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Some things to consider (re: “All Things Considered”)

7 February 2016

I have had several computer “challenges” over the last two weeks, and this is on a different machine, with its own quirks and some unfamiliar software.   Apologies in advance for the typos I know infest the piece.  I can’t figure out all the editing functions yet, and some just don’t work like I think they should.

“All Things Considered”, the popular news program from U.S. National Public Radio recently interviewed Luis Ortíz Perez … about whom I know only that he worked mostly with U.S. media (and both the CBC and BBC) before becoming the CEO of an “organization dedicated to producing digital solution for socially responsable projects”.   The subect was the announcement that Afro-Mexicans will be enumerated as a separate class (as Indigenous people were in the 2010 census) in the 2020 census.  This seemed remarkable to the U.S. broadcaster, Ortìz noting that “The last time people of African descent were counted was in the 19th century. The Mexican federal government is arriving late to the party. ”

Two observations.  “Race” itself was a northern European obsession, not one shared by Latin America.  While it is true that under the French-influenced Bourbon dynasty, the Spanish colonial system had a complex racial classification system (Peninsular, Criollo, Mestizo, Mulatto, Zambo, Pardo, Lobo, etc.), our political heritage is largely anti-racial.  The father of our country, José-María Morelos y Pavon, ridiculed the whole notion of “racial” designations, speaking to the Chilpancingo Convention (which wrote the first Constitution that designed all men, regardless of race, as equal) he said:

“We should do away with the picturesque jargon of black, mulatto, mestizo… and etc., and instead view ourselves geographically, calling ourselves Americans for where we are from, as do the English, and the French and that other Europ“We should do away with the picturesque jargon of black, mulatto, mestizo… and etc., and instead view ourselves geographically, calling ourselves Americans for where we are from, as do the English, and the French and that other European country that is oppressing us, and the Asian in Asia and the African in his part of the world.”

The Mexican census never included a category for “Afro-Mexico” after Independence (i.e. in the early 19th century) for the simple reason, it never mattered.  With two our our early presidents (Vicente Guerrero and Juan Alvarez) being either Afro-Mexican or “mulatto” depending on how you look at it, and any number of our major figures (including Lazaro Cardenas and Diego Rivera) thinking nothing of including sub-Saharan Africans in their blood-line, it was interesting to have some Afro-Latino ancestry, but only in that it put one squarely in what 20th century Mexican philospher José Vasconcellos defined as “la raza cósmica”… the “race” of all races (White, red, black, yellow, according the early 20th century categorization).

Ortíz is right in pointing out that there were three (and maybe four) “waves” of African migration to Mexico.  The first, hardly voluntary, was the slave trade of the late 16th to early 19th centuries.  However, slavery was  abolished at Independence, and was never as economically intergral to Mexican agricultura as it was in the United States.  Given that the child of a Mexican slave and a free person was not a slave by birth, even during slave days, Africans were assimilating, marrying free women, or — following emancipation — tended to live in the general community and were not segregated as in the English-speaking world.

A second wave (overlooked by Ortíz) was in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Slaves from the United States self-emanipated not only by heading for Canada, but heading here as well.  With the imposition of “Jim Crow Laws” in the U.S., and the on-going problems with segregation and prejudice in the United States, led African-Americans to move to Mexico up into the 1950s and 60s.

Ortíz considers the migration of small numbers of Africans in the latter period to be related to decolonization in Africa (true in part), but more Afro-Mexicans who trace their ancestry in this country to those years were from West Indian or South American families.  And, of course, Africans are still migrating, either for political or economic reasons, along with West Indians (especially Cubans) and Central Americans of African descent.

While Ortíz sees Mexico “catching up” with the global north in recognizing “race”, I tend to see his remark as simply another example of those who insist we are “backwards” for not sharing the same obsessions as our northern neighbors.  Don´t get me wrong… there isn’t anything sinister in identifying Afro-Mexicans, and in collecting data that permits the state to target certain areas for special consideration.  But I think he misses the rationale, and the importance of what is being proposed.

The only questions on the 2010 census at all related to ethnicity had to do with identifying Indigenous Mexicans.  Defined as those who had a cultural tie to a community dating back before the Conquest (1524), the census also asked those who were self-identified as Indigenous what language their parents spoke.  Most questions on the census (other the standard ones about age, place of birth, number of persons in the household) had to do with living standards:  what kind of floor the house had, what appliances we owned, educational level, etc.). But put those two together, and there is excellent data for arguing that indigneous community have a lower standard of living, and it identified those communities that required special services …. either minority language education, or housing assistance … due a long-neglected and abused community.

There are Afro-Mexican communities that share certain characteristics of indigenous communities, although they do not have an identity going back to before 1524,  Some, like the well-known Afro-Mexicans of Guerrero — descendants of freed or escaped slaves who settled in isolated communities — simply were cut off from the Mexican mainstream.  Others, like the “Black Seminoles” of Chihuahua, migrated en masse from elsewhere, but — like the Mennonites and Mormons — came with a communal identity based on things other than those recognized by our Constitution.

I suppose there is some value in knowing how much of the Mexican population considers itself of African descent… given that we’ve learned that medications tested only on those of north European descent don’t always work the same way on those of other ethnic heritages, but I don’t see that Mexico is so much “arriving late” to the concerns of the global north as it is a case that so much of what is newsworthy to our richer neighbors is that we sometimes do things the way they do… whether needed or not.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Alinde permalink
    7 February 2016 1:36 pm

    I so agree with you. Thanks for that very interesting summary of the history behind this classification. One of my very early attractions to Mexico was based upon this historical truth—that Mexico´s history is so different to that of the USA regarding race. The USA´s past is still causing problems for the USA, and Mexico need not emulate anything along these lines.

  2. DonAlbertoDoyle permalink
    9 February 2016 12:54 am

    Slow…..clap. A splendid essay, thank you.

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