Afro-mexicans: a Perennial Struggle for Recognition



In this text, Elis Mendoza reflects on the question of Afro-descendence in the context of Mexico, an often avoided question, or deemed layered on the U.S. racial paradigm. Drawing from the new national census integrating such a cultural and political identity, she describes the narratives and initiatives that embrace Blackness in a country that otherwise construct itself in the opposition of whiteness and indigeneity.

Days before the Covid-19 pandemic hit Mexico, a new census had been taking place throughout the country. Conducted by Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI), the census contained a new official question in its survey: “Taking into account your customs and traditions, do you consider yourself Afro-Mexican, Black, or Afro-descendant?” While the addition of this question marks a watershed moment in the fight of Afro-Mexicans for visibility, it simultaneously sheds light on the complexities of framing the identity of a diaspora that has been diluted, attacked, negated, and erased from Mexican history. For many Afro-descendants, the question of self-identification has come only as a product of careful deconstructing their history, heritage, and place in the world. For many others, when looking at themselves in the mirror, the reflection only produces the image of an Other whose origin cannot be traced or even discussed. How can one respond to this question and recognize oneself as an Afro-descendant when the narrative of the whole country has in part rested in the impossibility of one’s own existence?

Mendoza Funambulist 1
The Afro-Mexican community of Alto Tío Diego in the state of Veracruz, celebrating one of its traditional festivals. / Photo by Hectorad Quintanar (2020).

The fight for recognition of the African diaspora in Mexico has had a convoluted and fragmented path with many historical moments as politicians, activists, and scholars have managed to make dents into official narratives. In 1946, Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán published La Población Negra en México: Estudio Etnohistórico (Black Population in Mexico: An Ethno-Historic Study). In this study, he sets out to demonstrate the existence of a Black population in Mexico that dated back to the conquest and argued that most of southern Mexico’s population were Afro-descendants. In his book, Aguirre travels to Costa Chica, a territory mostly isolated until the 1960s, to study the Black communities supposedly founded by freed slaves. Although Aguirre opened up the new field of Afro-Mexican studies, by coining the term Afro-mestizo, he argued that most of the African population had successfully integrated with indigenous communities, resulting in the absorption of most cultural or physical traces. According to Aguirre, the towns of Costa Chica were proof that Afro-Mexican villages were declining and on the verge of extinction. With this work, he subscribed to the idea of mestizaje as the foundat
onal myth of Mexican national identity that established Mexicans as the product of a racial mixture, usually referring to “two roots”: the European and the Indigenous. Mestizaje acted in three levels in this construction. First, by placing indigenous populations in a perpetual past that could be admired acting as a source of pride; second, by attempting to integrate most of the caste system into a single mass; third, by eliminating difference, not only in the origins of Mexican populations, but also of future immigrants.