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.
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.
Since the 19th century, a style of music known as son de artesa (artesa sound) has evolved in the Costa Chica, distinguished by rhythms of African origin and adapted versions of African drums and other percussive instruments. Like some other styles of hemispheric music with strong African influence, including salsa and samba, the music is widely known in Mexico and to a degree in Latin America. Many bands in the Costa Chica play it or show its influence in their repertoire.
And in some Costa Chica communities, the Day of the Dead on Nov. 2—that quintessentially Mexican commemoration in which pre-Hispanic observance blends with Roman Catholic practice—also meets Africa in the Danza de los diablos, or Dance of the Devils. In it, male dancers in African-influenced masks and costumes move from house to house with African-inspired movements to music of African origin.
According to legend, a slave named Rufo, who was to have been a king in his native Africa, launched the tradition. Declaring, "Worship me as a god like the white people do theirs," he danced to acclaim during a spontaneous party by visiting slaves obliged to remain outside by a Spanish colonial landowner.
It's worth remembering that this is Mexico, not the United States, and the specific history of the role that race has played is different. Relatively recently, even the awakening of black consciousness and pride that swept the United States and the Afro-Caribbean mostly missed this corner of the African Diaspora.
As Jemmott said, "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."
See a gallery of photos on Costa Chica taken by Morris Thompson here.
For more information about Black Mexico:
There are Afro-Mexican artists whose work reflects the people of their milieu or classic African styles. Some of that is to be seen in the exhibition "The African Presence in Mexico." It is at the Anacostia Museum in Washington, D.C., until July 4 and is scheduled to conclude its U.S. tour at the DuSable African American Museum in Chicago this fall.
Morris Thompson has been based in Mexico for 15 of the past 26 years.