Mexico's Hidden Black History

Welcome to the Mexico that you don't know. The slaveship express made stops all over the Americas—including the Estados Unidos Mexicanos.

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Most Afro-Mexicans in the Costa Chica are descended from people imported in the 16th to 18th centuries as slaves, illegally to avoid Spanish taxes in the ports on the Gulf of Mexico, often to work the cattle ranches of the conquerors. The diseases of the Spanish and their animals had decimated the native populations.

Many were brought from the Caribbean, while others were escaped slaves (cimarrones) recaptured in places as distant as Peru and Colombia. Still, others were brought directly from Africa, across the Isthmus of Panama. Some gained freedom by coming from Spain or the Caribbean as soldiers, others through a non-black parent.

An indeterminate number escaped into isolation and freedom in this corner of New Spain, the ancestral region of Mixtec and Amusgo Indians. They are among the indigenous groups with whom many have intermarried from the colonial period until today, in this country that freed the slaves between 1824 and 1829.

Majority Mexicans are inclined to believe that the African slaves in Mexico either died off or were absorbed into the population during the colonial era; their music, they believe is the main survivor. Still, Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán, the pioneering anthropologist of black Mexico, calculated that the country's free black population in 1810 was about 624,000, or 10 percent. Estimates of Afro-Mexicans today range from 2 or 3 percent of Mexico's roughly 107 million people on the low end to 8 or 10 percent on the high end.

A 2002 genetic sampling found a diverse range of chromosomes with geographically identifiable origins in nine mostly Afro-Mexican Costa Chica communities. Far more were traceable to Benin and what is now the Central African Republic than is typical in Atlantic regions of this hemisphere. About two-thirds of the CAR, in Africa's geographical center, is in the basin of the Ubangi, a main tributary of the Congo River. And the thatched-roof houses, or redondos, once ubiquitous in the Costa Chica are evocative of traditional villages in Ghana and the Ivory Coast.

 

When Julia Magallón was born here in San Nicolás 72 years ago, there were only dirt paths to bigger towns. There was no school, no electricity, no telephones, no piped water.

"We used to take all day to walk to Ometepec," then the nearest big town, 44 miles northwest, she said in Spanish. "We left at six in the morning, and got there at five or six in the afternoon."

Afro-Mexicans notice that most in their community are poor, but as in Brazil, they don't necessarily connect that to their blackness. Almost half of Mexicans are impoverished, and rural development can still be sketchy. While the poorest tend to be blacker, browner, more indigenous, all whiter Mexicans aren't hostile toward them, either. The fabric of social life in these communities doesn't seem characterized by anything like the degree of racial tension or separation to be found in the United States.

Some ethnologists say that calling many Costa Chicans "black" is the way outsiders see them, not how they view themselves. One 2000 study argued that many Afro-Mexicans identify themselves as moreno to connect themselves with the Indian part of their heritage and thus more widely accepted views of what makes you Mexican. By contrast, mestizo is the word most often used for the Mexican majority with European and indigenous ancestors who don't identify as indigenous.

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