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16th century painting of Zambo Caciques from Esmeraldas, Ecuador.
Total population
Regions with significant populations
Latin America, the Caribbean and Guyana
Spanish, Portuguese and English
Christianity (predominantly Roman Catholic, minority practices Protestantism), tribal religions
Related ethnic groups
Garifuna, Africans and Amerindians

Zambo (Spanish:  or ) or cafuzo (Portuguese: ) are racial terms used in the Spanish and Portuguese Empires and occasionally today to identify individuals in the Americas who are of mixed African and Amerindian ancestry (the analogous English term, considered a slur, is sambo). Historically, the racial cross between African slaves and Amerindians was referred to as a "zambaggoa", then "zambo", then "sambo". In the United States, the word "sambo" is thought to refer to the racial cross between a black slave and a white person.

The meaning of the term "sambo" however is contested in North America, where other etymologies have been proposed. The word most likely originated from one of the Romance languages, or Latin and its direct descendants. The feminine word is zamba (not to be confused with the Argentine Zamba folk dance, although there is some relationship in the concept).

Under the casta system of Spanish colonial America, the term originally applied to the children of one African and one Amerindian parent, or the children of two zambo parents. During this period, a myriad of other terms denoted individuals of African/Amerindian ancestry in ratios smaller or greater than the 50:50 of zambos: cambujo (zambo/Amerindian mixture) for example. Today, zambo refers to all people with significant amounts of both African and Amerindian ancestry, though it is frequently considered pejorative.


  • History 1
  • Population today 2
  • Racism and discrimination 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6


A representation of an infant zambo, in an 18th-century "Pintura de Castas" from New Spain. The painting illustrates "from a Black and an Amerindian produces a lobo", here a synonym for zambo.

The term zambo was not formally used in Spanish writing until the seventeenth century, and often competed with other terms, including mulato. African slaves began mixing with indigenous people from the beginning of their importation into Hispaniola in the early sixteenth century. Some of this mixture took place in the mines and plantations of Hispaniola, the other Spanish Caribbean islands following the introduction of sugar production in the 1520s, and also when Africans fled from these estates to unconquered indigenous regions.

Unions described as producing zambos took place all throughout the Spanish colonial empire, following the pattern established in Hispaniola; and the group was generally classified among those people who were not of European ancestry. In the eighteenth century, the Spanish began producing systematic racial classifications, and zambo was defined in its final meaning.

Some famous zambo groups were created by runaway or rebel Africans who mixed with or took over indigenous communities. In the unconquered regions of Esmeraldes, in what would become Ecuador, for example, a small group of shipwrecked former slaves managed to win control of the indigenous communities, eventually representing them before Spanish authorities in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

Another famous group of zambos were the Misquito Zambos, who originated around 1640 when a group of African slaves revolted on a slave ship, took it over and wrecked it at Cape Gracias a Dios on the border between Honduras and Nicaragua. They united with the indigenous Miskito people, and by the early eighteenth century came to dominate the kingdom, leading it on many extensive slave raids. Their alliance with and protection of English merchants and settlers in the area helped England found the colony of British Honduras (today's Belize).

Population today

"From a black man with a mulata produces a Sambo", Indian school, 1770.
"Zamba of Mesquititlan", circa 1908

Officially, zambos represent small minorities in the northwestern South American countries Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana and Ecuador. A small but noticeable number of zambos resulting from recent unions of Amerindian women to Afro-Ecuadorian men are not uncommon in major coastal cities of Ecuador. Prior to the rural to urban migration, the Amerindian and Afro-Ecuadorian ethnicities were mostly constrained to the Andes region and province of Esmeraldas and the Chota Valley in the province of Imbabura respectively.

In Central America, there are two indigenous-African mixed groups, the Miskito and the garifunas. The Garifuna originated from the combination of Africans who were either shipwrecked or fled from neighboring islands to St. Vincent, in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In 1797 they were deported by the English for their role in supporting France during the French Revolutionary Wars to the island of Roatan off the coast of Honduras. From there they spread up and down the coast of Central America, communities being found from Nicaragua to Belize.

In Mexico, where zambos are known as lobos (literally meaning wolves), they formed a sizeable minority in the past. The great majority of lobos have now been absorbed into the much larger Mexican mestizo population. Greater concentrations can only be found in tiny communities scattered around the southern coastal states, including Michoacán, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Campeche, Quintana Roo, Yucatán, and Veracruz, where the country's Afro-Mexicans reside.

Culturally, Mexican lobos followed more Amerindian traditions rather than African influences. This acculturation also took place in Bolivia, where the Afro-Bolivian community absorbed and retained many aspects of Amerindian cultural influences, such as dress and use of the Aymara language. These communities of Afro-Bolivians reside in the yungas of the Bolivian capital La Paz.

Racism and discrimination

These populations of mixed Amerindian and African ancestry are generally marginalized and discriminated against, with color bias being pervasive throughout much of Latin America. Beyond the pockets of these specifically identified ethnic communities, in Latin American nations with large populations of people of African descent, the percentage of those with Hispanic ancestry is relatively high (though not as a ratio of the make up of the individuals). Such is the case in nations such as Nicaragua, and Panama, or in the case of Brazil, persons of primarily African descent who also have Portuguese ancestors.

Long-standing problems of race and class discrimination in Latin America confront Latin Americans of African and Amerindian ancestry to varying degrees, depending on their membership in or identification with a specific Afro-Amerindian ethnic group such as those mentioned above, or the degree to which their ancestry is expressed in their physical characteristics. Those with dark skin and curly hair tend to be among the region's poorest and most disenfranchised. For instance, in 1998, when Hurricane Mitch battered the northeast coast of Honduras, the Garifuna communities were among the hardest hit, yet because of a history of corruption and government irresponsibility in Honduras, these communities were ignored.

See also


  1. ^ "Peoples Listing: Zambo". Joshua Project. U.S. Center for World Mission. Retrieved 2008-08-27. 

External links

  • Stranded in Paradise: Shipwrecked Hundreds of Years Ago, the Garifuna Are Still Trying to Find Their Way by Teresa Wiltz, The Washington Post.
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