Mexico's Hidden Black History

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The black history of the Americas goes well beyond the borders of the United States or the shores of Caribbean islands. In the following article from our archives, and the slide show below, see just how far that history reaches. There's also more about the black history of Latin America here.

SAN NICOLÁS TOLENTINO, MEXICO—There's a part of the African Diaspora here on Mexico's southern Pacific coast in the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca that many African Americans—and even other Mexicans—don't know exists.


Along the 300-mile, narrow coastal plain from Acapulco in Guerrero east-by-southeast to the beach town of Huatulco in Oaxaca known as the Costa Chica, there are more than 200 communities where many people have black African ancestry, with varying degrees of obviousness and self-recognition.

Consider the case of dark-skinned Idilo Evitélio Domínguez, 74, who posed proudly in front of a gallery of family photos in his living room in Santo Domingo Armenta, east of here. In an enlarged photo, his mother looks quite African, his father more indigenous. The studio photo of a whiter-looking couple to one side in fact is of Domínguez and his medium-brown-skinned wife as a young married couple. Such retouching once was common.


Even today, the sense of racial pride is not always easily understood by outsiders. Domínguez said he tried living in Acapulco and Mexico City, but always came home. There, he was black, he said. Here, he was just a man.

Just how many sons and daughters of Africa live here is a complex, subtle and even very Mexican question, only in part because the Mexican census doesn't ask the question. Between Acapulco and Puerto Escondido, where those communities are concentrated, 35 to 40 percent of people probably are Afro-Mexican, according to a local expert, with varying degrees of nearer or farther indigenous ancestry. Using Mexican population estimates, that's upwards of 200,000 folk.


"Some of us got off the boat in Mobile, some in Port-au-Prince in Haiti or Kingston in Jamaica, some in Salvador do Bahía in Brazil or Cartagena in Colombia, and we've kept going in different directions from there," said Rev. Glyn Jemmott, 64, a Trinidadian-born Roman Catholic priest who has lived and worked in the Costa Chica since 1985.

Among the Costa Chica's significantly Afro-Mexican communities, this town of maybe 3,000 is a bit bigger than the average. By a credible estimate, about four out of five people here who are negro (black, in Spanish) or moreno (brown) live in towns or communities with 2,500 residents or fewer. The economy is mainly agricultural.


Calling yourself moreno in these parts can have more to do with trying to avoid negative stereotypes that at least some in the Mexican mestizo majority have of blacks than, say, your African-American grandmother or great-grandmother having said she was "colored."

So it may be no surprise that attention to la Tercera Raíz—the Third Root, Africa, with the indigenous seen as the First Root and the Spanish as the Second Root of Mexico—is a recent and spotty phenomenon. Official government recognition came in 1992.  


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.

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.

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