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Bolivia’s ‘black king’ defies slavery’s legacy

Don Julio Penedo sits next to the crown he was given by the Afro-Bolivian community, at his house in the Mururata community in the Bolivian Yungas, north of La Paz. Penedo is the grandson of King Bonifacio I, descendant of Congolese prince Uchicho. – AFP pic, December 20, 2014.Don Julio Penedo sits next to the crown he was given by the Afro-Bolivian community, at his house in the Mururata community in the Bolivian Yungas, north of La Paz. Penedo is the grandson of King Bonifacio I, descendant of Congolese prince Uchicho. – AFP pic, December 20, 2014.He doesn't have Queen Elizabeth's throne or Kate and Wills' paparazzi, but Bolivian peasant Julio Pinedo is New World royalty: a king who inherited his title from his African ancestors.

Pinedo's calloused hands, the mark of a lifetime of farming, belie the royal blood passed down to him by the Congolese prince Uchicho, who was brought to the Americas as a slave sometime around 1820.

In the nearly two centuries since then, Afro-Bolivians have lost their languages, religions and much of their history, but Pinedo's family has managed to hold onto its royal heritage.

Today he is recognised as a king by Bolivia's black community, some 26,000 people descended from the slaves imported to the South American country under Spanish colonial rule from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

Pinedo, 73, lives in the small village of Mururata, about a two-hour drive north of the capital La Paz, where he still goes out to the fields every day to farm citrus fruits, coca and coffee.

"When the Spanish invaded they brought my ancestors here. They brought them to the area to work the land," he told AFP.

Orphaned as a young boy when his parents died in an accident, Pinedo was raised by his grandfather Bonifacio, who was crowned king in 1932.

He succeeded his grandfather in 1992, but his official coronation ceremony was only held in 2007.

Pinedo does not have a throne or a court, but he does have a red cape with gold embroidery and a metallic crown, which he wears for local festivals.

His title, he said, is mainly symbolic.

He has a sole heir, Prince Roland, who works as an office clerk at the Bolivian Congress.

His wife, Queen Angelica Larrea, runs a small shop whose shelves offer a scattering of sodas, sardine tins, cooking oil and bread.

According to the story passed down in the family, prince Uchicho was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the dying days of the Spanish empire.

Shipped to Bolivia, he was forced to work on the coca plantations in Los Yungas, the agricultural region where Pinedo still lives.

Today, Pinedo's image is "a strong source of cultural identity and belonging" for Afro-Bolivians, said Jorge Medina, the country's first black congressman.

Historians do not know exactly how many slaves made the so-called Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas, but the number is in the tens of millions.

Up to half died along the way of starvation, disease and brutal treatment.

In Bolivia, which was then the colonial territory of Upper Peru, the slaves were forced to work the silver mines in the city of Potosi and the plantations of Los Yungas.

"We believe that about half a million slaves arrived in Upper Peru, but there are no exact figures. First they brought us to Potosi, then here to Los Yungas," said Pedro Andaveres, a researcher who specialises in Afro-Bolivian culture.

Most traces of those ancestors have been lost.

"They erased our history, they erased our original dialects, they erased our religions," said Andaveres.

But Bolivian culture today bears a distinct African imprint that can be heard in its Andean music and seen in the "saya" and "caporales" dances set to the rhythms of African drums.

And Afro-Bolivians still have their king.

"He's our symbolic king. We don't pay tribute to him like a Spanish king, but people respect him," said Medina. – AFP, December 20, 2014.

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