What is it like to be a person of African descent in Mexico? Like most descendants of the Diaspora – it’s complicated. Living in a country that does not recognize race or their unique ancestral past, and being a part of a history steeped in mystery, many Black Mexicans are seeking to define and uncover their identity. UnivisionTV — the largest Spanish speaking television network — delves into this topic in a new documentary: “Quienes son los Afro-Mexicanos?” (Who are the Afro-Mexicans?). Co-produced by Arizona based, husband and wife multimedia/photography team, Hakeem Khaaliq and Queen Muhammad Ali, the two-part documentary is a compilation of photos and video footage from their many travels to Mexico. The documentary also features commentary from journalist and historian, Luis Manuel Ortiz.
Khaaliq and Ali have two have traveled to the country on over 40 cultural expeditions among researchers and historians between 1996-2011, capturing archeological monuments and images of the country’s Black and Indigenous peoples. Much of the their travels were in areas known as “pueblos negros” (black towns) in Costa Chica, Oaxaca, Guerrero and Veracruz — all known for their large population of Afro-Mexicans. Initially their work was compiled into a book titled “Invisible Mexico” — a labor of love, set to be donated to the Museo de las Culturas Afromestizos. The photos caught the eye of artist Gennaro Garcia who is a curator for Univision galleries. The photos were first compiled into an exhibit, and soon the network asked the couple to co-produce the two-part documentary.
“Our original goal was to show the beauty of these forgotten people who live in what are called ghost towns. [Many] of the people don't know much of their history, past being brought to the areas as slaves,” said co-producer, Hakeem Khaaliq. He recounted an incident during one of the trips where a strikingly beautiful, dark-skinned Afro-Mexican woman cried after watching a presentation from historian Runoko Rashidi as he showcased the vast impact of the African presence throughout the world. The woman shed tears as she recounted how she had internalized ideas that she was ugly and inferior growing up, not knowing much of her ancestral ties.
Many may be surprised to learn of the heavy African presence and cultural connections in Mexico. It’s a history that’s still unfolding, often unknown or diminished in the larger cultural discourse of Mexico. Research suggests that after much of the indigenous population became crippled by disease from Spanish colonizers, between 200,000 to 500,000 African slaves were imported into Mexico in the 16th and 17th centuries to work in silver mines, sugar plantations, and cattle ranches. Some accounts say many were also runaway slaves. Adding to the mystique, Black Mexicans are not accounted for on the national census, which does not recognize race.
In Costa Chica (an area along Mexico’s pacific coast) until recently, many homes in the area were round mud and thatch huts, which can be traced back to cultures along Africa’s west coast. There are stories that the people of this area are descendents of slaves who settled there after a shipwreck or that they are the descendents of slaves freed for fighting in the Mexican War of Independence. The region has a distinct African-influenced dance called the Danza de los Diablos (Dance of the Devils) where they dance in the streets in costumes and masks accompanied by rhythmic music. It is considered to be a mixture of Mexican Catholic and West African traditions. The region is also home to the Museo de las Culturas Afromestizos, a museum which documents the history and culture of the African/Indigenous people of the area.
The town of Yanga in the state of Veracruz is named after Gaspar Yanga, who was rumored to be a prince from a royal family from Gabon that was captured and enslaved. In the 1570s, he lead slave revolts against the Spanish and was so successful that they gave him his own area in order to get him to stop raiding and killing Spanish soldiers. Today, a yearly celebration takes place in the town, including parades with people on floats dressed in black face.
The UnivisionTV documentary is an intriguing look into this rich history, that is still unfolding. You learn that Black Mexicans are experiencing many of common effects of slavery — enforced Eurocentric standards of beauty, a lack of knowledge of their roots — but more importantly, you can see the beauty of a people who are striving to learn and define who they are.
As we’re learning more of our ties to our people throughout Latin America, thanks in part to Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s recent series “Black in Latin America” and the growth in African diasporic research, the documentary serves as yet another opportunity to further discover the commonalities and unique challenges of Afro-Mexicans.
“We want the stories of the people we met during our travels to be told and discussed,” said Khaaliq. “It’s time for us to connect and learn.”
Check local listings for Univision documentary airing. English subtitles are available.
Shahida Muhammad is a freelance writer inspired by life, culture, and all the details in between. Follow @ShahidaMuhammad on Twitter.