Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions with Leo Garofalo

-What is your academic background and what is your current position in UCHI/at UConn/Your Home Institution?

I’m Leo Garofalo and I am associate professor of history at Connecticut College, and I teach Latin American history. My research is on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for not only colonial Latin America, in particular the Andes, but also the African Diaspora, particularly how it touches Europe and how it connects Europe to Africa and the Americas.


-What is the project you’re currently working on?

At the Humanities Institute, I have the great privilege of working on a book project that I’ve been doing research for for a couple of years now, and it’s on Afro-Iberian, that is Black no comma European slaves, sailors, soldiers, freed people, travelers who traveled back and forth between Europe and the Americas, particularly Portugal and Spain which had a large African-descent population. They had, by the begining of the sixteenth century, achieved the status of sailors, soldiers, slaves, artisans, domestics, and traders, and had a big presence in terms of participation in the colonization of the Americas carried out by the Portuguese and the Spanish. In fact, up until 1700, more people from Africa and of African descent arrived in the Americas than they did from Portugal and Spain. So, Black Europeans are a small group within that larger African diaspora–it’s a chapter that’s not as well know. So my book is trying to elucidate the importance of the position of these Black Europeans within the colonial and colonizing enterprise.


-How did you arrive at this topic?

This project began in many ways as a question that emerged when I was working in the archives in Peru, looking at how different groups of Europeans, different indigenous groups of many ethnicities, and West and Central Africans came together in large cities such as Lima, cities that were markets, that were colonial creations that had never existed in this format before with large resident populations with fish markets and taverns and breweries and so forth. My goal was to set out to understand who did this kind of work and how were they able to negotiate it when you had different groups coming together. Among the people who appear as very dynamic cultural mediators and people skilled at crossing different cultural zones and bringing together different practices were people of African descent who originated in Portugal and Spain. And so I was wondering, who are these Black Europeans, these people of African descent who appear to be playing such an important roll in daily life within the Americas in this formative colonial period? And so, once I finished that project, my goal was to try to trace these people back to Europe, to try to understand who they were, where they came from, what neighborhoods they lived in, how they made it to the Americas, and did they retain those connections once they got there?


-What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?

Once of the things we’re learning when we look more closely at African diaspora is not only the tremendous impact of people coming directly from Africa, but also the impact of people who are traveling through Europe and acquiring a knowledge of Portuguese and Spanish ways whether that’s language or Christianity, ways to carry out different artisan practices. They are becoming then, in a sense, settlers and colonists, whether they are enslaved or free, whether they are forced migrants or people who are volunteers, like soldiers, sailors, and traders on these ships. They are coming to the Americas in this very formative time, and they are coming over at a time that is much earlier than when we usually think of as being the important period for Africans in reshaping the Caribbean and Brazil. We usually think that happens in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with the emergence of the sugar complex. At that period of time, we’re well aware that Africans are playing a very important role. What we’re finding with this kind of research is that they also play a very important role in shaping and cementing Spanish colonialism in the Americas, where they are fully half of the migrant communities in these urban areas. And this happens in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.