Mexico's Hidden Black History, Part Two

There are traces of Mother Africa all along Mexico's Pacific Coast. You just have to know where to look.

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CUAJICUINILAPA, MEXICO--So what evidence of Mother Africa survived in the Costa Chica on the Pacific coast of the Mexican states of Guerrero and Oaxaca, where probably more than one-third of people have at least some African origins?

Physically, the range of appearance is much like the gamut among African Americans, with a Mexican flavor. A good number of people look quite African, a few like quite light-skinned mestizos (mixed) with more European and indigenous ancestry. And there's every variation in-between. They may or may not consider themselves black.

Gerardo Carranza, 25, is studying municipal administration in a university in this Costa Chica market town about 120 miles east-by-southeast of Acapulco in Guerrero. Active in the civic group México Negro (Black Mexico), he might be mistaken as mestizo. Even by an eagle-eyed African American who didn't look closely enough at his nose.

"My father is Tlapaneco Indian," Carranza said, "and my mother is black. But nobody would have any doubt I'm black. It's a whole lot of things. It's the way I talk. It's the way I dance."

"Black" manifests in other ways here, from religion to music to the way that families care for each other. When she was 18 months old, Julia Magallón's mother died. Magallón, now 72, was reared by her grandmother and her grandmother's brothers and sisters and their wives and husbands in San Nicolás, Guerrero. Child-rearing by one or more persons in the extended family with a sense of kinship--by blood or choice--remains common. As it does among Africans and African descendants everywhere.

For many years, her oldest son, Filemón Marín Magallón, 53, was somewhere between those two kinds of certainties. His mother is black; his father was more Indian. He looks like both. He said he had "a complex" when he was younger.

"When I went to junior high school in Ometepec, other kids called me 'negro' in a way that hurt," Marín said. "I was 28 before I became proud of being black."

A part-time Pentecostalist minister, Marín said he found confidence through religion and books he found in the library next to the small Museo de afro-mestizaje, 15 miles from San Nicolás in Cuajinicuilapa, said to be Mexico's first and only.

These days, more Afro-Mexicans and speakers of indigenous languages are drawn to mainline Protestant denominations and evangelical/Pentecostalist Christianity than are the mestizo majority. Anthropologists say that at some level, choosing a different church is one way to break out of external definitions of who you are in a country where 90 percent are Roman Catholic.

But the vast majority of Afro-Mexicans remain Roman Catholic.

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