Black Resistance and Afro-Venezuelan Feminism: A Conversation with Merlyn Pirela (Part I)

An Afrofeminist activist talks about the country’s history of Black enslavement and about current forms of resistance.
Merlyn Pirela (Venezuelanalysis)

Hegemonic feminist currents focus on patriarchal oppression, but racialized forms of oppression seldom enter their discourse. Merlyn Pirela is a Venezuelan Afrofeminist activist and organizer, and a member of the Afro-Venezuelan Women’s Cumbe. In Part I of this two-part interview, Pirela explores the historical forms of oppression and domination, and the Afro-Venezuelan struggle for emancipation. Part II will address both the advances and the pending tasks of the movement in the context of the Bolivarian Process.

To help readers understand context, could you explain the history of slavery in Venezuela?

Like most countries in our continent, Venezuela had a long history of slavery. People from Africa were brought to this land by force, and their oppression and exploitation lasted three centuries. In other words, if we look at the country’s history since colonization, we have been enslaved longer than “free.” Legal emancipation only happened in 1854, and it came about because of a calculation that the dominant class made: slavery was no longer economically viable. This means that for centuries, Africans and people of African descent were enslaved laborers. On their shoulders, creole culture “blossomed.”

Legal emancipation came with indemnification to the enslavers and no reparations to the formerly enslaved. But of course, oppression and domination didn’t stop there, it just took a more conventional, mercantile and capitalist shape.

The three centuries of slavery were not just about the direct exploitation of Black people. At its origin was the violent process of enslavement of millions of Africans and the ensuing devastation of life in large swaths of the African continent. After the violent uprooting came the middle passage where the people were packed tightly into ships, chained, and confined to extremely cramped spaces. Saying that it was horrific is an understatement. The journey was horrible, lasting months, and many died due to disease, malnutrition, and brutal treatment.

Then came the market, where the enslaved people were measured and branded with the “carimba.” Brutally separated from their home, their culture, and their families, these peoples were then bought and taken to the haciendas for forced labor. The “lucky” ones, generally women, worked in the house and were often sexually exploited. The less “lucky” ones, often the most physically fit, were matched and turned into “factories” for producing future generations of enslaved people.

After having their children taken away, some of them would be assigned to be the wet nurses and caretakers of the mantuanos [oligarchical class].

How did society legitimate all this? Black people were said to have no soul and no discernment. The aim was to erase their histories, civilizations, knowledge, and cosmovisions. In short, for the colonizers and their descendants, enslaved people were not humans.

British slave ship, 1788. (Archives)

Resistance was not occasional but a constant. Can you highlight some forms of struggle past and present?

We talk about Afrofeminism because our struggle has other roots and our histories are not the same as those of the mainstream feminists. The oppression that women such as Simone de Beauvoir experienced is worlds apart from the oppression that Black women endured in the past and in the present.

The first form of Maroon resistance was abortion. Why? Nobody wants to bring a baby into a society that will enslave them. No mother wants to see her four-year-old taken away from her and put to work!

It so happens that mainstream culture still romanticizes the lives of figures such as Hipólita and Matea, Simón Bolívar’s wet nurses. How were they able to breastfeed him? Their kids were taken away from them! Afrofeminism confronts the discourse that erases the long history of racist, patriarchal oppression.

Enslaved people, both men and women, together with Indigenous peoples, didn’t passively submit. The practice of escaping the hacienda, going up to the mountains, and building libertarian communities wasn’t a rare event. There were hundreds of Maroon communities in what we now know as Venezuela. Some lasted months, some lasted years.

One of the longest-lasting cumbes [Maroon communities] in Barlovento [Miranda state] was Mango de Ocoita. There, in the 1770s, Guillermo Rivas and many others built an egalitarian community that lasted three years, much longer than the Paris Commune, and preceded it by about one hundred years!

But long before, in 1552, King Miguel de Buría and Queen Guiomar led an insurrection and liberated many enslaved people. They settled in Sorte Mountain, between Yaracuy and Lara states, and built a cumbe. That mountain is now a sacred territory where spiritism is practiced.

How did cumbes organize?

Cumbes had political, economic, cultural, and spiritual dimensions. Cumbes were free territories with their own collectivized economy based on agriculture and animal husbandry. Of course, they were always in a situation of siege, and the violence deployed against them was brutal.

Cumbes were organized for life and for making families in conditions of freedom and love. Of course, the history of these Maroon communities has been erased from the textbooks. The free societies that emerged in the cumbes had a lot to do with African cultures, from food to agricultural practices. However, as we speak today, one of the most important things to highlight is that cumbes were communitarian organizations fundamentally based on the common good.

A representation of a Venezuelan cumbe. (Archives)

You have talked about feminist Marooning practices, particularly abortion. There were also legal battles against the enslavers. Can you talk about this?

There was a creative practice amongst enslaved women: to use the law against the enslaver. They would go to court and accuse them of sexual abuse, rape, or of not granting them liberty after having had sexual relations in exchange for liberty. Needless to say, their chances of winning were close to none, but while the trial lasted, the enslaved women would be put in a convent, which was a much-welcome break away from rape and forced labor.

There were many ways of violent domination and oppression, but there were just as many ways of rebelling against the system, from maintaining spiritual traditions to making maps in hair [with braids that showed the routes] from the plantation to the cumbe, to insurrections that would destroy the plantation regime.

Some say that Venezuela is not a racist country, that we are all “café con leche,” but racism is alive and kicking.

The mestizaje ideology is very much part of the dominant culture here. The discourse goes like this: everyone is mixed-race, so we can’t be racist. In reality, things couldn’t be more different. There is a deeply ingrained structural racism in Venezuela.

Let’s start with the households in the East of Caracas [where the upper middle class and the bourgeoisie live]. Every household has an Afro-Venezuelan domestic worker: she’s generally a live-in worker, cares for the house, for the kids, cooks for everyone… and she’s Black and practically invisible to society.

Then there is racism on TV. When do you see a Black person on the screen? We are brought on to talk about Afro-Venezuelan cultural traditions from an “ethnic” perspective, to talk about our music, our festivities, but you won’t see Black people invited to talk about politics in general, or more specifically about the situation of Afro-Venezuelan communities.

Additionally, Venezuela has very narrow beauty standards, and Black women don’t fit there: our hair, our hips, etc. This fuels day-to-day discrimination at work.

Then there is the educational dimension: it’s very rare to see an Afro-Venezuelan in medical or engineering school. This means that when Black people go to university, they end up in areas linked to care work, such as nursing or education.

Additionally, predominantly Black territories in the country have limited access to higher education in general. If you go to Barlovento, you will be hard-pressed to find a university there, and since those communities are economically depressed, moving to Caracas to study is practically impossible.

Our society reproduces colonial forms of oppression in which descendants of enslaved people are assigned the task of producing and caring for non-Blacks.

Then there is institutional racism. It is much harder to get legal support or open a legal process or get a restrictive order in predominantly Black communities because there are very few Public Ministry offices [prosecutor’s offices]. This means that women in particular are more vulnerable when it comes to issues such as gender-based violence.

Racism extends to all state institutions. When laws are promoted, the Afro-Venezuelan perspective is generally not there. For instance, at the Ministry of Women, we are called on to talk about Afro-Venezuelan traditions, but that’s not considered politics with a capital “P,” it’s considered a cultural issue, and therefore of secondary importance.