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On Black and Indigenous Women's Activism in Nicaragua with Courtney Desiree Morris

We sent Professor Courtney Desiree Morris a series of questions about her research on Black and Indigenous women's activism in Nicaragua and their role in resisting state violence and advocating for community rights. It addresses the complexities of a mestizo national identity and the uneven impact of multicultural policies, while also discussing the importance of embodied research and transnational networks in amplifying these struggles.

  • Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. To start off, could you please introduce yourself and your research background?

I am an anthropologist and visual and performance artist. I teach in Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. My research broadly focuses on Black women’s social movements in Latin America and the Caribbean, environmental politics and the racial politics of energy production, and Black visual culture and aesthetics. I am the author of To Defend This Sunrise: Black Women’s Activism and the Authoritarian Turn in Nicaragua (Rutgers University Press 2023)

  • How extensively is Black women's activism in Latin America discussed in academia and research, and what factors contribute to any existing gaps in this discourse? When academia does address this topic, what are the common themes explored? Moreover, how might the limited attention to black and indigenous women's struggles in Latin America within academia impact broader societal perceptions of their activism and challenges?

These days, there is a lot more discussion about Black women’s activism in Latin America and the Caribbean than there has been in the past. In some ways, I think this is reflective of the growth and expanded reach and influence of Black social movements in Latin America, which have paralleled similar developments in the United States. Black women have really emerged as some of the most visible and outspoken defenders of black communities throughout the hemisphere but especially in places like Brazil, Nicaragua, Honduras, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. I think this has generated increased engagement with Black feminist thought and politics throughout the hemisphere and this is a very welcome development. Obviously, I think there is much more conversation that should be had about Black women’s activism because I believe Black women have a lot to teach us about how to resist entrenched histories of racist and sexist forms of state violence and that is useful for understanding how similar systems of violence unfold in different geopolitical contexts. 

  • Your research approach utilizing activist anthropology, particularly focusing on centering your body to visualize racial geographies in Nicaragua, was intriguing. This approach stands in contrast to the traditional notion of research as being conducted from a more objective observer perspective. What motivated you to adopt this approach, and how do you believe your research has been enriched as a result?

I think at the time, when I was taking self-portraits it wasn’t directly connected to my work or research practice per se – I didn’t ever really think of myself as an artist at that point. But I do think implicitly I was playing with the idea that bodies are linked to landscapes and have their own kind of spatial logic that shapes how those bodies are read in social terms, which Nicaragua taught me in a very powerful and personal way. Even though I am not from the Caribbean coast, I often experienced many of the same forms of racial discrimination, sexual harassment, and fundamental disrespect that the Black Creole women I worked with experienced because I was constantly being interpellated as a Creole woman. I think that embodied experience of Nicaraguan racisms and the consistency with which I experienced this over the years compelled me as a feminist scholar to take the body seriously as a site of experiential knowledge that has broader analytical value. No one ever afforded me the luxury of being an objective observer, my body was always being brought into the conversation – often in ways that I was uncomfortable with – and so I decided that the most ethical thing I could do was to speak transparently about that embodied experience and how it shaped my analytical understanding of Nicaraguan racial, spatial, and gender politics. 

  • Could you provide insights into Nicaragua's Mestizo national identity? What does it look like? How did it form? How does it exclude Black and indigenous communities within the country? 

Nicaragua, like many Latin American nation-states, didn’t really develop a discourse of what we might now call mestizo nationalism until the early 20th century. It was a discourse promulgated by the nation’s emergent mestizo elite, who sought to both resist the white supremacist racial and political hegemony of the United States while also establishing themselves as racially superior to both Black and Indigenous peoples in Nicaragua. Juliet Hooker describes this a kind of successor project, wherein mestizos positioned themselves as the only legitimate political successors to the project of Spanish colonialism, invalidating the demands for sovereignty and autonomy that Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples were making during the wars for independence in the 1820s. Nicaraguan poets like Rubén Darío, the noted modernist poet who was also a diplomat, and Pablo Antonio Cuadra, were key architects of mestizo nationalist ideology. Essentially, mestizo nationalism argues that the ideal Nicaraguan citizen is a product of the encounter between Spanish conquistadors and Indigenous peoples. This encounter is often narrated as a kind of romance between the masculine colonizer and the submissive indigenous woman. This romantic encounter is believed to produce a new kind of racial subject that draws from the best aspects of each “race.” While on the one hand mestizaje seems like a progressive racial project that is distinguished from U.S. style racism that aspires towards racial purity and biological segregation, mestizaje also contains its own racist logics that mark Indigenous and Black peoples as racially inferior. In his classic work, the Cosmic Race, Mexican writer and politician, Jose Vasconcelos explicitly defines mestizaje as a kind of eugenics project that seeks to remedy the biological inferiority of non-white peoples through an assimilative process of racial absorption and extermination. In Nicaragua, mestizo nationalist discourse has tended not to consider Blackness as part of the national identity, instead marking it as a kind of foreign element in the national body that is contained within the space of the Caribbean coast . 

  • In 1987, The Nicaraguan government approved Law 28, also called the Autonomy Law, which recognized Nicaragua as a multicultural nation-state. This was supposed to be a move away from this Mestizo national identity. Could you tell us a little bit more about this? What led to this happening? What role specifically did Black and indigenous women's mobilization play in this? 

The shift away from mestizo nationalism was an uneven process that did produce real shifts in both state policy and national racial discourse, but in contradictory ways. Nicaragua’s adoption of these multicultural reforms set new legal precedent not only nationally but throughout Latin America and sparked what we might call the multicultural turn in Latin American politics. Other countries including Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, and Peru would go on to adopt similar constitutional reforms throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. This marked the first time that Latin American states ever explicitly acknowledged the legacy of slavery, genocide, settler colonialism, and resource extractivism and their combined ongoing effects on Black and Indigenous peoples. It also led to the rise of new Black and Indigenous social movement who quickly began to utilize these new legal frameworks to make demands on the mestizo nation state for land, sovereignty, self-determination, and racial redress – I’m thinking here of the quilombo movement and the struggle for affirmative action in hiring and education in Brazil, the struggle for land and autonomy in Nicaragua, and anti-capitalist Garifuna struggles for territory and the environment in Honduras. 

It also marked a shift in Nicaraguan and Latin American racial discourse at large. In Nicaragua, this period marked the emergence of what the Nicaraguan political scientist Juliet Hooker terms “mestizo multiculturalism,” in which the state engaged in forms of discursive multicultural recognition but in ways that tended to reinscribe rather than unsettle the mestizo foundations of Nicaraguan national identity. So to the degree that Blackness has been recognized in this discursive shift it is done in such a way that the category of the mestizo as ideal citizen-subject remains entrenched. I talk about this in my book, for example, in popular responses to the crowning of the first Black Miss Nicaragua, Scharlette Allen. While racist detractors declared her unfit to represent the country because Black people are a geographically localized minority in the mestizo nation (when they weren’t just resorting to racist and misogynistic slurs to demean her), her supporters claimed that she was fundamentally Nicaraguan and fully integrated into mestizo culture. So, even these seemingly progressive gestures of racial inclusion did not disrupt the idea that to be Nicaraguan is to be, at least in cultural terms, mestizo.

Beyond that in my book, I talk about how successive political administrations in Nicaragua, ranging from the corrupt semi-authoritarian, neoconservative, and neoliberal leaders like Violeta Chamorro, Arnoldo Aleman, and Enrique Bolaños to the corrupt, nominally-left but actually neoliberal Daniel Ortega and the Frente Sandinista have all selectively ignored and manipulated these multicultural reforms to performatively recognize Black and Indigenous communities with one hand while stripping them of their political rights, autonomy, and control of their natural resources and territory. The conservative administrations of Chamorro, Aleman, and Bolaños mostly ignored the coast and failed to support the autonomous regional governments or support the process of collective land titling. Bolaños only acted after the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of the Mayagna community of Awas Tigni, after it found that the state of Nicaragua had violated the collective land rights of the community by granting a logging concession without the community’s consent and failing to demarcate and title their collective land holdings. This led to the passage of the Demarcation Law in 2003, which provided a clear legal framework for the land demarcation and titling process – and Black and Indigenous communities immediately seized upon the law to begin advancing their land claims to the state. The process moved incredibly slowly. When Daniel Ortega returned to power he began titling communities but did so in ways that allowed the state to bypass communities and carry out its own centralized development agenda against the wishes of these communities. In Bluefields, he did this by passing a law in 2013 approving the construction of an interoceanic canal and instituting imminent domain as a strategy for land acquisition. Then in 2016, he finally approved the Bluefields land title after dragging his feet for nearly 10 years but he dramatically reduced the size of the claim thereby eliminating the need to consult with Creoles in Bluefields about the the canal. So while the shifts in multicultural politics have been tangible they have not radically reset the balance of power in Nicaragua, which continues to concentrated in a mestizo power structure whose normative logics and operations remain fundamentally anti-Black and anti-Indigenous. 

  • How do communities on the Caribbean coasts of Nicaragua perceive their identity? Do they primarily identify with a Nicaraguan national identity, or do their ethnic or racial identities hold greater significance? Similarly, how does the Mestizo population perceive these communities—are they viewed as a part of their national identity or as separate entities?

In my experience, Mestizos tend to view these communities as foreign elements. On several occasions, I had conversations with Mestizos in the Pacific who thought they needed a passport to travel to the Caribbean coast. In 2005, the United Nations Development Office conducted a study in which they asked Mestizos to describe their views on the coast. By and large, their responses tended to read the coast as 1) a site of folkloric cultural and racial difference; 2) a site of criminality and violence; and/or 3) a space rich with natural resources that needed to be developed and exploited as a strategy for economic development. The history of the coast and its historically fraught relationship with the state as an internal colony is not taught in Nicaraguan education and many Mestizos remain largely ignorant of the legacy of racism, dispossession, and exploitation that costeños have historically experienced and continue to experience at the hands of the Nicaraguan state.

On the other hand, the same study found that Black and Indigenous people tend to be much more strongly identified with their cultural identities and their regional identities as costeños. They have tended to view the central government with considerable suspicion and have little faith in the political good will of the state to deliver on the promises of regional autonomy and the multicultural citizenship reforms of the 1980s. It is hard to tell how this will play out in the context of deepening authoritarianism in Nicaragua. But historically, this has tended to be the case.

  • When it comes to resistance against state violence and authoritarianism, what is the role that Black and indigenous women have played? To what extent have their contributions been documented and acknowledged? 

My work is really about demonstrating how Black and Indigenous women have always been involved in the political histories and struggles of their communities. I do this by highlighting the biographies of women like Anna Crowdell, a mixed-race Creole hotel owner who was considered one of the most powerful political figures of her time. She was involved in multiple uprisings against the mestizo nation-state from the 1890s-1920s. Politicians of all political stripes called on her for political favors as did Black and Indigenous people from throughout the region who considered an advocate and an ally. Her story has been largely untold and I wanted to address that. I also look at Black women’s participation in the Sandinista Revolution and their conflicted and ambivalent feelings about that political project. From there I come to the historical present and focus on the contemporary activism of Black women activists struggling for land and autonomy. They had the experience of struggling with political administrations on the right and the left who used varied means to undermine the multicultural citizenship rights of Black and Indigenous communities and they were the ones who told me that all of these administrations maintained an authoritarian posture toward Black and Indigenous peoples that tended toward a form of illiberal democracy. And they were right. They were the first ones to see how a state could enact anti-democratic policy measures while maintaining a facade of democratic order. That was an important lesson that has stayed with me and is really shaping my thinking about how authoritarianism is playing out in a variety of contexts all over the world. We are in an authoritarian turn that is fundamentally shifting the ideological terrain of struggle and our analyses need to be recalibrated to attend to that shift.   

  • You mention that Black and indigenous communities tend to be the ones that notice the first signs of authoritarianism in Nicaragua. Could you elaborate on this? How did they convey their concerns regarding these signs prior to the escalation in 2018? How did the government respond to such warnings? 

Black and Indigenous activists in Bluefields were telling me as early as 2011 that they felt that the Ortega administration was authoritarian and was dismantling the nation’s fragile democratic institutions as part of his effort to consolidate political control over the country. They expressed their concerns by using the legal means that were available to them.

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