'I am not the Mulata de Cordoba': the cultural meaning of blackness in nineteenth-century Mexico.

Author:Ramos, Marisela Jimenez

Through complex cultural processes that took over two centuries to play out, La Mulata de Cordoba, with a tenuous basis in an actual historical figure or amalgam of figures, has earned iconic status in contemporary Mexican folklore. La Mulata has captivated the popular imagination and the interest of scholars of literature and history, as well as inspired artists and composers for at least two centuries. Luis Martinez Morales writes that "'La Mulata de Cordoba' is the Mexican legend that has had the most presence in our literature. Its story, like the beauty that is attributed to the character, has seduced, in the span of the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries, more than one Mexican writer." (2)

Appealing to rich and poor alike, hers is not simply a tale about a clever and defiant mulata, a woman of Spanish and African ancestry who stood at the intersection of colonialism and modern nationhood and defied the old world powers that sought to contain her. Indeed, she is extraordinary not only for her trajectory, which can be traced back to the nation-building era of nineteenth century Mexico, but also for the role she continues to play in Mexico's cultural framing as a mestizo nation today.

While the earliest written accounts of La Mulata de Cordoba were published in the early nineteenth century, these texts place her as having lived in the seventeenth century. Lacking any seventeenth-century historical evidence of her actual existence, a few questions beg to be answered: how did an alleged seventeenth-century figure capture the imagination of nineteenth-century Mexicans? More importantly, what role did this mulata figure play in the development of a contested national identity?

La Mulata gained popularity because she served so well as a vehicle for the aspirations of a diverse Mexican population seeking to create a new society. In particular, she became a singular medium for the development and dissemination of Mexico's national racial discourse, playing a critical role in the complex processes that came to define Mexican national identity as "mestizo," exclusive of blackness. Her status as a mulata was a reminder of Mexico's racial past, distinct from a future that would be characterized by the inexorable move away from a multiracial identity to one that focused on mestizaje. Nineteenth century stories place La Mulata's blackness within a mystical space and time that, logically, had to be overcome or transcended in order for Mexico to evolve into its modern self. As described by Eva Allegra Raimon in her book, The "Tragic Mulatta" Revisited: Race and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Antislavery Fiction, La Mulata is "a liminal figure ... well situated to reveal writers'--and therefore the culture's--conflicted visions of national and racial exclusion and belonging." (3)

As one of the few Afro-Mexican figures to have persisted for centuries, this liminal figure between colonial and modern Mexico helped to promote a "negation through omission of the existence of many other cosmovisions in Mexico, [...] cosmovisions such as those of racially mixed people, of the diverse first nations, of the diverse African and Asiatic cultures." (4) Nineteenth-century Mexicans were more than comfortable appropriating La Mulata and thus homogenizing blackness by reducing it to the personification of one mulata. Even as her story recounted Mexico's colonial black presence, it did so as much to isolate, or rarify, that presence as to depict it. (5) An example of this process of "negation through omission" is the curious fact of her missing "name."

In none of the accounts is La Mulata de Cordoba ever attributed with a proper name. Meanwhile, her moniker, which also functions as badge of her African origin or ancestry, takes the place of an actual name. While "mulata," clearly calls attention to a distinct racial background, it also reminded nineteenth-century audiences that Mexico's history of slavery, and the black racial mixture that came with it, was safely contained in the distant past. There was room, and indeed, the need for such a black character, but she served a clear purpose. Through an analysis of La Mulata, we can examine the role that race played in the "contested ideological terrain of interraciality and nationhood." (6) La Mulata's blackness, and blackness in general, lay only in the discourse of this one character that belonged to another era. (7) At the same time, by using the term "Mulata" as a noun, Mexicans have ensured that her blackness cannot be erased from historical memory and one might even say that through her institutionalization and popularization La Mulata has succeeded in defying attempts to contain blackness within Mexico's historical past or to simply erase blackness from Mexico's national identity.

The first critical step in the institutionalizing and eventual popularizing of this character was the manner in which La Mulata migrated from the outskirts, both geographically and culturally, towards the center of a national life and the imagining of a Mexican identity. She is said to have been "born" or to have originated in Cordoba, outside of Mexico City, yet she eventually becomes strongly associated with the capital, the cradle of federal government and home to most of the nineteenth century's prominent scholars. Not only were Cordoba and Mexico City connected geographically, via the Royal Highway, during the colonial period slave uprisings in the former city created concern for authorities in the capital. Moreover, Cordoba is where Mexican independence was declared, ushering the nation to a new era, while Mexico City served as the center of national development and discourse.

The legend that has intrigued so many artists, intellectuals and audiences is the story of a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century woman living in Cordoba, Veracruz, who is accused of being a witch. Bridget Christine Arce writes, "legends, witchcraft, and myth: the hallmarks of what is left of the African legacy in Mexico since emancipation." (8) She is a mulata whose parents people know little about, except that one of them was black. Naturally, the Inquisition has her arrested for witchcraft. One day, she points to a charcoal drawing of a ship she has made on the wall of her cell and asks the jailer what detail he thinks is missing from the drawing. He replies that it is not missing anything because it is perfect, and so, the only thing missing is for it to sail away. At this point, La Mulata jumps onboard the ship and sails away, leaving the jailer dumbfounded. Today, various versions continue to be refashioned from these primary details. The Diccionario geografico, historico, y biografico de los estados unidos mexicanos (1890) states that the story of La Mulata is a memory of a character that is passed on from generation to generation and cannot be confirmed. (9)

What the different accounts of "La Mulata de Cordoba" have in common is the authors' conflicting attitudes towards this character. She is both kind and spiteful.

She attends mass and is charitable at the same time that she is entangled in a relationship with the devil; she is a victim of the Inquisition's persecution and a victim of her own arrogance; she is a woman to be admired and feared; to be desired and repudiated. What they all agree on is her remarkable beauty.

Perhaps the most interesting development of the story is that the first written account by Jose Bernardo Couto is quite distinct from what it has become today. The first written account of La Mulata's legend appeared in 1837 in the newly-released literary newspaper, El Mosaico Mexicano with the title "Historia de un peso." The same story appears four years later in Calendario de las senoritas mejicanas, also with the same title. (10) Coutos' version stands out as the most singular of all the versions, in part because Couto's female character, unlike in subsequent versions, is never identified as a mulata, but rather an "Hechicera," which much like her later title, stands in place of a real name.

Couto's story begins where subsequent literary versions preferred to end. The story begins with "a famous hechicera from Cordoba" already jailed in Mexico City, having been arrested by the Inquisition for performing witchcraft. (11) One day she asks her jailer what is missing from, or lacking in, the ship that she has drawn on the wall with charcoal. He responds that the ship only lacks the ability to sail. "La Hechicera," replies that if he wishes, it shall sail, at which point she jumps "onto" the drawing of the ship. The guard is left shocked when the ship begins to sail away with the woman right before his eyes. According to Couto's story, the authorities lose all track of the woman, but a rumor quickly circulates that she had sailed out of her cell, across the Pacific Ocean and within a few hours had landed on dry land. Couto reports that Mexican demographers attempted to determine her whereabouts, but failed. From here, Couto's story brings us to the present. At some point the "wizard from Cordoba" returned to Mexico to quietly take up residence in the capital again. Couto writes that the woman was not in the habit of performing sorcery, "nor is there any historical or traditional news that she had caused fright to any Christian, except the jailer." (12) But it is exactly for that reason that news has now resurfaced about her. One day, she performed a bit of harmless witchcraft in front of another person who had a peso in hand and wondered out loud how many owners it had had. "La Hechicera" answered, "it should not be difficult for me to guess, and better yet, make that same peso tell it to us." Then, with the wave of her hands and the uttering of "cabalistic" words, the peso jumped up speaking, and after being ordered to tell its story proceeded to tell the lengthy tale of its so-called life. (13) As the title of Couto's story suggests, this is indeed the story of a peso, as much as that...

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