Ecuador: Afro-Ecuadorians and the Culture of Esmeraldas

Once the “forgotten people” of Ecuador, citizens of African heritage are at last beginning to achieve the notice and attention of not only their own government, but of the world as a whole. The national soccer team that progressed farther in the FIFA World Cup 2006 tournament than in any other previous year, and on that team was a preponderance of Afro-Ecuadorian players.

People who do not live in Ecuador may be surprised to learn that the country has a relatively large Afro-Ecuadorian population, approximately 1.2 million out of a total 13.5 million people according to most sources. About 70% of Afro-Ecuadorians live in the northwestern coastal province of Esmeraldas. This concentration has helped Afro-Ecuadorians retain their cultural traditions, but it has also greatly contributed to their being politically, socially and economically marginalized by Ecuadorian society as a whole. The province of Esmeraldas receives little government funding for public works, education and commercial investment although this sad situation is finally beginning to change.

Afro-Ecuadorians are for the most part not new arrivals to Ecuador. The mention of people of African heritage in Ecuador dates back to the mid-16th century when a ship carrying African slaves ran aground off the Ecuadorian coast. The slaves revolted and escaped to land, where they established a thriving settlement that attracted escaped slaves from other parts of Spanish-ruled South America. Later, Jesuit missionaries set up sugar plantations and imported slaves from Africa to provide labor. Afro-Ecuadorians have, over the past 400+ years, maintained their original African cultural influences and originated a new, hybrid culture that is expressed most obviously in the vivacious music known as Marimba. The coastal city of San Lorenzo puts on Marimba festivals in May and August. Music-lovers from near and far descend upon San Lorenzo for the seemingly non-stop sights and sounds!

Vacationers and travelers to Ecuador have recently discovered Esmeraldas, which is both a province and a city, and several resorts have sprung up to service the growing influx of people lured by the area’s wonderful white sand beaches, delicious seafood and the warm hospitality of the locals. Outfitters offer canoe tours into the remote and isolated interior of the province to view its amazing spectrum of wildlife, and for those who love fishing there are boating excursions available that provide avid anglers with the chance to land Marlins, Sailfish and other exotic trophy fish. It can be said that warm and inviting Esmeraldas is truly Ecuador’s jewel on the coast!