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Mexico's black history is often ignored

'Mixed race' tends to refer to indigenous and European roots, but the influence of Africa is also strong.

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

In Mexico, the story of the country's black population has been largely ignored in favor of an ideology that declares that all Mexicans are "mixed race." But it's the mixture of indigenous and European heritage that most Mexicans embrace; the African legacy is overlooked.

"They are saying we are all the same and therefore there is no reason to distinguish yourself," said Padre Glyn Jemmott, a Roman Catholic priest from Trinidad and Tobago who has had a parish of a dozen Costa Chican pueblos since 1984.

"What they are not saying is that in ordinary life in Mexico, lighter-skinned Mexicans are accepted and have first place," he said.

Jemmott, a co-founder of Mexico Negro, an organization that seeks to promote cultural pride and political strength in the coastal pueblos, said many Costa Chicans often don't fully understand what it means to be black in Mexico until they leave their region.

Some tell stories of being confronted in other parts of the country by police who refuse to believe they're Mexican and sometimes accuse them of being there illegally.

"One couple was asked to prove their citizenship by singing the Mexican national anthem," Jemmott said.

In Cuajinicuilapa, in the state of Guerrero, there's a small museum dedicated to telling the story of the black presence in Mexico.

But Costa Chicans often say they learned little in school about how blacks came to live on the coast, little about the history of slavery -- only myths passed down over generations.

"We were told that a Spanish slave ship ran aground off the coast and the survivors escaped to and hid in the mountains, and the blacks today are the descendants of those escaped slaves," said Nino Robles, who was born in Cuajinicuilapa and now lives in Santa Ana with his wife and four daughters.

They were not taught the details of their history: that Spanish slavers took Africans to colonial Mexico (New Spain) in the 16th century, long before the first slaves arrived in Jamestown, Va.; that during the colonial period there were more Africans than Europeans in Mexico.

The Costa Chicans were also not taught that some of the blacks were not slaves; that blacks lived throughout what is now Mexico, working in mining, sugar plantations and fishing.

In some instances black Mexicans were explorers and co-founders of settlements, including Los Angeles.

Jose Maria Morelos, one of Mexico's leaders for independence, was a mulatto, as was Vicente Guerrero, Mexico's second president, who abolished slavery in 1822.

Earlier this year, the California African American Museum in Exposition Park opened a major traveling exhibition, "The African Presence in Mexico," detailing the contribution of Africans to Mexican history and culture.

"Some people see the exhibit and discover they are African descendants," said Sagrario Cruz Carretero, one of the exhibition's curators from the University of Veracruz.

"One man came up to me and told me, 'Now I know I am part African.' He showed me a picture of his grandmother and said, 'Until I was a teenager, I believed she had an accident [and] that is why she was dark.' "

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