AFRICAN HERITAGE STRONG IN MEXICO
By Michele Gibbs
In the current political cauldron that is Mexico, another force has boiled to the surface. "Los Pueblos Negros," whose power is not in arms, but in their continued cultural and physical survival as home for a distinct people, have formally convened for the first time in their history.
For three days this spring, the small farming village of El Ciruelo [The Plum, pop: 1,000] on the Costa Chica of Oaxaca hosted more than 200 other Afro-Mexicanos representing 30 neighboring settlements for the "Primer Encuentro de Pueblos Negros." They met to consider the following questions:
What is the origin and history of your community? What festivals are celebrated in this community and how are they organized? In what ways does a Black identity live in your community? What are the daily relations of Blacks with others?
A key figure in convening these pueblos is Father Glyn Jemott, a 51-year-old Black priest from Trinidad based in El Ciruelo for the past twelve years. He itemizes the goals of the meeting in this way: "We are here to relate our common history as black people, to strengthen our union as communities, to organize and open realizable paths to secure our future, and to resist our marginalization in the life of the Mexican nation."
The African presence in Mexico has been a recorded fact since well before Columbus. The giant Olmec heads carved from stone, dated at 700 B.C, bear witness. The first successful maroon rebellion in the Americas has been attributed to an African named Yanga who established an independent state in the l6th Century in what is now Jalapa in the mountains above Vera Cruz, Mexico.
Widely dispersed during the colonial period, Africans, both slave and free, worked in sugar production, mining exploration, and the emerging factory system in the major cities of New Spain. Their physical presence and cultural influence were widespread, generally acknowledged, and distinct.
By the l9th Century, however, the black population was significant only along the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, specifically Vera Cruz and the forty-five fishing and farming 'pueblos negros' of Oaxaca and Guerrero. In fact, popular idiom refers to this population as "Las Coste Fas" (the coastal people). Thus, Diaspora geography supplanted ancestry in the official imagination.
Ironically, relative isolation and the need for self-reliance have worked to preserve many pre-colonial cultural patterns among this people. The 'corridos' - improvised songs chronicling local events - reflect oral traditions inherited from Africa. The African imprint can clearly be seen in the masks worn for the Dance of the Devil performed during Holy Week every year. Circular family compounds are still common. And every day, down on the docks and in the smallest fishing villages, methods of work centuries-old prevail.
The abolition of the juridical color-caste system after Mexico won its independence from Spain created a new contradiction. In the name of progressive cultural pluralism, Mexico declared itself a mestizo nation. The practical result of this official national consciousness, coupled with the mystique of the "Indian," has been to consign the Afro-Mexicano to near invisibility.
Although the work of committed ethno-historians (notably Gonzalo Aguirre Beltran) has kept alive awareness of Mexico's Tercera Raiz (third root) in academic circles and art historians such as Robert Farris Thompson have documented contemporary African cultural survivals in Mexico, the ongoing lives of these communities remain opaque to the popular gaze. Worse, the estimated 600,000 Afro-Mexicanos, who are not counted separately in the statistics as a group in this country, have been prevented from knowing of each other.
Now, the people themselves have raised their voices to declare their own reality to Mexico and the world. This, more than anything else, makes it a landmark meeting.Corcuera Morga, one of the Conference organizers, said:
"It isn't defensible that government statistics say the Black race doesn't exist. Yes, we are here; and well-represented. To be forgotten is worse than racism."
At the conclusion of the Encuentro, participants pledged to continue the tasks of information-gathering in their home communities, expanding contacts, and preparing for 'stage two' of the process when they reconvene next year in San Jose Estancia Grande, Oaxaca. Interestingly enough, this cry for recognition and respect parallels recent demands from the Garifuna, an Afro-Carib people of maroon origin inhabiting the coast and off-shore islands of Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. The formal petition of the Honduran Garifuna (est. pop.: 300,000) for recognition as an autonomous culture, preservation of ancestral land rights, proportional representation and collective entitlements from the Honduran government is the first collective action on their part as well.
From Oaxaca, it looks like the links between us are getting stronger.
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