The Dallas Morning News April 3, 2002 Black Mexicans see pride in lost history Communities starting to discover roots, fight discrimination By LAURENCE ILIFF / The Dallas Morning News SAN NICOLAS, Mexico – Dark-skinned Mexicans along the southern Pacific Coast have long sensed their roots are distinct from the mixed-race majority dominated by European and Indian blood. But until relatively recently, many had only a sketchy idea why. "A popular story says we came from a stranded African ship," said Jorge Añorve Zapata, 38, a schoolteacher from the Costa Chica, or "small coast," south of Acapulco. "It's a nice story. But as it turns out, the truth isn't so nice because we came in chains as slaves and were the first ones to drown." Now, African-Mexicans along the coast are discovering their roots, countering negative stereotypes, and trying to find their place in Mexican history. Government-issued textbooks describe coastal residents as "festive" dancers who happily raise cattle and corn. Crude drawings depict the physical characteristics of African-Mexicans without offering much history. Mr. Añorve, who worked in California in the early 1990s, said the books are clearly offensive, so he offers his preteen students a crash course in "negritud," or blackness, to counter official stereotypes. He has also helped establish a museum to explain the arrival of Africans here and to instill pride in their heritage. The Spanish conquistadors, alarmed by the death of Indian laborers to disease and overwork, brought up to a half-million African slaves to Mexico from the 1500s to the 1800s to work in mines. Some escaped and formed runaway slave communities in towns along the Costa Chica, which had no paved roads at the time and was set in thick jungle. Mexico abolished slavery in 1821. In some ways, blacks here today are following in the footsteps of the Indian rights movement that was re-energized after the 1994 Mayan uprising by the Zapatista rebels and their charismatic leader, Subcomandante Marcos, residents said. Indeed, most blacks have Indian blood from intermarriage. Then came the election of President Vicente Fox in July 2000, ending more than 70 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. Mr. Fox has courted racial minorities and promised to fight poverty like never before. An important factor in black identity here, leaders said, has been immigration to the United States by poor coastal residents who must confront their racial identity in the United States. Likewise, visits by black Americans over the last decade have given blacks here a sense of camaraderie. "I feel very much at home here," said Ron Wilkins, a black American activist, teacher and photographer visiting from Los Angeles. "I've met black families who are very conscious and very committed to seeing black people become more visible and become empowered and take their place in the 21st century." Mr. Wilkins, who has exhibited his photos of African-Mexicans in the United States, said he is impressed by the lack of racial and social tension within Black Indian communities. "One of the things I come here to learn more about is that despite the racism in the larger Mexican society ... people [here] seem to get along and live together at a level of harmony that is very hard to find in the United States," he said. Black and Mexicans in the United States, he said, need to learn that they have more in common than they might think. For example, Mexicans in Texas participated in the underground railroad to shuttle black slaves to freedom in Mexico, Mr. Wilkins said. African-Mexicans, a blend of black, Indian and white blood, are not counted in the official census. While their presence is heaviest on the Pacific and Gulf coasts where the slave trade was focused, historians have said African blood is common throughout the population. For example, independence leaders Vicente Guerrero and José María Morelos had black roots, according to U.S. historian Ted Vicente, author of The Legacy of Vicente Guerrero: Mexico's First Black Indian President. Thanks to community leaders, dozens of poor towns along the Guerrero and Oaxaca coasts are celebrating their African roots and the broad contribution they have made to Mexican life. Every year since 1996, they have held an "Encounter of Black Mexico," featuring regional dance, music and roundtable discussions about black life. In late March, the event was held in San Nicolas, a dusty village with dirt roads and homes with mostly dirt floors. Many people here migrate to the United States to work. Before hundreds of visitors, schoolchildren performed the Apache dance, a mix of Indian and African traditions, and the "Dance of the Devils," which in part is a reminder of the poor treatment slaves received at the hands of their oppressors. "My color may be white but my roots are black," said María de Jesús Marín, 24, who participated in a roundtable discussion on black women. "The racism here continues as always because it's still the black women who wash clothes and clean up after the white women." Ms. Marín works as a teacher's assistant at a school in El Ciruelo. The school was established by the local Catholic parish because many schoolchildren cannot afford to travel to the nearest government school, she said. But outside of African-Mexican communities, ignorance of black life remains, as does discrimination, residents said. "When I left here and went to Mexico City for the first time in 1982, I realized that people looked at me differently, as if they were suspicious of me for some reason," said Guadalupe Jaime Noyola, 41, who spends his time between San Nicolas and North Carolina. Comparing Mexico to the United States, he said racism, while not talked about, is more marked in Mexico than in the north. "When I travel by bus to the United States, the Mexican police at checkpoints always have me step down from the bus to answer questions, but not the other passengers," Mr. Noyola said. "When I am in the United States, I feel better because no one hassles me. If you are not doing anything wrong, the police leave you alone. Not in Mexico." And in terms of education and opportunity, the two nations are worlds apart, said Mr. Noyola. Despite racism up north, "a black person in the United States can study to be a lawyer, a politician, even president, but not here," he said. The renewed consciousness by costeños, or coastal people, of their African roots comes from many sources, both local and foreign. A Roman Catholic priest from the Caribbean nation of Trinidad, the Rev. Glyn Jemmott, has created education and other programs for several black towns in Guerrero over the last decade. The black consciousness found in the Caribbean and in South American nations such as Brazil had not yet taken hold in Guerrero, he said. "When I first came here, one of my first experiences was someone holding on to me and asking me, 'Who are you?' " said Father Glyn, as he is known by locals. "I said I'm a priest. And he said it's not true – black people are not priests. ... Blacks here are only fit for loading trucks." That attitude has changed over the years, he said. "With the uprooting from Africa, we've had to live with an identity that was given to us. Now we're seeing [an attitude of] 'let's get closer to what we really are and be comfortable with what we really are.' " Still, the constant mixing among the descendants of African slaves and local Indians, along with the white elite, has left some residents confused. All identify themselves as Mexican, thanks to this nation's strong nationalism, but not necessarily as black. When an organizer of the encounter asked participants "Where are my black people?" few shouted out or raised their hands. When he asked them again, after reminding them of their roots, the calling out and raised hands were more widespread. In the nearby town of Cuajinicuilapa, a museum dedicated to the history of the Costa Chica is the pride of the community. Originally supported by the government when it was opened three years ago, it is now run by volunteers. Here, schoolchildren learn about the arrival of African slaves in the 1500s. The museum also shows African dress, food, musical instruments and the way in which they were incorporated into Mexican life. Norma Aibi Reed, a black American visiting from San Diego, said she was awed by the experience of the people here in rediscovering their roots. "It almost brings me to tears being in this space," she said while visiting the museum. "It's almost like a resurrection after so much suffering. It's like a heroes' journey home." Angela Kocherga, Mexico City bureau chief for KHOU-TV in Houston, contributed to this report.