Civil Rights Beyond the U.S.

Latin America’s African descendants’ struggles for civil rights are the focus of a planned ground-breaking project.


As part of the USF in Brazil's new program, directed by Assistant Professor Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman, a group of 11 graduate and undergraduate students is studying in Salvador, Bahia.  (l-r): Brazil Cultural Director Javier Escudero, who helped organize the program; students Kristen Nash, Reema Rajbanshi, Kourtney Butler, Kris-An Hinds, Keith Simmons and Helen Vidal; USF Brazil in Bahia Program Director and Assistant Professor Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman (Sociology); and students Cynthia Perez, Eshe Lewis, Gabriela Irizarry Keith Simmons and Florence Adibu.


By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (July 2, 2013) – Latin American history books and tourist literature rarely show people who look African. Yet many more Africans arrived in that part of the newly-discovered Americas during the transatlantic slave trade than in what was to become the United States. 


“Some 10 million people ended up as slaves in the new world between 1500 and the 1850s,” said Bernd Reiter, an associate professor at the University of South Florida who teaches comparative politics in the Department of Government and International Affairs, as well as the Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean (ISLAC).


“Their descendants now constitute some 150 million in the region and make up from less than two percent in such countries as Bolivia and Argentina to over 40 percent of Brazil's almost 200 million people.”


Reiter, Assistant Professor Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman, who teaches courses in the Department of Sociology and ISLAC, and Paula Lezama, ISLAC’s assistant director and academic advisor, are seeking ways to reach as many of these descendants as possible through a ground-breaking project, if their budget proposal gets a green light.     


As ISLAC’s Afro-Descendant Working Group, they are seeking funding to conduct a summer gathering under the heading of The Franz Fanon International Training Institute for Afro-Descendants in Latin America. The proposal represents “the culmination of two years of eorts including a conference, three planning meetings in Panama, video-teleconferences, email exchanges, surveys and input from over 50 Afro-descendant organizations in Latin America,” Reiter said. “We’re looking to work with already established schools and leadership training institutes run by and for this population.”  


What might come as a surprise to many, Africans have a long and interesting history in Latin America but a shorter history of organized struggle for their civil rights. This is not to say, though, that they have not been fighting back all along.



USF Assistant Professor Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman (Sociology); PEACE Foundation Roeland Roebuck; USF Assistant Professor Bernd Reiter (Government and International Affairs); Organization of American States Roberto Rojas; ISLAC Assistant Director Paula Lezama and Tonija Hope-Navas, PEACE Foundation.

Hordge-Freeman explained, “Early resistance in Brazil is perhaps best represented by the development of quilombos, which were settlements developed by escaped slaves. However, the contemporary black movement in Brazil has encountered significant difficulties in galvanizing interest among its Afro-descendants. 


“These difficulties are products of ‘whitening’ efforts that have been legislated at the national level, and also shape racial identification at the social level. Hence, leaders of the Black movement spend a significant amount of time educating Afro-Brazilians about the importance of embracing their racial heritage.


“Brazilian and other Afro-Latin American activists draw on their own discourses and arguments about racism to organize in their countries, but they also often invoke the Civil Rights Movement in the United States using affirmations such as ‘Black is Beautiful’ as well as demands for economic and political equality.”


After many years of denying the racial legacy of colonialism and current racial disparities as they affect African descendants, these problems are being acknowledged by some Latin American nations. Issues that have been at the forefront of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement for more than 50 years have finally found their way to Latin America.


“African descendants are at the very bottom of social hierarchies almost everywhere in the Americas,” Reiter said. ““Only very recently did some governments, pressured by Black social movements and advocacy groups, start to enact programs targeting this population. Previously, not a single Latin American country ever made a serious attempt to undo the effects of slavery. There never was a time of reconstruction, no 40 acres and a mule, anywhere. The plight of African descendants south of the USA is slowly, but steadily, gaining more international attention due also to the forces of a globalized media, but the struggle for justice that these populations wage goes back to the 1500s.”


Hordge-Freeman added, “While historical examples of sustained resistance against racism are evident in Afro-descended communities across the Americas, over the last two decades we have witnessed significant shifts. These shifts are due, in part, to the internationalization of these movements.”


She pointed to Brazil which recently, “passed affirmative action legislation for college admissions and in Colombia, activists continue to forcefully demand that their Census be adjusted to capture the number of Afro-descendants in the country and document racial disparities. While countries like Bolivia and Peru have a relatively smaller Afro-descendant population, community organizations led by Afro-Latin Americans in these countries illustrate that they are contributing to and building on this momentum.”


A common central theme in these struggles is education.


“This is where we, as educators, can contribute and thus find ways to make our own work more relevant,” said Reiter, who is the author of “Negotiating Democracy in Brazil and The Dialectics of Citizenship,” among others. 


Broad participation in the workshop is key.


“It is precisely because of the connectedness of these communities and their commonalities that this summer training institute will be important,” said Hordge-Freeman. “We envision it providing a space for the numerous community organizations to share their experiences, learn more about their commonalities – and differences – and exchange ideas that might help advance their efforts.”


Right now, Hordge-Freeman is in Brazil with a group of students for summer study abroad. She expects her course there, titled “Afro-Brazilian Culture & Society” will be an eye-opener for her class. Current events have helped.


"The recent protests and civil unrest have not interfered with the program, but rather have offered an opportunity for students to reflect on how Brazilians are actively engaging in forging Brazil's democracy," she said.


Fluent in Portuguese, Hordge-Freeman is currently writing a book that analyzes how racism shapes socialization and intra-familial relationships.


“The USF in Brazil program is designed to provide students with the opportunity to develop their Portuguese and gain first-hand experience about the inequality in Brazil,” she said. “In this way, this program is in line with both ISLAC’s mission and USF’s strategic goal of providing meaningful global experiences to students.”


ISLAC is moving forward with high hopes for what it will be able to accomplish this year, by working with international community partners. For example, the specifics of the budget proposal for the training institute were developed in collaboration with USF and four core organizations including Cimarron Colombia, CEDET (Centro de Desarrollo Étnico – Peru), ODECO (Organización de Desarrollo Étnico Comunitario – Honduras) and CADIC (Cross-Organizational Assessment and Development of Intellectual Capital - Bolivia). 


ISLAC’s Afro-Descendant Working Group has been seeking out and talking with potential partners and collaborators for their Afro-Descendant Initiative, most recently at a series of meetings organized with the assistance of Tonija Hope-Navas and Roland Roebuck of the PEACE Foundation, in Washington D.C. at the beginning of March. They met with Judith Morrison, senior advisor for gender and diversity, International Development Bank; Zakiya Carr Johnson, Senior Advisor to the Race, Ethnicity, and Social Inclusion Unit in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, State Department; Brittney Bailey, special advisor, USAID; Roberto Rojas, an expert on Afro-Latinos, the Organization of American States; and Jeanette Hordge, founder and CEO of DASH Marketing & Coordinating. 


The USF scholars are working towards a 2014 launch date for the institute and hope to get news about their proposal later this year.


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.