Afro-Mexicans want legal recognition in Mexico’s National Constitution
By Walter Thompson-Hernández
The myth of the Latin American racial democracy, scholars believe, began in Brazil following the abolishment of slavery in 1888, when government officials declared that high rates of racial mixing had officially absolved the nation of its racial problems. This thinking eventually transcended Brazil and spread to a host of other Latin America countries, including Mexico.
But Mexico had its own nuanced understanding of the Latin American racial democracy – one called mestizaje, that was created by government officials, intellectuals, and artists following the 1910 Mexican Revolution: the erroneous belief that Mexico’s ethnic and racial mixture was solely composed of indigenous and European ancestry. This was also a time period when Mexico’s citizenry began to believe that “Mexicanness” and blackness were mutually exclusive and could not co-exist. Mestizaje, however, did not only exclude blackness from its national patrimony, but also left out a host of other racial identities from Mexico’s conversation about race.
Today, the effects of these racial systems continue to disproportionately impact the descendants of the enslaved Africans brought to Mexico between the 16th and 18th centuries. Afro-Mexicans, in states like Veracruz, Guerrero, and Oaxaca, not only continue to experience structural, economic and political neglect, but also exist in a country where they are not formally recognized as a distinct ethnic and racial group. (To that end, Mexico and Chile are the only two countries in Latin America that do no formally recognize their Afro-descendants). While Afro-Mexicans continue to receive an increase in international recognition, domestically their treatment still serves as a vivid reminder of the clear racial disparities that this population faces.
Recently, member’s of Mexico Negro – an Afro-Mexican advocacy organization – launched a national movement to officially recognize Mexico’s Afro-descendants on the national census. The proposed bill would create a census category for Afro-Mexicans, which would help ensure that Mexico’s African descendants receive important access to social and economic resources. “We are joining senators and deputies to be recognized in the Federal Constitution and the missing federal states, so that the Mexican state pays off its historical debt with Afro-Mexicans,” explained, Sergio Peńaloza Perez, the leader of Black-Mexico. The bill also plans to be launched later this month in Oaxaca, Mexico at the 16th annual meeting of Black peoples taking place on November 13-14th.
While this bill potentially signifies a change in the political treatment of Afro-Mexicans, it represents only one step in the fight to eradicate the Mexican state’s racist treatment of its Afro-descendants. Still, the acknowledgement of Afro-Mexicans on the national census could potentially represent the beginning of long overdue movement for political, economic, and racial equity for a group who continues to gain international recognition, but, who by not being officially recognized, continues to live in an “invisible” state in its own country.
Video:The Global African- A Mexican Afro Presence
Mexican Ways, African Roots
Most of the city’s Hispanic residents are natives of a region populated by descendants of black slaves
By Lisa Hoppenjans and Ted Richardson
Sunday, June 19, 2005
WINSTON-SALEM, NC-Bobby Vaughn, who has studied the Afro-Mexican people, observes life among Afro-Mexicans living in Plantation Park Apartments in Winston-Salem.
Children fresh off school buses run through the door, clutching the dollar bills that their mothers gave them to pick up milk or bread. They use the change to buy Jolly Ranchers, Tootsie Rolls and bubble gum out of the buckets that line the counter.
Men, their clothes dirty from construction work, stroll in and pay 25 cents for single cigarettes to start their afternoons.
Women with babies on their hips navigate the narrow aisles, rounding up staples for that night’s dinner – chorizo or ham, tortillas or bread, black beans or baked beans.
Amid the bustle at Titi’s Convenience Store in Skyline Village apartment complex, the Mexicans and blacks brush by each other in the aisles, yet exchange few words.
Though Mexican and black children in the apartment complex play together – a love of riding Hot Wheels spans cultures – the adults live side by side in different worlds. They are separated by language, suspicion and stereotypes. But these neighbors have more in common than they realize.
Depending on the day, the radio may be playing mariachi music or hip-hop, a nod to store owner Marina Arrellanes’ son, Rey David, who works with her when he’s not in school. “My son likes that music,” she said. “His friends are all black.”
While a Mexican woman sifts through a bin of green peppers and tomatoes, Arrellanes rings up a sale for a black man buying Ruffles and a Mountain Dew. She doesn’t tell him that he is the same color as her grandfather.
Mexicans pride themselves on their mestizo culture. They are proud of the mixture of indigenous and European heritage that most Mexicans share. But there is another source of mestizo heritage that is less recognized – African slaves.
Their descendants, Afro-Mexicans, inhabit the Costa Chica, a narrow, coastal region stretching 200 miles along the Pacific Ocean in southern Mexico. Many Mexicans don’t even know they exist. Afro-Mexicans are estimated to make up less than 1 percent of Mexico’s population of 105 million, but they are a majority of the 30,000 Hispanics that officials have estimated to be living in Forsyth County.
Bobby Vaughn, an assistant professor of sociology at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, Calif., has studied the Afro-Mexicans of the Costa Chica and done research in Winston-Salem. Vaughn estimates that about 80 percent of Winston-Salem’s Hispanic population is from the Costa Chica.
Vaughn learned of Afro-Mexicans when he spent two semesters in Mexico City studying Spanish and political science in the early 1990s.
He scraped up some money for a bus ride to the coast of the Mexican state of Guerrero during his spring break. He arrived in Caujinicuilapa, known as Cuaji, the largest town in the region, on a hot day.
“I saw black people, and I was dumbfounded,” he said. “I saw old men who looked like my grandfather.”
A single pioneer
Patterns of Mexican migration to specific cities in the United States often can be traced to a single pioneer. By most accounts, the story of how Afro-Mexicans arrived in Winston-Salem begins with Biterbo Calleja-Garcia. In 1978, Calleja-Garcia was working in Tejas Ranchos, Texas, when a coyote, a guide who helps illegal immigrants cross the border, told him that there was more money to be made in North Carolina.
“Who knows how he knew to bring me here, but he knew,” Calleja-Garcia said. “He said, ‘You’re gonna make a lot of money there.'”
In fact, he began earning $3.35 an hour working 17 acres of tobacco with his two sisters off Union Cross Road. They lived in a trailer on the farm and worked from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. May through November. They returned to Mexico during the off-season.
Calleja-Garcia spread the word to friends and relatives back home in Cuaji and to many who were already working in Santa Ana, Calif. In Winston-Salem, he told them, there is work.
For 10 years, Calleja-Garcia had the same boss in North Carolina. In 1988, he got his papers to work legally in the United States. He stopped annual returns to Mexico in 1989 and took a job in roofing. Soon, he switched to a construction job, pouring cement for a company in Kernersville, earning $4 an hour, then $6. He started renting a two-bedroom house in the Waughtown section of Winston-Salem with about 12 others who came from California.
“After that, many that I didn’t know began to come,” he said.
Most, like Calleja-Garcia, crossed the border illegally. Some are paid off the books; others get fake work documents or work under false names. Others come legally on a temporary work visa. And some, again like Calleja-Garcia, attain legal working status at some point after they get here.
In Winston-Salem, the immigrants moved into jobs in construction, into factories packaging T-shirts and toiletries, and assembling window frames and drainage pipes for swimming pools. They moved into bakeries and the kitchens of restaurants. They opened their own restaurants and shops, hiring family members and friends.
Calleja-Garcia stuck with construction. In 1992, he found a job pouring concrete for a company in Archdale. His starting pay was $9.50 an hour, and he wound up helping build megastores such as Home Depot, Lowe’s and Wal-Mart along Hanes Mall Boulevard. By the time he was laid off in 2002, he was earning $18 an hour.
He found work with a construction company in Greenville, S.C., and returned to Winston-Salem on the weekends. The travel was worth it. In Cuaji, a day laborer might earn 120 pesos, or $10 a day, half of what he was earning per hour in North Carolina.
In Cuaji, the name Winston-Salem is familiar.
A North Carolina license plate hangs on the blue pickup truck of a fisherman who used to work in a bakery in Winston-Salem. In a pool hall, a Carolina blue baseball cap stands out amid a sea of cowboy hats. A man wearing a Duke T-shirt works on a ranch, roping cattle to be vaccinated.
Many residents have spent some time working in Winston-Salem, while others have friends or family members here now. Those who have returned or remained behind said they prefer the open spaces of Mexico’s small towns and the absence of the rules and regulations found in the United States.
The Afro-Mexicans know that they look different from their countrymen, but they have only recently begun to truly understand their heritage.
The people have their own story about how blacks came to live in the Costa Chica region. The story, passed down by mothers and grandmothers for generations, tells of a shipload of slaves that crashed at Punta Maldonado, a rocky beach 20 miles from Cuaji.
The slaves are said to have sought refuge in the surrounding hot and densely wooded region. These escaped slaves formed small, isolated communities, one of the largest being Caujinicuilapa. Over generations, the slaves mixed with native Mexicans. Some people believe that the descendants of these original slaves – thought to be no more than 200 in number – now populate the entire Costa Chica.
Marina Roman told the shipwreck story to her teenage son, Silvestre, one afternoon in the living room of their small apartment in Skyline Village.
Silvestre was skeptical.
“We’re from Aztec warriors,” insisted Silvestre, whose classmates mistook him for an African-American when he started school in the U.S.
Then explain why the people in this part of Mexico are so dark, his mother responded.
“It’s all because of the sun,” Silvestre said.
Historians tell a different story. Many agree that the first blacks arrived to the Costa Chica in the second half of the 16th century in the company of a Spanish slaver, el Mariscal de Castilla.
In the Afro-Mestizo Museum in Cuaji, one of the town’s most well-maintained buildings, Hector Senteno Mejia, a history student from the University of Toluca in Mexico, studied a floor-to-ceiling map depicting slave-trade routes from Africa to Central and South America.
“The majority of people in Mexico don’t know about Afro-Mexicans,” said Mejia, who was in Cuaji for two weeks studying the remnants of African culture that remain there.
Mejia disputed the shipwreck myth. He said that slaves came from Guinea and Congo, by way of Patagonia and settled more widely and more systematically in the Costa Chica.
“Blacks were too dispersed throughout the region to have come from the same shipwreck,” he said.
In recent years, there has been a new emphasis among some in Mexico, and some outside, on recognizing the African roots of those in the Costa Chica.
According to Vaughn, political organization of Afro-Mexicans began during the 1990s. On the public level, Mexico’s Federal Office of Popular Culture funded a program called Nuestra Tercera Raiz (Our Third Root) that explored black presence throughout Mexico. It also funded the Afro-Mestizo Museum, which opened in 1999. A grass-roots movement, led by a priest from Trinidad, Father Glyn Jemmott, simultaneously gained momentum.
Arturo Cruz Montero, who owns a casket store in Cuaji, said he thinks that about half the people in the town are interested in their African heritage. Montero attended an annual gathering to discuss Afro-Mexicans and their heritage in Cuaji in March 2002. He said that there were white and black visitors, many of them academics from the U.S. He said that the meeting drew 600 people, nearly six times the number who had attended the first such “Encuentro” in 1997.
“It’s beautiful when your children know where they are from,” he said.
Getting past barriers
The cultural differences are evident every day in Skyline Village, as are the simple ways that people try to get beyond those barriers – and sometimes succeed.
One warm spring day atTiti’s Convenience Store, a young black woman fanned herself with her hand, telling Arrellanes, “es caliente,” using a Spanish word for “hot.” But caliente means “spicy,” a different type of hot. Arrellanes gently corrected her. “Es calor,” she said.
At least once a day, Arrellanes is affectionately called “Miss Titi” by her black customers, who take their a cue from the misspelled sign out front – “Titi’s Convience Store.” Arrellanes laughed as she explained the origin of the store’s name. Titi was a nickname she gave her son. It’s a type of small monkey.
On a Saturday in March, a black baseball coach, Arthur Green, went door-to-door in the apartment complex, recruiting players for Little League tryouts later that day at a nearby park. He did not speak Spanish, and the Mexicans greeted him with suspicion as he explained why he was there. Suspicion is a constant for those here illegally when an American stranger knocks on the door. None of the Mexicans sent their children to the tryouts.
One night, Tequilla Wilson, a young black woman attending Winston-Salem State University, met some of her Mexican neighbors one night in a desperate effort to complete her Spanish homework. She wandered around the complex, searching for anyone who could help her out. Some Mexican neighbors kindly obliged.
For the most part, the blacks and Mexicans keep to themselves. The apartment complex, once named Columbia Terrace, was built about 1950 as the first low-income housing project in the city. For years, its residents were predominantly black, but in the 1990s Hispanics began to move in. The process has accelerated in the past four years, and today the complex’s 169 units are about evenly split between blacks and Mexicans, mostly from the Costa Chica.
In this and other neighborhoods around the city, Mexicans and blacks live side by side, a condition that can create tension.
The city’s human-relations department investigates and mediates complaints of discrimination and studies and promotes ways to increase positive community relations.
Director Wanda Allen-Abraha said that her department has heard “all kinds of misconceptions and stereotypes” about Hispanics and blacks.
Some blacks, Allen-Abraha said, complain that Hispanics get special tax breaks or are able to get business loans more easily than blacks. They say that Hispanics pack too many people into one house or apartment.
On the other hand, Allen-Abraha said, Hispanics complain that African-Americans have too many children out of wedlock, are all on welfare, and resent the Hispanics for taking jobs.
Allen-Abraha said she attributes much of the tension to economic factors.
“We have had a lot of downsizings and closings in our region,” she said. “With the general overall downturn of the economy, I think that’s making people compete even more for jobs.”
She predicted that as black, Hispanic and white children grow into adults, relationships between the city’s ethnic groups will improve and there will be a greater acceptance of other cultures.
“I think you’ll see a change in attitude,” she said. “I don’t think people will have much of a choice.”
As a start, the city’s Human Relations Commission and the Winston-Salem chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People are sponsoring a forum Thursday at 6 p.m. at El Cordero de Dios Moravian Church at Waughtown and Peachtree streets to encourage dialogue between the two groups.
In some ways, the forum is an acknowledgment that the Mexicans, who have slowly come to dominate areas of town, are here to stay.
Marina Arrellanes certainly is.
She works at her store seven days a week, 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., except on Saturday and Sunday, when she opens at 9. She worked on Easter and on Christmas.
The morning of April 7, though, Arrellanes locked the door of Titi’s at 7:30 a.m. She was wearing a light pink dress and clutching a big, black purse and a stack of papers.
Today, she would become a citizen.
The room at the Charlotte Sub Office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services slowly filled with 60 citizens-to-be from 33 countries. Most had entourages of family and friends armed with disposable cameras and flowers. Arrellanes was alone. Her son was at school, her husband at work.
She tucked a small American flag into her purse as she took her oath.
Citizenship means that she can work permanently in the country where she has already lived for 16 years. It means that she can always stay here with her three children – two of whom are citizens and one who is working on her citizenship application. Most of all, it means that she can bring her mother, whom she hasn’t seen in four years, to the United States for a visit, even if, as she learned later, she must wait a year to do so.
After her swearing-in, Arrellanes returned to Winston-Salem for a short, celebratory lunch at a Mexican restaurant.
By early afternoon, she had reopened Titi’s, slightly overdressed, her half-day vacation over.
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