There is a prevailing view in Mexico that blacks don't exist in ways that they exist in other countries; that there may be some people with some black ancestry, but they are not pure black. As a dark-skinned African American I was oftentimes used as evidence in this argument. I have been told countless times throughout the country that there are no blacks like me in Mexico. One Afro-Mexican went as far as to suggest that in comparison to him, that my people were the true blacks. Some friends in Mexico City, when I began my work in the mid-1990s, explained to me that the people in the state of Veracruz and the Costa Chica region weren't actually black, but their dark skin (and presumably kinky hair) were the result of their exposure to the harsh sun. These assertions that there are no black Mexicans were often followed by the almost obligatory "we're all mixed in Mexico" which might typically lead to an almost glib statement that "we're all equal in Mexico."
Both Mexican scholars and many Afro-Mexicans themselves articulate their understanding of Mexican blackness in ways that attempt to distance that experience from those of the larger African diaspora by asserting a kind of exceptionalism--that Mexico is somehow so different from other places that blackness, if it exists at all, is so unique that it must be understood only on its own terms. These terms more often than not conceive of blackness as a kind of quantifiable substance that Mexicans of African descent have much less of than blacks in most any other place. In this article, I suggest that, indeed, in some ways Mexican blackness might be lived differently than blackness in other places, but this does not negate that it is a black experience; rather, it simply exemplifies the diversity within the African diaspora and therefore it is part and parcel to what black identity is and can be.
I have chosen to explore three elements of black identity in Mexico. First, I will explore some of the intellectual roots of the culturally dominant idea that Afro-Mexicans do not exist--that powerful ideology of nationalist mestizaje (race-mixing).
Second, I explore how Mexican academics, through their invention of the afromestizo, have contributed to the sense that black Mexicans are a kind of weak approximation of the authentic black people that we might find in other national contexts. And last, I turn to a brief discussion of Afro-Mexicans themselves in the Costa Chica. In that discussion I describe how blacks have traditionally held a complex view of their own blackness; a self-conscious black ethnic identity alongside an uneasy participation in anti-black discourses and attitudes. Finally, I highlight how Afro-Mexicans, through increased connections with blacks from other countries, are beginning to resonate with a more empowering understanding of their ethnic identity. That new understanding rejects the assimilationist model of nationalist mestizaje.
Laying the Ideological Groundwork: Mestizaje Takes Hold
Both the invisibility of Afro-Mexicans from the national consciousness as well as the stigmatization that backs variously suffer and adopt can be linked to nationalist mestizaje, Mexico's dominant racial paradigm. I argue that the cult of mestizaje--while originally envisioned as a progressive strategy--is most centrally an aversion to racial purity; an aversion to blackness, Indian-ness, and to a much lesser degree, to whiteness. (1) While fuller treatments of the history of Mexican nationalist mestizaje ideology can be found elsewhere (Brading 2001; Gutierrez 1998; Smith 1996; Rosa 1996; Frye 1996; Knight 1990) it is instructive to outline some of the most relevant aspects of the ideology that become the lens through which most Mexicans view their own racial identity, and that of others.
Mexico's embrace of mixed racial origins as central to what it means to be Mexican began as a progressive response to 19th century anti-Indian, anti-black, and anti-Asian racism. Many North American politicians saw racial discourse as fair play in their war of words against their southern neighbor. For United States critics, it was precisely their mixed-race that made them inferior to the white Americans (Horsman 1981, 212). Josiah C. Nott, one of the leading scientific racists of the day, in characterizing the Mexican people, argued that "wherever in the history of the world the inferior races have been conquered and mixed in with the Caucasian, the latter have sunk into barbarism" (ibid, 130). Similarly, a member of the Texas-Santa Fe expedition claimed that, "There are no people on the continent of America, whether civilized or uncivilized, with one or two exceptions, more miserable in condition or despicable in morals than the mongrel race inhabiting New Mexico" (ibid, 212). An 1846 editorial appearing in the Augusta Daily Chronicle warned that annexation would likely produce a "sickening mixture, consisting of such a conglomeration of Negroes and Rancheros, Mestizoes and Indians, with but a few Castilians" (ibid, 239).
Mexican elites adopted this Eurocentric view of mixed-race inferiority and the ideology was popular throughout the latter part of the 19th century during the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz (1876-1911). The emerging concept of nationhood saw Europe as the model to be emulated, both culturally and racially. (2) During this period, invocations of indigenous culture were little more than empty rhetoric and even this rhetoric had diminished significantly since independence. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 toppled the Porfirio Diaz regime and catalyzed a whole range of political and social reforms. Leaders sought ways to incorporate the county's indigenous and mestizo peasant majorities. The question now became whether Mexico would be a mestizo nation or an indigenous one (Basave Benitez 1992, 121). By the end of the 1920s the issue was largely settled--the Mexican national character was to comprise a modern mestizo identity resting on a pre-Hispanic indigenous foundation. (3) This formulation left no room for Mexicans of African descent, relegating them to the margins.
The Invention of the Afromestizo: Watered-down Blackness
Mexican mestizaje as an ideological project (if by ideological we mean the beliefs by which a society orders reality) is based on a number of basic tenets. First is the idea that modern Mexico is a unified national community of a particular racial character--a mixed Cosmic Race (Vasconcelos 1979) forged in the colonial crucible that merged the indigenous and Spanish, producing the so-called mestizo nation. The second important feature of Mexican mestizaje flows from essentially a doubling down on the first feature, namely, that there is no room for "non-mestizos" in modern Mexico. The foundational architects of this ideology in the 1920s were clear that neither indigenous people nor blacks were envisioned as part of this modern mestizo Mexico, (Knight 1990; Gerardo 2011; Pansters 2005; Yankelevich 2012). As such both academic and everyday discussions of Mexicans of African descent tend to start with the need, however subtly, to establish that there are no pure blacks in Mexico and that a discussion of this population is more properly a study of race mixture.