The Struggle for the Recognition of Afro-Mexicans
Despite a rich history and significant population, many Afro-Mexicans have lived a history of marginalization and self-negation
We are at a bus station in rural Guerrero, southern Mexico. A number of taxis are waiting and we bargain to get to a nearby coastal village, our final destination. It is blazing hot and very humid. The main road is paved but all side roads are dirt. We pass by humble homes made of concrete, often without a door. A sign of both the heat and poverty of the region. A typical slice of rural Mexico.
When we arrive in the coastal village, almost everything looks the same as the area around the bus station. There is one significant difference, however. The people in this coastal village are all of African descent. This is not what I expect of rural Mexico.
During the Spanish conquest and subsequent colonization, hundreds of thousands of Africans were brought to Mexico as slaves. Many African slaves in Mexico worked in mines and plantations, replacing the indigenous who had died in large numbers of disease and abuse at the hands of the Spanish. Many Africans mixed with the indigenous and European populations, blending into Mexico’s mestizaje, or mixed-race community. Partly as a result, many Mexicans of partial or full African descent do not recognize their African heritage.
In the rural village, I asked numerous residents if they were of African descent. They all shrugged and said “We are Mexicans.” Once back in Mexico City and having done more research on the forced African migration to Mexico, I began to notice that many Mexicans – who before I simply would have thought of as mestizos, or mixed European and indigenous – did have physical African traits.
In Mexico City, I meet a woman originally from Veracruz, a state through which most African slaves entered Mexico and in which African culture has left a significant imprint. This woman had very curly hair and other African physical traits. I asked this woman if she was part African. She said no, saying simply she was mestizo.
In his book Black in Latin America, the Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. interviewed a professor of anthropology from Veracruz, Sagrario Cruz-Carretero, who is of African descent. Cruz-Carretero told Gates that until she traveled to Cuba, a country close to Veracruz that celebrates its rich African influence, she did not recognize her black heritage. In Cuba, she discovered similar traditions to those of her family and realized the black people in Cuba looked like her family members. When she returned to Mexico, she asked her grandfather why the family never told her they were black. The grandfather said, “We are not black; we’re morenos” which means “dark-skinned” and, as Gates points out, is commonly used to describe people of mixed race in some parts of Mexico.
As an American accustomed to thinking of everyone as part of a racial or ethnic group, people not recognizing their race struck me. Is it positive that many Afro-Mexicans think of themselves either as mixed race Mexicans or simply Mexicans without a thought about race and skin color? Does not thinking about race allow for a post-racial world? Or does not recognizing one's race and heritage bring tangible negative consequences?
Unfortunately, a post-racial society is not what has developed in Mexico. Despite being Mexican citizens, there are stories of Mexican customs officials questioning the nationality of Afro-Mexicans reentering Mexico believing that someone of African descent could not be Mexican. Many Afro-Mexicans are also profiled as criminals by the police. Lastly, Afro-Mexicans report that many Mexicans question their intelligence, a sign both of negative cultural stereotypes of Afro-Mexicans and the very real economic poverty of Afro-Mexicans.
As such, even if Afro-Mexicans describe themselves as simply “Mexicans”, society unfortunately fails to treat them as simply “Mexicans”. Not recognizing race explicitly doesn’t mean it doesn’t go away, not does it mean that the prejudices people hold toward the race go away.
The importance of group recognition and identity cannot be overstated. Indigenous Mexicans, another historically marginalized group in Mexico, have gained governmental legal recognition which guarantees them certain linguistic, cultural, and educational guarantees and rights which shows a pathway for Afro-Mexicans in their quest for recognition. Throughout its history, Mexico had rejected four attempts by Afro-Mexicans for legal recognition. Fortunately, in 2019 Afro-Mexicans were finally recognized in the country’s constitution which will hopefully lead to greater visibility, protections and opportunities for those in this group. In 2020, for the first time the Mexican census included Afro-Mexicans as an option for respondents. Two percent of all Mexicans identified as Afro-Mexicans, surely lower than the actual number who are descended from Africans but an important step toward greater recognition for Afro-Mexicans.
And there is much to recognize. Afro-Mexicans have greatly contributed to the history of Mexico. A general and early president of Mexico, Vicente Guerrero, was Afro-Mexican. Lazaro Cardenas, a president who accomplished significant land and social reform in the 1930s, was also Afro-Mexican. There are significant African influences in Mexican dance and music as well.
Afro-Mexicans, both in positions of power and amongst the citizenry, are working hard to advance the awareness of Afro-Mexicans both inside and outside the community. María Celeste Sánchez Sugía is Mexico’s first openly and self-identifying Afro-Mexican senator. She is fighting to ensure Afro-Mexicans are recognized and included in all national decisions and laws.
David is a taxi driver married to Mayra, a medical office secretary, who is Afro-Mexican. “My wife Mayra is Afro-Mexican, and very proud of it,” David tells me. David and Mayra live in Cancun, a city without a large Afro-Mexican population. “Mayra is originally from Oaxaca, one of the states with a large number of Afro-Mexicans. In Cancun, however, people often don’t believe she is Mexican because they have never seen Afro-Mexicans.”
David and Mayra have two children together. Both have strong African physical features. David proudly shows me the photos of their children and says, “My kids are Afro-Mexicans and we make a point to make sure they are proud of it. No one can grow up denying who they are or feeling shame for their heritage.” This is important given the lack of recognition for Afro-Mexicans locally in Cancun.
As more like Senator Sánchez Sugía, Mayra and David find their voice and fight for the recognition of Afro-Mexican rights and culture, others will surely follow. Recognition nationally will allow for Afro-Mexicans to see themselves as Afro-Mexicans and have pride in their culture, stopping the loss of their culture. This will, in turn, further lead others in Mexican society to both recognize Afro-Mexicans and their rich contributions to the society.