• Yesenia Barragan
  • Yesenia Barragan
  • Assistant Professor of History
  • Degree: Ph.D., Columbia University
  • Specialty: Modern Latin America and Caribbean: Race, Slavery, and Emancipation in Afro-Latin America and African Diaspora
  • Office: 223A Van Dyck Hall
  • Phone: 848-932-8355



I am a historian of modern Latin America and the Caribbean. I specialize in the transnational histories of race, slavery, and emancipation in Afro-Latin America and the African diaspora in the Americas. I earned my Ph.D. in Latin American History from Columbia University, where I was a Ford Foundation Fellow, and my B.A. in Philosophy and History from Brown University, where I was a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow and Beinecke Scholar.

I am the author of Freedom’s Captives: Slavery and Gradual Emancipation on the Colombian Black Pacific (Cambridge University Press, 2021), which won the 2022 Wesley-Logan Prize for best book on African diaspora history from the American Historical Association and the Association for the Study of African American Life & History, the 2022 Best Book Award for the 19th Century Section of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), the 2023 Early Career Book Prize from the Center for Cultural Analysis at Rutgers University, Honorable Mention for the 2022 Michael Jiménez Prize for the Colombia Section of LASA, and was a Finalist for the 2022 Outstanding First Book Prize from the Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora (ASWAD). 

Freedom’s Captives is a narrative-driven, social, political, and geographical study of the gradual abolition of chattel slavery in the majority-Black Colombian Pacific, the gold mining center of the former Spanish Empire. I call the thirty-one years—from the gradual abolition law’s enactment in 1821 to its destruction in 1852 with the final abolition of slavery—the time of “gradual emancipation rule” in the northern Andes. From the autonomous rainforests and gold mines of the Colombian Pacific, Freedom’s Captives rethinks the nineteenth century project of emancipation in Colombia and the Americas. I argue that although gradual emancipation rule was ostensibly designed to destroy slavery, paradoxically, speculating slaveholders in Colombia came to have an even greater stake in slavery. Gradual emancipation rule expanded opportunities for diverse stakeholders to partake in the owning and exploitation of young Black people at cheaper prices and established new political rituals that reinforced the disciplining logic of the slaveholding order. Using narrative and storytelling to map the worlds of Free Womb children, enslaved women miners, free Black boatmen, and white abolitionists in the Andean highlands, Freedom’s Captives reveals how the Atlantic World processes of gradual emancipation and post-slavery rule unfolded in the Colombian Black Pacific. A Spanish translation of Freedom’s Captives (Cautivas de la libertad: Esclavitud y emancipación gradual en el Pacífico negro colombiano) is available with Editorial Planeta/Universidad de los Andes (Bogotá, Colombia).

In addition to Freedom’s Captives, I have written several articles, including “Commerce in Children: Slavery, Gradual Emancipation, and the Free Womb Trade in Colombia,” which received the 2023 Antonine Tibesar Prize from the Conference on Latin American History. In 2014, I published my first book, Selling Our Death Masks: Cash-for-Gold in the Age of Austerity (Zero, 2014), a surrealist ethnography of cash-for-gold shops in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis based on fieldwork and archival investigations in Spain, Greece, and Colombia. Selling Our Death Masks was described by anthropologist Michael Taussig as a “fast-paced brilliant, and exceedingly original history of gold and its roller coastering life under contemporary capitalism.” With the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities, I am currently embarked on a new book project titled A Country of Their Own: African Americans and the Promise of Antebellum Latin America, which examines Latin America as a beacon of freedom and immigration destination for free and fugitive African Americans during the antebellum period.

I am committed to public historical work and engagement. I am the Principal Investigator of “The Free Womb Project,” a multilingual (English, Spanish, and Portuguese) digital collection of gradual emancipation laws with “Free Birth” or “Free Womb” decrees across the eighteenth and nineteenth century Atlantic World. I have also served as a Country of Origin Information Expert for asylum cases related to Colombia and welcome working with new clients. At Rutgers, I am the convener of the interdisciplinary Slavery + Freedom Studies Working Group, which brings together faculty and students across departments whose work engages with the problem of slavery, freedom, and the post-emancipation world transhistorically and cross-culturally, at the Scarlet and Black Research Center at Rutgers University. I was previously a regular contributor to Black Perspectives, the leading online platform for public scholarship on global Black thought, history, and culture established by the African American Intellectual History Society, and an opinion columnist for the major Latin American media outlet, Telesur.

I welcome questions and inquiries from graduate applicants in Latin American History and the History of Atlantic Cultures and the African Diaspora. I am especially delighted to work with graduate applicants who are interested in the history of race, gender, slavery, emancipation, or post-emancipation studies in Colombia, the Andes, Afro-Latin America, and the Caribbean, Atlantic, and Pacific Worlds.

Lastly but importantly, I am a first-generation daughter of poor/working-class immigrants from Latin America and a longtime activist involved in social and racial justice movements. I have mentored students in the First Generation Network and Mellon Mays Fellowship at Columbia University and Dartmouth College, where I previously taught, and work closely with undergraduate and PhD students at Rutgers through the Aresty Research Center and History Department.



  • The Afro-Latin American Experience
  • History Workshop: Slavery and Emancipation in Latin America and the Caribbean
  • Modern Latin America/War and Politics in Latin America
  • History Seminar: Slavery and the Law in the Atlantic World
  • History and Asylum Law in the United States


  • Graduate History Colloquium: Readings in Modern Latin America
  • Graduate Seminar in Latin American History





  • “Latin America in the Antebellum Black Press,” The Journal of African American History, 109, 3 (Summer 2024) [forthcoming]
  • “Commerce in Children: Slavery, Gradual Emancipation, and The Free Womb Trade in Colombia,” The Americas 78, 2 (April 2021): 229-257
  • “Gendering Mastery: Female Slaveholders in the Colombian Pacific Lowlands,” Slavery & Abolition: A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies 39, 1 (2018): 1-26
  • “‘To End 500 Years of Great Terror’: Struggles for Peace in the Afro-Colombian Pacific,” NACLA Report on the Americas, Issue 1: #BlackLivesMatter Across the Hemisphere 49 (2017): 56-63
  • “Slavery, Free Black Women, and the Politics of Place in Chocó, Colombia,” Revista de Estudios Colombianos 47 (enero-junio de 2016): 57-66
  • “Death, Slavery, and Spiritual Justice on the Colombian Black Pacific (1837),” Nuevo Mundo, Mundos Nuevos, Debates, June 11, 2015

Public Scholarship


  • 2022 Wesley-Logan Prize, American Historical Association and Association for the Study of African American Life & History for Freedom’s Captives
  • 2022 Best Book Award for the 19th Century Section of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) for Freedom’s Captives
  • 2022 Early Career Book Prize, Center for Cultural Analysis, Rutgers University for Freedom’s Captives
  • Finalist, 2022 Outstanding First Book Prize from the Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora (ASWAD) for Freedom’s Captives
  • Honorable Mention for the 2022 Michael Jiménez Prize for the Colombia Section of LASA for Freedom’s Captives
  • 2022 Antonine Tibesar Prize, Conference on Latin American History
  • National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship (2022-2023)
  • Early Career Faculty Fellowship, Institute for the Study of Global Racial Justice (2021-22)
  • Society of Fellows Postdoctoral Fellowship, Dartmouth College (2016-2019)
  • The Woodrow Wilson National Dissertation Fellowship (2015-2016)
  • Ford Foundation Diversity Predoctoral Fellowship (2011-2015)
  • SSRC-ACLS International Dissertation Research Fellowship (2012-2013)
  • Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, Brown University (2006)