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If you google Blacks in Mexico, the first website you will see is http://www.afromexico.com/. This website was created by a brother, Bobby Vaughn, in 2006, to help people explore the history of blacks in Mexico. Vaughn earned his Ph.D in anthropology at Stanford University. His dissertation was Race and Ethnicity: A Study of Blackness in Mexico. He is currently Associate Professor of Anthropology at Notre Dame de Namur University. In honor of Cinco de Mayo, I decided to interview Bobby Vaughn for the website.
For years, your website has been THE place where people first know that Afro-Mexicans exist. How did you first learn that there were Afro-Mexicans in Mexico?
I first learned about Afro-Mexicans during a study abroad trip to Mexico back in 1992. I was studying at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City and I took a bus trip to the Costa Chica to see for myself whether, indeed, there were Afro-Mexican communities there. Prior to the road trip I had stumbled across some books on the subject, but none of my Mexico City friends knew whether Mexicans of African descent existed or not! So I had to do some investigating on my own.
Can you describe the Costa Chica region to all of us who have never been? What is the landscape? How are the beaches? Where is it!!? (For all my people who don’t know)
The Costa Chica is located along Mexico’s southern coast on the Pacific Ocean. The nearest large cities are Acapulco in the state of Guerrero and Puerto Escondido in the state of Oaxaca. The landscape is fairly uneventful (sorry Costa Chicans!) and relatively flat. It is not beautiful in a spectacular way, but sunsets over coconut palms are part of the scene in most towns. The beaches in the Costa Chica are quite undeveloped, meaning no stores, vendor, or much of anything. This can be very peaceful, but they are not seen as beautiful as are the more touristy beaches that you are aware of. The individual towns are dusty and hot and the pace is very slow. There will be dogs, chickens, and horses around, and lots of kids playing and laughing.
How did black people get to Mexico and WHY don’t many people know about them?
Black people arrived to Mexico in much the same way that we arrived to wherever we are found in the Western Hemisphere – the slave trade. The Spanish brought slaves from Africa to Mexico primarily in the last 1500s up through the 1600s. After that, the slave trade to Mexico pretty much subsided, just as it was really gearing up in the rest of the Americas. I think most people in Mexico don’t know about the black population for two basic reasons. First, it is a very small population that lives in parts of Mexico that are relatively isolated (much more so 30 or 40 years ago) and there is very little reason for “outsiders” to be there. Secondly, I think that in Mexico, the government and intellectual classes have down-played the existence of these Afro-Mexicans, preferring to focus attention on the indigenous roots of Mexico. Mexican blacks, for example, are rarely mentioned in the state-run school textbooks.
The pictures on your site of the Afro-Mexican communities are so intimate. How were you able to gain access to these communities?
Gaining access was very easy for me. I have learned that being friendly and being quick with a smile has always served me well in my field work. Being able to speak Spanish was also very helpful in forging relationships with people. More than anything, any level of trust that I have earned with people in Mexico is a product of many years of traveling to the same places and maintaining relationships over time.
Do Afro-Mexicans identify themselves as black? Or would you say they don’t see race?
Yes, most Afro-Mexicans identify themselves as black. They most often use the word “Moreno,” which in the region translates to black (of African descent) as opposed to just a dark mestizo or something. So, yes, they definitely make a racial distinction between themselves and indigenous or mestizos (who they refer to as blancos). There is not much of an overt “black and proud” identity, however. Their own history with black identity is different from ours (African Americans) and we have to respect their own historical journey. I will say, however, that their black identity is in a process of change and among some it is becoming more politicized.
People would say in America that black Americans have a distinctive culture, regardless of socioeconomic background. Did you find the culture of Afro-Mexicans particularly different than that of Mexicans in similar socioeconomic groups?
This is an interesting question. I would say that I am struck by the great similarity of the day-to-day cultural practices that Afro-Mexicans share with their mestizo and indigenous neighbors. They are all rural people, are mainly Catholic, perform milpa (maize) agriculture, and enjoy telenovelas and soccer! There are some distinct cultural practices that I talk about in my work, but most of these differences are nuanced – language, family structure, etc.
You did anthropological research in the Costa Chica region, so you had incredible access to the communities. For the typical tourist, access to Afro-Mexico for the typical tourist might be rather difficult. Are there any particular Afro-Mexican communities that a tourist could visit, to see or experience Afro-Mexico?
This is also a very good question! Traveling in rural Southern Mexico outside of touristy areas is difficult and takes lots of patience. I would suggest that the adventurous, experienced, and Spanish-speaking traveler get on a bus, take a few weeks, and hop around from town to town. Most of us aren’t quite that adventurous and so I would suggest perhaps a trip to Acapulco and from there, perhaps taking a bus to Cuajinicuilapa (about 4 hours), stay a night or so in one of their several hotels, and then head back to Acapulco. A day or two in the heat of the Costa Chica might be enough to get one’s feet wet. You can always go back with a more ambitious plan.
When you look back at your time spent in Costa Chica, what was your most memorable experience?
I can’t isolate one single experience, but a very meaningful experience I have enjoyed is having been chosen to be a padrino (godfather) for young children on three separate occasions. Being a padrino, even for some of the lesser occasions (birthdays, graduations, etc.), is still very important in rural Mexico and it inserted me into family units in very meaningful ways.
Since this is a travel site, I have to ask you about some of your favorite places to travel? Where have you been and where are you going?
My favorite place to be a “tourist” in Southern Mexico is Zipolite and nearby Mazunte. These are small beach towns with beautiful beaches and a bohemian feel. There are small hotels and cabanas, enough places to eat, and a great place to relax. I also recommend Puerto Escondido as a nice place to enjoy the beach. It is much larger and more touristy than Zipolite and Mazunte, but, this allows for more of a night life. Also, having lived in Mexico City for nearly two years, I also recommend that people explore the biggest city you may ever experience. There is always something to do there!
If people want to learn more about Afro-Mexicans, where should they go?
Read, read, read! There is quite a lot of printed material on Afro-Mexicans, and much of it is now being written in English. General audiences might try to hunt down Colin Palmer’s Slaves of the White God (1976) to start. People who read Spanish might start with Aguirre Beltran’s Cuijla (1958) as a place to start. My website offers a few more suggestions and there is also Amazon.com to get some ideas.