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Adriana ChiraAssistant Professor of History

My work examines practices of litigation among socially marginalized groups--enslaved people, free Africans and Afro-descendants, and peasantries-- in the Iberian Atlantic during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I am interested in when, how, and why legal activism coalesced into political mobilization.

My first book, forthcoming with Cambridge University Press, tells the story of nineteenth-century emancipation from the periphery of the plantation economy in Cuba—the eastern province of Santiago. It rethinks emancipation as a process that was not necessarily tethered to liberal-nationalist or liberal-abolitionist frameworks or to radical-insurgent breaks with the past. Emancipation could also occur gradually and relatively invisibly through manumission on a large scale and through a colonial court system that people of African descent inserted themselves into. Focusing on rural communities where local elites were weak, my work seeks to offer a narrative of nineteenth-century freedom that shows how negotiations over seemingly mundane practices that constituted custom served as a site of dynamic rights-claims. Through this move, the book places free and enslaved people of African descent and the everyday at the center of nineteenth-century Latin American legal histories.

Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, in eastern Cuba, many enslaved people and their families purchased their freedom through cash payments or services, usually gradually and over extended periods of time, a process that left them suspended in a legally ambiguous position. Positive law did not provide for such in-between statuses comprehensively. Inside and outside the courts, they defined their rights as partially freed individuals one prerogative at a time, through negotiation, threats of fugitiveness, and court actions. What came out of these processes was a hierarchized and entitled peasantry of African descent that undermined the institution of slavery locally, before political elites passed emancipation laws. The book meditates on the relationship between rural communities of African descent and the law in a world region where courtrooms were not too far from dirt roads, small yucca and pig farms, or steep mountain paths, and where people of African descent did not see themselves as social marginals or as outsiders to state institutions.

My second book project explores military and agrarian colonization projects in Spanish Equatorial Guinea starting with the second half of the nineteenth century. This context saw broad competition over land access and labor control among Spanish colonial agents, indentured laborers brought from neighboring mainland societies, and the indigenous Bubis. The project explores the afterlives of the Caribbean plantation in West Africa, as Spanish authorities hoped to recreate Cuba in this new territory.