The longue duree of Africans in Mexico: the historiography of racialization, acculturation, and Afro-Mexican subjectivity.

Author:Vasquez, Irene A.

In the past ten years the scholarship on African-descended peoples in Mexico has grown appreciably and diversified in several ways. The literature, which treats Afro-Mexicans as identifiably discrete populations, reveals complex and multivariate responses to colonial and national development. Much of the research impetus in this literature addresses the multiple and seemingly contradictory dynamics of the concurrent marginalization and the arguable integration of African-descended subjects. (1) As a result of the social historical approaches and the research findings on the African Diaspora, African-descended peoples are illuminated as historical subjects who enrich our understanding of local and regional cultures, past and present. In particular, the history of Africans in the Americas brings into relief hemispheric concepts and realities of racialization and social change, and informs our understandings of cultural production and reproduction.

Over time, Africans and people of African descent in Mexico displayed diverse cultural and social patterns. Africans lived as free persons and enslaved laborers with varying degrees of social mobility. These populations exercised agency in their day-to-day lives, despite living in highly racialized and oppressive circumstances. Their incremental integration into Mexican society as individuals, laborers, and leaders resulted from their ability to integrate into local communities. Yet, locally rooted and historically infused derogatory notions of blackness impacted their lives in many complex ways. For Afro-Mexicans today, persistent discrimination continues to limit their opportunities for economic advancement in Mexico, even though formally they are citizens entitled to full rights. (2)

Mexico is an important site for interrogating African diasporic generalizations because of the diversity of the population and the range of social relations. The diasporic paradigm privileges African origin in providing historical and cultural linkages among African-descended peoples globally and often posits various "organic" meanings of "blackness." There is within the paradigm an inherent belief in "black consciousness," which could serve as the basis for some future political mobilization. Accordingly, historians' tasks are to uncover these aspects of commonality. Thus diasporic history is an uncovering and a call. In tandem with this diasporic paradigm are the research and literary practices that detail the social history of African-descended peoples guided by the precepts of the "new social history" of the 1960s and 1970s that emphasized "history from the bottom up." Scholars can and do examine the unfolding contradictory circumstances and changing historical lives and experiences of African-descended people in Mexico. Herein, the practitioners of African Diaspora Studies and Mexican social history provide a range of cross discussions, which inform our understandings of African diasporic populations in the areas of social relations, and community and cultural formations. (3)

This essay emphasizes certain aspects of African peoples' historical trajectory in an evolving New World society. The analysis attempts to account for the persistence of African cultural practices and black consciousness, and highlights the intersections existing between research using African diasporic approaches and the work of social historians of Mexico. (4) It examines both the contrasting and evolving perspectives represented in the literature pertinent to various aspects of social and historical change. In the conclusion the essay summarizes the importance of highlighting the African population as a foundational and national component of a modern multicultural Mexico.


Mexico's social history could be viewed as verifying certain diasporic conclusions and also refining them. Some scholars such as Paul Gilroy and Laura A. Lewis have criticized what they view as an essentialized conception of African or black identity, or cultural continuity among diasporic communities. Employing critical historical and anthropological approaches, these researchers have called for more nuanced and pluralistic interpretations of the historical development of cultures and identities characterizing African-descended peoples in the Americas. (5) These researchers paint a synchronic narrative of complex individual preferences and diverse situational expressions as the centuries passed. A middle spectrum of research efforts employs notions of "hybridity," "creolization," and "transculturation" in the construction of regional American cultures, which is to say they emphasize cultural amalgamation and synthesis. (6) However, still largely insufficiently recognized are the experiences that the subjects themselves, Afro-Mexicans, project upon the narratives of the African Diaspora.

In the research on Africans in Mexico, there are two broad disciplinary trends at play in the works produced by historians and ethnographers. First, this literature reflects a growing fluidity in regards to conceptualizing African-descended subjects and their experiences historically and currently. Second, scholars increasingly examine the extent to which racialized discourse and practices impacted the lives of African-descended populations and their interethnic relations with others. As a result of the second trend, the historical examination of African peoples as self-identified African or "black" peoples is under greater scrutiny, and new research generates new questions. The contributions emerging from the dialogue between scholars of the African Diaspora and those critical of this approach characterizes in many ways the intellectual advancements in this area. Moreover, the diasporic research ultimately advances our hemispheric and global understandings of African-descended peoples as subjects within a global history. (7)

Social historians have charted the history of African-descended peoples in Mexico and attributed agency to Africans as participants in the formation of colonial and national societies and as actors shaping civic and political discourses. Afro-Mexicans used the discourses of the colonial state to achieve a corporate status that preserved their rights within colonial militias and their control over religious institutions. Historians Herman Bennett and Ben Vinson III argued that Afro-Mexicans used service to the church and the colonial government as the basis to make claims to colonial rights and privileges. (8) They reinforced or reconfigured notions of blackness by demonstrating that African workers were essential to the maintenance of certain colonial institutions. Nicole von Germeten found that cofradias, or religious associations, in colonial Mexico offered free mulattos of mixed African and European heritage the opportunity to develop a unique religious identity within the multiracial urban and rural communities. (9) Ben Vinson described how in early 18th-century Mexico, free black militiaman used their service to the crown to gain monetary rewards and social privileges." (10) Given these and other investigations, we can begin to examine how African-descended peoples shaped and were shaped by colonial institutions.

The point of departure for U.S.-based social historical analysis of Afro-Mexicans and the development of the modern Mexican state can be traced to the pioneering work of Gonzalo Aguirre Beltran and others who sought to center, evaluate, and integrate the historical experiences of African-descended peoples. (11) These mid-20th-century studies laid a foundation for questioning the significance of ethnic and racial structures in determining social status and social relations. Increasingly, with the advent of critical historical analyses, Mexican and U.S.- based social historians analyzed the agency of African peoples and their interethnic relations according to time, status, region, and context with a healthy skepticism of fixed notions of identity, social relations, and cultural practices. In particular, inspired by pioneering social analyses of the African peoples in Mexico, U.S. researchers such as R. Douglas Cope, Ben Vinson, Herman Bennett, Susan Kellogg, Matthew Restall, and others emphasized the construction and re-construction of racialized and ethnic subjects in diverse textual, contextual, and geographical locations. (12)

Mexican scholars Luz Maria Martinez Montiel, Alvaro Ochoa Serrano, and others, employing sociohistorical analysis, examined the lives of Afro-Mexican subjects, clarifying their interrelations with other groups and ultimately assessing their influence on Mexican society and culture. (13) Although the integration of Africans into an Iberian-ordered colonial society, and after independence into the modern Mexican state, has been examined, the master narratives focusing on colonial power and the postcolonial state often obscure the experiences of African-descended peoples. African diasporic approaches raise important issues about African-descended peoples as subjects in colonial and national narratives of Mexico. (14) Many times African Diaspora Studies attempt to situate "Africanness" and blackness in colonial and national discourses in Mexico in specific and complex ways so that one can speak of African influences in certain social and cultural institutions. Diaspora Studies also focus on African-descended peoples as subjects, or "black subjectivity," and how their sense of self-identity changed over time. One could argue that in Mexico, Africanness is comprised of the maintenance of African historical, social, and cultural consciousness and connections, while the concept of blackness emerged and operated within European-imposed colonial processes of racialization. Thus, the meanings assigned to blackness were subject to change from one historical era to another, and African-descended peoples serve as one force in its changing conceptualizations.


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