As many of you know, Hispanic Heritage Month takes place from September 15 through October 15. What we often don’t realize is that the notion of Hispanic heritage is complex. The notion spans countries, cultures, languages, and ethnicities. Yet many times we reduce this complexity to a standard albeit important narrative. In the United States, for instance, many might think of Cesar Chávez and the Braceros movement, or of Zapata Villa and the Mexican Revolution.
These important figures represent only a small fraction of Hispanic heritage. If we only rely on their stories to teach our students, then we risk overlooking the richness and complexity of Hispanic culture and history.
Last month, CNN Mexico’s reporter José Roberto Cisneros Duarte focused on those lesser-known aspects with an intriguing report on one of Mexico’s most forgotten and ignored cultural communities: Afromexicanos. A deeper look into Mexican history reveals that, in fact, some of Mexico’s earliest national heroes were afromexicanos!
Duarte focuses on how today’s young afromexicanos are trying to raise awareness about their own history – to, in effect, counter the generalizations many people in the United States (and in Mexico) – have about Mexican culture.
Among those profiled by Duarte were students and youths who have jump-started grassroots community movements with the common objective of raising national awareness. One of their greatest obstacles in rejuvenating the cultural presence and appreciation of afromexicano communities on the national stage is battling against a 100-year-old image of Mexicans as “the bronze race” made up of two elements: Spanish and indigenous. This “cosmic race” was envisioned and promoted by José Vasconcelos, one of Mexico’s most important intellectuals and post-revolutionary reformers. Ironically, despite the entrenched cultural hurdles that have undoubtedly resulted from many of Vasconcelos’ beliefs and writings, he is still widely regarded as a national hero and champion of the battle for social equality.
One of those interviewed by Duarte in his CNN report mentioned that today the legacy of the Vasconcelos-era policies is evident in Mexican government, where afromexicanos are by far the most under-represented ethnic group. But that was not always the case. In fact, another one of Mexico’s great national heroes and the second president of Mexico, Vicente Guerrero, was afromexicano! Guerrero’s mother was an African slave and his father a mestizo. Jose Morelos, another national hero of the War of Independence, was also of part African descent. It is important to note that Benito Juárez, Mexico’s first indigenous president, would not come into office until the 1850s, which means Mexico had an afromexicano president before it had an indigenous one.
The term afromexicano is relatively modern, and it is now the politically correct way to refer to Mexicans with African roots. The term afromexicano not only encompasses those Mexicans descended from Caribbean countries in recent decades, but also Mexicans who are descended from slaves. Even today you might still hear some people in Mexico use the antiquated term, afromestizo. This term came to popularity during the early colonial era in order to identify those partly descended from African slaves that were imported into Mexico as early as the late 16th century.
The history of slavery in Mexico is a subject that has been largely ignored by researchers of the African diaspora in Latin America, in part because the importation of African slaves in Mexico was carried out on a smaller scale and over a shorter period of time relative to other colonies in the region, such as Brazil, Cuba and the island of Hispaniola. Nevertheless, Duarte reports that over 400,000 Mexicans claim African descent and today there are many towns on the coast of Guerrero (named after the afromexicano president) and Oaxaca that proudly display their afromexicano culture during annual events.
Even as it’s evident that afromexicano culture is lesser known, a brief exploration of it reveals a rich complexity. In case you’re interested in exploring this topic as part of Hispanic Heritage Month, we found a few other informative resources for you. The one that really stood out is Hip Deep, a website for contemporary African cultures, arts, and music. They’ve published a great overview of African history in Mexico. We’ve pieced apart their resources below for easy reference:
- We recommend starting with an interview with historian Ben Vinson, whom the UNM Latin American & Iberian Institute (our home office) proudly hosted in 2011 as part of a conference on “Africans and Their Descendants” in Latin America. All bias aside, Vinson is one of those rare scholars who manages to make complex histories accessible to everyone.
- An Afro-Mexico Tumbler page offers a casual look at contemporary Afro-Mexico culture
- A Spotify playlist provides an overview of African-influenced Mexican music.
- A series of blog posts take on topics like “Introducing Afro-Mexico, “ The Chilena,” “Cumbia, Costa Chica Style,” and “Don Delio, Original Jarocho.”
My name is Jake Sandler. I am currently studying anthropology here at the University of New Mexico. I’m excited for this year’s World Wide Web section of the blog. Look for my posts on a plethora of topics from around the web every Friday. Thanks for reading and have a wonderful weekend!!
Image: Vicente Guerrero. Reprinted from Toltecayotl