Chile's census contains categories that allow for the identification of the various aboriginal and tribal communities recognized by the Chilean law, but these do not include the population of African descent. According to a study by the INE, however, more than 8,500 Afro-Chileans live in Arica, a port city on Chile's northern border. The study represented a first step for the organizations working for the visibility of the Afro-Chileans and set a precedent in counting the population of African descent. Once this study was completed, the objective of the communities was to be included in the 2017 census, but the INE rejected the proposal.
In response, the “Associations of the Afro-Descendants From the Azapa Ancestral Territory” presented a “protection resource action” against the INE. According to the representatives of the Afro-Chilean community, the action argues that “the arbitrariness and illegality of the action by the INE violates paragraphs 2 and 14 of Article 19 of the Constitution of the Republic […]. These refer to the equality before the Law and the right to present petitions to the authorities.”
The hope is that being included in the census could pave the way for policies aimed at reducing inequality and give rise to actions encompassing several sectors that support these populations in poverty.
According to Rodrigo Ruíz from the alternative media website El Desconcierto, the Afro-Chileans’ fight against the disappearance of their community in statistics, and therefore in public policy, is complex:
"Their fight has been a struggle against radical invisibility, because they have been denied the most basic thing: the elemental existence in the census. As researcher Martin Hoppenhayn from the ECLAC (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Carribbean) has said, “There is a vicious circle with the issue of the Afro-descendants in Chile, meaning that because there [is] no data of any kind of survey related to the socioeconomic situation, then there is no quantitative evidence to serve as a basis, thus without this evidence there will be no awareness and, consequently there is no urgency and thus there is no inclusion."
A long-standing struggle
Efforts to increase the visibility of the Afro-Chileans have been part of a campaign carried out by the Afro-Latin American and Caribbean communities. In October 2000, the “Regional Seminar Against Racism” took place in Santiago de Chile and included experts on Latin America and the Caribbean, focusing on economic, social, and legal measures to combat racism (with a focus on the vulnerable groups).
Two months later, the social organizations gathered in Santiago de Chile to celebrate, together with official delegations of various governments, the “Preparatory Conference of the Americas Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Forms of Intolerance.” However, as it can be seen on the Afro-Chileans’ blog, negotiations by 2011, a whole decade later, still showed no tangible results for “technical reasons”:
"It's been almost two years of negotiations with the current government to include a question on self-identification of people of African descent within Chilean territory. There have been countless meetings with various ministerial bodies […] when you sit down to talk with representatives of the INE you realize they do not have much information on this issue and only respond negatively arguing there are technical issues for the inclusion of the question."
In an interview with Notivisión (see below), Cristian Báez from the Lumbanga NGO explained the negotiating process with the INE and the importance of the Afro-descendants’ presence on the census. According to Báez, censuses are vital “in order to be able to address public policies straightforwardly” and to have a clear vision of the presence and the needs of the African communities throughout the country, not just in Arica, the region with the highest density of these communities. Báez also touched on the phenomenon of the disappearance of the Chilean Afro-descendants from the official records and from the image of Chile as a country:
"That part of whitening of Chile has to do with [the celebration of] the centenary of the Republic. Before the 100-year anniversary, it was said that the president ordered the completion of an autobiographical study: Who are we Chileans? 100 years after having become independent from the Spanish rule. And in this autobiography […] this Chile is a country of whites. I think that part was vital in the whitening of [our history] and it is a whitening that goes beyond the phenotypical aspect, it is also a cultural whitening."
Báez also points out the importance of recognizing in the numbers the Afro-descendants from intra-American migration:
"Today we must recognize that there is [also] a new diaspora in the [African] presence […] that of the Afro-migration. Afro-Colombians, Afro-Dominicans. We want to show that this Chile has changed. And the 2017 census was a tremendous opportunity to [demonstrate this]."
The historical presence of Afro-descendants in Chile, as in the rest of the region, dates back to the time of the country's conquest at the hands of the Spanish. A summary with references, documentaries, and criticism is available on the El Desconcierto website in the article “Afrochilenos, los invisibles de la nación” ("The Afro-Chileans, the Invisible Ones of the Nation").
Being counted is existing
Another response to the refusal by the INE was a campaign led by Lumbanga and the Associations of the Afro-Descendants From the Azapa Ancestral Territory. The campaign is based on a YouTube video shared on social networks:
"The only tribal people whom INE does not recognize is us, the Afro-descendants […] We are Afro-Chilean, and we want inclusion."
The bulk of the campaign is unfolding on the social networks, but not only there. Popular venues such as sports stadiums and cultural events have also been part of the scene. However, the movement has not been free of resistance. In February, a group of fans was removed from the stadium for displaying a banner less than two meters in length with the message “Inclusion of the Afro-Chileans—2017 Census.” According to Roberto Corvacho, one of the people who carried the banner, the goal was “to be recognized as an ethnic group, like our brothers, the Mapuche and the Aymara.”
In the video above, individuals recount how they've been routinely mistaken for foreigners and insulted because of their skin color. Each person claims the identity of African descent, arguing that this should not and does not diminish their belonging to the country, which must find a way to appreciate diversity.
* Shirley Campbell is a Costa Rican poet, anthropologist and activist for the rights of Afro-descendants. This article was first published on Global Voices.