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‘Silence and invisibility hide under the sham that is Mexico’s racial intermixing’

Scarlet Estrada. Photo: Afroféminas. Used with permission.

The following is a republication of an interview made by Valeria Angola and originally published by collective site Afroféminas. The piece has been re-edited and published by Global Voices with permission.

Scarlet Estrada is a Mexican anthropologist and a student of journalism in the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Her work studies the sexualization of black women in Mexico City. She has also participated in numerous events discussing human rights and debating the self-determination of black peoples. Estrada has been actively advocating for the recognition of Afro-descendant communities in Mexico City statistics, in order for Mexico's National Statistics and Geography Institute to take these figures into account in the upcoming 2020 census.

In this conversation, Estrada explores what lies behind the idea of belonging in Afro-descendant communities, and the difficulty of the process in a country like Mexico, where the national imaginary excludes and invisibilizes Afro-Mexicans.

Valeria Angola: When did you begin acknowledging yourself as an Afro-Mexican woman?

Scarlet Estrada: Reconocerse es un proceso inacabado. La gente siempre ha señalado la diferencia toda mi vida. Esto significa, claramente, que no soy igual a los demás. Recuerdo que desde chiquita me preguntaban de dónde era. Siempre me cuestionaban mi nacionalidad. Eso hace que este proceso de autoreconocerte sea constante, y más en México, donde las poblaciones afrodescendientes están invisibilizadas.

Scarlet Estrada: It's a never ending process. People has always pointed out how I was different all my life. That means, clearly, I'm not the same as the others. I remember that since a very young age people always asked where I was from. My nationality was always questioned. That makes this acknowledgement process an ongoing thing, particularly in Mexico, where Afro-descendant communities are invisibilized.

VA: At what point did you get closer to understanding the reasons behind this?

SE: Nunca me había puesto a reflexionar hasta que entré a estudiar antropología. En una de las clases de segundo semestre de antropología, el profesor llevó a una chica colombiana que hablaba sobre el cabello afro y el afrofeminismo. La chica comenzó a hablar sobre su cabello, sobre el significado de dejarlo suelto, de dejarlo rizo, dejarlo libre, porque dejarlo libre significaba para ella liberar una parte que estaba oprimida. Ella decía que siempre se había sentido obligada a cambiar su pelo para poder ser aceptada, para encajar en la sociedad. Yo también pasé por esto en la infancia y en la adolescencia.

SE: I had never thought about it until I started studying anthropology. In one of my classes during the second semester, the professor invited a young woman from Colombia to tell us about afro hair and afro-feminism. This woman spoke about her hair, about the significance of letting it down, leaving it curly, letting it loose, because for her setting it free meant freeing a part [of her] that had been oppressed. She said that she had always felt forced to change her hair in order to be accepted, to fit in with society. I also went through this during my childhood and adolescence.

VA: Is that how you discovered that you were black? 

SE: Creo que siempre lo supe, pero nunca lo había nombrado. Veía las caricaturas de Barbie y siempre me identificaba con la más morenita, por el cabello chino. Veía cualquier serie y siempre me identificaba con los personajes negros. Más a fondo, creo que también tuvo que ver cuando la gente afromexicana comenzó a reconocerme. Tú sabes lo que eres porque te reflejas en los demás.

SE: I think I always knew, it’s more like I hadn’t given it a name. I used to watch the Barbie cartoons and I always identified with the brownest, because of the curly hair. In any TV show I saw, I would relate to the black characters. Furthermore. I think it also had something to do with Afro-Mexican people beginning to acknowledge me…you know what you are because you see yourself reflected in others.

VA: What does it mean to acknowledge yourself in that way in Mexico? 

SE: Significa dar cuenta de poblaciones que han sido invisibilizadas por muchos años. Insisto, se debe abrazar y aceptar la diferencia, y empoderarse [con ella] también. No tratar de acoplar tu cuerpo a bellezas que no te corresponden. Además, creo que reconocerse implica no solo decir que eres afro. En lo personal, implica también tomar conciencia de las desigualdades, discriminaciones y racismos que se viven con lo afro y con el resto de las poblaciones indígenas de México.

SE: It means realizing that populations have been made invisible for many years. Again, we should embrace and accept what’s different, empowering ourselves too. We should not try make our bodies and everything else fit into other types of beauty that do not pertain to us. Furthermore, I believe recognizing one belongs to an Afro community also means becoming aware of the inequalities, discrimination, and racism that are experienced, among the African and the rest of Mexico’s indigenous populations. 

VA: How does that feel?

SE: [Me siento] libre y empoderada. Ya no siento culpa de tener este traserote grande y hermoso, ya no tengo culpas porque mi cabello se rice. Me siento muy liberada, amando tener este cuerpo. A veces me conflictúa, pero es genial poder darle nombre a esas violencias que sufrimos específicamente las mujeres negras. Tengo la libertad y el poder de nombrar esas violencias y luchar contra ellas.

SE: I feel free and empowered. I no longer feel guilty about having this big and beautiful butt; I no longer feel guilty because my hair curls. I feel very liberated, with love, loving this body. Sometimes I get conflicted, but it’s great to be able to give a name to the abuse that specifically us black women suffer. I have the freedom and the power to put a name to that abuse and fight against it.

VA: How would you describe the functioning of racism in Mexico?

SE: Si bien en México el racismo puede ser evidente de maneras muy explícitas —como cuando se arremete en las redes sociales contra Yalitza Aparicio cada vez que sale modelando en la portada de alguna revista—, también opera de forma muy silenciosa cuando se omite de la historia nacional la participación política, social y cultural de las personas negras. Se dice que en México no hay negros, pero esto no es cierto.

¿Para qué le sirvió el nacionalismo a México sino para acallar las voces y negar las pieles negras de las personas esclavizadas que llegaron de África? El silencio y la invisibilidad son violencias que se esconden bajo el embauco del mestizaje y la democracia racial. El mestizaje como biopolítica negó los cuerpos negros de este territorio.

Hoy, estos cuerpos rebeldes se levantan, hablan, se reúnen, discuten entre ellos y se organizan para reconfigurar las dinámicas discursivas populares que niegan su presencia. La gente negra de México existe, ¡aquí estamos!

Even though racism in Mexico can be evident in very explicit ways — like when there are attacks on social media against actress Yalitza Aparicio every time she appears in a magazine cover — it also comes about silently when the political, social, and cultural participation of black people is omitted from the national history. People say that there are no black people in Mexico. That's not true.

What purpose did nationalism serve Mexico if not to silence the voices and deny the black skin of the enslaved peoples who came from Africa? Silence and invisibility hide under the sham that is Mexico’s racial intermixing and its racial democracy. Intermixing as biopolitics denied the existence of black communities in this land. Today these rebellious communities rise up, talk, meet, discuss among themselves, and organize to reconfigure the popular discursive dynamics that deny their presence. Black people in Mexico exist: here we are!   

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