Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Mexico and the African Diaspora

Theodore W. Cohen

This year, Mexico will determine how many of its citizens identify as Afro-Mexican in its 2020 census. Previously, the federal government had only asked about the nation’s African heritage with an intercensal survey conducted in 2015, when 1.4 million people claimed cultural or ancestral roots in Africa.

The last five years sit in stark contrast to the Mexican demographic practices that began with independence in 1821. To create equality under the law, liberal intellectuals, policy makers, and government officials sought to forge a society defined by racial and cultural mixture, or mestizaje. In theory, mestizaje would unify the new nation by ridding it of the discriminatory racial identities created under Spanish colonial rule. It would force indigenous and African-descended communities, as distinct racial groups, to disappear from society. The census played a key role in this so-called anti-racist project. It rendered the descendants of enslaved Africans demographically invisible, incapable of using their racial heritage to negotiate with state institutions. In this context of liberal racelessness (or what some might call a nineteenth-century attempt to achieve a post-racial society), how do we tell the history of blackness in Mexico? I answer this question in Finding Afro-Mexico: Race and Nation after the Revolution.

Scholars, policy makers, and activists typically have thought about modern Mexico’s relationship to the African Diaspora through the lens of black disappearance. In the nineteenth century, state officials and intellectuals assumed that people of African descent, who comprised approximately ten percent of the population on the eve of independence, willingly shed the cultural expressions that would have distinguished them from indigenous and racially mixed citizens.

Yet, to take black demographic and social invisibility as the unquestioned point of departure leaves scholars of modern Mexico in a methodological and historical quandary. If Afro-Diasporic methodologies requires socially visible communities, and if we start with the premise that blackness has disappeared, then it is nearly impossible to explain how and why 1.4 million Mexicans claimed to possess African cultural traits or an African ancestry in 2015. Our sources leave us with an overly simplistic narrative: Mexico left the African Diaspora after independence, only to re-enter it in the last few years, when grassroots organizations and international pressures put a spotlight on the nation’s African heritage.

In the past fifteen years, I have studied the historical relationship between the African Diaspora and Mexican nation-state formation after the Mexican Revolution of 1910. When I began, I realized that I needed to figure out how to approach the nineteenth-century liberal projects that ordained and celebrated black disappearance. Struggling to find archival documents about African-descended communities in the first half of the twentieth century, I concluded that a social history of black disappearance risked casting Mexican constructions of blackness, both elite and popular, as insufficient and inauthentic, as if they had lost their quintessential attributes. Instead, I decided to reveal how artists, historians, composers, ethnographers, policy makers, and local intellectuals constructed blackness from a distinctly Mexican point of view, one rooted in the rejection of biological race, the glorification of racial and cultural mixture, a quest for anti-racism, and assumptions of black demographic invisibility.

Finding Afro-Mexico deconstructs the narrative of racial disappearance by dividing it into its social, demographic, cultural, and spatial dimensions. In the decades immediately following the 1910 Revolution, Mexican and Afro-Diasporic scholars studied and at times celebrated African-descended expressions, like the folk song “La bamba,” in specific regions, especially the states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Veracruz, which possess well-known histories of African slavery. These cultural and spatial constructions of blackness created a discursive space for Mexican intellectuals and local community activists to make blackness a constitutive element of society at the turn of the twenty first century. Blackness had not disappeared as nineteenth-century liberals had predicted, and Mexico had not left the African Diaspora. The 1.4 million people who identified in 2015 as Afro-Mexican prove it.

Finding Afro-Mexico by Theodore W. Cohen

About The Author

Theodore W. Cohen

Theodore W. Cohen is Associate Professor in the History and Geography Department at Lindenwood University, Missouri. ...

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