Venezuelans Commemorate International Africa Week

The South American nation honored its African ancestry with a variety of political and cultural events last week.

By Jeanette Charles
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Caracas, May 30, 2016 (venezuelanalysis.com) – Afro-Venezuelans gathered in public spaces across the country last week to celebrate Africa’s significant yet often overlooked imprint on Venezuela for International Africa Week.  Institutions including the Center for African and Caribbean Wisdom as well as Afro-Venezuelan communities organized musical performances, artesanal markets and symposiums.

The Bolivarian University of Venezuela, Cátedra Libre África (Center for Free Africa Studies), Ministry for Women and Gender Equality along with collectives Afrika Caribe and Trenzas Insurgentes (Insurgent Braids) came together to host one of the week’s events:  Merienda de Negras* to reinvent the historically denigrative phrase and highlight Afro-Venezuelan women’s contributions to the Bolivarian Revolution.

“We want to redefine Merienda de Negros and cimarronaje** which during colonial times were used to refer to Africans and their descendants in Venezuela pejoratively," affirmed Vice-Minister for Equality and Anti-Discrimination Nirva Camacho.  

Camacho said, “Now we understand these terms within our own process to create spaces in favor of liberation and part of this struggle against empire and its constant interventionism.”

All ages enjoyed Afro-Venezuelan musical and literary performances.  The internationally renowned Afro-Venezuelan women’s ensemble Eleggua of Tapipa, Higuerote carried the event throughout the day. Additional acts included: poets Argelia Silva, Belén Orsini and Solciré Pérez as well as the rap arists Familia Negra (Black Family) among others.

In the main plaza, artisans sold traditional desserts like besos de coco ("coconut kisses", candy made of shredded coconut, milk and sugar) and artwork celebrating Afro-Venezuelan identity.

Flor Márquez, professor with the Cátedra Libre África and director of the dance company and school Fundación CoreoArte, explained, “What does Merienda de Negras mean? A small group of us started the project in 2013 to show what this phrase means to us. For us, it translates into our happiness, our work, our productivity, our dance, our cuisine, our clothes. We cannot continue to build our culture around disdain and discrimination.”

Márquez likewise participated in the event selling her own African-inspired clothing, “Andares”, a project she says reflects African people's’ historical movement across the Americas.   

Beatriz Aiffil, one of the event’s founders and member of the Afro-Venezuelan women’s collective Trenzas Insurgentes, reminded participants at Thursday’s event that one of the country’s greatest  tasks today is build a process toward mental decolonization. “We are not free from slavery. In 1854 slavery was abolished but mental slavery exists. Colonial tendencies are repeated and people often speak with the slaveowners' words and see with the slaveowners' eyes,” said Aiffil. 

Aiffil cited that changes to this reality began in 1998 with the election of President Hugo Chávez’s and the Bolivarian Revolutionary process.

“With Chávez and now with Maduro we have raised the profile of Afro-descendants and we opened the doors to defend rights taken away from us during slavery. Now we must work against these colonized mentalities that continue to exist,” she emphasized.

In addition to cultural performances and opportunities for local artisans to showcase their work, other organized events throughout the week included speakers on Africa’s revolutionary processes ranging from guerrilla movements to socialist processes in Burkina Faso, Senegal and Tanzania, among others.

* Loosely translating to Pandemonium of Black Women, Merienda de Negras refers to the racist perceptions of Black people and their descendants as unnecessarily rowdy, constantly in an uproar and disorganized. In this particular case, Negras, emphasizes the conditions faced specifically by Afro-Venezuelan women.

** Cimarronaje meaning marronage speaks to the history of self-liberating Africans who created their own free territories known as cumbes not only in Venezuela but across the Americas as quilombos, palenques and maroon societies. The word cimarronaje is derived from cimarrón a historically derogatory word referring to cattle that escaped the haciendas. Today, Afro-Venezuelans have transformed the word into a term of endearment to mean someone who continues the struggle in favor of Afro-Venezuelan rights.

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