“Based on your culture, history, and traditions, do you consider yourself Black, meaning Afro-Mexican or Afro-descendant?” – MEXICO’S 2015 Intercensal Survey
The sound of Bata drums filled the air as girls, with printed scarfs tied around their waists and white or yellow dots painted on their faces, danced to the fervent rhythm, their feet and waists moving vigorously at the same time. As their left legs leave the floor, their right legs replace them, while their waists responding with a seesaw movement. This is an African dance performed by an Afro-Mexican group, the Obatala, for the purpose of connecting with their African roots. They live in the southern state of Oaxaca, Mexico and tour various regions of the state to create awareness with their energetic and beautiful dance.
“All the dances are from Africa’s northeastern region, we chose this area because after researching on the internet, we realised that that’s where the slaves that came from our town came from. Our dance troupe did the research and we learned those dances,” Anai Herrera, one of the lead dancers, said.
The Obatala dancers, who learn their dance steps from Youtube, are named after a Yoruba deity. Obatala, always adorned in white, is believed to be the oldest of the deities–called Orisas (pronounced Orishas)–and he is also believed to be the father of many other Orisas. He is not only synonymous to the Yorubas of Nigeria, he is also widely believed in Latin America.
There are many Mexicans in Mexico who are not aware of their ancestral African heritage. This unawareness is not exclusive to the Afro-Mexicans, it is also seen among the majority in Mexico, who do not reference the Afro-Mexicans in history classes, despite the presence of more than one million Afro-Mexicans in Mexico.
“In school, they teach our children about Europeans and indigenous natives, but the history books practically don’t recognize our history.”
How did these Afro-Mexicans come to be?
After the rise of a deadly epidemic in Mexico, which killed a large number of indigenous slaves, the Spanish were forced to bring Africans to Mexico in 1519, to substitute for the slaves that they had lost. The African slaves that were brought to Mexico, worked overtime, in strenuous conditions, in agrarian and silver industries. The only way to get away from the work and hardship was by escaping, which they did constantly in their numbers. These deserters, led by Gasper Yanga, a slave elder, a fellow escapee, believed to be a descendant of the royal house of Gabon, led a successful resistance against a special army sent by the Spanish Crown to crush their uprising. After several victories against the special army, the Spanish agreed to the demand of the slaves for land and freedom.
Yanga was the founder of the first free African township in the Americas, San Lorenzo de los Negros, near Veracruz. It was renamed in his honour in the 1930s. And slavery in Mexico was later abolished in 1810 by Jose María Morelos y Pavón, leader of the Mexican War of Independence.
For many years in Mexico, until 2015, Blacks lived in Mexico for centuries without recognition until 2015, which saw a shift. For the first time in Mexico’s history, its census bureau recognized the country’s Black population in a national survey, that put the number of afro Mexicans at approximately, 1.4 million citizens (1.2% of the population) who self-identify as “Afro-Mexican” or “Afro-descendant.”
“We don’t want to be seen as different, we just want to be differentiated,” activist Benigno Gallardo told Fusion. He went on to say that his main goal is for the term “Afro-Mexican” to be officially recognized in the Mexican Constitution. A country that has over one million people of a particular race, who are not recognised by the constitution, paves way for marginalization. The recognition of this race will not only boost the confidence of Afro Mexicans, but raise awareness into understanding that the history of oppression and marginalization that they faced in intensity years ago, has become a passive history. When this is understood, then, the need to address marginalization will be imprinted not just in the hearts of Afro Mexicans, but in the hearts of white Mexicans too.
A people without the knowledge of their history are like trees without strong roots, who are a danger to themselves and tress surrounding it. The saying that goes “You can’t know where you are going except you know where you are coming from” cannot be over exaggerated, to say the least. Without history, we are loose entities with no spirit of belonging. What the Obatala dancers have done is to raise awareness, in order for people to be aware of the existence of Afro-Mexicans, and for the Black Mexicans themselves to be fully aware of who they are, and to be proud of this knowledge.
To know ones’ history, and to be proud of it is another step to self-awareness.