Skip to main content


Afro-Ecuadorians are an ethnic group in Ecuador who are descendants of black African slaves brought by the Spanish during their conquest of Ecuador from the Incas. They make up from 3% to 5% of Ecuador's population.

Ecuador has a population of about 1,120,000 descendants from African people. The Afro-Ecuadorian culture is found primarily in the country's northwest coastal region. Africans form a majority (70%) in the province of Esmeraldas and the Valle del Chota in the Imbabura Province. They can be also found in Quito and Guayaquil. Their best known cultural influence known outside of Ecuador is a distinctive kind of marimba music.

                        Beautiful Afro-Ecuadorian girl wearing traditional straw hat

According to the book "No Longer Invisible: Afro-Latin Americans Today"Regional blackness as a force of self-liberation in Ecuador begins in Esmeraldas, and its origin occurs during a violent tropical storm and a movement of African rebellion. The documented history of Ecuador establishes the beginnings of Afro-Hispanic culture in what is now Esmeraldas, Ecuador, where a Spanish slaving ship ran aground in 1553. There a group of twenty-three Africans from the coast of Guinea, led by a black warrior named Antón, attacked the slavers and liberated themselves. Not long after, this group, together with other blacks entering the region, led by a ladino (Hispanicized black person) named Alonso de Illescas, came to dominate the region from northern Manabí north to what is now Barbacoas, Colombia. Illescas was a strategist in guerrilla warfare. He quelled many military expeditions against blacks and Indians esmeraldeños, by defeating all the Spanish captains sent to conquer the blacks and Indians. These rushing to the Esmeraldas, in an effort to find the emeralds, gold, wood, earth, and also to prevent blacks allied with the English pirates and cause damage to Spanish interests.

When Alonso met the priest Miguel Cabello de Balboa in the river mouth Atacames, built the first temporary chapel on the beach. He prayed and invoked the mercy of God and to Our Lady of Guadalupe. emphasize that the invitation Balboa Alonso to approach the sacraments, said, "while I'm busy in the redemption of those people, I'd rather wait." rejected and the big lie of the conqueror "For God and King." He realized that God is a God of freedom, God of Life, which is beyond human empires, churches, to get the regulation in Christ only Kingdom of peace, justice and brotherhood.
    Ecuadorians remember Alonso de Illescas, the national hero.In 1997, the National Congress of Ecuador declared October 2, the national day of Black Ecuadorians giving formal recognition to Alonso de Illescas.

He was also a true ruler and never accepted bribe. He rejected the title of governor, the president of the Royal Court, offered in writing and sent him to him, through the priest Miguel Cabello de Balboa.
It is noteworthy that many captains lost all his property to achieve the title of Governor of Esmeraldas. And this black man who has fled from slavery and deserved punishment by law is given a royal pardon and a great opportunity to be governor on behalf of the King.
He was a trainer of leaders, beginning with his son Sebastian Alonso Illescas and grandson of Jerome as well as lovers freedom and justice, keeping the country free from Spanish rule.Alonso defended the autonomy and freedoms of black and indigenous people.Even in the mid eighteenth century, Pedro Vicente Maldonado complained that blacks and mulattoes were not paying tribute to anyone, and suggested its use to defend the coast of Dutch pirates.
 At this time (late sixteenth century) intermixture with indigenous peoples, to whom black people fled to establish their palenques (villages of self-liberated people - some fortified, some not), was such that their features were described as zambo (black-indigenous admixture), synonyms of which were negro (black) and mulato (mixed or hybrid black-white). ...
... By 1599 black people were clearly in charge of what was called "La República de Zambos" or "Zambo Republic". Zambo refers to people of colour who are descendants of Native Americans and African-Americans. In that year a group of Zambo chieftains, said to represent 100,000 or more Zambo people of Esmeraldas, trekked to Quito to declare loyalty to Spain. An oil painting of these chiefs from the emerald land of the Zambo Republic is portrayed by the "Indian artist" Adrián Sánchez Galgue [sic]; it is reportedly the earliest signed and dated painting from South America." (Source: No Longer Invisible: Afro-Latin Americans Today. Minority Rights Group, ed. Minority Rights Publications, 1995, pp. 291-292.)


Leslie B. Rout, Jr. in his scholarly work" The African Experience in Spanish America," writes " Almost from the time that Spaniards began importing Africans to work the Cauca River gold diggings in Colombia, blacks managaged to escape; a few sought refuge among the Manabí and Mantux Indian tribes of the tropical coast of northwestern Ecuador. The zambo descendants of these blacks and Indians became tribal leaders and created a major Pacific-coast headquarters known as El Portete.
"This particular settlement acted as a kind of beacon, attracting other bondmen who chose to flee rather than accept a living death panning the streams of southern Colombia for gold dust. It also attracted the attention of the Spaniards, not only because it was a haven for fugitive slaves but also because it was an ideal base for ships sailing between Panama and Peru. Occasional Spanish vessels in trouble attempted to land at El Portete but where driven away by the attacks of the zambo-led tribesmen. In 1556, therefore, Gil Ramírez Dávalos, governor of the audiencia of Quito, began sending troops to smash the troublesome Afro-Indians and seize the town. He succeeded in capturing the settlement, but the rebels reverted to guerrilla tactics. The troops holding El Portete fell victim to malaria and other tropical diseases at an alarming rate and eventually evacuated the area.

                                    Beautiful Afro-Ecuadorian girls

"Subsequent efforts to subdue the Afro-Indians failed, and Francisco Arias de Herrera broke the stalemate in 1598 by drawing up a compact with the zambo leaders in which the latter agreed to accept the nominal suzerainty of the king of Spain. For all practical purposes, however, they remained autonomous."

The National Congress of Ecuador, taking into cognizance the instrumental role of Allonzo de Illescas in his fight against the Spanish colonial rule tabled in Quito "Special Law for the Institutionalization of National Black Day of Recognition of Alonso de Illescas  as a National Hero" on October 2,1997.


Alonso de Illescas

Alonso de Illescas was born about 1528, in Africa in the region of Senegal. At the age of about 10 years, he was captured by slave traders and taken as a slave to Spain. He was baptized and confirmed in Seville with the name of Enrique. He later took the name of his master, the merchant Alonso de Illescas.
He had the opportunity to learn the language of the Spanish, their way of living, raising children, engaging in war and even entertainment. He became proficient in the use of weapons and musical instruments typical of the great families of the time.

Around 25 years or so, he was brought to America by the family of Illescas, who managed a sort of joint enterprise between Seville and Lima. In October 1553, sailing from Panama to Lima, the merchant ship that carried Alonso de Illescas, had great difficulty by currents and adverse weather and ran out of supplies.
After passing through the rough whether  and getting to the Cape of San Francisco, at the height of Portete Cove, in the province of Esmeraldas, the ship that had  on board 17 black slaves and six 6 black free men, was pushed to the reef where it ran aground due to the strong wind and turbulent waves. This helped blacks including Allonso to flee into the jungle. The Spanish tried to recapture them, but had no success. From there Alonso and other escaped slaves went to Portoviejo to enjoy their free lives.

On the death of Anton, after overcoming some internal rivalries, Alonso de Illescas, was recognized as the new leader.
Account by Miguel Cabello de Balboa has it that Alonso who once invited to a great feast with the chief Chilianduli with Indians in the village of Dobe, surprisingly at the apex of the party killed 500 Indians, and became the new lord of the people.

                          Young Afro-Ecuadorian girls
They made forays into a vast area reaching Portoviejo instilling fear to the Spanish, who vainly tried to subdue the multiple attacks.
Allonso was a skilled negotiator and knew how to win the friendship of the Indians, making appropriate partnerships, particularly with the tribe of the chiggers. For the Indians there was no choice but to agree and accept the newcomers.They therefore supported Alonso and his free blacks in the fight against enemy tribes, especially the dreaded Campaces. As a sign of alliance the Indians awarded their women as a trophy to the black warriors of Allonso to marry, giving rise to a new breed in of people in South America "the Sambo of Esmeraldas." Later in 1599 the painter Andrés Sánchez Gallque, by order of Judge Juan del Barrio, painted the "Chiefs of Esmeraldas Blacks" and sent the large portrait of the King of Spain, Philip II.
    56-year old don Francisco de Arobe and his two sons, don Pedro and don Domingo (ages 22 and 18 respectively), journeyed to Quito to pay homage to the Spanish Court
(The men’s noses, ears, and lips are studded with strange crescents and balls and tubes of gold.  Beneath starched white ruffs flow finely bordered ponchos and capes of brocaded silk, their drape lovingly rendered by the painter: here a foil-like blue, there bronze, now bright orange against velvety black.  Only don Francisco’s poncho appears to be woolen, perhaps fashioned from imported Spanish broadcloth.  The three are further adorned with matching shell necklaces, and don Francisco holds a supple, black felt hat with a copper trim.  
Don Domingo holds a more pedestrian sombrero . . . and all three appear to be wearing fitted doublets of contemporary, late-Renaissance European style.  These are all but hidden, nestled beneath flowing Chinese over-garments, which are, in turn, cut in a distinctly Andean fashion)

Alonso was cunning, brave in war, with his quite literary abilities in Spanish language also quickly learned the local languages. With the Spanish colonizers he maintained a relationship that could define as "hate and love," in order to preserve their autonomy while leveraging their friendship.
He established his people in the headwaters of Atacames, called San Martin de la Campaces, the mouth of which was the historic meeting with the priest Miguel Cabello de Balboa, in the month of September 1577.
Alonso de Illescas  was told by the catholic priest that he had the king's (king of Spain) pardon and has been appointed as Governor of Esmeraldas. Alonso took appointment appointment letter from Balboa and told him he appreciated the King`s offer but added that before he accepts, "I had to talk to my people."
In fact he left with his entourage. Later he came with all his people, promising nothing because the Spanish ship appeared in the bay, from Portmore, causing distrust. They thought it would be another betrayal of their people to the Spanish. Alonso and his black followers did not show up anymore. The Spanish left.
When Miguel Cabello de Balboa returned to Atacames River  again,  he found rafts shattered and plants uprooted, a clear sign that the relationship was broken and he could be danger.
(Miss Ecuador 2010, Lady Mina  is referred to by her countrymen as the “Black Barbie”. She is the third ever Afro-Ecuadorian woman to win the right to represent her country in the Miss Universe 2010.)

The priest Miguel Cabello de Balboa, along with his colleagues, decided to take the road along the coast to Bahia de Caráquez, as he constantly watched from afar by the Indian pals of Alonso. There were follow up Portoviejo help, then finally reached Guayaquil and Quito on February 10, 1578.
The blacks were indeed free in their new land and resisted any attempt to subjugate them to the Spanish.
 Miguel Cabello de Balboa openly acknowledges that Alonso de Illescas was a man of superior qualities. He wrote to King telling him that it was not so easy to subdue a man who was well prepared and knows how to defend in all fields.
Alonso, married a daughter of Chief Chilianduli and had other women. The children were educated along Spanish families, were taught the use of weapon and also in the manufacturing of weapons. Three of his famous children were Enrique Alonso, Alonso Sebastian, Balthazar. One of his daughters was captured by Captain Andrew Contero, made ​​a slave, sent to Guayaquil and married to a slave of the same Captain. Another daughter named Mary got married to Gonzalo de Avila, they had a daughter, Magdalena.

                                        Afro-Ecuadorian women

.........And The Wonderful Story of Maria Chiquinquira,An Afro-Ecuadorian Woman

Maria Chiquinquira Díaz, was an Afro-Ecuadorian woman enslaved in Guayaquil, Ecuador in the 1700’s and was the first slave in Ecuador to win her freedom. She was enslaved by Presbyter Afonso Cepeda de Arizcum Elizondo. Maria Chiquinquira “entered a legal battle” for her and her daughter’s freedom in May 1794 and changed the course of her history and for thousands of black women in Ecuador.
Although she was a slave, she was aware of some of her rights and fought for her freedom based on that information. Maria (along with other female slaves in Latin America) won her freedom by accusing their masters of dishonorable acts including, siring children with slave women, requiring work on Sundays, withholding time for mass, and failing to provide instruction in the faith. Her portrait hangs in the Museum of Nahim Isaias in Guayaquil, Ecuador.

Afro-Ecuadorian Culture

Despite the advent of colonialism and having to endure constant discrimination by the dominant mestizo and criollo populations, Afro Ecuadorians have managed to maintain a distinct identity, deeply embedded with their African culture and traditions for nearly four and a half centuries. Unlike the Garifuna who strongly associates with and maintains a rather equal identification with both their African and Carib/indigenous ancestry, Afro Ecuadorians are descendants of Black slaves who overpowered and intermarried with the local indigenous population. However, due to deeply-rooted racism, they have been unable to integrate with the larger Ecuadorian society and as a result, have chosen to create and maintain a strong association with their Black/African ancestry.

Today, Afro Ecuadorians predominantly occupying the coastal Esmeraldas and Valle del Chota regions and they have used music, in the form of the marimba dance, to create a distinct identity within the larger Ecuadorian society and to preserve their African roots and culture. The marimba is a musical instrument, which consists of wooden bars and metal mallets. It closely resembles the xylophone and was derived from the West African balafon. Music among Afro Ecuadorians corresponds with the currulao, or marimba dance. This too has strong roots in the Bantu and Mande heritages in West Africa.
For many Afro Ecuadorians, marimba dances served as the ultimate expression of freedom. To some extent they operated as an autonomous state since they were able to fend off the Spanish colonizers.  However, due to the encroachment of the dominant mestizo on the Esmeraldas due to the regions bountiful mineral wealth, restriction were placed on Afro Ecuadorians and for a large portion of the 20th century, marimba dances were regulated and were prohibited unless one possessed a permit. While this greatly affected the prevalence of marimba music and by default Afro Ecuadorian’s African roots and culture, in the early to mid 20th century, Afro-Ecuadorians would once again display their resilient spirit by resurrecting their beloved musical dances and traditions.

Not allowed! Not allowed!
Azucar - Soy El Hombre

(Azucar, an Afro-Ecuadorian dance and music group, is named in honor of the band members' ancestors, who toiled in sugar plantations. They represent the Fundacione Desarrollo Social Afroecuatoriano (Afro-Ecuadorian Foundation of Social Development). Their instruments include the marimba and the cajon, a simple wooden box. The dance style is called bambuco, common to Esmeraldes on the Pacific coast.)

The Marimba Dance also called the  baile de respeto  (dance of respect). In Colombia, 
and previously in Ecuador, this was called the currulao and was and is performed in the Pacific Lowlands from Buenaventura south to Muisne.  But today in Ecuador many performers deny that they would use the term currulao.  Since the mid-1970s the marimba dance has become a provincial cultural focal point of modern Esmeraldas, with bands traveling nationally and internationally to festivals and competitions.  The bands are usually composed of two male marimba players (marimberos), one of whom is a 
composer and singer (glosador), two base-drum (bombo) players, who follow the lead of the glosador, and two conga drum (cununo) players 
In counterpart to these musicians and percussionists are two (sometimes three) women, called respondedoras.  They sing in response to the glosador and provide another rhythm with their  guasás, which are bamboo tube shakers with hardwood (palm) nails driven into their bodies, and filled with black beans and maize to give a rain-like sound, sheeee, sheeee.  Women control the two cununeros, who play conga drums.  The two marimberos and two bomberos on one side, and the two women and two conga players 
(cununeros), on the other side, constitute an antagonistic and dynamic musical and percussive dialectic that generates the most African music in the Americas.  No saints, deities, demons or tricksters enter the sphere, nor are there possession or trance states, which is why I call it a secular ritual.  
La Tunda—the body snatching seductress and fear creature of swamp and forest—approaches the house called casa de la marimba during the respect dance, but is driven away by the sound of the bombos.

 marimba Ecuador
Marimba Dance & Music: The Ultimate expression of History & Culture in Ecuador. Afro-Descendants In Latin America 

 In the 1970s, the elder Afro Ecuadorians embarked on a mission to revive their African heritage and tradition by creating folklore schools and dance troops to teach and perform marimba music and dance. This not only helped to foster strong relationships between the younger and older generations but it also enable the younger generations to develop a strong understanding of their roots and culture. Today, marimba music and dance is used in combination with theatre to tell the story of the strong resilient history Afro Ecuadorians possess and also to help foster a sense of pride. Afro Ecuadorians have also used marimba as a means of communication with the African Diaspora.  Their performances incorporate themes relatable to all Africans throughout the Diaspora, such as slavery, resistance and resilience.  Marimba groups have also been able to partake in major national and international music festivals, where they have been able to display their rich cultural traditions to the rest of the world.
Marimba has become such an important part of Afro Ecuadorian life and life in the Esmeraldas in general, that major cities are plastered with large murals depicting marimba players being accompanied by dancers with the statements “Cultural identity is Part of a Positive Personality” and “Folklore is the Identity of a Cultivated People” in bold. Despite having the ability to proudly represent and display their culture and identity through marimba dance and music, Afro Ecuadorians still struggle to overcome deeply rooted racism and as a result are marginalized by the dominant mestizo and criollo societies. Many live in poverty and are subjected to discrimination, thereby making it difficult for them to integrate with their mestiza and criollo counterparts.  Despite these setbacks, Afro Ecuadorians are a strong resilient people. Their resilience continues to be manifested through the growing influence of marimba on the nation and their participation in the Ecuadorian National Football League.

Afro-Ecuadorian women singing
The Choco Rainforest, San Miguel, Ecuador at the inauguration of the Kumanii lodge.

Pasacalle del Carnaval de Esmeraldas 2007
 Although the marimba dance used to be quite self contained, over the last quarter century many transformations have occurred, including endeavors to incorporate Afro-Latin American and Afro-Caribbean dance music and rhythms while maintaining the basic repertoire of genres, the most common of which are called the bambuco, caderona, agua larga, patacoré, juga (fuga), caramba, and andarele.  There is now one marimba school in South Quito which was invited to play at the inauguration of the new President of the Republic in the Atahualpa Olympic Stadium on February 20, 2003.  As the marimba band played a bambuco, commandos parachuted from Air Force planes into the stadium, one of them carrying Miss Ecuador, 2002, as a “passenger."
(The band Madera Metálicos emerged in 1997 from the school of music and dance of the legendary Santa Roncón, a key figure in the transmission of Afro-Ecuadorian culture.
 The group blends traditional music with metallic sounds, without losing its identity and culture. It also carries a strong social responsibility towards youth, which it tries to steer away from drugs and violence through a school which the band supports with its own resources, the research it carries out to deepen the knowledge of traditional culture and the production of handicrafts and musical instruments.    )

  In San Lorenzo, northwest Ecuador, where there is another marimba school, the marimba has become part of some celebrations of the Catholic Mass (de la Torre 2002:119).  Sex or gender roles have shed some of their polarity over the past quarter century and one may now find men playing guasás and women playing cununos.  But the structure of gendered musical roles perdures.
                       Afro-Ecuadorian dress


Cosmovision of Afro-Ecuadurians
Ecuadorian ethnographer Diego Quiroga (2003) explicates very clearly key cosmological concepts that undergird Esmeraldian cultural systems: lo divino and lo humano, the domains of the divine and the human. Lo divino is far away and hard to reach.  Indeed, only women can open the portals to lo divino, where God, Christ, Mary, saints, virgins, angels, and other powerful and benevolent figures reside.  Lo humano is right here and right now, and its history extends back through times of terror, strife, and travail.  All humans—men, women and children—must live in the here and now with the history of exploitation and resistance, the multiple consequences thereof, and carry on their lives in the face of the kinds of development that produce wealth for the very few, and poverty for the many.  Not only people live through their life cycles in the time-space of lo humano.  Dangerous spirits, called visiones (apparitions), such as La Tunda, El Riviel, La Viuda, La Candela, El Hombre sin Cabeza, and los duendes, all dwell here too, as do those who have access to them and other forces of evil, such as the witches (brujas) and sorcerers (brujos) or conjurors (see Whitten 1986, Rahier 1999b, Quiroga 2003).
The evils of contemporary life configure around the Christian figure of the devil (el diablo, el gran demonio, el mismísimo) often perceived to be a white, powerful hacendado or politician who binds women and the poor to his will.  Living people may make a Faustian deal with el diablo for sterile wealth in this life, in exchange for the loss of one’s soul and an eternity in hell after death (Quiroga 2003).  In reflecting on developmental processes, the accumulation of wealth, and the growth of capital, people of this region sometimes say that “en Esmeraldas ahora el diablo está en nosotros mismos” (“now in Esmeraldas the devil lies within within ourselves” [Quiroga2003]).  Quiroga writes poetically about these phenomena that provide resources for what he calls “a system of critical thought” in contemporary Ecuador, a system that is used by Afro-Ecuadorian people (and others) in all walks of life to reflect on and express the phenomena of modernization,
development and racism that envelope and threaten their lifeways:
                In the new millennium there is a clear relationship between the forces and
                images of the humano and the processes of globalization and modernization.
                Nonetheless, care must be exercised.  The spirits and apparitions that now
                seem to serve as devices of symbolic mediation have been around for a long
                time.  In an effort to fit a paradigm based on the dichotomies modernity
               and capitalism, subsistence and accumulation, man and woman, globalization
               and the local economy, some authors may ignore the social complexity and
               cultural reflexivity implicit in these multivocalic mythical figures (2003:174).

In the Afro-Esmeraldian cosmos (see Whitten 1986:127–132) the divine realm is that of the upper right quadrant that includes heaven (gloria) and purgatory (purgatorio) in the sky.  Otherwise the realm of other
worlds, the sea, the land, and hell is of the human realm.  To appreciate Afro-Esmeraldian culture in this sector of the lowland black Ecuadorian world, some characteristic ritual systems must be described.  They include the secular ritual of the marimba dance of respect (el baile marimba), and the sacred rituals of the arrullo (song of praise), the chigualo (wake for a dead child, which includes the performance of arrullos), and the alabado and novenario (wake and second wake for a deceased adult).  The secular ritual features male/female competition over the initiation of rhythms and dance patterns and the behavior of participants.  In the public cultural performance of la tropa (military troop or troops) that begins the Tuesday or Wednesday before Easter and ends Easter day, this entire cosmovision becomes manifest in sustained ceremony.  La tropa features both sacred and secular rituals of communal restoration and affirmation of cultural endurance as Christians and, perhaps in some areas, as free Maroons.

 Arrullos To Saints and Virgins and the Chigualo For Dead Children
African rhythms also dominate the songs of praise to saints and virgins, and in the chigualo where arrullos are sung and performed.  The sacred ritual contexts of arrullo and chigualo are initiated and maintained strictly by women.  They decide when and where an event is to be held, and they sing, direct both the bombero and cununero(s), and shake maracas.  In their songs they open the realm of the divine all the way to heaven, bypassing purgatory.  The restless and dangerous spirits of purgatory are kept from the living by the bombo, as is the devil, el Riviel, la Tunda, and the
multiplicity of demons that would like to become a more decisive earthly force.  In arrullo events where death has not occurred, the women open the divine realm to invite saints and virgins to their celebratory activities, and with permission from women men may make petitions to these celestial beings for luck in fishing, farming, or commerce.  The most prominent of saints to come through the gates of lo divino to visit the living is San Antonio (Saint Anthony), patron saint of fishermen and special consort of powerful women.
                       Afro-Ecuadorian dance group
When the death of a child occurs a  chigualo is performed.  The godparents of the little corpse assemble to petition the cantadoras (singers) to gather and sing, to open the gates of heaven to the deceased angelito(a), and to locate and petition male  bomberos  and  cununeros to come and perform so that no evil being snatches the corpse.  In this context the conga drum is called a cajita (little box) and the player is known as  redomblante (drummer).  The coffin for the little child, too, is called a cajita.  A chigualo may be held only with women singers and a  bombero but it cannot be held without the singers or without the base drum.  The cantadoras open the portals to lo divino and the bomberos keep evil beings at bay.  It is said that the little angel goes directly to heaven, having died before he or she could “sin,” there to live forever with God, Christ, Mary and the saints and virgins.  Although the ceremony of the deceased child has been recorded in medieval Spain, the music itself, like that of the marimba dance, is the most distinctively African in the Americas.

The Alabado and the Novenario
The house in which an adult dies is precariously balanced between earth, purgatory, and hell.  During the wake following death, called alabado,and the second wake about nine days after burial, called novenario, men and women from the local community cooperate in all endeavors with incoming dispersed relatives.  They express equality in their roles, which are jointly oriented toward maintaining solidarity of a grouping of kinspeople around the newly deceased person, while at the same time rearranging particular kin ties so that no one can trace a relationship through the deceased (Whitten 1968, 1974, 1986; Quiroga 2003). Although much attention is given to kinship by adults in the processes of gathering and communing in this sacred ritual context, relationships of affinity and consanguinity are deliberately blurred.  For example, a brother of a deceased man may regard the deceased’s wife as his sister during and following the alabado-novenario,or formally broken affinal bonds may be recalled in a re-linking of “cousins” to one another.  Full cooperation between men and women is expressed: a cooperative, egalitarian, male-female set of sex-role relationships is enacted as the living solemnly take a position against the dead.
                           Afro-Ecuadorian dance

Since no adult is thought to die without enacting sins during her or his lifetime, it is thought that adult souls go to purgatory.  Before departing, however, the soul of the deceased passes in and out of the house through windows and doors left open to facilitate its movements.  It lingers in the neighborhood until after the novenario.  Devils, demons, ghosts, and apparitions come to visit from the common domain of the humano.  Thanks to the powers of women—as manifest in the lamenting songs—all of whom are cantadoras and some of whom are healers (curanderas), the realm of the divino is open to all, so that saints, virgins, and other divinities are brought from the distant domain to counteract the awful and dangerous powers unleashed by the wandering of sinful souls in the presence of such figures as el gran demonio.  Women sing of such comings and goings of the soul, of demons, of fear creatures and of divine creatures, even as living people come and go and join in choruses.  Finally, if after nine days people are unsure where the wandering soul of the deceased may be, they enact a ceremony called la tumba (the tomb) to dismiss it (Whitten 1986:129-132).  Men and women form two rows.  Women sing dirges as the soul is forced into the three-step construction that is draped with a black cross, called la tumba (the tomb).  The soul is then forced out of the tomb and into the callejón, and from there out the door of the house into purgatory or hell.  As this occurs women sing:

                  Te vas y me dejas, solito con Dios            You go and leave me, alone with God
                  Adiós, primo hermano                               Goodbye, first cousin
                  (Whitten 1986:131; translation by Norman E. Whitten, Jr.).

La Tropa
This cultural performance is the most dramatic ceremony held in the Ecuadorian Province of Esmeraldas and in neighboring Colombian Departments of Nariño, Cauca, and Valle.  It is a forceful enactment of the  capture, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that some take to be an extended dramatic metaphor of the formation of an Afro-indigenous maroon settlement and the resurrection of Christ within it.  La tropa is enacted during the week leading up to Easter day, and ends with a secular parade, sometimes called Belén, on Easter Sunday.  La tropa brings outmigrants back home from Esmeraldas and especially Guayaquil to small
ecuador baile afroecuatoriano
Afro-Ecuadorian woman of Esmeraldas

villages such as Güimbí on the Güimbí River and Selva Alegre (Rahier 1999c) on the Santiago River.  Community ties are very important to many out-migrants, who spend considerable sums of money, and take up to two or three weeks from their urban lives, to make their way up the coast of Ecuador, and thence upriver by launch or canoe to attend this important and dramatic communal event.
The La tropa ceremony begins in the fringes of the community as groups of “soldiers” with shotguns, machetes, spears, and knives run off in directed squads to search for the lost or hidden Christ.  But they find only the biblical thief, Barabas.  They then march in step on the church.  They enter it, march within it, and eventually enact the killing of Christ, his removal from the cross, the reign of the devil on Saturday, the bringing of the forest into the Catholic Church within the black and free village, and perhaps the liberation of the people of the forest and of the true free church from oppression of Crown, Church, and later State (Rahier 1999b).  During this ceremony, women sing sacred alabados to Christ and  to the assembled “sinners.”  The tropa formation itself, composed strictly of adult men, march in a stylized manner to a drum beat not used in any other ritual.  The stylized manner of marching and walking to and from the Church and within the Church has been recorded on film and audio tape since the 1940s (e.g., Savoia n.d.).
20-year old  Afro-Ecuadorian Zulay Castillo Velasco, from Esmeraldas, runner-up in 2012 miss ecuador beauty pageant.

After the enactment of Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday, women take over the entire ceremony and lead the participants to and fro through main streets, back streets, and house yards to the songs of praise of the arrullos, and to national popular music.  This street parade, called Belén (“Bethlehem,” and also “bedlam”) is led and controlled by women, just as in the arrullos and chigualos.  Marimberos, bomberos, and cununeros participate and again are controlled by women, who dance, sing, and shake  guasás or maracas.  With the beginning of the Belén, the transformation from sacrality and connectivity with the divino to secularity and severance from that realm is instantaneous.  Life in the realm of the human—with its myriad of dangers—is fully restored in festivity and joy:
                    Barrio de los negros                                    Barrio of blacks
                    de calles oscuras                                         of dark streets
                    preñadas de espantos,                                 bursting with spooks
                    que llevan, que asustan,                               that carry off, that frighten,
                    que paran los pelos                                     that make hairs stand [rise]
                    en noches sin luna                                       on moonless nights
                    Barrio encendido,                                        Inflamed barrio
                    de noche y de día                                        by night and by day
                    infierno moreno                                           dark hell,
                    envuelto en las llamas                                  enveloped in the flames
                   de son y alegría                                            of  rhythm and happiness,
                  (Preciado Bedoya 1961; translation by Marvin Lewis 1983:121–122).
 �� ˚v�º[n�
                                                     Afro-Ecuadorians doing their traditional dance

During the conquest and colonial era the Spanish divided up the people of their vast empire into two republics: that of the Spanish, and that of the indios.  No place was ever created under colonial rule for black
people, los negros, nor was a construction of blackness, lo negro, recognized.  Afro-Latin American people created their own niches, environmental adaptations, ideologies, and cosmologies.  Among the core features of blackness in Ecuador, as in Colombia, Venezuela, and elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean, is the enduring emphasis on freedom.  One is either free or not.  There is no middle ground (Price 1979, Whitten and Torres 1998, Romero and Lane 2002). 
Afro-Ecuadorian boys in Wimbi, Esmeraldas, Ecuador
Three regions of Ecuador have been characterized as “black” from the colonial era to the present: the Province of Esmeraldas, in the rainforested and canopied coastal zone of the north; the Chota-Mira River 
Valley region, which undulates through the low Andean montaña slopes, also in the north; and the Catamayo Valley of  el austro in the south of the country, where Amazonian and Andean piedmont regions are conjoined.  The first emerged in bursts of self-liberation in the mid-sixteenth century, just as the colonial Royal High Court (audiencia) of Quito was establishing its territory.  The other two began with violent enslavement of African people by Europeans in the late sixteenth to early seventeenth century that created two (of many) very different economies within the large and highly diverse Audiencia de Quito: one depended on plantation agriculture, the other on yeoman skills; both were based on the forced labor of enslaved African-descended people and Afro-indigenous-descended people.
                Cayuco on the Rio Cayapas, Esmeraldas, Ecuador

In the Chota-Mira Valley region, the Jesuits were the landowners, exploiters of the decimated indigenous population, importers of enslaved Africans, and owners and overseers of the expanding black slave population from their entry in 1586 until their expulsion in 1767.  After the expulsion, enslaved people were auctioned to private hacendados by crown authorities.  In the southern Province of Loja, black slavery was introduced by the latter quarter of the sixteenth century.  Household servants, field workers, and itinerant gold miners from Colombia, Spain and Africa were brought to the area by individuals (Whitten and Quiroga 1998:82–83).  Fluency of intermarriage and migration in this sector led the various ethnicities there to dissipate into the general population by the late twentieth century.  Black people exist in some numbers throughout Ecuador, in large metropolitan areas such as Quito and Guayaquil, and in the small Andean city, Ibarra.  In the Amazonian region, Coca has a sizable Afro-Ecuadorian population.  Nonetheless, most Ecuadorians erroneously associate all black people with either Esmeraldas or the Chota-Mira Valley (Rahier 1991, 2003), even those born and reared for generations elsewhere.
                Afro-Ecuadorian farmer

In 1992, blackness clearly emerged as a national quality spanning coastal, Andean, and Amazonian regions.  Its ethnic nationalist expression was called  négritude,  coined initially by the Martinique writer Aimée Césaire.  As the movement surged under such cultural rubrics as “the advancement of the black community,” and identification of the movement among white and black intellectuals was expressed by the representations 
afro-ecuatorianos(as) (Afro-Ecuadorians) and  afro-latinoamericanos(as) (Afro-Latin Americans), varied associations between those so identifying and the indigenous movement came into being.  By the twenty-first century the most common representations are lo negro, and afro-latinoamericanos, and less so négritud (Spanish of négritude, but with other meanings)
Afro-Ecuadorian bringing home "verde" - green plantain

As the concept of Afro-Indigenous peoples also became salient in national discourse, the concept of zambaje entered the Ecuadorian literary lexicon (Rueda Novoa 2001, 2002; Whitten in press a and b).  Zambo(a)(sometimes zambaigo), long a term of identity and reference in Esmeraldas, and elsewhere in the Americas, signifies freedom and dignity.  It refers to the genetic blending of African peoples with indigenous peoples.  The epitome of such blending is historically embodied in the painting of the three cosmopolitan ambassadors and lords from Esmeraldas, described at the opening of this article.  Significantly, perhaps, in the restoration of the Museo de Américas’ painting, the features of  zambaje described by Kris Lane (2002), were transformed to very black, denying thereby the representation and significance of mixed heritage of the Afro-indigenous cimarrones.
Boy hunter with sloth,Wimbi, Esmeraldas, Ecuador El Chocó rainforest.© 2007 Vicki Brown

To be black in Ecuador is to be stigmatized by racialist and racist attributes, regardless of political power, class, or social esteem (Rahier 1999a, 1999b, 2003; Robinson 2002).  A prominent black congressman 
from Esmeraldas, Jaime Hurtado González, founded the political party Democratic Popular Movement (MPD), and twice ran for president of the republic.  In 1984, he obtained seven percent of the vote and in 1988 he gained five percent (de la Torre 2002:23–24).  In 1998 he and his two body guards were brutally assassinated in front of the legislative palace in Quito.  Subsequent and to-date unfounded accusations of his alleged linkages with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombian (FARC) were made and the Ecuadorian military occupied the black areas of the interior of Esmeraldas Province, especially the Ónzole River region. 
                                  Jaime Hurtado González,
 This is a region where Afro-Ecuadorians had recently been granted legal rights to land they had worked since the mid-sixteenth century (Lane 2002).  During this occupation an association was made between an unconfirmed accusation of a prominent congressman’s involvement with radical Colombian politics, and an Ecuadorian region known for its “blackness” and its “remoteness.”  In the face of this military action, publicly espoused Blackness, as ideological négritud, retreated into local and regional discussion groups (see Whitten 2003a, 2003b).
(Jaime Hurtado Gonzalez, 62, deputy of the Popular Democratic Movement of Ecuador, was shot dead by a gang of thugs, against the Supreme Court, on Wednesday afternoon February 17. It was a political murder, that blood froze Ecuadorian society in general.) 

  Many Ecuadorians express displeasure with the existence of black movements of self-assertion and often deny that Afro-Ecuadorians themselves ever asserted cultural constructs of blackness prior to the indigenous movement, which erupted in 1990 with the first Levantamiento Indígena (Whitten 1996).  Black pride, however, has long existed, side by side with self-deprecation (Rahier 2003).  Offered below is a poem, 
written by the late esmeraldeño Nelson Estupiñán Bass in 1954—some fifty years ago—to move the reader to a level of cultural appreciation of, and pride in, blackness and enduring freedom in the face of oppression:
Negro, negro renegrido,                  Black, black, blackened
negro, hermano del carbón,             black, brother of charcoal,
negro de negros nacido,                  black of blacks born,
negro ayer, mañana al hoy.              black yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Algunos creen insultarme                 Some believe they insult me
gritándole mi                                   color mocking my color
más yo mismo lo pregono               but I myself proclaim it
con orgullo frente al sol:                  with pride in the face of the sun:
Negro he sido, negro soy,              Black I have been, black I am,
negro vengo, negro voy,                 black I come, black I go,
negro bien negro nací                     black real black I was born 
negro negro he de vivir,                  black black I must live,
y como negro morir.”                     and as black must die.
(Estupiñán Bass 1954:50, 53; translation by Norman E. Whitten, Jr., and 
Arlene Torres). 
                       Laundry day in Wimbi, Esmeraldas, Ecuador
There can be no doubt about the affirmation of the identity of blackness in this poem—negro soy, negro voy—it is first person, publicly personal, declarative, poetic, and moving.

Lawyer Jaime Hurtado Gonzalez monument in Quito New Town. Ecuador.
Lawyer Jaime Hurtado Gonzalez monument in Quito New Town. 

Afro-Ecuadorians Today

Afro-Ecuadorians are about 1.2 million or 5 per cent of the total population. However, Afro-Ecuadorian organizations argue that this number is inaccurate due to problems with self-classification. They estimate Ecuador's black population at ten per cent, or nearly double the official statistics. Living mostly in the northern coastal province of Esmeraldas and in the south-central coastal region, about two-thirds of Afro-Ecuadorians now live in urban zones. Although Afro-Ecuadorians have distinct cultural traditions, there is little recognition of their contribution to Ecuadorian society.

                                        Afro-Ecuadorian women in their traditional attire

In 1998, leveraging international support and their connections with pan-Afro-Latin American networks, Afro-Ecuadorian organizations were successful in pressuring the Ecuadorian government to recognize them as a distinct ethnic group in the new constitution. Article 85 gives Afro-Ecuadorians similar rights to cultural patrimony and collective territory. Similarly, in 1998 President Alarcón created the government agency Corporation of Afro-Ecuadorian Development (CODAE) to address issues facing this population.
                                      Lady Mina,Miss Ecuador 2010

Starting in the late 1990s, there have been some significant changes in the situation of Afro-Ecuadorians. The 2001 census was the first in Ecuadorian history to include a question designed to account for the Afro-Ecuadorian population. Similarly, 2 October has been declared Afro-Ecuadorian Day. Nevertheless, many of the policy reforms have been largely symbolic. Although the constitution guarantees collective rights for indigenous people, the articles related to Afro-Ecuadorians are ambiguous. Consequently, Afro-Ecuadorian NGOs worked closely with Afro-Ecuadorian Congressman Rafael Erazo to draft a law further elaborating the collective rights for Afro-Ecuadorians. Approved by congress in May of 2006, this legislation still awaits final approval from President Palacios.

While Afro-Ecuadorians fair considerably better than indigenous people on nearly every socio-economic indicator, they still lag behind their white/mestizo counterparts. In 2001, 70 per cent of Afro-Ecuadorians did not have their basic needs satisfied (NBI) compared to the national average of 61 per cent. Moreover, there is evidence that this group still faces regional inequalities and racial discrimination, particularly in urban areas. In 2006 the existence of blacks in Ecuador was brought to centre stage when it was revealed that two-thirds of the Ecuadorian World Cup team was of African descent. This was the first time in history that Ecuador qualified for the World Cup.
 �� ˚v�
Afro-Ecuadorian activists have been effective in advocating for rights for Afro-Ecuadorians as well as raising consciousness among this group. Key umbrella organizations such as the National Afro-Ecuadorian Confederation and the National Coordinator of Black Women have had a presence in domestic politics as well as international policy circles. Afro-Ecuadorian women's organizations have been particularly effective, raising other important issues to address the specific concerns of black women. This has included the elaboration of innovative programs related to health, violence, work conditions and self esteem among Afro-Ecuadorian women.
        Afro-Ecuadorian girl with a chocolate fruit

             Afro-Ecuadorian boys playing with water.

Afro-Ecuadorian girls on laundry day Wimbi, Esmeraldas, Ecuador © 2007 Vicki Brown

Afro-Ecuadorian woman carrying firewood in Tumbatu,Ecuador.

              Afro-Ecuadorian kids having fun,Tumbatu, Ecuador.

                                                Lady Fernanda Mina

                             Afro-Ecuadorian kids swimming

                             Afro-ecuadorian dance

 �� ˚v�

 �� ˚v�

Lady Fernanda Mina Lastra (2010)
                 Lady Mina,Afro-Ecuadorian beauty

Soraya Hogonaga (1998)
The second Afro-Ecuadorian to win Miss Ecuador in 1998, Soraya Hogonaga. 

Monica Chala  (1996)
 The first Afro-Ecuadorian to win Miss Ecuador in 1996,Monica Chala. see;


  1. Thank you for this wonderful article. I haven't learned much about Ecuador's black people but now I know a little bit more. Thank you.

  2. Hello, your photo titled Lawyer Jaime Hurtado Gonzalez monument in Quito New Town is my photo, please credit and link to the source = my site


Post a Comment