El Salvador is Central America’s smallest republic and the most densely populated country in the region. The 5,900,000 Salvadorenos are one of the most racially mixed populations in the western hemisphere. With 94% of its population considered to be mestizo, El Salvador ranks as having the highest percentage of “multi-racial” population in the Americas. The native American population makes up only 5%, those of European ancestry (mainly Spanish, German and English) are 1% of the population and own and control much of the land and economy. There are also smaller numbers of Palestinians and Chinese living in the larger cities and towns. Many Salvadorans today are unaware of El Salvador’s African heritage and the African contribution made to mestizo culture has often gone unrecognized by Salvadoran scholars.
A typical encyclopedia entry on El Salvador does not usually mention an African presence in the country. During my research I came across one entry that indicated the following regarding the ancestry of the Salvadoran people: “Their ancestors were predominantly Indians – Pipil, or Pokomam Maya, or Lenca – but also have included other strains – colonial African slaves, their Spanish masters, and a sprinkling of more recent immigrants from Europe and the Middle East. Except for a few white families who have remained apart, these ancestral groups have become submerged by a mixing of bloodlines”. This is one of the more clearly written examples of what the population of El Salvador consists of, that is, a blending of several different racial and ethnic strains forming the population group known in Central America as mestizo (“mixtures”).
El Salvador is the only country in Central America that does not have a Garifuna, Miskito or Afro-Antillean population. The other six republics have at least one, or all of these groups living within their borders. El Salvador’s connection with Africa goes back to a much earlier time, to the era of Spanish colonial rule. The latter migrations of African descended peoples settling in the other republics did not include El Salvador, and as a result Salvadorans will tell you that their country is the only one in Central America that does not have a “black population”. This is not all together correct. For over four and a half centuries the population of El Salvador has mixed its blood lines so completely into one multi-racial society that the remote African origins of some of its citizens are unknown even to those that have such a background.
The European settlement of El Salvador began with the founding of the capital city San Salvador by Pedro de Alvarado in 1526. At the time, the native American population of the area was estimated at between 116,000-130,000 persons (some have placed the figure as high as 500,000). By 1551 there were only 400 Spanish colonists living in the country (almost all males) and the indigenous population had been reduced as a result of the encomienda, disease and miscegenation to around 50,000-80,000. A plague in 1578 reduced still further the native population, so that by the end of the 16th century there were perhaps no more then 10,000 persons of unmixed native American ancestry living in the country. The almost complete destruction of the Pipil and Lenca civilizations had taken place within a period of only 75 years.
Early in the life of the colony cacao, sugar and indigo plantations, as well as mining operations, created a strong demand for imported slave labor (coffee did not become important in El Salvador until the 19th century).
The declining native American population might also have influenced a Royal Ordinance issued in 1541 that gave the Spanish land owners and miners permission to import African slaves into El Salvador. The following year, a Royal Ordinance known as the New Laws ended the forced laboring of native Americans in the Spanish colonies. The New Laws did not officially come into effect in El Salvador until 1548 when the president of the “Jurisdiction of Los Confines” (which included El Salvador) freed all native slaves in the country and recommended that more Africans be brought to El Salvador to take the place of those who had been freed. Over the next seventy-five years upwards of 10,000 Africans were brought to work on the haciendas and in the mines of El Salvador. Many died without leaving descendants, others however left their ethnic and cultural imprint upon the ethnically mixed population.
During the 1540’s and 50’s most slaves in El Salvador were used in local mining operations. Latter, from the 1570’s through the middle of the 18th century indigo (a blue dye) became an important export and both Africans and natives were used as laborers on plantations. It proved rather expensive to import slaves into El Salvador to harvest indigo during its short two-month season and this reduced large numbers of slaves from ever being brought into the country. Despite this, in several towns and cities Africans made up an important part of the population during the colonial era.
In 1635 the town of San Vicente was established by Spanish colonists and became an important center for the indigo trade. African slaves were brought here to work on nearby plantations. Several other towns also had African communities: Zacatecoluca (south of San Salvador), Chinameca (west of San Miguel), and Ahuachapan and Sonsonate (both west of San Salvador) all had sizable African populations at one time. The gold mines in the area around San Miguel were worked by Africans during the 1540’s and ‘50s, Santa Ana and the capital San Salvador also had its slave, “free” and “mulatto” communities. Slaves were introduced throughout the country to do the labor of a declining and “protected” native population.
With the mixing of Spanish, African and native there arose free “mulatto” and “zambo” communities in a number of towns. Zambos are persons of mixed native American and African ancestry. Some slaves attempted to gain their freedom by marrying into the native population. Laws were passed by the Spanish to prevent such Afro-Amerindian unions, but the mixing of the two groups could not be prevented. Slaves continued to marry natives with the idea that they might gain freedom, if not for themselves, then for their racially mixed offspring. The children of such unions were free under Spanish law.
In Richard Price’s book Maroon Societies (1979) he documents that among Africans and natives during the colonial period “Indian women would rather marry Negroes than Indians; and neither more or less, Negroes prefer to marry Indian women rather than Negresses, so that their children will be born free”. Price quoted this from a history by H. H. Bancroft published in 1877 refering to colonial Mexico. El Salvador’s African population lived under similar circumstances, and the mixing of African men with native women was common during colonial times.
In 1625 a planned slave rebellion in San Salvador was narrowly averted. As a result, Spanish colonial authorities became more reluctant to import any more slaves into the country then absolutely necessary. Throughout all of Central America there were growing free mestizo and mulatto populations. Together with cheap native labor, fewer slaves were brought to El Salvador and Central America after 1625 then during the previous century. A process of the mixing together in El Salvador of “mulatto”, “zambo” and “mestizo” resulted in a population that was 31% of mixed ancestry by 1779. The census that year recorded “mulattos” and “mestizos” (together) as persons of mixed racial ancestry. This census reported 25,000 “mulattos and mestizos” living in the San Salvador area in that year.
During the first 150 years the Spanish colonies in Central America saw few European women immigrate. Alister White in El Salvador (1973) writes “The first Spanish ladies do not appear to have arrived in El Salvador until Pedro de Alvarado brought twenty in 1539 to Guatemala, virtually selling them to the colonists”. African men also took native women as their wives, resulting in the creation of the zambo population group. Mullatos, mestizos and zambos eventually came to mix with each other creating the so called mestizo population of today. At the end of the colonial era the mixing of the various races in the country was well on its way in creating a population that no longer had strong ethnic identities as native, African or European.
At the time of independence (1821), the population of El Salvador was over 50% of mixed racial ancestry. Today the figure is over 90%. There are really only various “shades of brown” in the country with few extremes in color variation. American humorist P. J. O’Rouke once described the Salvadorans as being “mestizo lite” perhaps because they tend to be less “Indian looking” then many Mexicans or Guatemalans.
After the establishment of the “United Provinces of Central America” (1823-1838) three Salvadorans Jose S. Canas, Manuel J. Arce and Fr. Jose M. Delgado became instrumental in the abolition of slavery in Central America. In April of 1823 the National Assembly of the Federation met in Guatemala City to write a constitution for the new Republic. On December 31, 1823 Jose Canas, a deputy in the constituent assembly, introduced a measure providing for the abolition of slavery in Central America. The measure passed and Fr. Delgado wrote into the constitution that slavery would be abolished throughout the new Federation. The constitution was adopted in November of 1824 and in March the following year the first president of the Federation Manuel Arce proclaimed an official end to slavery in Central America. The Federation was the first nation in the “New World” (after Haiti) to abolish slavery. This was as a direct result of the efforts of three of El Salvador’s most important 19th century statesmen.
British settlers in neighboring Belize thought that the act of abolition was directed deliberately at them in order to encourage their slaves to escape and hurt the economic interests of the British in Belize! A number of slaves did in fact flee across the borders into Guatemala and Honduras. At the time of the abolition there were around 1,000 still Africans being held in bondage in the five provinces. Many belonged to the Franciscan Order. Most Afro-Central Americans living in the Federation at the time of the abolition had either obtained their freedom, or were the racially mixed descendants of the rising mestizo majority.
During my research several Salvadorans I spoke with mentioned that for many years the constitution of El Salvador prohibited the immigration and settlement of black people in the country. The small, mainly European descended oligarchy, apparently wanted to discourage the kind of immigration from the Caribbean that the other Central American republics experienced during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Other anti-black immigration laws were also enacted in Costa Rica, Guatemala and Panama mainly against English speaking Afro-Antilleans.
In the area of folk and popular music, the influences of Africa on El Salvador become very apparent. The national folk instrument, the marimba, has its origins in Africa and was brought to Guatemala and the rest of Central America by African slaves during colonial times. The melodies played on it show native American, African and European influences in both form and style. Salvadoran popular music, as well as its social dances, show strong connections to the rhythms of western and central Africa. The most popular social dances in El Salvador are those that have been adopted from the Afro-Caribbean rhythms and dances. The Cumbia came from Colombia, the Rumba-Bolero from Cuba and the Merengue from the Dominican Republic. No Salvadoran social event is complete without the playing of these Afro-Caribbean dances. They are so completely integrated into Salvadoran life that they are today the most typical expressions of the popular musical traditions of the country. In their Salvadoran form they take on a style that is similar, yet different, from that which they originated.
The African element in the Salvadoran population, like that of the European, is of less importance then the role played by the native American element in the overall ancestry of the population. But it is in the combination of all three that Salvadorans and their culture become an example of a “multi-racial” society. Latin-American historian Hubert Herring wrote in his History of Latin America (1969) “ In the nations of Latin America the white man, the red man, and the black man have met and merged with one another to form a new kind of people: Jose Vasconcelos called it the raza cosmica – the cosmic race.” Perhaps in no other Latin American nation did the “merging” of these three racial groups become so complete. The Salvadoran’s identity today is not based on his ethnic or racial origins – he is first and always a Salvadoreno.