Writing Africans Out of the Racial Hierarchy: Anti-African Sentiment in Post-Revolutionary Mexico

Posted in Articles, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Mexico on 2012-02-13 00:20Z by Steven

Writing Africans Out of the Racial Hierarchy: Anti-African Sentiment in Post-Revolutionary Mexico

Cincinnati Romance Review
Volume 30 (2011): Afro-Hispanic Subjectivities
pages 172-183

Galadriel Mehera Gerardo, Assistant Professor of Latin American History
Youngstown State University

Over the past two decades scholars have examined Mexican racial ideology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They have paid particular attention to the positivist ideas propagated by Porfirio Díaz’s científicos in the late 19th century and the creation of the seemingly nationalist, antiimperialist concept of mestizaje most associated with post-revolutionary scholars in the early to mid 20th century (Castro, Hedrick, and Minna Stern). Most studies focus on the inaccurate, racist portrayal of indigenous people by the Mexican nationalist intellectuals of this era. They often note the influence of U.S. and European scientific racism, particularly Social Darwinism, on Mexicans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They rarely emphasize the absence of Africans in Mexican intellectuals’ discussions of race, however. The absence or near absence of Africans in early- to mid-20th century Mexican discussions of race indicates as much about the attitudes of Mexican scholars as their emphasis on the indigenous past. Likewise, excluding Africans from the Mexican racial narrative was as significant to the creation of Mexican national identity as Mexican scholars’ depictions of native peoples. Mexican intellectuals “whitened” the imagined Mexican, simultaneously writing Africans out of Mexico’s history while challenging North Atlantic ideas about race and racial supremacy by promoting the mixing of European and indigenous peoples, offering what they believed was a distinct, nationalist vision of the racial hierarchy.

This article concentrates on three Mexican scholars and their discussions of Africans (or, in some cases, lack thereof) in their most significant essays. The first two—José Vasconcelos and Manuel Gamio—emerged among Mexico’s most important intellectuals of the revolutionary period. The third—Octavio Paz—became Mexico’s most influential literary figure a generation later. While he criticized many of the previous generation’s ideas, he embraced aspects of Gamio and Vasconcelos’s arguments. Moreover, in The Labyrinth of Solitude, widely considered the definitive work on Mexican character, Paz continued both the trend of integrating indigenous people as a means of ultimately eliminating them, and of “lightening” Mexico’s racial stock by avoiding acknowledging the presence of people of African descent in Mexico’s population and history.

This study consciously focuses on three individuals who at various times in their lives worked for branches of the Mexican government (usually educational) and in some cases even founded government institutions based on their ideas. Despite their antiimperialist, nationalist mentalities, all three spent periods of time living in the United States, often seeking refuge when their ideas fell out of favor with their own government. Both their experiences in the U.S. and the influence of North Atlantic ideas on their educations are significant for understanding each of these men’s assertions about race, and particularly their decision to render invisible Afro-Mexicans by writing them out of treatises on Mexico’s future. In contrast to the científicos who worked during the Porfiriato, these 20th century Mexican intellectuals considered themselves nationalists and intended their visions of the Mexican people’s future to counter the white supremacist ideology supported by Social Darwinism and embraced by U.S. intellectuals. Yet in ignoring the historical presence of Africans throughout Mexican history, Mexican intellectuals reified the North Atlantic vision of a racial hierarchy with Anglo-Europeans and Anglo-Americans at the top and Africans and indigenous Americans at the bottom. Many recent scholars have pointed out the racism inherent to the concept of mestizaje. However, these critiques have focused on Mexican intellectuals’ treatment of indigenous people. Emphasizing the exclusion of Africans  from the racial narratives underlines the nuances of Mexican racism in the first half of the 20th century. It also suggests how firmly entrenched North Atlantic ideas about race had become in Mexico by the 20th century.

Anti-African Sentiment

The history of Africans in Mexico spans as far back as the history of Europeans there. Africans took part in the conquest of Mexico and were present throughout the colonial period. Often they held significant intermediary roles as overseers, skilled craftsmen, and merchants. Both free and enslaved Africans could be found in colonial Mexico. As the colonial period progressed, Spaniards imported more African slaves to work as unskilled laborers in the semi-tropical sugar-producing regions around Veracruz, Acapulco, and parts of Guerrero and Oaxaca. Because more male than female slaves were imported, interracial unions regularly occurred in the colonial period, particularly between indigenous women and African men. As a result of the decline of slavery combined with racial mixing, by the time of independence only a small portion of Mexico’s population was considered “black,” although a significant portion of the mixed-race population likely had some African heritage (Meyer 164-6)…

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