Despite Victories, the Fight for Afro-Mexican Recognition Has a Way to Go

Anaí Herrera, one of the leading dancers of the Afro-Mexican dance group of Oaxaca. Screen capture of a report made by Gustavo Mora for AJ+ on YouTube.

As occurs in many parts of Latin America, Mexicans of African descent have been ignored for decades. The common citizen does not acknowledge them as an ethnic group with unique characteristics, and until recently there was no place to identify as an African descendant on the census.

In 2015, Mexico's National Institute of Statistics (INEGI) finally recognized their existence, defining them as a community with an ethnic identity of their own. Nevertheless, Afro-Mexicans continue to be left out of the legal framework of the country, and are not recognized by the Constitution of the United States of Mexico. In its second article, the constitution refers to the free will and autonomy of indigenous people, but the text makes no mention of people of African descent.

According to INEGI, Afro-Mexicans are located mainly in the states Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Veracruz. The institute's “Socio-Demographic Profile of the Population fo African Descent in Mexico” reports 1,381,853 African descendants in Mexico, or, one out of every 100 Mexican citizens. Guerrero reports 6.5% of its population as being Afro-Mexicans, Oaxaca follows with 4.9%, and Veracruz has 3.3%.

Afro-Mexicans face many of the same prejudices and stereotypes that populations of African descent suffer throughout all of Latin America. They are not represented on a political level, and they are marginalized, with limited access to services such as education. Their history is not documented and therefore is absent from the school curriculum. In general, Afro-Mexicans experience discriminatory treatment daily, which can include jokes, humiliation, and even doubts about their citizenship.

Likewise, Afro-Mexicans are poorly represented in traditional media, which studies have highlighted as an influential factor in the discrimination they encounter.

Nevertheless, Afro-Mexicans are far from ignoring their roots, and there are groups devoted to celebrating Afro-Mexican identity and bringing recognition to ancestral traditions. For example, a brief report by AJ+ published in December 2016 shows a group of women in Oaxaca who recreate dances from northeast Africa with the help of YouTube:

And in August 2017, the video channel spotlighted the Movement of Afro-Mexican Women, in which three Afro-Mexican women describe their personal process of self-recognition and how they've organized together to demand recognition as a whole for their community:

Many of the comments that the video generated on Facebook were negative, and in a way confirmed the struggle for recognition that the women were describing.

Some comments demonstrated the difficulty of accepting Afro-Mexicans as part of the national demographic map with a separate name:

Mi pensamiento es que son mexicanas y ya no importa que sean morenas o blancas son mexicanas y punto así como muchas comunidades indígenas simplemente por haber nacido en territorio mexicano son mexicanos y punto así que a las mujeres que hablan en el vídeo eso es lo que pienso y punto.!

I think that [these women] are Mexicans and it doesn't matter if they're dark skinned or white, they're Mexicans and that's it; just like many indigenous communities that simply because they were born in Mexican territory are Mexicans and that's it. So, to the women of the video, that's what I think and that's it!.

Others thought the recognition of Afro-Mexicans would contribute to the separation of people based on race:

¿Por qué esa necedad de hacer diferencias por razas? Humanidad es una y nuestro México es pluricultural, lo cual está plenamente reconocido en la Constitución, en la cual no se señalan las etnías existentes o no. Se les reconoce plenamente con la Ley de usos y costumbres. Me parece que ese movimiento “Afro mexicano”, no es sino querer seguir el existente en EU, puesto que allá las raíces de su gente está muy señalada, pero en el nuestro, nuestras raíces son una rica unión de “razas”, etnias, usos, costumbres y tradiciones. Somos una sola Nación con un solo pueblo: los mexicanos. Ahora que si de raíces hablamos, TODA la humanidad tiene sus raíces en África ¿o acaso ya se olvidaron de “Lucy”?

Why the need to make differences based on race? Humanity is one and our Mexico is multicultural. That's widely acknowledged by the constitution. I think that this “Afro-Mexican” movement is nothing but wanting to follow the same movement in the US, since the roots of that people is well known out there. But ours, our roots are a rich union of “races”, ethnicities, customs and traditions. We're one nation with one people: the Mexicans. Now, if we talk about roots, ALL humanity has its roots in Africa, or did you forget about “Lucy“?

Other comments denied certain signs of racism against the African-descendant population in Mexico, and highlighted, on the contrary, discrimination against white people:

A mi me descriminan por ¡ser rubia! Todo me dan más caro en los mercados y donde me pare. Por ser blanca te tachan de idiota. ¿acaso el ser blanca es sinónimo de tener billetes? ¡Que bonito fuera! Además con tantas ednias en el país yo tengo sangre francesa, china, alemana, mexicana. ¿A cual me dirijo?…
Ser víctima por el color, en este país para mi no aplica ya en estos tiempos. sentirte bella del color que seas si.

I get discriminated against for being blond! They sell everything more expensive to me in markets or wherever I go. When you're white, they think you're an idiot. Is being white a synonym of having money? That would be nice! Besides, with so many ethnicities in the country, I have French, Chinese, German and Mexican blood. Which one do I keep? Being a victim because of the color of your skin in this country, these days, I think, is not valid, what is valid is to feel beautiful no matter what color you are.

Also, another comment argued that racism in Mexico is contradictory and that it is not exclusively against people of African descent:

En México el racismo no es a la raza negra. Es a cualquiera q sea un poco diferente , pero q no sea indigena pq ahi si es un pecado. Nos enseñan a querer la cultura indígena, a estar orgullosos de nuestros antepasados, pero no al indígena, ni nos mencionan q ellos son descendientes directos de las culturas antiguas y q hay q respetarlos.

Racism in Mexico is not against people with black skin. It's against anyone who's a bit different… But God forbid if it's against indigenous peoples! We're taught to love indigenous cultures, to be proud of our ancestors, but not [to love or to be proud of] indigenous peoples [of today]. They don't tell us they're direct descendants of those cultures and that we should respect them.

The reality is that Afro-Mexicans are discriminated against, no matter what the law says, according to Israel López Larrea, the coordinator of the Alliance for the Strengthening of the Indigenous Regions and Afro-Mexican Communities (or AFRICA for short).

In a note shared by Margarita Warnholtz Locht (also known as La Tlacuila, which means “painter” or “illustrator” in náhuatl) on independent news site Animal Político, López Larrea stated:

Hay quienes dicen que ante la ley todos somos iguales, todos somos mexicanos y que pensar diferente es ser discriminatorio o racista. Quienes esto aseveran es porque seguramente no les han sido violentados sus derechos, efectivamente ante la ley todos somos iguales, sin embargo, si esta letra fuera efectiva, no habría necesidad alguna de estar pugnando por nuestros derechos, pero cuando no eres libre de andar en tu propio país, cuando hay necesidad de que por tu apariencia física tengas que cantar el himno nacional o presentar la credencial, cuando por tu apariencia tienes que saber quién es el gobernador de tu estado y en qué estación del año se dan determinados productos ahí es en donde te das cuenta de que no todos somos iguales ante la ley y que es necesaria la exigencia de nuestros derechos.

There are those who say that before the law we are all equal, we are all Mexican and to think differently is to be discriminatory or racist. Those who assert this surely have not had their rights violated. Effectively before the law we are all equal, however, if this statement were effective, there would be no need to fight for our rights, but when you are not free to move around your own country, when there is a need to sing the national anthem or present your identification because of your physical appearance, or, because of your appearance, you need to know the governor of your state and in what season of the year certain products are available, there you realize that we're not all the same in face of the law, and that demanding our rights is a necessity.

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