Legislating Blackness: Afro-Ecuadorians and Debt Peonage Reform in Liberal Ecuador

Friday, January 6, 2012: 2:50 PM
River North Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Nicola C. Foote, Florida Gulf Coast University
This paper explores the gradual abolition of debt peonage (concertaje) over the period 1895-1918 as a window into the intersection between state policies and the racialization of national identity in early twentieth century Ecuador. Several scholars have examined debt peonage reform as a mechanism by which the Liberal state positioned itself as the defender of the “miserable” Indians, while creating the foundation for labor mobility and the institution of a free market economy (Clark, 1998; Guerrero, 1991). Yet concertaje was not only an indigenous institution – large numbers of Afro-Ecuadorians, especially in the province of Esmeraldas and the Chota Valley in Ibarra, labored under debt-peonage relationships on large haciendas. The Afro-Ecuadorian military support that proved so decisive in bringing the Liberal revolution to power was largely based on the party’s commitment to dismantling the system of concertaje. However, blacks were largely invisible within the discourses surrounding the abolition of concertaje, appearing only in comparative tropes that emphasized the parallels between slavery and concertaje and that suggested that the abolition of African slavery without liberation of indigenous peoples from their economic bondage was shameful and aberrant.  Certainly, the analogy of debt peonage with slavery typically contained a thinly veiled anti-black racism, and was used to lament the fact that Indians had somehow fallen “below” blacks – their alleged social inferiors - on the ladder of social stratification. This paper assesses how the discourses of blackness applied in the debates over the abolition of concertaje reflected differential ideas about black and indigenous citizenship, and examines how the equation of debt peonage with Indianness affected Afro-Ecuadorian efforts to gain access to the agrarian worker’s rights embedded in post-abolition legal codes.