Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

'I Am Not the Mulata De Cordoba': The Cultural Meaning of Blackness in Nineteenth-Century Mexico

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

'I Am Not the Mulata De Cordoba': The Cultural Meaning of Blackness in Nineteenth-Century Mexico

Article excerpt

Through complex cultural processes that took over two centuries to play out, La Mulata de Cordoba, with a tenuous basis in an actual historical figure or amalgam of figures, has earned iconic status in contemporary Mexican folklore. La Mulata has captivated the popular imagination and the interest of scholars of literature and history, as well as inspired artists and composers for at least two centuries. Luis Martinez Morales writes that "'La Mulata de Cordoba' is the Mexican legend that has had the most presence in our literature. Its story, like the beauty that is attributed to the character, has seduced, in the span of the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries, more than one Mexican writer." (2)

Appealing to rich and poor alike, hers is not simply a tale about a clever and defiant mulata, a woman of Spanish and African ancestry who stood at the intersection of colonialism and modern nationhood and defied the old world powers that sought to contain her. Indeed, she is extraordinary not only for her trajectory, which can be traced back to the nation-building era of nineteenth century Mexico, but also for the role she continues to play in Mexico's cultural framing as a mestizo nation today.

While the earliest written accounts of La Mulata de Cordoba were published in the early nineteenth century, these texts place her as having lived in the seventeenth century. Lacking any seventeenth-century historical evidence of her actual existence, a few questions beg to be answered: how did an alleged seventeenth-century figure capture the imagination of nineteenth-century Mexicans? More importantly, what role did this mulata figure play in the development of a contested national identity?

La Mulata gained popularity because she served so well as a vehicle for the aspirations of a diverse Mexican population seeking to create a new society. In particular, she became a singular medium for the development and dissemination of Mexico's national racial discourse, playing a critical role in the complex processes that came to define Mexican national identity as "mestizo," exclusive of blackness. Her status as a mulata was a reminder of Mexico's racial past, distinct from a future that would be characterized by the inexorable move away from a multiracial identity to one that focused on mestizaje. Nineteenth century stories place La Mulata's blackness within a mystical space and time that, logically, had to be overcome or transcended in order for Mexico to evolve into its modern self. As described by Eva Allegra Raimon in her book, The "Tragic Mulatta" Revisited: Race and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Antislavery Fiction, La Mulata is "a liminal figure ... well situated to reveal writers'--and therefore the culture's--conflicted visions of national and racial exclusion and belonging." (3)

As one of the few Afro-Mexican figures to have persisted for centuries, this liminal figure between colonial and modern Mexico helped to promote a "negation through omission of the existence of many other cosmovisions in Mexico, [...] cosmovisions such as those of racially mixed people, of the diverse first nations, of the diverse African and Asiatic cultures." (4) Nineteenth-century Mexicans were more than comfortable appropriating La Mulata and thus homogenizing blackness by reducing it to the personification of one mulata. Even as her story recounted Mexico's colonial black presence, it did so as much to isolate, or rarify, that presence as to depict it. (5) An example of this process of "negation through omission" is the curious fact of her missing "name."

In none of the accounts is La Mulata de Cordoba ever attributed with a proper name. Meanwhile, her moniker, which also functions as badge of her African origin or ancestry, takes the place of an actual name. While "mulata," clearly calls attention to a distinct racial background, it also reminded nineteenth-century audiences that Mexico's history of slavery, and the black racial mixture that came with it, was safely contained in the distant past. …

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