Mexicans Of African Descent Fight For Recognition In Mexico
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.
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.
“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.
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.
More Stories From KJZZ
- Untold Arizona: Studio Mariposa Creates Cross-Border Connections Through Art
- Loud Mexico City: Exploring The Sounds And Noise