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Caciques zombo Esmeraldas.jpg
16th-century painting of Zambo Caciques from Esmeraldas, Ecuador
Total population
5,804,800 in South America, unknown number overall[1][dubious ]
Regions with significant populations
Latin America and the Caribbean
Spanish, Portuguese and English
Christianity (predominantly Roman Catholic, minority practices Protestantism), tribal religions
Related ethnic groups
Garifuna, Africans, Afro-Caribbeans, and Amerindians

Zambo (Spanish: [ˈθambo] or [ˈsambo]) and cafuzo (Portuguese: [kɐˈfuzu]) are racial terms used in the Casta caste class system of 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, sambo, is considered a slur). Historically, the racial cross between enslaved African and Amerindians was referred to as a zambayga, then zambo, then sambo. In the United States, the word sambo is thought to refer to the racial cross between an enslaved African 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 in some parts of colonial Spanish America, the term zambo applied to the children of one African and one Amerindian parent, or the children of two zambo parents. In New Spain, (colonial Mexico), the term those of mixed African and indigenous ancestry was lobo ("wolf"). The term appears in official marriage registers and other official documentation.[2]

During this period, many 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 in parts of Spanish America, zambo refers to all people with significant amounts of both African and Amerindian ancestry, though it is frequently considered pejorative.[citation needed]


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.
Casta painting showing 16 hierarchically arranged, mixed-race groupings. Row 2, extreme right cell, shows the torna atrás father, India mother and Lobo or Zambo offspring.Ignacio Maria Barreda, 1777. Real Academia Española de la Lengua, Madrid.

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 resulting in 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 making formal 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 and protection of English speaking merchants and settlers in the area helped Great Britain find the colony of [[British Honduras ]] (present day Belize).

Population today[edit]

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

Officially, zambos represent small minorities in the northwestern South American countries Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela, Guyana, and Ecuador. A small but noticeable number of zambos resulting from recent unions of Amerindian men to Afro-Ecuadorian women 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 were sometimes known as lobos (literally meaning wolves), they form a sizeable minority. According to the 2015 Intercensus Estimate, 896,829 people identified as both Afro-Mexican and Indigenous Mexican. The great majority of the country's Afro-descended population has been absorbed into the wider mestizo population. Greater concentrations can only be found in 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 region of the Bolivian department of La Paz.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Peoples Listing: Zambo". Joshua Project. U.S. Center for World Mission. Retrieved 2008-08-27.
  2. ^ Vinson, Ben III. Before Mestizaje: The Frontiers of Race and Caste in Colonial Mexico. New York: Cambridge University Press 2018, p. 127.

External links[edit]