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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Rev. Glyn Jemmott is a Trinidadian-born Roman Catholic priest who has lived and worked in the Costa Chica since 1985. A key founder of México Negro, his intellectual interests include what’s shared and what’s different across the African Diaspora.

Jemmott thinks that for African descendants everywhere, aspects of religious belief and practice were “the last refuge” for people obliged to give up so much of what they had. As such, he notes that African belief systems were intensely local, as seen in ancestor worship or the god in that river right there. He sees that legacy in the Costa Chica.

For example, there is centuries-old special devotion among Afro-Mexicans to the 17th century Portuguese saint Gonzalo, whose mother was born in the Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa. Even if he most often is depicted as white, and the detail of his birth is lost to popular memory.

There’s an image of San Gonzalo said to have been found with divine guidance enshrined in an imposing chapel in tiny Rancho Nuevo, Oaxaca, built with contributions from up and down the Costa Chica. Miracles are attributed to the image, and there’s a posted schedule of which towns and communities, mostly Afro-Mexican, will take it in procession for a veneration visit over the coming month. The black custodian of the church, Ernestina Arellanes de la Rosa, 76, is an esteemed personage.

Something similar may be observable in the village of Maldonado, Guerrero, where there’s another so-called “miraculous image” known as the Christ of Maldonado. Isaora Peñaloza Bernal, who appears to be in her 70s, also holds a special place as the custodian of that scruffier chapel.

She said she was told that when she was a very small child, her mother walked to a well in the countryside to fetch water and left a round of wood in the well to soften to make a water container. In her sleep that night, a voice told her to go to the well and look for an image of Christ. She went to the well and turned over the wood. She found a gourd with an image of a rather black crucified Jesus on the shell. Her mother died within days.

She told the story as she stood beside the altar where that image venerated by many Afro-Mexicans is ensconced at the pinnacle.

Anthropologically, Jemmott sees both as examples of how African descendants in the Costa Chica found a way within the hierarchical Catholic church to make their religion local.

Some other traditions have become more nearly cultural relics.

When Magallón got married in 1952, about a dozen men in San Nicolás carted an artesa to the party, as was then all but universal. It’s a resonant, long-but-not-so-wide and very heavy box carved from the trunk of a dense tropical tree, usually with the head of a horse or bull sculpted into one end. And as a few musicians beat drums and played other instruments of African origin, she climbed atop it to do the stomping dance then traditional at weddings and other major celebrations.