Call them morenos: Blackness in Mexico and across the border as perceived by Mexican migrants.

Author:De La Torre, Maria E.
Position:Essay
 
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This essay will explore various ways in which Mexican migrants in the United States imagine and experience Blackness. Despite the centrality of the Afro-Mexican experience in the history of Mexico, racial discourse has invisibilized the Afro-Mexican's experience. Because African history and legacy are rarely taught in schools, and almost never represented in the mass media, few of my interviewees knew of the existence of Afro-Mexicans, not to mention of pueblos negros (Black villages) in the Costa Chica and in central Veracruz. This did not mean, however, that they had not encountered Blackness as a racial category in their lives. Interestingly enough, a crucial term in their racial discourse about African Americans and Blackness was that of moreno. While in Mexico the term moreno (designating brown skin) had long become synonymous to mestizo, in the United States it recovered its original connotation as a euphemism for Blacks. Because moreno had specific connotations of sameness in migrants' home country, however, their use of this term to refer to Black Americans triggers interesting ambivalences regarding their definition of self and other across the border.

The data I use in this essay was obtained through ethnographic observations and in-depth interviews that sought to understand the role of race in the Mexican migrant incorporation experience. This fieldwork was done from 2004 to 2006 in a Chicago Mexican neighborhood and also in Racine, Wisconsin. I selected the participants through a snowball sampling method, taking care to interview about the same number of men and women. I contacted these people through my work as a volunteer in a community organization in Chicago and through a Mexican migrant civic association in Racine. I did 30 taped in-depth interviews with individuals of various backgrounds, ages, genders, ethnic and racial ancestries who had lived different lengths of time in the United States. The taped interviews lasted between 2 and 3 hours in length. The migrants came from areas of traditional emigration in Western Mexico, but also from regions in the South and North that are now contributing greater numbers of migrants. Most of these migrants came from rural or small communities, rather than from large metropolitan areas (see Durand, Massey, and Zenteno 2001). Most of the interviewees (all the names are pseudonyms) were in their prime working age (18-40 years), from working class backgrounds, and held low paying jobs.

After a brief detour into the history of Afro-Mexicans, I highlight the place of Blackness in mestizaje discourse, and then I explore the meanings of Blackness as experienced and imagined by Mexican migrants while living in Mexico, and later, regarding their encounters with African Americans in the United States.

History and Presence of Blacks in Mexico

In contemporary Mexico the history and the presence of Black Mexicans (1) is little known. Communities of significant populations of visibly partial African descendants exist in two regions of Mexico, one is known as the Costa Chica in the coastal areas of the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca facing the Pacific Ocean in southern Mexico and the other communities are in the central region of the state of Veracruz, in the Gulf of Mexico (Cruz-Carretero 2006; Lewis 2000; Vaughn 2005). (2) The ancestors of these Afro-Mexican populations date back mostly from the enslavement of people from Africa to New Spain, as Mexico was called under Spanish colonial domination, from 1521 to 1821. Historical research has documented that after the Spanish conquest, the drastic demographic decline of the indigenous population, estimated at 27,650,000 in 1519 to a mere 1,075,000 Indians in 1605 as a result of a series of epidemics, which led the colonists to adopt various measures to deal with the labor shortage, one included the importation of enslaved Africans (Palmer 1976: 2). Thereafter, the importation of the enslaved responded more to the expansion of the colonial economy and the consequent need for additional labor.

There seems no exact figure, but it is estimated that by the time slavery was abolished, in 1829, around 200,000 to 250,000 African-born enslaved persons had worked in New Spain (Aguirre Beltran 1958: 8; Palmer 1976: 3). (3) These early Afro-Mexicans did not remain concentrated on the coast and the lower regions. As Brady (1965) and Aguirre Beltran (1958) have shown, the African enslaved were dispersed throughout New Spain to fulfill the labor needs of the agricultural, textile, and mining industries and to perform a vast array of occupations in the urban centers:

The Black slave, during the colony, besides being destined to work in the sugar mills and haciendas of the hot lands, was also required to work ... in all those places inland, in the highlands and the sierras, where there were mining operations, as well as in the obrajes [textile workshops] of the big cities. Black influence, in the biological as well as the cultural sense, was not limited to the narrow coastal areas: it was felt over the vital centers of a vast territory. (Aguirre Beltran 1958: 9) [Author's translation]

Africans were present in all regions and economic sectors, but they became less noticeable over time because of the increasing miscegenation that characterized late colonial Mexico. In the case of the Costa Chica and Central Veracruz, however, there were lower concentrations of other racial and ethnic groups for the enslaved Black person enslaved to mix with; thus the appearance was that Blacks inhabited only these areas (Carroll 1995: 407).

While most people of African descent arrived in Mexico in bondage, it would be mistaken to assume that this was the only way they entered the national territory. Indeed, the abolition of slavery in 1829 by Afro-Mexican President Vicente Guerrero prompted many of the U.S. enslaved to escape and cross the border with their southern neighbor. Hence, their numbers grew to about 4,000 during the 1840s and 1850s. The Mexican government welcomed these fugitives with the interest of forming alliances with them in the territorial struggles at the border with the United States and with the hope that these maroons would help Mexicans fight the assaults of Indian raiders (Mulroy 1993: 61-89). As part of these efforts, the federal government gave land along the northern Mexican border (in the state of Coahuila) to many Black settlers. Additional settlements of U.S. Blacks were also allowed in various other cities and towns in Mexico (for instance, in Tlacotalpan, Veracruz) (Schwartz 1975: 39-42). But the fugitive enslaved population was not the only Blacks entering Mexico. At the end of the 1800s, Mexico also allowed the immigration of Caribbean Blacks to work in the construction of the Tehuantepec isthmus and the transoceanic railroad. During these years, thousands of Black Cubans also fled after the war of independence settling in states of southern Mexico such as Yucatan, Veracruz and Oaxaca.

Finally, U.S. Blacks also participated in the Mexican revolution, and in the 1940s some 300 African Americans lived permanently in Mexico City, while others lived in various other smaller cities and towns (Vinson III and Vaughn 2004b: 11-14). Clearly, people of African descent have entered and settled in Mexico continuously over the last centuries, although in smaller numbers than during the trans-Atlantic enslavement period.

Blackness in Mestizaje Discourse

Blacks have played an important role in Mexico's history, but paradoxically, they have not been represented in the country's imagined community. Blackness is almost non-existent in the national discourses of belonging. After independence, in the early nineteenth century the concerns of the new country centered on creating a nation that, while emulating Europe, would integrate and unify the large mestizo and indigenous populations. But it was in the early part of the twentieth century, after the revolution, that the cult of mestizaje bloomed. Reacting to Eurocentric white racism and a concern for social justice, revolutionary politicians and intellectuals promoted a positive valuation of the mestizo. Thus, the product of the racial mixture of Spaniards and indigenous peoples, the mestizo became the symbol of the new nation. In the exaltation of the mestizo, the Indian played a central role. No longer was the latter viewed as a primitive element of the nation, but as a group that needed protection from exploitation and non-coercive integration into the new state. (4) The cult of the mestizo, however, obliterated Blackness. (5) For instance, famous intellectual Jose Vasconcelos ([1925] 2007) theorized the emergence of a new synthetical race as an alternative to theories of White supremacy. But in his description of the cosmic race, he reproduced racist stereotypes that privileged Whiteness. In his view, Blacks were "thirsty of sensual joy, immersed in dances and unbridled lust", while Whites offered their "clear minds ... that resemble their skin and their dreams" (p. 18). (6) Blacks would be erased from discussions of mestizaje, while Whites would remain a somatic ideal of beauty and excellence.

As noted above, people of African ancestry mixed with the much larger Creole and mestizo populations to a point that according to some authors, by the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the process of miscegenation had been complete and Blacks became undistinguishable from mestizos (Carroll 1995; MacLachlan and Rodriguez 1990: 222). (7) The same process of miscegenation, both biological and cultural, is evident in relation to indigenous peoples (Knight 1990:73-74), yet the Indian presence and culture is not considered completely diluted in mestizo Mexico. Certainly, the prominent place of the Indian in the mestizaje narrative is due to their larger share of the population in the history of Mexico, but also to their historical construction as a racial inferior group vis-a-vis...

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