The Longue Duree of Africans in Mexico: The Historiography of Racialization, Acculturation, and Afro-Mexican Subjectivity

Article excerpt

In the past ten years the scholarship on African-descended peoples in Mexico has grown appreciably and diversified in several ways. The literature, which treats Afro-Mexicans as identifiably discrete populations, reveals complex and multivariate responses to colonial and national development. Much of the research impetus in this literature addresses the multiple and seemingly contradictory dynamics of the concurrent marginalization and the arguable integration of African-descended subjects. (1) As a result of the social historical approaches and the research findings on the African Diaspora, African-descended peoples are illuminated as historical subjects who enrich our understanding of local and regional cultures, past and present. In particular, the history of Africans in the Americas brings into relief hemispheric concepts and realities of racialization and social change, and informs our understandings of cultural production and reproduction.

Over time, Africans and people of African descent in Mexico displayed diverse cultural and social patterns. Africans lived as free persons and enslaved laborers with varying degrees of social mobility. These populations exercised agency in their day-to-day lives, despite living in highly racialized and oppressive circumstances. Their incremental integration into Mexican society as individuals, laborers, and leaders resulted from their ability to integrate into local communities. Yet, locally rooted and historically infused derogatory notions of blackness impacted their lives in many complex ways. For Afro-Mexicans today, persistent discrimination continues to limit their opportunities for economic advancement in Mexico, even though formally they are citizens entitled to full rights. (2)

Mexico is an important site for interrogating African diasporic generalizations because of the diversity of the population and the range of social relations. The diasporic paradigm privileges African origin in providing historical and cultural linkages among African-descended peoples globally and often posits various "organic" meanings of "blackness." There is within the paradigm an inherent belief in "black consciousness," which could serve as the basis for some future political mobilization. Accordingly, historians' tasks are to uncover these aspects of commonality. Thus diasporic history is an uncovering and a call. In tandem with this diasporic paradigm are the research and literary practices that detail the social history of African-descended peoples guided by the precepts of the "new social history" of the 1960s and 1970s that emphasized "history from the bottom up." Scholars can and do examine the unfolding contradictory circumstances and changing historical lives and experiences of African-descended people in Mexico. Herein, the practitioners of African Diaspora Studies and Mexican social history provide a range of cross discussions, which inform our understandings of African diasporic populations in the areas of social relations, and community and cultural formations. (3)

This essay emphasizes certain aspects of African peoples' historical trajectory in an evolving New World society. The analysis attempts to account for the persistence of African cultural practices and black consciousness, and highlights the intersections existing between research using African diasporic approaches and the work of social historians of Mexico. (4) It examines both the contrasting and evolving perspectives represented in the literature pertinent to various aspects of social and historical change. In the conclusion the essay summarizes the importance of highlighting the African population as a foundational and national component of a modern multicultural Mexico.

THE AFRICAN DIASPORA IN MEXICO

Mexico's social history could be viewed as verifying certain diasporic conclusions and also refining them. Some scholars such as Paul Gilroy and Laura A. Lewis have criticized what they view as an essentialized conception of African or black identity, or cultural continuity among diasporic communities. …