Mexicans Of African Descent Fight For Recognition In Mexico

By Rodrigo Cervantes
Published: Thursday, May 21, 2020 - 5:05am
Updated: Thursday, May 21, 2020 - 8:18am

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José Luis Martinez/INAH
"La Danza de los Judas" (the Dance of the Judas), a traditional dance group in Mata clara, an Afro-Mexican community in the state of Veracruz.

MEXICO CITY — Like in the U.S., Mexico is currently conducting its census. And this time, the government is trying to get a better picture of a particular group: Mexicans of African descent.

For the first time in its history, the Mexican census explicitly includes a question to identify Afro descendants. 

Mexico has a rich African heritage but also an adjacent history of oblivion. And Afro descendants in Mexico are fighting to be respected and recognized. 

José Luis Martinez/INAH
Researcher María Elisa Velázquez (center, first row down) in Comaltepec, at the state of Guerrero, Mexico

A Path Toward ‘Mestizaje’

You’ve probably heard the rock n’ roll classic by Mexican-American star Ritchie Valens, “La Bamba.”

But years before he recorded it — maybe even centuries — the song has been interpreted in the coastal state of Veracruz, Mexico with harps, jarana guitars, percussion instruments and stomping.

“La Bamba” is one of the most iconic and traditional Mexican songs. And its beats, rhythm and even some of the lyrics — like the title itself — are rooted in Africa.

“Not only in food or in, of course, music, with songs like 'La Bamba,' but African influences are in many cultural aspects in Mexico,” said María Elisa Velázquez, researcher of Afro Descendant populations at the Mexican Institute of Anthropology and History. 

Velázquez explained that Africans and Afro Antilleans arrived during the Spanish colonization, some enslaved, others free. 

“Mixed marriages were never banned,” Velázquez said. And Catholicism allowed what’s known as “mestizaje”: the blend of European, indigenous and Afro cultures. 

An Ignored Contribution

Something significant happened in the mid-18th century that led to oblivion and discrimination, according to Velázquez.

“By then, Mexico started to reject the Afro communities and their legacy, following the world trend of racist-driven scientific theories,” the expert said. 

Even the fact that Vicente Guerrero, a war of independence hero and second president of Mexico, was Afro descendant was nearly forgotten.

Velázquez said race has become an incorrect way to identify the Afro heritage and population.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador
Office of the Mexican President
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador visiting the Afro-descendant community of Cuajinicuilapa in the state of Guerrero in 2020.

“We have the problem that the term ‘black’ only refers to the color of the skin but leaves many cultural aspects behind,” Velázquez said.

The researcher said many communities in Mexico carry that legacy and want to be recognized. That’s the case, for example, of the town of Cuajinicuilapa, where Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador recently saw a traditional dance.

It was “La Danza de los Diablos,” or “the Dance of the Demons,” which has strong African roots. Dancers stomp and wear masks similar to those worn in some African cultures.

Public Policies And Migrations

According to the Mexican government, only about 1.2% of the population is Afro descendant. 

But the fight for respect and recognition goes beyond a census, said Wilner Metelus, activist and president of the Committee To Defend Afro Mexicans and Naturalized Citizens.

“The Mexican society completely ignores the presence of Afro Mexicans, who have to tolerate a lot of discrimination,” Metelus said.

Wilner Metelus
Wilner Metelus (center) is a Mexican human rights activist fighting in favor of Afro descendant communities and migrants.

The Afro Mexican people were recognized in the Mexican Constitution last year. But Metelus says public policies are still needed to benefit those communities.

In addition, the Aro descent population in Mexico keeps growing as Africans and Afro descendants are part of a new migration in recent years, Metelus explained. 

“There are currently 5,500 Haitians and 2,800 Africans stranded in Mexico,” Metelus said. He explained they’re caught up in the Trump administration's immigration policy.

Metelus said U.S. policies are forcing migrants to stay in Mexico, facing racism, poverty and xenophobia, while the Mexican state is not allowing them to move freely.

“Afro descent Mexicans and migrants should look for an alliance with our African American brothers and sisters”, Metelus said.

And perhaps both communities have always been intertwined in some way, just like 60 years ago. That’s when Mexico discovered one of the greatest African American legacies, rock n’ roll, thanks to none other than an Afro Mexican singer who became a legend: Johnny Laboriel.

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Office of the Mexican President
"Danza de los Diablos" (the Dance of the Devils) in Cuajinijuilapa, Mexico, a community self-identified as Afro-Mexican.
Rodrigo Cervantes/KJZZ
Afro Antillean, Afro Central American and African migrants share a place to temporarily live in a shelter in Tapachula, Mexico.
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An African migrant waits outside the office of the Mexican Institute of Migration in Tapachula, Chiapas.
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A young Afro-Mexican during a festivity in the state of Guerrero.
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Rosa María is an inhabitant of the Afro descendant community of Mata Clara in Veracruz, Mexico.
Rodrigo Cervantes/KJZZ
A migrant African mother and her baby play in a shelter in the state of Chiapas, in southern Mexico.
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One of the dancers from Grupo Otobala in Collantes, an Afro-descendant community in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico.

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