One of my mantras to our Afrikan students from both the Motherland and in the Diaspora is that we must get rid of the myth of Afrikans being a “minority.” And that since there are more people on this earth who look like Whitney than Britney, we have the potential to stop the marginalization and disrespect we are encountering all over the world if we are united in our struggle. I also tell them that our struggle against white and other racists is made more difficult by those Negroes and Negresses who would, paradoxically, denigrate our folk for a quick buck or 15 minutes of fame. That white Mexican racism is rearing its ugly head again because we Afrikans have not been united in fighting for our folk in Mexico and other countries in the world is hardly a farfetched proposition.
The most recent racist act by white Mexicans comes on the heels of the one by their President Vicente Fox, the one by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the one by the Japanese. But the white Mexicans’ racist acts are the most disturbing, given the numerous and valuable contributions Afrikans have made in that country.
As reported by David Wooding in The Underground of June 14, 2005, on June 13, President Putin, when challenged about his human rights record, stated that Africans had a history of “cannibalism.” As Putin put it, “We all know that African countries used to have a tradition of eating their own adversaries. And we don’t have such a tradition or process or culture and I believe the comparison between Africa and Russia is not quite just.” Even a casual Google search on the Internet would yield many cases of cannibalism in Russia.
Meanwhile a little further East, as Bruce Wallace reported in the Los Angeles Times of June 14, 2005, the Japanese reissued Chibikuro Sambo (“Little Black Sambo”), a turn-of-the-20th Century illustrated children’s book with a reputation for racism. The book was a big favorite of the Japanese from 1953 until it was yanked from bookstores in 1988 after a massive anti-racism campaign. The challenge against the book in Japan echoed that in the West years earlier: Sambo was a long-standing racist term for Afrikans in America, and illustrator Frank Dobias’ portrayal of the main character, with his bulging white eyes and exaggerated lips, was deeply offensive. An estimated 95,000 copies of the book have been sold in just two months, placing it among the top five adult fiction best sellers at major Tokyo book chains. Indeed, Sambo itself has racist implications rather than the story-line.
While Putin’s and Japan’s defenders have argued that they have little or no experience in dealing with Afrikans, as people of the major societies in this era of globalization, they ought to be better informed and act accordingly. White Mexican racism toward Afrikans, on the other hand, cannot be defended in light of the history of the many and major contributions Afrikans have made in that country.
In The Washington Post of June 30, 2005, Darryl Fears reported that the Mexican government issued a five-stamp series depicting Memin Pinguin, a dark-skinned Jim Crow-era cartoon character with greatly exaggerated eyes and lips. This action has infuriated Afrikan and Hispanic civil rights leaders for the second time in weeks. In May, Mexican President Vincente Fox had to apologize for saying that Mexican migrants in the United States work jobs that “even blacks don’t want.” Still, Fox defended his comment as being taken out of context.
About the Memin Pinguin stamps, a spokesperson for the Mexican Embassy is reported by Fears to have argued that the depiction is a cultural image that has no meaning and is not intended to offend. But offending Afrikans is exactly what the action has done. If white Mexicans were honest about their intentions to commemorate Afrikans, there are many positive Afrikan Mexican icons from which they can choose.
As the great African scholar Ivan Van Sertima informed us in his famous book, They Came Before Columbus, the first civilization of ancient America was called Olmec, which was located along the Mexican Gulf Coast and began more than 3,000 years ago. The Olmecs sculpted the most significant and widely acknowledged sculptural representations of Afrikans in the Western Hemisphere or “New World.” The very size of the giant Olmec busts indicates that the persons depicted were truly important.
In his book entitled African Mexicans and the Discourse on Modern Nation, Emporia State University Spanish professor Marco Polo Hernández demonstrated how white Mexican institutions have systematically erased “Africaness” from national memory. He also demonstrated that between 55 and 85 percent of Mexicans can trace their families back to enslaved Afrikans, but that white cultural leaders have actively shunned this identity.
Hernández also pointed out that more than 300,000 enslaved Afrikans were brought to Mexico during the colonial period (1500s-1829), producing millions of offspring. Many of the major leaders of the Mexican liberation movement were Afrikans. They included the last two top commanders of the movement, José Maria Morelos and Vicente Guerrero, as well as a significant number of other leaders and troops. In addition, even the Spanish conquistadors brought Afrikan heritage with them, as descendants of the Iberians and the Moors of northern Afrika who occupied Spain during the medieval era. Thus, it is not surprising that the modern Spanish language still contains over 4,000 Arabic words.
Furthermore, Hernández found traces of Afrikan culture in many of Mexico’s national traditions – cultural icons, foods, music, and national holidays. Moreover, the Black Virgin, a representation of Virgin Mary with dark skin common throughout Spain, France, Poland and Mexico, is an example of Afrikan cultural influences. However, as Hernández pointed out, Mexican cultural leaders have rejected this Afrikan heritage, choosing instead to “whiten” Mexican literature, film and popular culture from 1920 to 1968, a period he dubbed the “cultural phase of the Mexican Revolution.”
Luz Maria Martinez Montel, in the article entitled “Africa’s Legacy in Mexico: Mexico’s Third Root,” mentioned that the fishing villages of Costa Chica on Mexico’s southwest coast has impromptu performers who regale their audience with songs of romance, tragedy, comedy and social protest, all inspired by local events and characters. At the heart of the songs, named corridos, is a sense of human dignity and a desire for freedom rooted in the lives and history of these Afrikan Mexicans of Costa Chica. The corridos reflect the oral traditions inherited in Afrika. A corrido that brings applause is committed to memory to be sung again and again as an oral chronicle of local life. The lyrics are equally rich in symbols, a tradition that started when singers among the first enslaved Afrikans invented code words to protest the cruelties of the masters.
Montel also noted that the Afrikan imprint in Costa Chica is not confined to music. For dances performed during Holy Week in the streets of Collantes, Oaxaca, performers wear masks that show the clear Afrikan influence. And down on the docks, fishermen still employ methods of work that can be traced to West Africa. The Spanish colonists took full advantage of the technology that Afrikans had developed for work and adapted them to the “New World.” Yet today, many Afrikan contributions to advancing the technologies of agriculture, fishing, ranching and textile-making remain unappreciated in Mexico. Montel concluded that although strongest in Afrikan enclaves like Costa Chica, the Afrikan presence pervades Mexican culture. In story and legend, music and dance, proverb and song, the legacy of Afrika touches the life of every Mexican.
In the article entitled “Africa’s Legacy in Mexico: What is a Mexican?,” Miriam Jimenez Roman discussed how in recent years Yanga in the state of Veracruz on Mexico’s Gulf Coast has received considerable attention as one of the America’s earliest Maroon communities: i.e. settlements founded by enslaved Afrikans who escaped. Originally named San Lorenzo de los Negros, in 1932, the town was renamed for its founder, Yanga, a rebellious Muslim man from what is today known as Nigeria.
Roman also noted that particularly since the Revolution (1910-29), communities like Yanga have not been considered by the white Mexican regimes as worthy of any special attention. The Afrikan Mexican presence has been relegated to an obscured slave past, cast aside in the interest of a national identity based on a mixture of indigenous and European cultural mestizaje – i.e. the idea of the goodness of being classed as racially mixed. However, in practice, Roman argued, this ideology of “racial democracy” favors the European presence; too often, the nation’s glorious indigenous past is reduced to folklore and ceremonial showcasing. But the handling of the Afrikan “third root,” which is represented by more than 200,000 Afrikan Mexicans, is even more dismissive. Since they live as their neighbors do, carry out the same work, eat the same foods, and make the same music, it is assumed that Afrikan Mexicans have assimilated into “Mexican” society. But for Roman, Afrikan Mexicans are Mexican society, as the historical record offers compelling evidence that Afrikans and their descendants contributed enormously to the very formation of Mexican culture.
As Roman further pointed out, when Yanga and his followers founded their settlement, the population of Mexico City consisted of approximately 36,000 Afrikans, 11,600 persons of Afrikan ancestry, and only 14,000 Europeans. Afrikans who escaped added to the overwhelming numbers in the towns, establishing communities in Oaxaca as early as 1523. Beyond their physical presence, Afrikans and their descendants interacted with indigenous and European peoples in forging nearly every aspect of the Mexican society. The states of Guerrero and Morelos bear the names of the last two top commanders of the Mexican liberation movement mentioned earlier. These two Afrikans and many others made possible the founding of the Republic of Mexico.
In his article entitled “Racial Amnesia – African Puerto Rico and Mexico,” Ted Vincent explained that Mexico’s racial amnesia over its Afrikan roots can be traced to the master-slave relationship which, even after slavery was abolished, left the belief that a successful life is one in which one aspires to become white. Mexico’s concept of mestizaje means that it is okay to stop at brown on the way of becoming white.
As an addendum to Vincent’s explanation, racism, combined with economic and political discrimination, is very much alive in Mexico, and it affects even the “brown” people, i.e. the peasantry (not only in Chiapas), a large fraction of which has – maybe deliberately – not integrated into the “mainstream” of the so-called mestizo culture and often refuses to learn or to speak Spanish. The dominant socio-economic force is still made up of people like Fox and previous, even whiter, presidents. The word “Indio” is still an insult, more so than “Negro.”
So, yes, Afrikans have made numerous and valuable contributions to Mexico. Therefore, there are many positive Afrikan Mexican cultural icons from which to draw to be depicted in non-racist memorabilia. As we progressive Afrikans have over the years challenged and continue to challenge racist anti-Mexican monikers and actions, we expect progressive white Mexicans to demand the immediate withdrawal of the Memin Pinguin five-stamp series and to include Afrikan Mexican history in the country’s curricula.
The Black Commentator recommends that everyone interested in this subject visit the Website, Afro-Mexican.