Updated: Jun 16, 2020
To learn that Mexico's second president, Vicente Guerrero was black, is very often a surprise that comes as an adult to many of us who grew up in the country. One of the main reasons why the history of blackness in Mexico is not well known starts with the neglect of the multiracial composition of Mexico by the country's major educational and cultural institutions. Aside from the anodyne lessons on mestizaje during elementary school, where we learn that "in Mexico, we are all mestizos", Mexicans have virtually no spaces to learn about, or to discuss issues of race, ethnicity or indigeneity.
Although Spain was in fact one of the first colonial powers in the Americas to practice and profit from slavery in general, and slavery of Africans and South East Asians in particular, children and adults in Mexico are oftentimes oblivious to the presence and influences that these forcefully displaced populations have had in the country. While it is true that most Mexicans are aware of the historical plight of the region's indigenous peoples, this awareness is always relegated to the distant past and invisibilized by the mestizaje myth. The fact that "En México se venera al indígena muerto" [In Mexico we celebrate the dead indigenous people], should be no surprise to anyone who has ever set foot in the capital’s historic downtown, where the architectural layout supports the illusion that the indigenous, the colonial and the republican projects in the city all belong to different eras of the Ciudad de México.
Mexico City's Cathedral seen from inside the Templo Mayor Ruins, by Sherri Jo Wilkins.
Mestizaje is the word commonly used to refer to the cultural and racial mixing that occurred during the centuries of Spanish colonization and exploitation of the Americas. It is also a narrative that was popularized by the post-revolutionary governments, most notably under the guidance of Jose Vasconcelos through the multiple roles he played in the governments of Adolfo de la Huerta (1920) and Alvaro Obregón (1920-1924). Vasconcelos’s La raza cósmica is perhaps the best known document where the concept of mestizaje is explained in detail. Vasconcelo’s work is also the most explicit admission that in Mexico at least, mestizaje has always been a project at the service of the “patria” [the Homeland].
Vasconcelo’s conception of the cosmic race was not one that admitted racial diversity or acceptance of difference. Instead, it was the idealized, romanticized promise of a future of racial homogeneity in the country, where black and indigenous phenotypes would yield to other “more beautiful'' physical traits. This myth is alive and well in the common expressions of whiteness fetishism among Mexicans but also in how certain individuals profit from their privileges as white passing Latinx in the US. The formal influence of this myth also has legal implications in the creation and concurrent limitations of some Mexican constitutional protections for members of indigenous communities. While it is true that some of these protections were originally created to serve vulnerable populations in the country, the historical and cultural erasure of ethnic and racial difference effectively restricts who can access these protections based on the formal registration of a given community, excluding unaffiliated individuals in general, and black Mexicans in particular.
The idea that all Mexicans belong to one single racial denomination, mestizos, is prominently portrayed in multiple art pieces that, at least since the muralista movement, have sought to emphasize the ethnic and cultural mixture of el mexicano.
Diego Rivera - "La gran Tenochtitlán"(1945)
This problematic myth reverberates within chicano visual arts and poetry, not only because of the connection it offers with quintessential forms of Mexican culture but also because of its undeniable appeal as a myth that speaks of multicultural origins, of struggle and resistance to colonial oppression.
Although there have been emerging expressions of a more inclusive understanding of chicano culture in recent years, particularly about the recognition of blackness within chicano artist communities, there are perhaps even more numerous examples of resistance to change in the public and other members within the community have a fixed understanding of the labels we use to name certain identities.
Afro-chicano poet @hoodprofet shares his experience for mitú, resulting in other latinx and chicano community members policing his identity and censuring his use of the term chicano.
This discourse on mestizaje in Mexico has its origins in a long history of oppression and extermination at the hands of colonial powers. However real this forceful combination of cultures may have been, it is important to recognize the origins of the narratives we employ to label ourselves and our own experiences in a way that we may go beyond empty celebrations of diversity. For those of us who have had the privilege to work as educators, the responsibility is multiplied by the influence we have on the formation and solidification of certain precepts about identity, multiculturalism and productivity we aim to instill in future generations.
NotimexTV, "Afodescendientes en la CDMX". https://youtu.be/T7GahrbVtww
Velázquez Gutierrez, María Elisa. "Africanos y afrodescendientes en México: premisas que obstaculizan entender su pasado y presente". Cuicuilco, vol. 18, no. 51. Doi: http://ref.scielo.org/n9mcsw
Velázquez Gutierrez, María Elisa y Gabriela Iturralde Nieto. "Afrodescendientes en México Una historia de silencio y discriminación". CONAPRED, 2012. Doi: https://www.conapred.org.mx/userfiles/files/TestimonioAFRO-INACCSS%281%29.pdf
Mexico Negro Asociación Civil, FB page.
Reconocimiento de la Afrodescendencia en Oaxaca y Guerrero: