One 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
The most recent racist act by white
Mexicans comes on the heels of the one by their President Vicente
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 in Russia.
Meanwhile a little further East, as
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 in dealing 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 this identity.
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 Vincent’s explanation,
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 curricula.
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.