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Culture : A Rich African Heritage Comes Alive Deep in Mexico : It is particularly evident along La Costa Chica on the Pacific shore, where blacks are rediscovering their ancestry.

April 27, 1993|JUANITA DARLING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHACAHUA, Mexico — An hour of skimming along waterways bordered by mangroves leads to a village of palm huts and canoes called pangas , made from hollowed-out tree trunks.

Tropical music blares from a doorway. The feeling is more Caribbean than Mexican, especially when village children run down to greet the arriving boat.

Instead of the long, straight hair and bronze skin typical in Indian villages, these children have short, curly locks and deep brown complexions. They are the newest generation of an ethnic group whose history has received short shrift in a country that prides itself on its Indian and Spanish heritages.

Chacahuans are descended from African slaves, brought to Mexico in colonial times to work on plantations and in mines after the Spanish crown ruled that Indians could not be enslaved. Refugee slaves gave the country its first free black city, Yanga, and their offspring supplied the African title of the popular Mexican song, "La Bamba."

In 1810, just before independence, Africans and their descendants accounted for more than 10% of the population of New Spain, as Mexico was then known. The colonial caste system classified people into categories--such as mestizo pardo (half Indian, a quarter black, a quarter white) or indio alobado (1/16th black, the rest Indian)--that defined their ancestors four generations back.

Rejecting that rigid caste system, the modern Mexican census does not classify citizens by race. As a result, no one knows how many Mexicans today are Afromestizos, or descended from Africans.

Dark-skinned Mexicans are simply moreno --roughly "brunette"--whether their features are Indian or African. While people may comment about curly hair or facial features, few recognize their own African ancestry.

That is changing slowly as a cadre of scholars is beginning to popularize research into Mexico's African heritage by organizing museum exhibits and publishing articles in newspapers and magazines. Through them, Mexicans are rediscovering a rich history that still influences contemporary life. The African heritage is especially evident along La Costa Chica--or Short Coast--on the Pacific, from Acapulco south to Puerto Angel, where the Afromestizo population is concentrated.

"You see African influence in round houses like mine," said Domingo Ramirez, a fisherman here, gesturing toward a one-room, thatched palm building. The pangas that take two people three weeks to carve are similar to boats seen in Africa.

"People here carry everything on our heads," added Ramirez. "It's in the way we talk, the way we gesture."

People along La Costa Chica have a glibness more characteristic of the African-influenced Caribbean than other parts of Mexico, said Gabriel Muedano, an ethno-historian at the National Anthropology and History Institute and a leading authority on Mexico's Afromestizo population. On the Atlantic Coast, singers in Veracruz, the port where most slaves arrived, are known for their extemporaneous verses and syncopation not found in other Mexican music.

If those examples seem a bit amorphous, it is because the African influence has become so mixed with Mexico's Spanish and Indian background that it is often mistaken for one or the other, explained Luz M. Martinez Montiel, an ethnologist and colleague of Muedano.

Slave traders brought twice as many men as women to New Spain. As a result, many African men married Indian or European women, becoming part of the melting pot of Mexico's new mestizo , or mixed, race. Slaves also took their masters' surnames, further diluting their African identity. By abolition in 1829, most slaves were a mixture of races.

Investigating the African heritage has not been easy, said Muedano, who has been traveling La Costa Chica since 1960.

"In those days, it was considered dangerous," he recalled. "A classmate of mine got into some trouble in one village and had to be rescued by the army."

The remote Afromestizo villages have a carefully cultivated reputation for violence and aggression. Most of the villages were founded by runaway slaves who counted on rough terrain and fear to keep bounty hunters away. The best-known of those villages is Yanga, nestled in the mountains of Veracruz, on the Gulf Coast.

The town is named for its founder, who escaped shortly after arriving in the Americas in the 17th Century and remained a fugitive for 30 years. During that time, he organized a band of highwaymen so feared that the Spanish viceroy sent an army to fight them. After various skirmishes, the rebels agreed to surrender on the condition they be allowed to set up their own town, which would be accountable directly to the Spanish crown. In 1630, over the objections of the neighbors, Mexico's first free black town was decreed.

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