Cimarronaje cultural: towards a counter-cartography of blackness and belonging in Mexico.

Author:Weltman-Cisneros, Talia

Place, one might add, is the location of a multiplicity of forms of cultural politics, that is of the cultural-becoming-political.

--Arturo Escobar


In his essay on the alternative constructions of place by Black social movements and communities in the Pacific rainforest region of Colombia, the anthropologist Arturo Escobar delineates the roles of strategies of localization in place-based consciousness. In particular, he suggests that the construction of place "is central to issues of development, culture, and the environment, and is equally essential for imagining other contexts for thinking about the construction of politics, knowledge and identity" (155). He further proposes that it is important to intervene in discussions and analyses of place in order to connect them with the political strategies of social movements who are attempting to counter the placeless-ness that has marked their identity and existence.

This paper links with Escobar's intervention by examining the constructions of place by artists and social activists within Afro-Mexican communities in the Costa Chica region in southern Mexico. In particular, it focuses on the role of cultural production as a political tool in reconstructing place-based consciousness and in re-articulating Black identity in Mexico.

In addition, in the sense of the "cultural-becoming-political," I demonstrate how local Afro-Mexican artists, social activists, and cultural collectives are utilizing particular strategies of localization, which appropriate culture as a disclosive space that produces and disseminates knowledge about who they are and how they live. Moreover, I discuss how they are utilizing an alternative discourse of cimarronaje (maroonage) as a place-making narrative that counteracts the condition of invisibility that has contributed to a segregated relationship between blackness and mexicanidad (Mexican-ness). As such, with a general theoretical compass that presents an interrogation of the geo-politics and bio-politics of space, place, and identity formations in Mexico, I analyze and question strategies of location and dislocation that are linked to national, regional, and local politics of identity, representation, and knowledge production.

Understanding Cimarronaje Cultural as a Counter-Cartography and Place-Making Narrative

The maroon narrative has long been a central literary trope and historical marker used to delineate European and non-European imaginaries and boundaries of space, place, being, and belonging. For example, colonial literature and travel accounts employed this narrative in order to characterize the separate boundaries between the tempest tossed encounters of European explorers with other primitive and exotic peoples and lands. It was the European maroon, once shipwrecked and displaced to unknown spaces, who would arise as a hero and subjugate barbaric peoples and lands.

Later, the narrative was employed by Europeans as a signifier of the untamed and unruly, escaped enslaved person: the maroon who had fled to hidden spaces and defied the "civilizing" missions of their master. Here again, geographic displacement, now linked to the rebellious, non-European other, served to segregate the spatial and ontological boundaries between the European and non-European. Through a postcolonial lens, historians and literary theorists have critiqued the binaries forged by these two maroon narratives, both of which were produced by Europeans. Whether they were used to exalt the lost explorer, or criminalize and isolate the escaped enslaved person, scholars have understood these European-produced, maroon narratives as tools of colonial expansion over and subjugation of non-European others who thus became place-less in their space of existence.

More recently, however, twentieth-century authors and scholars have re-appropriated this narrative as a marker of resistance and survival, especially when produced by non-European entities (James, 2). For example, often employed by non-European artists, intellectuals, and authors in the Caribbean, this narrative has transformed the isolated and criminalized maroon into a figure whose flight and displacement have become symbolic of warriorhood, endurance, and a search for self-determination. That is, this alternative maroon narrative has become a signifier of "resilience, survival, resourcefulness, and innovation " (8). And, as a result, it is a narrative that has served as a tool with which to re-map the boundaries of identity, imbuing a sense of place to constructions of knowledge and being that have often been framed as place-less.

It is within this framework of maroonage or cimarronaje as a counter-cartography place, of knowledge, and of being, that I examine contemporary cultural production in Afro-Mexican communities. Specifically, I explore how the areas of visual arts and radio engage the maroon narrative as a "cultural-becoming-political" strategy of location and representation, hence a counter-cartography of place and being. Following the anti-communist revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe during the early 1990's, Jacques Derrida envisioned counter-cartographies of Europe, or decolonial transformations or reshapings of the borders of Europe. He called for the possibility of new "spiritual geographies" that would result in a Europe heading in new directions accompanied by changing goals. In this paper I extend this notion of counter-cartographies or decolonial transformations to Mexico in order to understand how cultural projects contest dominant and hegemonic boundaries of identity, belonging, representation, and knowledge production and dissemination. Moreover, I apply the Derridian concept of counter-cartography to Afro-Mexican projects that are attempting to articulate, contest and re-draw hybrid networks of identity formation and representation.

More specifically, I examine projects that envision and incorporate this notion of counter-cartography through a contemporary, alternative maroon narrative: cimarronaje cultural or cultural maroonage. Defined by Cynthia James as an "artistic mission of resistance," this narrative stakes its distinction on "writing against the grain of the European tradition and depiction [of identity]" (9). While James applies this to Caribbean creations of cultural maroonage, here I apply a similar notion to Afro-Mexican-produced projects that not only speak against hegemonic constructions and representations of Mexicans of African descent, but also, specifically envision counter-cartographies of the relationship between blackness and mexicanidad (I define mexicanidad as Mexican national and cultural consciousness). It is this particular relationship, an "uneasy tension," between blackness and mexicanidad that is important to elucidate in this paper (Vaughn, 49). Blackness has been historically and culturally marooned elsewhere, beyond the geo- and bio-graphic borders of mexicanidad. However, through the projects analyzed in this paper, we are able to understand and theorize how the discourse of cimarronaje cultural is being deployed as a local, national, and global place-making narrative and cartographic tool that serves as a decolonial project of knowledge and being, and as strategy of re-existence, relocation, resilience, and innovation.

Blackness Mapped Beyond the Borders of Mexicanidad

In order to best understand the significance and contribution of these projects in the Costa Chica and their appropriation of the discourse of cimarronaje cultural as a place-making narrative, first it...

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