Negros-afromexicanos: recognition and the politics of identity in contemporary Mexico.

Author:Weltman-Cisneros, Talia

Llegaremos en America, antes que en parte alguna del globo, a la creacion de una raza hecha con el tesoro de todas las anteriores, a la raza final, la raza cosmica (We in America shall arrive, before any other part of the world, at the creation of a new race fashioned out of the treasures of all the previous ones: The final race, the cosmic race)

--Jose Vasconcelos

?Cual es mi cultura, mi raza, mi destino?" (What is my culture, my race, my destiny?)

--Manuel Zapata Olivella


The relationship between mestizaje and mexicanidad (Mexican-ness) illustrates the role of identity politics in the formation of imagined community. Mestizaje has been utilized as a strategic identity construct in order to forge an inseparable nexus between the geo-political and the bio-political construction of mexicanidad. In particular, the mestizo identity has been framed as a spiritual tool with which to blur racialized color lines into a homogeneous imagined community and reconcile the cultural and social divisions within the nation. However, the bond between Mexican-ness, mestizaje, and blackness has reflected a different trajectory, one of "uneasy tension" and disidentification (Vaughn, 49). It is a route in which blackness has been socially and culturally delinked from the modern imagination of mexicanidad. Whether engaged via the signifiers of negro, moreno, or afromexicano, Black identity has been made invisible, residing beyond the borders of the mestizo nation, blurred into brown through the process of mestizaje, and disassociated from significant cultural contributions to the country. Yet, the pueblos negros (Black communities) in the Costa Chica region of southern Mexico have been organizing in order to combat this racial amnesia, and more importantly, to articulate a pluriversal construction of being and of blackness, which catapults forward the extensive cultural, social, historical, and political activity of Afro-Mexicans within the nation today.

Within this framework, this paper presents a communication of current projects that are being implemented by these Black communities in order to be counted, to be recognized, and to be agents of their own consciousness. In addition, this article also examines how these community-based projects contribute to a reification of afromexicanidad or Afro-Mexican-ness as an interconnected and dynamic dialogue of knowledge and being between the different Afro-descendent communities within Mexico and the Americas, thus acknowledging similarities and differences, while maintaining a collective network of identity in constant evolution.

As such, we suggest that this alternative configuration of afromexicanidad, and in turn of mexicanidad as well, reflects an examination of the contemporary politics of identity, and not identity politics in Mexico, where "the former is open to whoever wants to join, while the latter tends to be bounded by the definition of a given identity" (Mignolo, 14). This distinction is well-illustrated in the opening quotations by the Mexican Jose Vasconcelos and the Afro-Colombian Manuel Zapata Olivella. While Vasconcelos follows the narrative of identity politics that envisions mexicanidad as a single, fixed construct and as a final end point to which all the "treasures" of the previous races shall arrive, Zapata Olivella turns this vision inside out via questioning the politics of identity itself. His interrogations challenge the notion of a static identity and present a permeable formation of consciousness, existence, and being that are in constant motion.

The Silencing of Blackness in Mexico

In order to understand the contemporary invisibility of Afro-descendent populations in Mexico, it is critical to examine the politics of identity within this nation's history and, in particular, to examine the racialization and silencing of blackness as a strategic and hegemonic tool in the construction of mexicanidad. In order to break free of the yoke of colonialism and project a distinct nationalism based on an alternative configuration of identity, the discourse of mestizaje has been applied by political and intellectual elites as a means of re-imagining Mexican citizenry. Framed as a cosmic mixing of races that created a "new race fashioned out of the treasures of all the previous ones" (Vasconcelos, 40), mestizaje has been used as a dominant discourse with which to imagine Latin America as a unique cradle of the future of humanity. The Mexican philosopher, educator, and politician Jose Vasconcelos envisioned mestizaje as an instrument of salvation, akin to the role of modernity in liberating Mexico and all of Latin American society from colonial designs. According to Vasconcelos, mestizaje would serve as a tool that would distance the region from its darker colonial heritage. No longer would society be organized via a caste system that ranked its members as racialized types. Instead, this new, cosmic race would lead the way in achieving a final ethnic mission that incorporates all types into an improved and beneficial interracial mixture.

In achieving this homogenized mosaic, the mestizo paradigm would also permit Latin America (Mexico) to distinguish itself from the empire to the north. Setting itself apart from the stark segregation of the United States in the first half of the twentieth century, mestizaje would allow Latin America to escape the problem of the color line. As an amalgam of the white, black, red, and yellow lines, this modern instrument of salvation would essentially erase the problem of the color line (or color lines), by allowing them to blur together and absorb the racial types that remained as vestiges of a backwards, dark, and segregated colonial past. In turn, mestizaje would result in the formation of a "final race, the cosmic race" that would foment a homogenous ethno-racial national and regional identity based on this supposedly harmonious mixing of types.

However, it is within this logic of mestizaje that an essentialized construction of blackness and Black identity has most often been absorbed and erased, destined to a condition of continued discrimination and invisibility. According to Vasconcelos, as each race fulfilled their ethnic mission within the formation of the cosmic race, "the black, eager for sensual joy, intoxicated with dances and unbridled lust" would be uplifted, "absorbed by the superior type ... (whiteness) and redeemed gradually through voluntary extinction." (22). That is, blackness, framed as an essentialized identity construct based on skin color and linked to hyper-sexuality, would be improved through whitening, and eventually fade into brown. Furthermore, as Vasconcelos suggests, since there are "very few blacks," with a "large part of them already becoming a mulatto population" (26), it would be very easy for the Black race to be integrated into the future Ibero-American race and to disappear. Thus, invisibility has become a condition of blackness in contemporary Mexico as a consequence of the strategic identity politics that has been associated with mestizaje where whitening the darker masses has been a central objective in the consolidation of the cosmic race and in the making of mexicanidad.

This absence, or rather, strategic amnesia and disappearance of blackness has permeated Mexican consciousness and the construction of the Mexican imagined community. For example, the renowned Mexican anthropologist Gonzalo Aguirre Beltran echoes this sentiment with a poignant comment in the opening of the third edition of his foundational text La poblacion negra de Mexico 1519-1810. He first writes that this work, an extensive ethnography of the Black presence in Mexico, is necessary to expose:

la ausencia de cualquier alusion a los negros como sector de poblacion que podria haber contribuido en la formacion de la nacionalidad mexicana (absence of any allusion to Blacks as a sector of the population that could have contributed to the formation of Mexican nationality). (9)

However, he then continues with the statement that the work is further important in order to:

cerrar el panorama total del transcurrir del negro desde sus lejanos origenes en el Africa hasta su completa integracion en el estado mexicano (To close the total panorama of the existence of the Negro from his distant origins in Africa to his complete integration in the Mexican State (12).

In this prominent, ethnographic text, we see how Aguirre Beltran posits the need to investigate and elucidate the contributions of the Black population in the history of Mexico. Yet, his clarifications regarding "closing the total panorama" of the Black presence within and its contributions to the contemporary nation-state simultaneously reveal a pathway that is closed off to a visible and dynamic construction of blackness. That is, according to Aguirre Beltran's framework, the Black population and its influences in Mexico are essentially relegated to the past, "completely" assimilated in the present, and thus vanished from future configurations of mexicanidad.

Consequences of the Invisibility of Blacks and Blackness in Mexico

Engaging the consequences of this logic of mestizaje and this de-linking of blackness from the present and future constructions of mexicanidad allows us to better understand some of the current conditions and lived experiences of Blacks in Mexico. Exclusion, discrimination, lack of representation, overt racism, and unequal access to resources and opportunities are some of the numerous negative contexts within which persons of African descent find themselves in the country. For example, since there has been no completion of a formal, juridical process in which they have been recognized and thus represented in political spheres (such as the census), Afro-Mexican communities have been denied the social, economic, and political resources and benefits directed to other minority groups, namely those of Indigenous heritage, who are counted...

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