Race and racism in Honduran soccer and society

June 19

The Honduran national team, here posing before its World Cup match against France, has always featured many players of African descent. (Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

We continue our series on politics, political science and the World Cup (12, 345,  67, 8, 9 and 10). Tomorrow Honduras will play its second game. Historian Joshua Nadel, author of “Fútbol!: Why Soccer Matters in Latin America,” provides background on issues of race and racism in Honduran society and soccer.  

- Erik Voeten

In 2011, a number of incidents surrounding soccer and racism grabbed international headlines (most notably the  John Terry-Anton Ferdinand and Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra affairs). Outside of the limelight of most of the international press, Afro-Honduran players voiced their own charges to end racial discrimination. Osman Chávez, then a starting center back for los Catrachos (as the Honduran national team is sometimes called) and many of his teammates decided to boycott the national media as part of a campaign called “journalism without discrimination.” Racist comments on newspaper webpages appeared regularly, which disparaged him and many others on the team. He could understand racism in Poland, where he played professionally, as partly stemming from not seeing many people of color. But “in your own country, brother, where you were born,” he said, “it is intolerable, you just can’t fit that in your mind.” In October of that year, Johnny Palacios, also at the time a national team player, accused a referee in the Honduran professional league of racially abusing him during a game.

Racism is certainly nothing new in Honduras. Honduras identifies itself as a mestizo nation — of mixed indigenous and European roots — and officially only about 2 percent of the population is of African descent (though the actual number may be as high as 10 percent). And the fact that roughly half the Honduran national team at the 2014 World Cup is Afro-Honduran only serves to suggest that other issues are at play, such as access to education and job opportunities. But history is at stake as well, and the team exposes the contortions that the Honduran state historically attempted to “whiten” the nation.

In the early 20th century, Honduran nationalist leaders adhered to ideas of mestizaje — a valorizing of the mixed race nature of Latin American nations popularized by the Mexican thinker José Vasconcelos — as a way to inspire national pride. While mestizaje uplifted the indigenous, it was still based on 19th century racist ideology, which placed Africans at the bottom of the racial hierarchy. People of African descent were seen as an impediment to national development, and their presence had to be minimized. Blacks, according to Honduran thinkers of the era, were “retarded ethnic elements” and represented “a problem for the purity for the ‘Honduran race.’ ”

So in the early 1900s, Honduran intellectuals and government officials began searching for ways to highlight Honduras’ indigenous heritage. In the 1920s, they “found” their new national hero: the Lenca warrior Lempira. He had waged a futile war against Spanish conquistadors in the 1530s, but he was rewarded nearly 400 years later. Though no images of Lempira existed, the Honduran government produced one, which still graces the Honduran banknotes that bear his name.

In embracing Lempira, Honduran nationalists not only created a cultural icon for a nation supposedly built on European and indigenous bases, but also explicitly rewrote the history of the nation’s African roots.  According to the early 20th century thinkers, Honduras’ black population arrived as part of the influx of Anglophone Antillean workers for banana plantations in the late 1890s, and they remained confined to the north coast and the Bay Islands. They coupled the discursive reconfiguration of Honduran history with practical racism: Immigration laws in 1929 and 1934 banned blacks from entering the nation.

In fact, however, Honduras’ African roots are much older. People of African descent arrived in four different waves. Many Africans arrived in Honduras in the 1500s along with the first Spaniards (and may have fought against Lempira) and played a crucial role in the development of the colony and its economy.

A second African-descended population emerged — in the 1600s — from intermarriage between shipwrecked and runaway slaves and indigenous populations on the north coast. The Miskitos, as they are known, aligned themselves with the British and intermittently raided Spanish settlements. The third major influx of people of African descent came in 1797, with the arrival of the Black Carib — runaway slaves and members of the Carib indigenous group — who were deported to the Bay Islands after losing a war against England and France. These exiles moved quickly to the mainland and became known as the Garifuna, who remain the largest African-descended ethnic group in Honduras. And the fourth wave — the so-called negros ingleses — arrived in the late 1800s from the British Caribbean to work on banana plantations.

While history books sought to de-Africanize Honduras, census data also played a role in minimizing the presence of non-mestizos in the nation. In a linguistic sleight of hand, the Honduran state erased the possibility of claiming African roots. The 1910 census enumerated seven different races: ladino (a catchall term for people of mixed race), indigenous, mestizo, white, blacks, mulattos and “yellow.” But by 1916, there were only two (indigenous and ladino), and by the 1920s racial categories ceased to exist. There were no blacks in Honduras, because there were only Hondurans. Racial identification would eventually be added back into the census, but no categories that allowed for African descent — ladino, mulatto or black — existed until 2001.

Yet Afro-Hondurans have always been visible in the nation, and especially on the national soccer team. While the team for Honduras’ first international match — in 1921 — is unknown, in 1930, when Honduras won its first game, at least four members of the team were black. And this at a time when Brazil would not to allow Afro-Brazilians to represent the nation internationally. So too in 1982, when Honduras shocked hosts Spain with a 1-1 draw, Afro-Hondurans made up much of the team, including defenseman Alan Anthony Costly (father of current Honduran striker Carlos Costly) and goalkeeper Julio Cesar Arzú.

Presence on the soccer team, however, does not equal acceptance. For most of the 20th century, the Honduran state has ignored its African-descended population — or worse. In 1937, the government of Tiburcio Carias massacred 22  Garifuna leaders in the village of San Juan. Garifuna language was banned in school curriculums until the 2000s. Social indicators among black Hondurans tend to rank near the bottom; access to education and jobs lags behind much of the rest of the country. And in soccer, racism persists as well. In 2006, a politician claimed that blacks brought the level of play on the team down because they were not as “intelligent” as other Hondurans. In response to Chávez’s 2011 anti-racism campaign, a former Honduran national team psychologist argued that “blacks, by nature, have low self-esteem and therefore look for ways to call attention to themselves.”

In other words, while Afro-Hondurans make up a large portion of the national team — and always have — their presence has not yet led to greater tolerance. Nor has it occasioned a change in Honduras’ dominant narrative about race. What does this mean? The persistence of racist attitudes in Honduras implies that soccer, which many claim capable of changing attitudes about race and creating a more just world, may not be the panacea that many would like it to be.

 Joshua Nadel is author of “Fútbol!: Why Soccer Matters in Latin America.” He is an assistant professor of History and associate director of the Global Studies Program at North Carolina Central University.

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