The Afro-Mestizo Connection
Scholars team up to study Southern Mexico’s African roots
Acapulco has been billed as “the resort that never sleeps.” It’s the playground of the wealthy, home to the glittering “Golden Zone” shopping district, nightclubs and restaurants too numerous to count — and, just outside the city limits, a group of 98 percent Black towns that are experiencing a cultural awakening.
What’s that you say? Black folks — or, as they’re known locally, Afro-Mestizos — in Mexico?
“That is not the social reality we associate with Mexico. And I was born in Mexico — I know Mexico well,” says Dr. Francisco Lomeli, a professor of Chicano Studies and Spanish and Portuguese at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “This was completely new to me,” he adds.
By “this,” Lomeli means the history of Southern Mexico’s Afro-Mestizos, to use the term from Mexico’s colonial past that indicates African, Native and European ancestry. But Lomeli and his colleagues at UCSB’s Black Studies and Chicano Studies departments are learning more about this remarkable population every day.
In the process, they’re teaming with their counterparts at Acapulco’s La Universidad Autonoma de Guerrero to create a truly international scholarly exchange that’s rewriting the book on accepted notions of race, class and national identity in Mexico.
Indeed, these scholars are telling the story of “the third root,” says Dr. Maria Herrera-Sobek, Luis Leal Endowed Professor of Chicano Studies at UCSB and chairwoman of the department. “We’ve always known we had two roots (in Mexico): the Indian and the European. But now we’re learning that the ‘third root’ — that Mexico has not acknowledged in its political ideology — is that we are also African.”
The average visitor to Mexico’s Costa Chica, or “little coast,” probably would be astonished to learn about Mexico’s “third root”— or “third race,” as the phenomenon is sometimes called. Dr. Sethard Fisher, the eminent UCSB sociologist and former chairman of the Black Studies department, certainly seems to have felt that way when he discovered the secret of the Costa Chica during a conference in Acapulco in the late 1980s.
But what Fisher discovered as he toured the dusty back roads and tiny backwater towns of Guerrero state was a people who had not waited for academia to discover and document them, according to Raymond Huerta, UCSB’s coordinator for affirmative action and a member of the committee that has been working to explore the Afro-Mestizo connection almost from the start.
Indeed, participants in Fisher’s initiative say despite the grinding poverty that translates into startling rates of out-migration from the region, the people of small towns like Cuajinicuilapa and San Nicolas were aware of their history, had preserved their heritage in the form of centuries-old traditions and were actively working to tell their story when academics discovered them.
For example, Cuajinicuilapa — often called by its nickname, Cuaji — is a sleepy town of 10,000 in Guerrero state. It has something the United States has yet to establish, notes Dr. Gerard Pigeon, a UCSB professor of Black Studies. It has El Museo de las Culturas Afromestizas, a museum dedicated to the history and culture of Black people in Southern Mexico.
“That’s really something to consider,” Pigeon says. “Nowhere in the United States is there a museum of the African American that tells the story of slavery. And this is in a small village.
“They’re (the people of Guerrero) teaching us (scholars) more than we’re teaching them,” he adds. “They’ve shown us a great deal, and they’ve done a lot in terms of what the French call Negritude, re-emphasizing and embracing Black presences (in Mexico).”
Keeping origins alive
The museum at Cuaji has devoted an entire wall to a massive map of the coasts of Europe, Africa, and North, Central and South America. Swooping black lines denote the major trade routes traveled by slave ships. There are major embarkation points all along the coast of Central America, which is so narrow at points that one could imagine throwing a rock from the Atlantic coast and hitting the Pacific Ocean. Other routes sweep all the way around Cape Horn to the northern reaches of the former Spanish dominions: the Pacific coasts of Mexico and California.
As the Afro-Mestizos tell the tale, their ancestors were runaway slaves who struck away from the coasts — with their large haciendas and enormous sugar and coffee plantations — and fanned out into the southern mountain ranges to establish tiny maroon communities, chiefly in the Pacific coast states of Guerrero and Oaxaca.
These communities — today’s Afro-Mestizo towns — have kept alive the story of their origins through a variety of means, but one of the most striking, according to Pigeon, is traditional dance, whose mingling of African, European and indigenous elements is so unusual as to constitute an anthropologist’s or ethnomusicologist’s dream.
Pigeon’s short film on the Afro-Mestizos documents three of those dances. “La Danza de la Tesa,” for example, might easily be mistaken for an Indian canoe dance —”tesa” is a contraction of “artesa,” the Spanish word for an indigenous canoe — if one didn’t note the African style footwork or know that West Africa is renowned for its canoe dances as well.
“La Danza del Toro” (dance of the bull) is a centuries-old quadrille, danced with swords, which re-enacts a folk story from Mexico’s colonial past. “La Danza de los Diablos,” (dance of the devils), by contrast, appears more purely African. Originally danced to honor an African god named Roju (perhaps, Pigeon speculates, a corruption of “rojo,” the Spanish word for red — which happens to be the color of the West African god Shango), the dance features African-like masks and headdresses with footwork that wouldn’t look out of place at a Black fraternity step show.
But it’s important to stress that the story of the Afro-Mestizo is not simply a story of the past. As both Lomeli and Pigeon describe it, the choice to lay such public claim to an African identity is a clear — indeed, an unmistakable — political statement. Pigeon notes that Afro-Mestizos have taken their story to conferences in places like Veracruz, on Mexico’s Atlantic coast. Lomeli adds they have forged alliances with indigenous populations in places such as Chiapas, where a land-rights revolt in the 1990s mounted a significant challenge to the ruling political powers.
Each of these perspectives — the historical and the current events — are of significant interest to scholars, both in Mexico and in the United States. And in a natural next step, the informal scholarly exchanges started by UCSB’s Fisher and Drs. Roberto and Carmen Cañedo of Guerrero have evolved into a series of international conferences. The most recent, held in November 2001, explored issues of ethnicity, poverty and transfrontier migration. And one of its highlights was a ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the establishment of a Center for Migration Studies at Guerrero.
“That’s going to provide a lot of primary materials that we just don’t have access to here in the United States,” Lomeli says. “They will have access to information that we just couldn’t get otherwise.”
It is also something that quite likely wouldn’t have happened at a poor university in a poor state such as Guerrero had it not been for the flattering interest — not to mention the press attention — brought by American-based scholars.
The future of the exchanges between the two universities appears bright. As Fisher says, noting interest from the administrations of both schools as well as from scholars in the United States, Mexico and throughout Latin America, “It’s become clear that this is a topic the academy is ready for.”
The third international conference is in the planning stages, and both schools are hoping to expand into the areas of developing joint courses and sponsoring formal scholar and student exchanges.
But Lomeli stresses, “This is not just a matter of exporting techniques and methodologies” for the scholars from the United States. “It’s been a matter of learning something new about an area of Mexico that offers some really exciting possibilities — as well as being a great opportunity (for the Black Studies and Chicano Studies departments at UCSB) to really connect, to deal with something that’s of mutual interest to us and to really see how people of different backgrounds come together and negotiate identity, nationality.”
On every imaginable level, Lomeli adds, “This is a perfect fit — a perfect social laboratory.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com