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.
Sergio Peñaloza Pérez, 56, the current president of México Negro, a civic association that “tries to unite African descendants throughout Mexico,” sees it differently.
“Many people don’t know who they are, or where they’re going,” he said in Cuajinicuilapa, Guerrero, the market town in this part of the Costa Chica.
“The racial discrimination isn’t as drastic as in the United States, but discrimination against African descendants is common in the world,” he said. “Although they say it doesn’t exist in Mexico, it does. They say that blacks are killers, violent, lazy.
“As a result, many blacks don’t want to say they are, because of 500 years of negativity,” he said. “Many mestizos have the idea that blacks or indigenous people can be security guards or farmers or doormen. But maybe one out of 100 people in higher positions is black or indigenous.”
It’s easy to collect tales of at least casual racism, of hearing other Mexicans talk negatively about blacks or of having to wait around for some type of official document that a mestizo who came in later got right away.
Peñaloza, a college professor of biology, said that three years ago in the central park in Veracruz’s generally refined and cultivated state capital, Jalapa, a whiter Mexican glared at him and remarked loudly, “How is it that they let black people walk here?”
Many Afro-Mexican Costa Chicans say they often get asked where they’re from in places like Mexico City. And when they answer, “Mexico,” they’re asked where their parents are from. Said Peñaloza, “It’s part of our struggle to seek recognition.”
Part Two of Black Mexico will run tomorrow. Check out a gallery of Costa Chica here.
Morris Thompson has been based in Mexico for 15 of the past 26 years.