Diego Battistessa and migration in Latin America

The author of "Afro-descending Latin America" explains migration in Latin America to us.


Internal migration has been an important phenomenon in Latin America in recent years. We talked about it with Diego Battistessa. His propensity for nomadism helped him to understand in part the dynamics of migration, to which he dedicates much of his work. Thirty-six years old, born in Gordona in the province of Sondrio but travelling between Madrid, Colombia and Panama, Diego Battistessa has been an international aid worker in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, the Maghreb and finally in the Ecuadorian Amazon, on the border with Colombia, where he told us he started a “relationship with Latin America that immediately got under my skin”. Since 2015 he collaborates with Carlos III University of Madrid and writes for Italian and foreign newspapers and magazines, while he is also a consultant for TV show Le Iene. He has written several books, the latest of which is Afro-descending Latin America: the story of the most violent of forced migrations, marked by slavery and the search for a redemption, with the author finding old and new protagonists.

Internal migration is a central phenomenon in Latin America in recent years. Not only the ones to Mexico and the USA but also the recent migrations of Haitians throughout Central and South America, and those of almost six million Venezuelans, most of them in Latin American countries.

2022 will be a decisive year for migration. In recent times, there has been a change in the trend that has seen the large flows no longer head not only to the United States and Canada but also to other areas of Latin America. The explosion of the great Venezuelan exodus has influenced the structures of some countries, such as Colombia, which has found itself managing the arrival of about two million people. And then there is Haitian migration, among those with the greatest impact in 2021

“Mexico recorded an increase from 500 Haitian asylum seekers to 50,000 from 2019 to 2021. In short, it is clear that the issue of migration will be at the center of the great regional summits, so much so that Joe Biden at the end of 2021 met Trudeau and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to discuss immigration and, as soon as he took office, he sent Kamala Harris to see the Mexican President and also President Alejandro Giammattei in Guatemala to find a solution».

Little is said about it but Latin America is becoming a bridge for migrations that come from Africa and Asia to countries, such as Ecuador, which do not require a visa and then they move onto Mexico and from there to the USA

We are talking about a historical migration, that of Africans in Latin America to which his latest book is dedicated. One in four people on that continent considers themselves to have African origins, 133 million according to the World Bank, but it is not easy to know who this refers to in Latin America.

“In the Dominican Republic no one recognizes themselves as an afro-descendant because they are Haitians, considered pariahs for problems of xenophobia and the past of struggles between the two countries. Latin America is an incredible human laboratory and among the Afro-descendant communities themselves the range of behaviors is enormous. For example, the Portobelo communities of Panama are very attached to the ancestral culture while others have lost some of that bond and have found a new way of being in Latin America.

What are the differences between Afro-descendants and indigenous peoples?

“The difference with the populations that inhabited this continent before the arrival of the Europeans is that the Afro-descendants were brought here with violence and the way they had to adapt was also violent. What unites both of them is the memory of the violence with which they lived the era of conquest and the fight for independence”.

There’s also an additional difference. While many of the Afro-descendant populations participated in the independence struggles, the indigenous ones suffered them because they only had the opportunity to take part in very few of them. And once independence was gained, the new states cleaned up the original populations to redistribute the territories within the new national societies.

Migration and racism in Latin America

Does racism exist everywhere? According to the Cuban writer Carlos Manuel Álvarez even in Cuba there is a difference between white and black dissidents. According to Diego Battistessa, wherever there are black people in Latin America there is racism.

The way in which societies have historically responded to this racism and with which they have created a counter-narrative to stop it is the element that distinguishes them from each other. Sticking to the somewhat naïve idea that in certain countries, where there have been revolutions, racism does not exist is naïve and Cuba is no exception.

Returning to migration, I would like you to tell us about the work you have done in 2019 on Venezuelan migrants in Colombia and that has had important feedback.

“I had been working on the Venezuelan situation for six years and I realized that there was no systematization of data related to women’s migration. I started doing some research and found that the cases of human trafficking, rape and murder of Venezuelan migrants were numerous, but they were not systematically reported. And so, through reading local newspapers, I created a georeferenced map. It is a work in progress to which I dedicate time every day, sitting down to talk with institutions, universities and NGOs that want to expand it».

Translated by Adam Clark