Thanks to the U.S. education system and the Mexican concept of the faceless raza cósmica, there are whole branches of Mexico’s racial and ethnic history that are shrouded by a chronic lack of awareness in the general consciousness, both in Mexico and the United States. Among these, the heavy “Third Root” of Africa in the kaleidoscopic brew that is Mexican racial heritage has been the most shunned and ignored.
Which doesn’t make any sense if you look at the average Mexican family. Each one that I’ve known, mine included, has at least one negro or moreno thrown into the mix, a relative who bears the unmistakable features of African ancestry. And by the looks of history, the absence of Africa and African-ness in the concept of what it means to be Mexican is especially troublesome. Spain imported African slaves to the New World as liberally as the British did, but the first community of free blacks was established in what is now the Mexican state of Veracruz in the early 1600s — more than 200 years before the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States. Mexico was briefly ruled by an Afromestizo president in 1829, Vicente Guerrero, who made it a point to abolish slavery. In his book African Mexicans and the Discourse on Modern Nation, historian Marco Polo Hernández Cuevas discusses the inadequacy of assumptions on Mexican racial heritage: “It should be clear, particularly in the light of new readings of history, that a considerable part of Mexican mestizos [the majority of the population], even many whose appearance would make one believe otherwise, possess black African genes.”
And yet look at today: U.S. blacks marching against illegal immigration, Mexican gangs killing blacks on the streets of L.A., and African-Americans and Mexican-Americans in petty battles over small-time politics and social-service scraps. The situation is no better in Mexico, where black Mexicans consistently occupy the bottom rung of Mexican society, and are nearly invisible in pop media — except, of course, as crude caricature. Aware of this unfortunate climate in so-called black-Latino relations, photographer Ayana Vellissia Jackson and writer Marco Villalobos in 2002 began documenting the rural Afromestizo communities in Veracruz, Guerrero and Oaxaca. Their work culminated in the exhibit “African by Legacy, Mexican by Birth,” on view until August 10 at Galería Mijares, a modest new arts space at Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights.
The exhibit, curated by Armando Durón, consists primarily of photographs by Jackson, a graduate of Spelman College who terms herself as a “U.S. African-American,” and fictional letters from the long-ago free-black town of Yanga written by Villalobos, who is Mexican-American and from the Sacramento area. The artists also collaborated on two videos featured in the exhibit. It is a small but worthwhile offering that sheds light on a segment of Mexican life that has existed on the fringes for more than 400 years.
Blacks, whites, Indians and Asians in Mexico mixed freely since the country’s inception, yet in many ways the ignorance generated by the rigid colonial caste system remains in place, as Villalobos and Jackson discovered when they attempted to discuss their work in Mexico City. “Mexicans themselves are surprised when they see the photographs or when they hear about the work Marco and I have done. So there’s little to no consciousness,” Jackson says. “That’s primarily what is important to me about this exhibition as far as Mexico is concerned, and that is bringing Africa back into the conversation.”
Within the black Mexican community itself, a generational divide exists on how some conceptualize their ancestry, Villalobos says. “The older black folks would say, ‘Somos mexicanos, hasta el hueso.’ [We’re Mexican, to the bone.] And then there’d be younger kids who would say, ‘Yo soy Afromexicano.’ They’re more assertive about it, and a lot more celebratory, recognizing how Afromestizo culture is distinct,” he says.
There are other signs that this is happening on a broader scale. In April, Mexico City celebrated Africa Week. Along with a film festival, a massive map of the black continent was displayed directly on the floor of the sprawling Zócalo square, a space many regard as the physical and spiritual core of the Mexican soul.
African by Legacy, Mexican by Birth | Galería Mijares, 1711 Mariachi Plaza de Los Angeles, Boyle Heights | (323) 264-7111 | Through August 10