Afro-Mexicans Exist, So We Must Stop Referring to Mexico As A “Mestizo” Nation

La Bamba, a tune made popular by 1950s Chicano rocker, the late Ritchie Valens, is one of the most beloved songs to emerge from Mexican folk culture. As one of rock n’ roll’s best known melodies, Rolling Stone referred to it as “one of the five hundred greatest songs of all time.” While Valens transformed the beloved folk song into a world-wide phenomenon, the origins of the ballad are a fascinating testament to Mexico’s overlooked connection to the African diaspora, and its shaping of the country’s social and political history. Originating in Veracruz, Mexico, it was first sung by enslaved Africans who derived from the Bamba or Mbamba ethnic groups in Angola, referencing the Bambarria Uprising on Mexico’s coast; it was the descendants of enslaved Africans who would create the musical style of son jarocho, which Valens transformed into a rock hit. Despite the profound influence of Afro-Mexicans in this Central American country, there is adamant denial of the African presence influencing the Mexican definition of ethnic nationhood.

The national Mexican identity of mestizaje plays a role in the erasure of African people’s contributions to Mexican food, music, dance, and religious customs. In 1640, colonial Mexico (New Spain) contained the second largest population of enslaved Africans and the greatest number of freed Africans in the Western Hemisphere. While the slave trade was abolished in 1829 in Mexico (but granted in Texas), the formerly enslaved population of Africans continued to grow considerably as freed people. Elite Spaniards, appalled at the relations between the African community, Indigenous people, and other Spaniards then instituted the casta-system, which placed mestizo identity as the paragon of ethnic excellence, while configuring African heritage at the lowest rung of the racial hierarchy. Consequently, being of Indigenous and Spanish blood, with the emphasis on Spanish, was what made one “truly Mexican”. This anti-Black cultural ethos dominated Mexican nationalist thought, erasing the country’s prominent African presence. “Latin American historians claim that the ‘discovery’ of their region was an encounter of two worlds, the Indigenous and the Spanish, a notion fully endorsed by Mexican academia,” explains Jameelah Muhammad in Afro-Central Americans: Rediscovering the African Heritage.“While many Mexicans boast about their Spanish relatives, rarely one will admit to having a Black grandparent.”

Since country’s beginning, Blackness shaped the very fabric of Mexico. From President Vincente Guerrero (of Indigenous and African heritage), ex-slave Gaspar Yanga who established a maroon community (whom Veracruz celebrates with a Carnival de Negritude festival), the revolutionary participation of Afro-Mexican solderderas (female revolutionaries), the La Danza de los Diablos processions on the Day of the Dead (similar to West African egungun dances), the African influence on Mexican Spanish, son jarocho and Toña la Negra, Black Mexicans shaped nation’s identity in a myriad of spheres. In towns such as Yanga and Cuajinicuilapa, Afrodescendientes proudly celebrate their African heritage, passionate about keeping their cultural traditions (which many Indigenous groups in the region adopted) alive. “The current number of Afro-Mexicans is not known,” Muhammad continues. “However, Miriam Jimenez Roman, from New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, estimates that 75 per cent of the population of Mexico has some African ancestry due to the pervasiveness and the extension of the African throughout Mexico.”

These particular African celebrations are continually erased from the dominant conversation of Mexican nationality. While the Mexican Indigenous and African communities socially intermingled, lived in the same towns, and shared cultural exchanges, the Indigenous community is exoticized in the nation’s cultural past, though both groups are politically and socially disenfranchised. B. Christine Acre, writes in Mexico’s Nobodies, “Afro-Mexicans have been dismissed as culturally irrelevant, if considered at all despite the bourgeoining historiography recuperating their contributions to Mexican culture. Indians, on the other hand, have been romantically included in their metonymic capacity as exotic icons of the past. They are relevant as small parts of a mestizo whole in which their infantilized ‘noble passivity’ constitutes the acceptable part of a ‘cosmic race’ that celebrates Indian history only in its glorious antiquity.”

It wasn’t until an uprising led by the Zapatista Liberation Army in 1994 that the mestizo elite was challenged by the Indigenous community in Mexico — a lead that the Afro-Mexican community followed. On Coasta Chica, the Afrodescendiente community in Oaxaca and Guerrero also began organizing politically, fighting for constitutional recognition. Before this time, there was little political activity among African communities, community resources for communities were drained. “Historically, Mexicans of African descent were considered the most undesirable group with which to miscegenate; African features were spoken of as ‘abominable’. Many Afro-Mexicans tried to ‘pass’ the color line into the European group if possible, or into the indigenous group. During the late colonial period, people of indigenous or African descent were allowed to buy the title of blanco (white),” adds Muhammad. In 2015, Afro-Mexicans were finally recognized in a national survey, a preliminary count before the 2020 national census, where Black Mexicans will be able to mark their heritage, a step to addressing impoverishment, lack of adequate health care, and access to resources.

We must honor the African legacy, present and future in Mexico by having an honest discussion about the extent of Spanish colonialism’s erasure and how to appropriately dismantle it. Just as we embrace the presence of Indigenous people prior to the conquistadors, we must reject the notion of nationhood around a mestizo identity in order to embrace Afrolatinidad. To support a nationhood that is founded on mestizaje is to actively participate in white supremacy and its erasure of Mexican Blackness.