Sun | Dec 4, 2016

Afro-Mexico

Published:Sunday | January 25, 2015 | 12:00 AMPaulette Ramsay

I recently had the opportunity to travel to the Costa Chica of Guerrero and Oaxaca, an area along the Pacific Coast of Mexico, which is predominantly occupied by black Mexicans. I travelled by chartered taxi from Acapulco for more than four hours to one of Mexico's most remote and isolated areas that comprises more than 20 small communities with entirely or mostly black populations.

I had previously travelled to Morelia in the state of Michoacan, which borders the predominantly black state of Guerrero, and did not realise my objective of meeting and interacting with black Mexicans. This time I spent significant time among them travelling to several tiny communities, and taking note of the various ways in which they represent difference to mainstream Mexican society.

The presence of blacks in these communities seriously disturbs Mexico's definition of the Mexican nation as mestizo. Even so, the Mexican government ceased its census collection on the basis of ethnic groups from as early as 1810. Indeed, people of African descent have occupied Mexico since the initial stages of Spanish conquest and colonisation. Mexican anthropologist Aguirre Beltran established in his work, La Poblacion Negra de Mexico (1946), that the importation of blacks into Mexico began with the arrival of Hernan Cortes in 1519 and continued until the end of Spanish rule in 1810. It is estimated that more than 500,000 Africans were imported into Mexico as Spain's need for labour increased following their destruction of some of the indigenous people, with the result that the black population was the largest in Mexico for a long time. Some regions around the port of Veracruz, for instance, were heavily populated by Afro-Mexicans in colonial times.

The brutality of the system of slavery in the 17th century resulted in numerous slave rebellions and many slaves escaped from the plantations and established settlements called palenques in the mountains. In 1605, the Maroon community of Yanga became the first free village in the new world. Strict laws of segregation and the inhumane treatments to which blacks were subjected made it easy for them to participate in the movement for independence from Spanish rule. Blacks accounted for a significant number of the soldiers in Mexico's 1810-1821 War of Independence with Spain.

Fight to end slavery

As the group that had known subjugation and oppression, they gave full support to the war in an attempt to end racial inequality and oppression. In fact, one of the principal leaders of Mexico's independence movement, who later became president of Mexico, Vicente Guerrero, was known as Mexico's 'first black president'. His main objective during his presidential rule was to achieve equality in class and race - a determined fight that culminated in the abolition of slavery in 1824.

Today, there are other groups of African-derived persons in the northern states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo, comprising mainly descendants of runaway North American slaves and free blacks from Florida who escaped in the 17th century. However, the majority of persons of African descent reside mainly on the Costa Chica in the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca. Some communities on the Costa Chica comprise persons of mixed-heritage black and Indians while others such as El Ciruelo, Santo Domingo and Tapextla have populations that are 90 per cent black.

Afro-Mexicans live in abject poverty on the Costa Chica of Guerrero and Oaxaca. More than 25 years after the first group of persons wrote about the impoverished conditions in which the people on the Costa Chica live, the conditions continue to be appalling. Despite poverty, they work hard as small farmers who produce corn, pawpaw, sorrel, cotton and also rear cattle for their own consumption. They maintain their distinctive cultural identities through their culinary style, religious practices, and folk dances such as the Devil Dance, Bull Dance and unique The Artesa. The popular musical forms - tropical and chilena - owe much of their formation to the African influence in the Latin American and Caribbean diaspora. A very powerful musical, poetic and dramatic art form associated with African cultural retention in Mexico is the corridor, a ballad set to music that narrates various historical events.

The Dance of the Devil is a popular dance form that has been performed by Afro-Mexicans in Costa Chica from the colonial era to the present, particularly in the town of Collantes, during Todos Santos (All Saints Day) in November. It involves about 20 dancers and three musicians dancing through the streets, creating an ambience of festivity.

Even though Mexico has officially acknowledged its third root, there is still a reluctance to accept that there are distinctively Afro-derived Mexicans in the country. In 2013, both the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca granted full constitutional recognition to blacks in these states, declaring them to be an ethnic group in the states. The negotiations continue at the federal level, as Afro-Mexicans now want to be counted in the census and recognised as black citizens of the Mexican nation.

A small group called Mexico Negro, established as a result of the work of a Trinidadian priest, Fr Glynne Jemmot, who sowed the seeds of African heritage among them, is now involved in the struggle and ongoing debates with the Mexican government for inclusion in the construction of a Mexican nation. Blacks on the Costa Chica of Mexico have not only contributed to Mexico's cultural landscape, but also to other areas of development.

An increasing number of scholars have begun to take an interest in Afro-Mexico, mainly in disciplines such as anthropology, music, film studies, dance and cultural studies. They all concur in their efforts to unsettle Mexican constructions of its nation as being homogeneous.

n Paulette A. Ramsay, PhD, is head of Department of Modern Languages & Literatures, Faculty of Humanities & Education, UWI, Mona. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and paulette.ramsay@uwimona.edu.jm.