“All that belong to the Liberal Party in the Cauca are people of the pueblo bajo (as they are generally called) and blacks,” observes an 1859 letter written by Juan Aparicio, a local political operative who had undertaken the unenviable task of recruiting these same “lower classes” to support the powerful caudillo Tomás Mosquera’s new National Party. Aparicio tried to explain his failure in this assignment, arguing that “this class of people will not listen to anyone that is not of their party.”1 How had the local Liberal Party—controlled at the national level by wealthy white men—become associated with blacks and the poor in the Cauca region of southwestern Colombia? Or, more to the point, how did Afro-Colombians and other lower-class people transform elite political organizations into “their party”?

In the Cauca, Afro-Colombians actively negotiated, bargained, and came to identify with the...

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