July 25, 2013
The first book to me move to tears was The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I began reading it a few weeks before I left for Oaxaca, Mexico to study abroad with ten of my classmates the summer following my junior year of college. By that time I had read hundreds of pages as an English major, but Malcolm’s words were unlike any others. I was fascinated by his life’s path, each apex and nadir. What struck me most was what propelled him forward, not luck, not Allah, not the Nation of Islam, not Elijah Muhammad. It was literacy. As a prisoner he realized what he read he couldn’t comprehend, not until he composed the entire dictionary verbatim and read it aloud, the first step towards attaining his voluminous knowledge. He writes, “With every succeeding page, I also learned of people and places and events from history. Actually the dictionary is like a miniature encyclopedia.” This awakened his “dormant craving to be mentally alive” and elevated his humanity. He went on to captivate America and the world with the words he learned, but before he would speak “in coliseums and arenas, at the greatest American universities, and on radio and television programs, not to mention speaking all over Egypt and Africa and in England,” arguably the greatest orator to live, became a great reader first.
I cried because I experienced the transformation with him. I felt his energy as I read those words in an Afro-Mexican village sitting on a fallen tree where the moonlight shone unobstructed. I saw him sitting on the floor, straining to read in the glow of a corridor light outside his cell, his presence palpable and real. I knew then that I would never be the same. Hours earlier I had spent the day with children whom I had felt a kinship, children whom he would have loved to meet. They were called Afro-Mexican or Afro-Metizo and were all shades of brown but distinctly African. I wasn’t aware of their existence, nor of whom Malcolm really was and both were making room for themselves in my imagination. Malcolm provided an alternate history of the world and a model of how to climb from the working class, my lot in life, and the Afro-Mexicans taught me to embrace my place in the African Diaspora. Together they converged to change the way I viewed the world forever.
The inability to communicate has to be the worst feeling in the world, and Malcolm’s words became my own. “I never had felt more alone, and helpless, since I was a baby…I couldn’t speak anybody’s language. I was in bad shape.” He was detained in the Jedda airport before entering Mecca, and I was thrust into Oaxaca alone. After an overnight bus ride that incessantly wound uphill from Mexico City that caused a few of us to fall sick, we arrived at a depot where my host family met me with a piece of paper bearing my name. Then everyone dispersed without instruction and bolts of fear surged through my body. Where are my classmates going? Where is the coordinator? How are we to communicate with each other? What was I to do? While most of my classmates were Spanish majors or minors, I was neither and irrefutably the worst Spanish speaker. We had arrived early Saturday morning and would not see each other until the following Monday.
When I met my host family, they swept me away in a late model Volkswagen Bug towards what would become my home for the next six weeks. During the drive we exchanged no words, partly because of my inability and partly because words are usually spent at that time of morning. But the Spanish architecture roused me and swiftly brought me back home to New Orleans and the French Quarter where the Spanish settlers, before the arrival of the French, had erected their homes with wrap-around balconies on every floor, stucco tile roofs, and unassuming doors that opened onto vast courtyards. I was at once homesick and curious.
The days that followed gradually grew less painful. From that first weekend, when we were dropped off with our families and disconnected with anything familiar or anyone who spoke English, I found comfort in my Mexican sister, Paulina. Although I became closest to her, my entire host family was welcoming. My mother, a smiling woman with gold-capped teeth, was a clerk at the family homeopathic medicine shop next door and would make me breakfast every morning and sit and talk with me freely after dinner. My father, a well-heeled business man, was deferential and didn’t talk much. My brother too was distant but I came to understand since he was older and usually consumed with his girlfriend. But Paulina and I became friends. A few years older than me and also in college, she knew as much English as I did Spanish and graciously became my ears. I am not sure why she responded to me the way she did, but I am forever grateful for her kindness. She would often lead me through the streets of Oaxaca and show me the sights, teach me words, and introduce me to her friends and relatives.
In spite of her efforts, I still was insecure, and I resorted to the defense mechanism that made me most comfortable: insularity. In the time between my classes at the University of Benito Juarez when most of my male counterparts were establishing relationships with the curious Mexicanas, I found solace in reading, writing, and exploring the culture of Oaxaca. I read Malcolm, wrote, and eavesdropped on the locals. Often after meandering through the streets, I would retreat to the zocalo and lie on the landing at the entrance of the grand cathedral. There amidst the commerce of street vendors and government buildings and lavish hotels and pricy restaurants and street performers and old men shining shoes and hundreds of protesting maestros, I would gaze at the noon-day sun thinking how it seemed to be directly over me. I must be close to the center of it all I thought, wondering about my destination in life, what it meant to be a man, and why Malcolm had to be killed.
During the first weeks of our stay, we visited the Zapotecan ruins at Monte Alban, a compound of pyramids and structures aligned with the stars like those found in Egypt located six miles east of Oaxaca City. It was constructed around 500 BC and hosted various ceremonies and sporting events for its inhabitants, eventually growing to be one of the largest Mesoamerican cities of its time. I had never seen anything of such magnitude and antiquity, and I envisioned Malcolm on camelback, visiting the pyramids of Giza, wondering if he was as amazed as I. The views were breathtaking as nothing impeded its panoramas. To give us the history of the site, we were accompanied by an unofficial tour guide who looked like a vagrant, his beard thick and clothes suited for survival. He wore a large hat and stained jeans, and when he spoke it was in English and impassioned. His tone also indicated an air of secrecy as he offered what he said others wouldn’t share. The carvings of dancers on the stones lined outside one of the structures, for instance, were like archaic photographs. And didn’t they look familiar he asked. They did. They looked African. Although scholars conflict as to who these dancers portray, most believe they were Olmecs whose heritage has been disputed widely. Some claim that their African features are undeniable, broad noses and thick full-lipped mouths, while others assert that no Africans came to the Americas before the Europeans. The tour guide offered his own analysis. If cocaine was found in the excavated body of King Tut and cocaine is a byproduct of the coca plant which is native to South America, then surely Africans must have traversed the Atlantic centuries before the imperialists. He didn’t have to go on because Malcolm was confirming this much for me. “History has been so ‘whitened’ by the white man that even the black professors have known little more than the most ignorant black man about the talents and rich civilizations and cultures of the black man of millenniums ago.” And there we were, ten black college students from two of the most prestigious, historically black colleges in America, getting an education we couldn’t have imagined.
Along the Pacific coast of Mexico, there are innumerable destinations where you can leave your life behind. All offer the vacationer something exotic—a drink, a meal, a native, an oceanview. On our third week, we visited Puerto Escondido, home of the world’s third largest waves. We would not to return to Oaxaca immediately after our stay. An experience no other group from our schools had encountered in previous years awaited. We would visit the Costa Chicas, a community of small villages scattered along the 250 miles of Mexico’s Pacific coast, the home of the Black Mexican. When told of our destination, we all shared the same befuddled look—Afro-Mexican?
We arrived after passage on unmarked, dirt roads, in the late afternoon, through security posts where we were told to have our passports ready and where men, armed with automatic rifles, boarded the bus and stared searchingly in our faces. When we reached our destination, we were greeted by a young man, slightly older than us, who served as our tour guide through the village scarcely inhabited by a few thousand. The little girls we waved to turned and pressed their smiling faces into their mothers’ long print dresses as we strolled the unpaved streets, stepping around pigs and chickens, the villagers like parade-goers, standing in front of their meager homes, each capped with thatched, straw roofs.
When night fell, we were brought to the town square where the villagers held ceremonies. It had recently held the Fifth Annual Reunion of Black People, an international gathering of blacks from Mexico, the United States, Honduras, Ecuador and other countries. On this night, our visit was the occasion, and the ceremony was a dance expressing reverence for the dead and ancestors of the village. A combination of rhythmic, pounding steps, lunges in the air, and subtle gyrations of the hips, it struck me as intrinsically African. I later learned that it was native to the Congo. Soon some of my classmates joined the villagers on the raised stage, and we all laughed and cheered them on.
We were introduced to the vice-president of the village when the dance was over, and he apologized for the president’s absence. Moderately built with thick, wavy hair and an equally thick mustache, he seemed to be the average man of the village, save of his attire—a plain, white collared shirt, leather sandals, and nondescript trousers. Every other man in the village wore the clothes of a laborer. After a lengthy exchange with our coordinator, he informed us that only two homes possessed electricity and running water, both of which were incapable of housing eleven people.
The only place that made sense was a shell of a home on the outskirts of the village, a cinderblock foundation sans doors, windows, or finished floors. Inside, there was a hammock and straw mats. The young women settled in one room, the young men in the other, and the coordinator in the hammock. It was very late by then but I couldn’t sleep, my thoughts questioning how arbitrary life could be. If we were both African, bought and sold and situated in the world where the imperialists deemed appropriate, how and why had I escaped their life? These thoughts plagued me for hours until I quietly left the house with Malcolm in my hands and searched for a place to read. I found a fallen tree a few yards from the house where the moonlight shone unobstructed.
In the morning we met a journalist and photographer from the Atlanta Journal Constitution who would accompany us on our visit to Santiago Tapextla. The journalist explained that she would ask us questions and the photographer would snap pictures periodically but “act as if we are not here.” Because I was reading Malcolm and had learned how the press had repeatedly smeared him, I distrusted journalists and inconspicuously kept my distance. To my surprise, I would learn later, I could not escape the photographer.
After lunch, which consisted of a chicken that had been running at our feet an hour before, we sat in a circle with men from the village under a large tree that shaded everyone. Near its base, facing outward into the circle, a man began to retell the history of the village, and our coordinator sat next to him to translate. As the speaker went on, it was hard for me to follow him in Spanish, but the one thing I distinctly remember hearing was his repetition of Somos uno. Somos familia. We are one. We are family. I also learned that the Mexican government vehemently denies their existence, and therefore, it feels no obligation to provide infrastructure for them in the form of electricity, running water, paved roads, education, and employment. It’s as if the government hopes to exterminate them through negation. And then one of Malcolm’s questions resounded in my head, “Can you imagine what can happen, what would certainly happen, if all of these African-heritage peoples ever realize their blood bonds, if they ever realize they all have a common goal—if they ever unite?” I was overwhelmed by it all. A black Mexican was reinforcing the words of Malcolm!
After we exchanged parting salutations and embraces, a few of us went to the home of an elder who was undeniably on his deathbed. As we sat outside on his porch, we could see his bedroom through a void in the building the size of a small garage door where he struggled to rise and slide over to us with the help of a cane. His voice faintly rose above a whisper, and without the help of the coordinator, we wouldn’t have heard the account of his life. While we had not showered in two days and did not gain a recuperative night’s rest, I did not want this toothless, feeble man in his nineties to think that I was ungrateful for his willingness to share his story. I sat there intently peering into his ashen brown face, listening to him retell his family’s escape from slavery as they sought a place to hide in the mountains with the help of the sympathetic priests.
We also visited two schools in neighboring villages. At the first school, which seemed to instruct children ages five to ten, the kids ran freely and wildly without shoes and there were no maestros to be seen. They were protesting in the Oaxaca City zocalo, a few blocks from my host home. As soon as we approached the school, one of my classmates pulled a bag of candy from his backpack and we passed it out among the kids who swarmed us immediately. An image of this scene was furtively captured by the photographer and featured on the cover of the Atlanta Journal Constitution next to the article about our trip. As we walked the school’s grounds and into classrooms, some of which were simple bamboo-walled encasements with small, old blackboards, I realized that the children were learning basic Spanish grammar like me.
At the second school, we irrigated the land and planted trees and flowers. Because the children there were much older, they were much more talkative. “Do you know Puff Daddy? Do you know Shaq? You know, you look like Shaq.” And they all thought we were rich, a painful notion to me then. The only images of black people they had seen were celebrities. What pained me even further was my inability to tell them otherwise because I had not mastered their language. My only recourse was to expend all the physical energy I had to help beautify their school, my labor the only source of communicating how much I cared, how I identified with them as my distant brothers and sisters. This energy inspired the photographer, I suppose, for when the story of our trip was printed in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the images of me passionately shoveling away dirt were prominently featured throughout the article.
When I returned to America, everything looked different. The sun, trees, homes, stores, people, cars, sounds, nothing, none of it seemed real anymore. Malcolm was dead, and I was at once angry and depressed and scared. Why were the negros invisible in Mexico, why was I no longer a spectacle when I walked down the street, and why did I have to be troubled by these questions? It was hard then to reconsider everything that I thought defined me when I hadn’t asked for my world to become something else. In those first few days after my return, all that mattered existed in my head, where a series of infinite regresses, voices, affirmations, images, and fears worked diligently to construct my identity.
The thoughts never stopped. Today, some questions remain, while others have been addressed. I began to see myself in the dialogue of human history after I visited Oaxaca and I have continued to position myself ever since. In the Costa Chicas I learned that I am Mexican, African, American and every other ethnicity that has been cast on enslaved Africans, that I am more than a poor kid from New Orleans, that one day we should consider Malcolm’s words. Somos uno.
This is dedicated to my classmates, our host families, the children of the Costa Chicas, and all those rendered invisible in the African Diaspora.
To read the article about our trip published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution click here.