Talking about Mestizaje: history, value, and the racial present.

Author:Jerry, Anthony R.


The Costa Chica on the Pacific shores of Guerrero and Oaxaca has been highlighted as a Black region within Mexico. The highlighting of the many pueblos on the coast belonging to a perceived "Black region" has prompted the asking of numerous questions concerning the concept and realities of race within the nation of Mexico, as well as the questioning the logic of mestizaje as a defining social framework. The Black communities along the southern Oaxacan coastline have been incorporated into the nation in a similar manner to that of the indigenous communities within Mexico. In one sense, the communities have been labeled traditional, located in a social and geographical backwater that speaks to the anti-modern relics of Mexico's past. In another sense, the inhabitants of these communities have been interpreted within the discourse of mestizaje, read as absence of tradition, thus arguing against the existence of cultural and ethnic "authenticities".

Hence, my use of authentic does not draw upon the reconceptualization of the modern nation brought about by the earlier work of Boas and Du Bois as outlined by Briggs, where through the lens of multiculturalism hybridized cultures become "inauthentic" (Briggs: 92). While I am not aware of the use of the term authenticity among African descendents or Black activists within Mexico, I use the term authenticities in reference to the distinct social locations occupied by Mexico's Black citizens, as well as other members of the global African Diaspora that have allowed for a hybrid yet "authentic" cultural development specific to particular locations/nation states. In this sense, African descendants within Mexico can be seen as owners of specific cultural forms and subjectivities that while effected by the rhetoric of mestizaje, can be viewed as distinct from mestizo culture in a manner similar to indigenous communities. In this way Blacks within Mexico are allowed an identity apart from that created by the contemporary rhetoric on mestizaje. And moreover, the negative connotation of the term "negro", a hold-over from the distinct racial system imposed by the Spanish conquistadors, as well as a global human enslavement market, has made the question of "authenticity" even more perilous. For this reason, the term Moreno, perhaps a reification or reinterpretation of the caste system, has become the preferred term for many Black inhabitants of the Costa Chica (Lewis 2000, 2001, 2006).

In her text Hall of Mirrors, Laura Lewis highlights the power dynamic within the caste system utilized by Spanish colonialism. Lewis argues that this system allowed for more social movement and a dynamic that does not exist within a system of strict racial hierarchy (2003) where a type of "one-drop" rule may be employed in order to institutionally and socially exclude specific individuals from particular racial groups' access to resources. While the caste system plays on race and space in different ways than a strict racial hierarchy, the persistence of race and biology, or phenotype, can still be seen to play an important role within the caste system (Safa 1998). Biological and therefore social qualities were seen to be inherent or endemic to specific caste positions, and thus, these assumed biological and social features point to a process of racialization that cannot be overlooked and of course important in the creation of racial subjectivities and community imaginations (Omi & Winant 1994).

Here, the experience of race is meaningful in a number of aspects along with resistance to institutionalized forms of racism that may lead to alliances built upon the experience of racialization. And while racialized Black identities may be discordant depending upon regional locations and specific national periods, the consequences of race is meaningful to everyday life and expressed socially and politically through unifying local identities. Thus, while the term Moreno may highlight the reality of miscegenation, the term may also still relate to racial and racialized identities, i.e. Blackness, within Black communities in the Costa Chica. Therefore, rather than the concept of an imagined Black community being an import based on foreign histories of racism (especially within the United States) and 20th century foreign racial politics, the existence of a "Black community" within Mexico may be a historic feature beginning when the first people of African descendent set foot in New Spain.

With the arrival of the Spanish came a system of racial and caste hierarchies that would affect the development of later Black communities. The free and enslaved, or Mulatto and African, involvement in the colonization process does not only address the role of African descendents in the economic and social development of the colonies and later the Mexican nation, but also to the diversity and complexity inherent within any community. Such social categories as free and enslaved undoubtedly affected the development of distinct racial and social identities between and among Blacks in Mexico. However, uniformed discrimination and the process of racialization, that is the value ascribed to biology and phenotype along with the shared experience of race, may have been responsible for the creation of subjectivities common in many aspects to African descendents, similar to Du Bois' understanding of diasporic cosmopolitanism (Briggs 2005). In this vein, Ben Vinson argues for the creation of a race based Black community or communities fostered by the leadership of Black militia officers that had been allowed certain levels of social mobility (2001). As a result negros and pardos became Afro-Mexicans, or more regionally specific, communities of Afro-Veracruzanos or Afro-Yucatecos (Restall 2000, Vinson 2001).

Ted Vincent's research on the role of Black's in the struggle for independence highlights the existence of these communities. Vincent argues that the communities on the coast played a major role in the war effort for independence, and that the issue of race and slavery were important, if not fundamental, to such historical independence figures as Guerrero and Morelos (1994). While Blacks from coastal communities fought in many battles against the Spanish forces, these battles often placed African descendents against each other. The opposing views of African descendents and their choosing, or succumbing to coercion by the Spanish, to fight on the side of the Spanish colonies does not suggest a lack of a "Black community", but rather it highlights the complexities and diversity within the Black community, and all communities. Hence, Vincent argues that the impetus for many Blacks to fight for the independence of the Mexican nation was to end the Spanish caste system (1994). While the success of the independence movement may have reconfigured the previous colonial relationship, the preexisting caste system and race based discrimination, while perhaps shifting somewhat, were maintained on many levels. The national project installed within Mexico during the post-independence period brings with it the beginnings of an ideological erasure of race, and thus any official notion of a "Black community" that may have only played out in perception rather than in practice or reality. Thus, the re-imagining of the Mexican within the context of the emerging nation state did not necessarily coincide with the racial realities or legacy of the previously instated caste system, and therefore the question remains, what happened to Mexico's Black community/communities?

Utilizing the body of literature exploring the presence of Blacks within Mexico, this essay explores this exact question; what happened to Mexico's Black communities? Thus, the exploration of this question takes place in three parts, the developing Black presence and construction of Black communities within colonial Mexico, the ideological erasure of these communities and the Black presence within Mexico beginning with independence, and finally the possibilities for the resurgence of Black identities within Mexico, specifically within the Costa Chica and the resistance that come about due to post-colonial imaginations of Mexicanness and the legacy of mestizaje. And important to this question of (re)emerging racial identities is the role that Diaspora and immigration is playing on the formation of racial subjectivities among Blacks in the Costa Chica as well as the influences of indigenous political mobilizations on African descendents' understandings of their own social locations within the nation. As research on this latter consideration is scarce, it is my hope that this essay will...

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