Everyday Resistances to Environmental Racism, Mestizo Geographies, and Toxicity in Oaxaca

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Opportunistically using the comparison with its northern neighbor and engineering a myth of racial mixity, Mexico is seldom perceived as a settler State. Meztli Yoalli Rodríguez Aguilera uses the concept of “Mestizo geographies” to show how ecocidal projects in Oaxaca are targeting Indigenous and Black communities along with the environment on which their daily lives depend.

Rodriguez Aguilera Funambulist 5
Fisherman in Puerto Escondido. / Photo by Julio Ortega (2020).

It wasn’t until 2019 that the Black population was recognized in the federal national constitution of Mexico — this happened only after almost 20 years of activism by Black leaders in the country. In the case of Indigenous peoples in Mexico, even if they were recognized as part of the nation, it was only in terms of cultural rights that were not translated into political, economic, or territorial rights. The historic invisibilization of Black peoples and the folklorization of Indigenous peoples in Mexico arise from deeply rooted anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism that constitutes Mexico’s national mestizaje project. Mestizaje, understood as the mixture of Indigenous and Spanish ancestry, explicitly denies the historical presence of Black peoples in the country and implicitly advances a representation of the nation that associates progress and welfare with whiteness — an ideology known as blanqueamiento (whitening). José Vasconcelos, one of the main architects of this ideology, described in The Cosmic Race (1925) how it was through “sexual attraction” and mixture that white traits would persevere.

Interestingly, Vasconcelos considered himself as trying to oppose the U.S. with the mestizaje ideology, by portraying Latin American nations as not racist and anti-imperialist. The argument was that, since everyone in Mexico was the result of miscegenation, the political concept of race made no sense and racism could not possibly be operent.

Although settler colonialism in Turtle Island (i.e. North America) is usually approached and analysed with a focus on Canada and the United States, Mexico is also a settler colonial State. Since its foundation, the Mexican nation State proclaimed ownership over the land and territory, but it also erased particular histories and existences, especially from Black and Indigenous populations (especifically Chatinos and Mixtecos). In order to analyze this colonial erasure, we can use Lauren Berlant’s concept of slow death and Robert Nixon’s concept of slow violence. As opposed to an ordinary death, Berlant defines slow death as progressive through time and space. In the particular case I engage with, the slow death of a lagoon — a body of water separated from larger bodies of water by natural barriers such as sandbars or coral reefs — in a Black and Indigenous territory on the coast of Oaxaca, Mexico. Slow violence, according to Robert Nixon, refers to the gradual attritional violence that is typically not seen as violence.