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A real blended family

Immigrants from Costa Chica are Mexican and black, sharing an ethnic heritage and a culture that few outsiders know about.

April 13, 2008|John L. Mitchell | Times Staff Writer

Every Sunday, on a chewed-up soccer field in Pasadena, Mexican immigrants play a game they learned barefoot in the dusty pueblos along a remote stretch of the Pacific coast.

The Costa Chica team -- named for the picturesque coastline south of Acapulco -- has cut a winning path through the heart of an immigrant-dominated league in Pasadena, capturing three championships in two years.

Its players are agile and swift. And they've quickly earned the respect and admiration of opponents who at first didn't know what to make of their talented adversaries.

"Are you really Mexican?" they are sometimes asked.

Their skin is dark. They look Honduran, Dominican or even African American.

Black Mexicans?

"No existe!"

But Costa Chicans -- many dark in complexion with puchunco (curly or kinky) hair -- are Mexicans with cultural and racial histories going back hundreds of years to the Spanish conquistadors and the African slave trade.

As part of the massive wave of Mexican immigrants who began fleeing the economic hardships of their homeland in the 1980s, black Mexicans from the coast settled in communities throughout the United States, in Winston Salem, N.C., Joliet, Ill., and Salt Lake City, among other places.

Some 300 Costa Chicans live in Pasadena, and thousands more can be found in San Bernardino, South Los Angeles, San Juan Capistrano and Santa Ana, all enclaves characterized by close family and community ties.

The story of their journey and survival includes familiar subplots: immigrant families -- some here legally, some not -- struggling to adjust to a new country, establish livelihoods and avoid the perils of urban life. And for Costa Chicans, the unique cultural and racial identities add another layer of complexity as they try to make their way in a new land.

Like all immigrants, this group came here looking to scratch out a better life than the one offered in the small coastal towns of Guerrero and Oaxaca where most were born. Many seemed to have found what they were looking for -- and then some.

By most accounts, Roberta Acevedo, 42, was among the first of the Costa Chicans to migrate to Pasadena. When she and her husband, Francisco, arrived nearly two decades ago, she said she felt safe in this city at the foot of the mountains that reminded her of her pueblo, Jose Maria Morelos, in Oaxaca.

But back then, Pasadena offered little else that seemed familiar. The stores weren't stocked with the spices needed to make beef barbacoa or fish dishes from her native coast. She missed the festivals at which young men performed La Danza de Diablos, a traditional "dance of the devils" in which participants wear masks with long beards and horns.

Costa Chicans are steeped in an Afro-Mexican culture that is evident in dance, food and music -- they listen to cumbia, not mariachi. Acevedo longed for that culture and the sense of closeness that is common in the coastal pueblos where families are large and everyone seems to know everyone else.

Early on, the Acevedo home became a magnet for the migration. Acevedo and her husband would often wake up to calls in the middle of the night: Eight to 10 relatives and friends had crossed the border and were waiting to be picked up, sometimes as far away as Phoenix.

Eventually, Acevedo, who has seven brothers and sisters living nearby, came to own a Pasadena party and gift store selling pinatas and other accessories, renting tables and chairs and video-taping events. Her sister Yolanda, a former Mexico City police officer, is a seamstress who makes gowns for first Communions and quinceaneras, dresses that can cost as much as $500. One of their brothers is the store's videographer.

"My dream was that we would all have a chance to make it," Roberta Acevedo said. "Now I feel my dream has come true."

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Despite a shared racial heritage, Afro-Mexicans in Southern California have little interaction with African Americans, the relationships hindered by religious, language and cultural differences. And cultural bonds with other Latinos are sometimes stymied by regional and racial preferences.

"I have African American friends who say, 'You're not Mexicans. I saw you with your dad and he's a black man,' " said Soledad Silver, 16, a junior at John Muir High School in Pasadena. "I say, 'Yeah, he's a black man, but he's also Mexican.' "

In Santa Ana, Yismar Toribio's only knowledge of his parents' birthplace comes from the stories he's heard over the years. San Nicolas and Montecillos are beautiful towns full of tradition, places where you don't stand out if you're black and Mexican -- unlike Santa Ana, where Yismar attends school in a district that is 94% Latino and less than 1% African American.

Things would be better if his school had more blacks, said the 15-year-old freshman with skin the color of rich dark chocolate.

At school, he has been stung by teasing and occasional racial epithets. He doesn't mind the taunts of friends. He can give just as much as he takes.

It's the taunts of strangers that hurt.

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