Racial kinship bridges borders, opens doors

Author(s): Susan Ferriss
Source: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, GA). (June 7, 2001): News: pA1.

Byline: SUSAN FERRISS; Cox Washington Bureau

Santiago Tapextla, Mexico — When a group of college students from Atlanta rolled into this obscure village on Mexico’s Pacific coast, they found classic scenes of Mexican rural life.

Peasant farmers ferried bags of corn on donkeys. Women cooked tortillas over open fires.

But there was something about the color of this village that gave the students — all African-Americans — a feeling of instant kinship.

“To be a black Mexican seems almost impossible. But they’re here,” said an excited Kieran Pearson, 20, a student from Atlanta’s Morehouse College.

The students from Morehouse and its sister institution, Spelman College, quickly discovered that the people of Mexico’s “Costa Chica” are of indisputable African origin.

The descendants of slaves brought in chains to Mexico’s isolated Pacific Coast centuries ago, the Afro-Mexicans of the Costa Chica have the dark skin and features more commonly associated with areas in the Caribbean or Brazil. Blacks also live in Veracruz state, along the Gulf of Mexico, but are concentrated in greater numbers in about 50 towns on the Costa Chica, a 250-mile stretch of land between Puerto Escondido and the resort city of Acapulco.

Many blacks of recent generations have intermarried with indigenous Mexicans or mestizos, who are of mixed Spanish and Indian descent. But the Costa Chicans say they’re proud of their black roots.

“Relatives! You are welcome here,” a nearly toothless but spirited village elder, Bertoldo Narvaez, 55, told the students in Spanish as they gathered under a large tree.

Just as Mexico’s indigenous minorities are demanding recognition for their cultures, Afro-Mexicans are calling on Mexico to more fully acknowledge the country’s African heritage. Blacks and Indians alike complain of discrimination and of living in areas with few paved roads and schools and little plumbing.

Blacks on the Costa Chica have formed an ethnic rights group called “Mexico Negro,” and they are forging ties with other blacks in the Americas, including the United States.

“No one on the Costa Chica was talking about reaching out to other people of the African diaspora 10 years ago. This is really new,” said Stanford University graduate student Bobby Vaughn, who is studying black identity in Mexico.

The village of Santiago Tapextla (pronounced Ta-PEST-la) is a poor hamlet of several thousand residents. Last March, it hosted the fifth annual Reunion of Black People, an international gathering of blacks from Mexico, the United States, Honduras, Ecuador and other countries.

Census figures do not exist on black Mexicans. But Vaughn estimates they may number no more than 100,000 out of Mexico’s almost 100 million people.

No breakdown of the number of black Mexicans who have come to the United States is available, either. But in 2000, 48 percent of the nation’s 35 million Hispanics said they were white, 2 percent said they were black and 50 percent said they were of some other race or multiracial.

In Georgia, the numbers were much the same, with a slightly higher percentage of blacks: 46 percent of the state’s 435,227 Hispanics said they were white, 4 percent said they were black and 50 percent said they were of some other race or multiracial.

In Mexico, blacks participated in the earliest missions of the Spanish conquistadors. For more than two centuries, between the late 1500s and early 1800s, blacks may have outnumbered Spaniards nationwide before they began blending with the mestizo population.

For several years, students from Morehouse and Spelman have sought to learn about the black culture of the Costa Chica. The trip that students take annually is part of a five-week Spanish language program in the state of Oaxaca (pronounced Wa-HA-ka). The Costa Chica is in Oaxaca and the state of Guerrero.

Maceo Morales-Cozier, 19, who grew up in Atlanta and studies at Morehouse, knew of the Costa Chica blacks because his mother, anthropologist Beatriz Morales-Cozier of Morris Brown College, has written about the area’s religion and culture.

She said the traditional Dance of the Devil, which is performed using masks around the time of Mexico’s Day of the Dead in early November, is a Costa Chica tradition with roots in the Congo.

Blacks on the Costa Chica are mostly poor farmers who grow corn and a few other cash crops. Some are fishermen, and many migrate to work as laborers in Acapulco — or, increasingly, the United States.

Mexican Leonides Narvaez, 44, worked in Charlotte, where he saw firsthand the United States’ strong black heritage.

“I think the people of color there thought I was one of them,” he said, speaking to the students at a thatched-roof restaurant, where workers prepared a special meal of chicken soup and tortillas.

Narvaez grinned at the memory of his encounters with black Americans. “They used to walk past me and say, ‘Wassup!’ ” he told the amused Americans.

The students were struck by the similarities between their history and the black Mexicans’ experience. But they noticed differences, too.

“Here, they listen to the elders, while in the United States, we try to hush them up,” Maceo Morales-Cozier said.

Pearson said he was surprised that some Costa Chicans told him they felt Mexican first, then black. “I feel black first, then American,” he said. “But maybe it’s because they have more of a connection to the land here and grow their own food.”

Vaughn said that after slavery ended in Mexico in the 1820s, legal discrimination didn’t exist. That might have contributed to blacks having more of a sense of being Mexican, he said. However, while blacks might not have trouble getting jobs as laborers today, Vaughn said, they do face discrimination when it comes to obtaining more professional work.

Stereotypes abound, too.

“I’ve heard comments like, ‘Those blacks are so confused and disorganized,’ ” said Glynn Jemmott, a Catholic priest from Trinidad who has lived for more than a dozen years in El Ciruelo on the Costa Chica.

Most of the Atlanta students said they only recently learned that blacks live in Mexico. But the black Mexicans told them they were not alone. Many of their countrymen don’t even know they exist.

“You never see blacks on television,” Narvaez said. “Once in a while, you see a black maid on a soap opera. But that’s about it. The politicians don’t want to admit that blacks live in Mexico.”

Ricardo Avila, a 22-year-old high school teacher in El Ciruelo, said textbooks never include information on Mexico’s black history.

He has tried to incorporate lessons on his own into classes at the high school, one of the few schools serving the black population of the Costa Chica.

Avila also said black Mexicans often are mistaken for foreigners when they travel to other parts of Mexico.

“In another part of Oaxaca, the police stopped me and asked me to sing the national anthem. I refused, but I showed them my voter credential,” Avila said. “Sometimes it really bothers me.”

Spelman student Veronica Chapman noticed that blackness seemed exotic to most Mexicans.

“People stare at us in Oaxaca,” she said. “I want to say, ‘You know, there are Mexicans who look just like me who live right down the road from you.’ ”

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