Queen, Angélica Larrea. They also sell oranges, mandarins, canned food, cookies and soft drinks from their garden. There is nothing about them that speaks of royalty or self-importance.  It was only with King Julio’s coronation that the country and the outside world became aware of the Afro-Bolivians. The king’s coronation was done by the La Paz Department’s authorities. It was only in 2007 that Bolivia recognized the Royal House.

Significance in anthropology

While the Yungas and La Paz remain the roots of the Afro-Bolivians, presently, there are more than 40,000 Afro-Bolivians around the world.

While improvement in access to education has rendered many of the Afro-Bolivians successful in the field of medicine, teaching and law, a majority of the community still struggle with poverty. Low prices for their agricultural produce, destruction of the environment and the US’s demand to eradicate coca cultivation do not make things easier.

Until recently, the Afro-Bolivians were not part of Bolivia’s former Constitution. The country did not recognize the community’s contribution to society, and this was all the more reflected when they were excluded from Bolivia’s official census for more than a hundred years. Additionally, the rural areas still lack basic services like electricity, roads, drains and running water. Education, health, income, literacy and employment are severely hampered.

When Juan Evo Morales was elected President of Bolivia in 2005, he was welcomed by the Afro-Bolivians as he promised to improve the lives of the community. During his term in office (2006- 2019), he stopped the campaigns sponsored by the US to eradicate coca. In the 2009 constitution of Bolivia, the Afro-Bolivians were named as a specific minority ethnic group. It was in the 2012 census that they were included as a distinct category, providing them with formal recognition and place in the Bolivian Society.

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