Mex­ico’s forgotten Africans

Lesotho Times - - International -

MEX­ICO CITY — More than a mil­lion peo­ple in Mex­ico are de­scended from African slaves and are iden­ti­fied as “black”, “dark” or “Afro-mex­i­can” even if they don’t look black.

But be­yond the south­ern state of Oax­aca they are lit­tle-known and the com­mu­nity’s lead­ers are now warn­ing of pos­si­ble rad­i­cal steps to achieve of­fi­cial recog­ni­tion.

“The po­lice made me sing the na­tional an­them three times, be­cause they wouldn’t be­lieve I was Mex­i­can,” says Chogo el Ban­deno, a black Mex­i­can singer-song­writer.

“I had to list the gov­er­nors of five states too.”

He was vis­it­ing the cap­i­tal, Mex­ico City, hun­dreds of miles from his home in south­ern Mex­ico, when the po­lice stopped him on sus­pi­cion of be­ing an il­le­gal im­mi­grant.

For­tu­nately his ren­di­tion of the an­them and his knowl­edge of po­lit­i­cal lead­ers con­vinced the po­lice to leave him alone, but other Afro-mex­i­cans have not been so for­tu­nate.

Cle­mente Je­sus Lopez, who runs the govern­ment of­fice in charge of Afro-mex­i­cans in Oax­aca State, re­calls two sep­a­rate cases, both in­volv­ing women.

“One was de­ported to Hon­duras and the other to Haiti be­cause the po­lice in­sisted that in Mex­ico there are no black peo­ple. De­spite hav­ing Mex­i­can ID, they were de­ported.”

With the help of the Mex­i­can con­sulates they were able to re­turn but were of­fered no apol­ogy or com­pen­sa­tion, Lopez says.

Black Mex­i­cans have been liv­ing in the Costa Chica area, on the Pa­cific coast of Oax­aca, since their an­ces­tors were brought from Africa as slaves in the 16th Cen­tury.

Colo­nial Span­ish cat­tle ranch­ers of­ten used them as fore­men, in charge of in­dige­nous Mex­i­can work­ers who were not used to an­i­mals the size of cows or horses.

But out­side the Costa Chica area there is lit­tle aware­ness of their ex­is­tence.

An in­terim cen­sus in 2015 in­di­cated a black pop­u­la­tion of 1.4 mil­lion, or 1.2 per­cent of the Mex­i­can pop­u­la­tion. Even in Oax­aca State they only ac­count for 5 per­cent of the to­tal.

By com­par­i­son, in­dige­nous peo­ples made up nearly 10 per­cent of Mex­ico’s pop­u­la­tion, as mea­sured in the 2010 cen­sus.

The ap­pear­ance of those who iden­tify as black Mex­i­cans varies con­sid­er­ably. Some are hard to dis­tin­guish from in­dige­nous Mex­i­cans.

“It’s not only about skin colour, it’s also about how you feel,” says Tu­lia Ser­rano Arel­lanes, a coun­cil worker. “You may have had a grand­mother who was black and feel black, even if you don’t look it.”

Much of their iden­tity is based on where they live - if you live in a black town such as San­ti­ago Llano Grande, as Chogo el Ban­deno does, you are likely to think of your­self as black. But there is also a com­mon cul­ture. For ex­am­ple, there’s a dis­tinc­tive style of mu­sic called the chilena, which was brought to the Costa Chica in the 19th Cen­tury by Chilean sailors on their way to the gold rush in Cal­i­for­nia, which black mu­si­cians have adapted.

They have added Afro-mex­i­can in­stru­ments such as the qui­jada, a dried out don­key’s jaw­bone with rat­tling mo­lar teeth. There’s also the bote, a fric­tion drum — you rub a stick at­tached to the drum skin and it makes a kind of growl­ing per­cus­sive noise. Th­ese sounds are a cen­tral part of Afro-mex­i­can mu­si­cal life.

There are also dances that hark back to the colo­nial ranch­ing days, in­clud­ing the Dance of the Devils, per­formed around the Day of the Dead at the end of Oc­to­ber and in early Novem­ber.

The dancers wear “devil” masks, and are led by the brash char­ac­ter “Pan­cho”, who plays the colo­nial ranch fore­man.

He struts around with a whip while his buxom “white” wife - played by a black man - flirts out­ra­geously with the “devils” and even with the au­di­ence.

In the towns of the Costa Chica, even nurs­ery-age chil­dren learn steps of the dance and are taught to take pride in their black her­itage.

But there is frus­tra­tion here that the Afro-mex­i­cans are not more widely known in Mex­ico and are not of­fi­cially recog­nised as a mi­nor­ity by the Mex­i­can govern­ment.

Ac­cord­ing to Hum­berto He­bert Silva Silva, head of the Bureau for Afro-mex­i­can Af­fairs in Oax­aca, this is be­cause Afro-mex­i­cans speak Span­ish, like most other Mex­i­cans — they do not have their own lan­guage.

“When we go and ask [for recog­ni­tion as a mi­nor­ity], they come up with ex­cuses, or say that we don’t have an in­dige­nous mother tongue.

“Lan­guage is the real cri­te­rion,” he says. “We are be­ing dis­crim­i­nated against.”

If Afro-mex­i­cans were clas­si­fied as a mi­nor­ity they would re­ceive ex­tra fund­ing for pro­mo­tion of their cul­ture and pub­lic health pro­grammes.

But ac­tivists in­clud­ing Is­rael Reyes, a teacher, want more than money, it’s also im­por­tant to them that the ex­is­tence of Afro-mex­i­cans is recog­nised at the level of the Mex­i­can state.

“The story of the black pop­u­la­tion has been ig­nored and erased from his­tory,” he says. The ac­tivists’ ef­forts have born some fruit. The 2015 in­terim cen­sus for the first time gave re­spon­dents the op­tion to iden­tify them­selves as black — Ne­gro in Span­ish — though this is not a term used by all Afro-mex­i­cans, many of whom call them­selves “dark” ( moreno) or use other, lo­cal terms to de­scribe them­selves.

It can’t be right that the con­sti­tu­tion of our country doesn’t recog­nise us Hum­berto He­bert Silva Silva

But some Afro-mex­i­cans are im­pa­tient for more recog­ni­tion.

Hum­berto He­bert Silva Silva warns that the black com­mu­nity may end up em­u­lat­ing the in­dige­nous up­ris­ing in Chi­a­pas in the 1990s, known as the Za­p­atis­tas.

“So far the black com­mu­ni­ties have en­dured dis­crim­i­na­tion and they have stuck to le­gal av­enues, which they have now ex­hausted,” he says.

“With the Za­p­atis­tas, the in­dige­nous rose up, and it was an armed up­ris­ing, to claim their rights. And well, our com­mu­nity is think­ing the same.

“It’s think­ing, in the dis­tant fu­ture, to rise up too,” he says.

“It may be the only way to get the rights we’re en­ti­tled to. It can’t be right that the con­sti­tu­tion of our country doesn’t recog­nise us.

“There’s a big gap be­tween what the politi­cians say and what they do. We’ll have to take ac­tion to give them a warn­ing.”

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