No Longer Invisible: African-descendants in Mexico
The Woodrow Wilson Center's Mexico Institute
Inter-Agency Consultation on Race in Latin America
Bobby Vaughn, Notre Dame de Namur University
Sagrario Cruz-Carretero, Universidad Veracruzana
Comments by Jonathan Fox, Woodrow Wilson Center Fellow
On May 11, 2005, the Mexico Institute, Inter-American Foundation, and Inter-Agency Task Force on Race in Latin America held a seminar examining the historical experiences and current conditions of Mexicans of African descent. Two presenters highlighted the fact that the African-descendant populations in Mexico are often overlooked and highly marginalized. Their remarks focused on the current conditions and status of Afro-Mexicans in today's society.
Bobby Vaughn argued that Mexicans of African descent are almost invisible in Mexican society. There are barriers to recognizing blacks as a cultural group, even in states with large African populations such as Guerrero, Veracruz and Oaxaca. Blackness is seen as a physical trait but not a cultural group the way indigenous peoples are recognized. Social movements in the Costa Chica region have only recently begun to potentially use race as a positive identity, especially an organization known as México Negro (Black Mexico). He emphasized the need to create and build grassroots movements in order to begin making a difference within communities, particularly black communities. Both social processes and the government actions play a role in the invisibility of black identity. Vaughn noted that the Mexican government does not have the political will to deal with race in the same way it deals with indigenous ethnicity. While there are government agencies and programs set up to respond to indigenous peoples, there are no such agencies or programs for Afro-Mexicans. He underlined that Afro-Mexicans do not only want to create awareness of their difference or engage in race-based organizing, rather they want to address real material needs in the Costa Chica region and other parts of the country. People are concerned about their children's education, access to healthcare, and economic challenges. These are burdens shared by all citizens and not just Afro-Mexicans, Vaughn concluded, but often aggravated by discrimination.
Sagrario Cruz-Carretero agreed that there is a refusal and even a rejection to be considered black in Mexico. In academic terms, there is also a reluctance to recognize contemporary research about Afro-Mexicans even though Mexican society is extremely heterogeneous. She argued that it is important to talk about the black identity in Mexico, since many Afro-Mexicans live in difficult conditions as do many indigenous groups. To this day, there is blatant discrimination, intolerance and bias towards Afro-Mexicans. She recounted stories of Afro-Mexicans leaving their communities to live in Mexico City, only to be shocked to find themselves in a worse situation than that which they had left. She also described the increasing number of Afro-Mexican migrants to the United States and the dynamics it is creating in Hispanic communities. Although the dynamics vary from community to community, she finds that in general there are major tensions with other ethnic minorities, including both Latinos and African-Americans. She asserted that these waves of migration are only going to increase, creating a new tradition of identity.
According to Jonathan Fox, the Mexican census systematically underestimates the number of Afro-Mexicans since race is not accounted for, only indigenous ethnicity (and that only on the basis of language until recently limited to those five years and older). He noted that indigenous identity in contemporary Mexico had only become a badge of pride in recent years, since the Zapatista uprising. He noted that local governments had become a key institutional space that had been appropriated by indigenous groups and wondered whether Afro-Mexican groups were doing the same thing. Challenges continue to remain along the coast, particularly in democratizing local governments in the face of ongoing repression of local civic leaders. He noted that it was important to untangle the ways that institution-building and ethnic identity could be mutually reinforcing.