of my mantras to our Afrikan students from both the Motherland
and in the Diaspora
is that we must get rid of the myth of Afrikans being a “minority.” And
that since there are more people on this earth who look like
Whitney than Britney, we have the potential to stop the marginalization
and disrespect we are encountering all over the world if we are
united in our struggle. I also tell them that our struggle against
white and other racists is made more difficult by those Negroes
and Negresses who would, paradoxically, denigrate our folk for
a quick buck or 15 minutes of fame. That white Mexican racism
is rearing its ugly head again because we Afrikans have not been
united in fighting for our folk in Mexico and other countries
in the world is hardly a farfetched proposition.
The most recent racist
act by white Mexicans comes on the heels of the one by their
Fox, the one by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the one
by the Japanese. But the white Mexicans’ racist acts are the
most disturbing, given the numerous and valuable contributions
Afrikans have made in that country.
As reported by David Wooding in The
Underground of June 14, 2005, on June 13, President Putin,
when challenged about his human rights record, stated that
Africans had a history of “cannibalism.” As
Putin put it, “We all know that African countries used to have
a tradition of eating their own adversaries. And we don’t have
such a tradition or process or culture and I believe the comparison
between Africa and Russia is not quite just.” Even a casual
Google search on the Internet would yield many cases of cannibalism
Meanwhile a little further East,
Wallace reported in the Los Angeles Times of June
14, 2005, the Japanese reissued Chibikuro Sambo (“Little
Black Sambo”), a turn-of-the-20th Century illustrated children’s
book with a reputation for racism. The book was a big favorite
of the Japanese from 1953 until it was yanked from bookstores
in 1988 after a massive anti-racism campaign. The challenge against
the book in Japan echoed that in the West years earlier: Sambo
was a long-standing racist term for Afrikans in America, and
illustrator Frank Dobias’ portrayal of the main character, with
his bulging white eyes and exaggerated lips, was deeply offensive.
An estimated 95,000 copies of the book have been sold in just
two months, placing it among the top five adult fiction best
sellers at major Tokyo book chains. Indeed, Sambo itself has
racist implications rather than the story-line.
While Putin’s and Japan’s
defenders have argued that they have little or no experience
with Afrikans, as people of the major societies in this era of
globalization, they ought to be better informed and act accordingly.
White Mexican racism toward Afrikans, on the other hand, cannot
be defended in light of the history of the many and major contributions
Afrikans have made in that country.
In The Washington Post of
June 30, 2005, Darryl Fears reported that the Mexican government
issued a five-stamp series depicting Memin
Pinguin, a dark-skinned Jim Crow-era cartoon character
with greatly exaggerated eyes and lips. This action has infuriated
Afrikan and Hispanic civil rights leaders for the second time
in weeks. In May, Mexican President Vincente Fox had to apologize for
saying that Mexican migrants in the United States work jobs that “even
blacks don’t want.” Still, Fox defended his comment as being
taken out of context.
About the Memin Pinguin stamps,
a spokesperson for the Mexican Embassy is reported by Fears to
have argued that the depiction is a cultural image that has no
meaning and is not intended to offend. But offending Afrikans
is exactly what the action has done. If white Mexicans were honest
about their intentions to commemorate Afrikans, there are many
positive Afrikan Mexican icons from which they can choose.
As the great African scholar Ivan
Van Sertima informed us in his famous book, They
Came Before Columbus, the first civilization of ancient
America was called Olmec, which was located along the Mexican
Gulf Coast and began more than 3,000 years ago. The Olmecs sculpted
the most significant and widely acknowledged sculptural representations
of Afrikans in the Western Hemisphere or “New World.” The very
size of the giant Olmec busts indicates that the persons depicted
were truly important.
In his book entitled African
Mexicans and the Discourse on Modern Nation, Emporia State
University Spanish professor Marco Polo Hernández demonstrated
how white Mexican institutions have systematically erased “Africaness” from
national memory. He also demonstrated that between 55 and 85
percent of Mexicans can trace their families back to enslaved
Afrikans, but that white cultural leaders have actively shunned
Hernández also pointed out that
more than 300,000 enslaved Afrikans were brought to Mexico during
the colonial period (1500s-1829), producing millions of offspring.
Many of the major leaders of the Mexican liberation movement
were Afrikans. They included the last two top commanders of the
movement, José Maria Morelos and Vicente Guerrero, as well as
a significant number of other leaders and troops. In addition,
even the Spanish conquistadors brought Afrikan heritage with
them, as descendants of the Iberians and the Moors of northern
Afrika who occupied Spain during the medieval era. Thus, it is
not surprising that the modern Spanish language still contains
over 4,000 Arabic words.
Furthermore, Hernández found traces
of Afrikan culture in many of Mexico’s national traditions – cultural
icons, foods, music, and national holidays. Moreover, the Black
Virgin, a representation of Virgin Mary with dark skin common
throughout Spain, France, Poland and Mexico, is an example of
Afrikan cultural influences. However, as Hernández pointed out,
Mexican cultural leaders have rejected this Afrikan heritage,
choosing instead to “whiten” Mexican literature, film and popular
culture from 1920 to 1968, a period he dubbed the “cultural phase
of the Mexican Revolution.”
Luz Maria Martinez
Montel, in the article entitled “Africa’s Legacy in Mexico: Mexico’s Third Root,” mentioned
that the fishing villages of Costa Chica on Mexico’s southwest
coast has impromptu performers who regale their audience with
songs of romance, tragedy, comedy and social protest, all inspired
by local events and characters. At the heart of the songs, named corridos,
is a sense of human dignity and a desire for freedom rooted in
the lives and history of these Afrikan Mexicans of Costa Chica.
The corridos reflect the oral traditions inherited in
Afrika. A corrido that brings applause is committed to
memory to be sung again and again as an oral chronicle of local
life. The lyrics are equally rich in symbols, a tradition that
started when singers among the first enslaved Afrikans invented
code words to protest the cruelties of the masters.
Montel also noted
that the Afrikan imprint in Costa Chica is not confined to music.
For dances performed
during Holy Week in the streets of Collantes, Oaxaca, performers
wear masks that show the clear Afrikan influence. And down on
the docks, fishermen still employ methods of work that can be
traced to West Africa. The Spanish colonists took full advantage
of the technology that Afrikans had developed for work and adapted
them to the “New World.” Yet today, many Afrikan contributions
to advancing the technologies of agriculture, fishing, ranching
and textile-making remain unappreciated in Mexico. Montel concluded
that although strongest in Afrikan enclaves like Costa Chica,
the Afrikan presence pervades Mexican culture. In story and legend,
music and dance, proverb and song, the legacy of Afrika touches
the life of every Mexican.
In the article entitled “Africa’s
Legacy in Mexico: What is a Mexican?,” Miriam Jimenez Roman discussed
how in recent years Yanga in the state of Veracruz on Mexico’s
Gulf Coast has received considerable attention as one of the
America’s earliest Maroon communities: i.e. settlements founded
by enslaved Afrikans who escaped. Originally named San Lorenzo
de los Negros, in 1932, the town was renamed for its founder,
Yanga, a rebellious Muslim man from what is today known as Nigeria.
Roman also noted that particularly
since the Revolution (1910-29), communities like Yanga have not
been considered by the white Mexican regimes as worthy of any
special attention. The Afrikan Mexican presence has been relegated
to an obscured slave past, cast aside in the interest of a national
identity based on a mixture of indigenous and European cultural mestizaje – i.e.
the idea of the goodness of being classed as racially mixed.
However, in practice, Roman argued, this ideology of “racial
democracy” favors the European presence; too often, the nation’s
glorious indigenous past is reduced to folklore and ceremonial
showcasing. But the handling of the Afrikan “third root,” which
is represented by more than 200,000 Afrikan Mexicans, is even
more dismissive. Since they live as their neighbors do, carry
out the same work, eat the same foods, and make the same music,
it is assumed that Afrikan Mexicans have assimilated into “Mexican” society.
But for Roman, Afrikan Mexicans are Mexican society, as the historical
record offers compelling evidence that Afrikans and their descendants
contributed enormously to the very formation of Mexican culture.
As Roman further pointed out, when
Yanga and his followers founded their settlement, the population
of Mexico City consisted of approximately 36,000 Afrikans, 11,600
persons of Afrikan ancestry, and only 14,000 Europeans. Afrikans
who escaped added to the overwhelming numbers in the towns, establishing
communities in Oaxaca as early as 1523. Beyond their physical
presence, Afrikans and their descendants interacted with indigenous
and European peoples in forging nearly every aspect of the Mexican
society. The states of Guerrero and Morelos bear the names of
the last two top commanders of the Mexican liberation movement
mentioned earlier. These two Afrikans and many others made possible
the founding of the Republic of Mexico.
In his article entitled “Racial
Amnesia – African Puerto Rico and Mexico,” Ted
Vincent explained that Mexico’s racial amnesia over its Afrikan
roots can be traced to the master-slave relationship which, even
after slavery was abolished, left the belief that a successful
life is one in which one aspires to become white. Mexico’s concept
of mestizaje means that it is okay to stop at brown on
the way of becoming white.
As an addendum to
racism, combined with economic and political discrimination,
is very much alive in Mexico, and it affects even the “brown” people,
i.e. the peasantry (not only in Chiapas), a large fraction of
which has – maybe deliberately – not integrated into the “mainstream” of
the so-called mestizo culture and often refuses to learn or to
speak Spanish. The dominant socio-economic force is still made
up of people like Fox and previous, even whiter, presidents.
The word “Indio” is still an insult, more so than “Negro.”
So, yes, Afrikans have made numerous
and valuable contributions to Mexico. Therefore, there are many
positive Afrikan Mexican cultural icons from which to draw to
be depicted in non-racist memorabilia. As we progressive Afrikans
have over the years challenged and continue to challenge racist
anti-Mexican monikers and actions, we expect progressive white
Mexicans to demand the immediate withdrawal of the Memin Pinguin five-stamp
series and to include Afrikan Mexican history in the country’s
The Black Commentator recommends
that everyone interested in this subject visit the Website, Afro-Mexican.
Abdul Karim Bangura is a researcher-in-residence
at the Center for Global Peace and a professor of International
Relations in the School of International Service at American
University in Washington, DC. He holds a Ph.D. in Political
Science, a Ph.D. in Development Economics, a Ph.D. in Linguistics,
and a Ph.D. in Computer Science. He is the author of 47 books
and more than 350 scholarly articles. E-mail him at: [email protected] or [email protected],
or go to his website.