We are ending Black History Month with an interesting story on the Afro-Mexican experience and their fight for civil rights. I am please to have a guest post from Nicole-Marie who is a member of the Nomadness Travel Tribe! She shares with us her visit to Mexico and learning about the Afro-Mexican experience.
A black civil rights movement is happening in Mexico and not many of us on this side of the border know about it. The images that we get in the U.S. are of light-skinned Latinos with European features on our Univision or Telemundo channel. Those who travel to Southern Mexico are often surprised to see the notable darker-skin and African features of some of the population as well as the cuisine, dances and language that are similar to Afro-Caribbean cultures. Afro-Mexicans are not recent immigrants from other nations, they have a long, important presence in the country from Yanga who lead the first successful slave rebellion in the Americas that lead to a recognized, independent maroon colony in 1618, to Vicente Guerrero, the second president of Mexico. Most of that history has been whitewashed or forgotten in the larger national discourse, but it is in the process of being reclaimed and celebrated as Afro-Mexicans are vying for greater recognition.
The majority of Mexico’s 1.4 million Afro-Mexicans reside on the country’s Pacific Coast, called the Costa Chica. Located in historically marginalized, yet beautiful states of Oaxaca and Guerrero. These statistics were only published in the inter-census in December 2015 after decades of Afro-Mexican group meetings, strategizing and petitioning to be included on the Mexican census. In the 1990s, a priest named Father Glynn from Trinidad and Tobago was placed in a parish in the region and sparked a movement encouraging education, greater inclusion, a place on the census and national recognition. A Civil Rights Movement that has grown ever since. I lived on the coast in 2013 and I was lucky to accompany one Afro-Mexican activist on her trip to Chacahua National Reserve to encourage women to get together and participate in history lessons and become engaged in the movement. I was not alive during the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s so it was amazing for me to see how people come together and organize in the face of structural and resource challenges. Chacahua had a special place for me because I am interested in ways African-descendants use traditional environmental knowledge and care for natural resources.
Many Afro-Mexican towns have historically relied on fishing; however people are looking for new ways to make ends meet due to detrimental environmental changes and economic shifts that have made fishing an unreliable income. I met women who started a small business selling hibiscus they grew for teas, women selling organic marmalade and natural beauty products, and men building eco- cabins to encourage tourists to visit them. I was excited to see the motivation many had to collectively start businesses. However, I was saddened to hear some of the hurdles they faced in finding a market to sell their great products or getting the proper seed monies to carry their projects through.
During my stay on the Coast, I was fortunate to visit Collantes where the picture below was taken. There is a mural on one of the municipal buildings in the town drawn by a local-Ivan Piza Hernandez. The mural depicts a consciousness of a connection to Africa. Some of the people who live on the Coast will tell you a story about a boat carrying slaves crashing on the coast. The survivors escaped and hid. These survivors eventually founded many of the black towns. I was told on several occasions that one can even scuba dive and see the remnants of the ship underwater. Others deny that such a shipwreck exists. Still others insist the founders were not slaves. They argue that there were already in Mexico after arriving on a “different” kind of boat. The mural suggests a pre-Columbian connection with the Olmec head. Dr. Ivan Van Sertima’s book “They Came before Columbus” claims ancient Africans interacted with people from the Americas. Olmec civilization is evidence of this. I found it fascinating and intriguing.
When I travel, I look for connecting with folks. Many times, I was welcomed like I was one of the family. I cannot count the times people told me l looked like so-and-so’s cousin or I was asked who’s daughter I was. There is a notable immigration of Afro-Mexicans to the U.S. that settle in the American South. One woman told me she thought I might have been someone’s child who came back to visit. There were several occasions where people were surprised to learn African-Americans existed because they thought all Americans are white. I was shocked to encounter that especially given that or President is Barack Obama. At least they had to know about him, right? But I took it as an example of how poorly African-Americans are represented in the media sent out to the rest of the world. One woman kept asking me why I was not white. Then she thought about it more and said she heard that SOME slaves were taken to the U.S. I found the conversation quite ironic. I felt that my interactions in the Costa Chica was a family of reunion of sorts. Almost like we were meeting one another as long-lost family members and saying, “Oh, I did not know you were living here. How did you get here”? It was a good feeling and I still laugh at some of the conversations that were had trying to explain it all.
Those experiences and opportunities to connect never get old for me. I think of my time on the Costa Chica with fondness and tell the stories with a smile on my face. I have a map hanging on my living room wall as a vision board for returning to see the movement grow and the friends I made again.
Thank you to Nicole-Marie for sharing this interesting Afro-Mexican history with us! Are you familiar with these areas in Mexico? If so share your thoughts with us below.