Black Mexico: Nineteenth-Century Discourses of Race and Nation

Posted in Caribbean/Latin America, Dissertations, History, Media Archive, Mexico, Slavery on 2011-01-06 04:08Z by Steven

Black Mexico: Nineteenth-Century Discourses of Race and Nation

Brown University
May 2009
268 pages

Marisela Jiménez Ramos

A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Department of History at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island.

On January 31, 2006, the Associated Press reported that while remodeling the central plaza in Campeche, a Mexican port city on the Yucatan peninsula, construction workers stumbled upon a sixteenth-century cemetery containing what seemed to be the oldest archeological evidence of African slavery in the Americas. The cemetery had been in use as early as the mid-sixteenth century and into the seventeenth. That same day, the New York Times published an article about the discovery that focused on the teeth that had been unearthed by archeologists. At least four of the 180 bodies that were recovered showed evidence of having come from West Africa, including the most telling fact that “some of their teeth were filed and chipped to sharp edges in a decorative practice characteristic of Africa.” In January of 2006 the evidence of early African slavery in New Spain (now Mexico) was finally making “big news” in the modern world. But, for the historians, archeologists, anthropologists, or cultural investigators who have dug through dusty colonial documents in many of Mexico’s archives or have mined the world histories and local memories of Mexico’s “third root,” the news that there had been Africans in Mexico was hardly news. Scholars have always known that Mexico, along with all of the other Spanish colonies, had a comprehensive fully actualized system of African slavery. Two days after the initial AP news release, Mexico City’s El Universal and La Reforma carried the story.  What these and subsequent news articles reveal is the prevalent and dominant discourse of mestizaje—defined as the mixture of Spanish and Indian elements—and the obscurity of Mexico’s African history.

In El Universal, the director of the project, Vera Tiesler from the Universidad Autonoma de Yucatan, reported that “the most important thing is to create a consciousness that we [Mexicans] not only originate from Indians and Europeans, but that there is also a third root.” Tiesler also commented that the discovery was especially important for Blacks in the United States because it provides further evidence of their arrival to the New World.  Underlying the language of the “rediscovery” of Mexico’s ancient Black population is the dominant discourse of mestizaje—Mexico’s ideology of racial mixture and national identity.  A major feature of this ideology is that “the African, under no circumstance persevered as pure black, either biologically or culturally.” Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán, a mid-twentieth-century pioneer of Black Mexican studies, expressed the common attitude of Mexicans who believed that “the slaves who contributed to Mexico’s genetic make-up became so completely integrated into the process of mestizaje that it is now very difficult for the layman to distinguish the Negroid features of the present population as a whole.” Our current understanding of racial mixture in Mexico does not negate the fact that Blacks were present in that country. If the African presence and influence is not obvious, it is not any less important historically. Blacks in Mexico have “disappeared” as a separate racial/ethnic group, to the point that nothing Black or African is considered Mexican. Yet, what is lacking is a clear explanation for the “disappearance” of the contributions that Blacks have made to our current understanding of Mexican identity.

The story of those bones in Campeche can be brought to life with a better understanding of the development of Mexican national identity. In this work I focus on nineteenth-century discourses of race and their intersection with nation-building and the exclusion of Blackness from what would eventually be termed, “mestizaje.” Since my purpose is not so much to understand what Mexico’s national identity is (or was), as to understand how and why it came to exclude all things Black and African, I focus my research on the period between Independence in 1821 and the the Porfiriato (1876-1911) when nationalism and national identity became a state-sponsored project. Historians like Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo have claimed that the modern nationalist project in Mexico began with the period of the Porfiriato and culminated with the Mexican Revolution (1911-1917)—an essentially twentieth-century phenomenon. Yet, even before the beginning of the Porfiriato, I argue, “Mexican” identity had already been defined to a large degree. The nineteenth century period marks the beginning of Mexico’s political and social liberation from Spanish rule, as well as the beginning of a self-conscious
process of nation-building…

My goal is to make clear the role of Blacks and Blackness in nineteenth-century Mexican discourses of nation and to document their contributions to the makeup of mestizaje. I focus on what Florencia Mallón calls “discursive transformation.” Prasenjit Duara explains, “the meanings of the nation are produced mainly through linguistic mechanisms.” In reality, Blacks “disappeared” through omission from nineteenth-century discourses of race and nation, a process I call the Black exception, a term that highlights how Blacks were exempt from Mexico’s understanding of its own racial makeup.

By looking into the role of Blackness, or negritud, in nineteenth-century discourses of nation I seek to formulate a new understanding of Mexico’s national identity, but primarily a new theoretical understanding of ethnic relations in the period after independence. I investigate the social and political processes that contributed to the eventual—but by no means inevitable—‘disappearance’ of Blacks and all things African from the national self-consciousness of modern Mexico. To be more precise, I provide answers to the following questions. In the absence of racial categories in post-independence Mexico how did the understanding of what it meant to be Black change for former Blacks and for non-Blacks? More importantly, how did these definitions fit within the evolving concept of “lo Mejicano”?

I argue that Mexico’s twentieth-century struggles for social and political development cannot be understood without examining the role that nineteenth-century racial ideologies played in the institutionalization of official and unofficial conceptions of citizenship and nation-building. I hope to show how the historical record may be mined for evidence of the conflicting ideologies determining the context of the roles that Blacks would play—or would not be allowed to play—in the new nation. In addition to a reconceptualization of the discourse of mestizaje, this research will open avenues to a rethinking of the contemporary identity of Mexicans, including a recovery of the (obscured) Black presence…

Table of Contents

  • Signature Page
  • Curriculum Vitae
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: The Blackness of Slavery: Race in Colonial Mexico, 1519-1821
  • Chapter 2: Inventing Mexico: Race and the Discourse of Independence
  • Chapter 3: Mexico Mestizo: Nation and the Discourse of Race
  • Chapter 4: Freedom Across the Border: U.S. Fugitive Slave Migration and the Discourse of Mexican Racial Equality, 1821-1866
  • Chapter 5: The Cultural Meaning of Blackness: The Strange But True Adventures of “La Mulata de Córdoba” and “El Negrito Poeta”
  • Chapter 6: Yanga: Mexico’s First Revolutionary
  • Conclusion: “Where Did The Blacks Go?”

Read the entire dissertation here.

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The African Presence in Mexico

Posted in Anthropology, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Identity Development/Psychology, Live Events, Media Archive, Mexico, Slavery, Social Science on 2010-02-21 01:56Z by Steven

The African Presence in Mexico

A Symposium Presented by
Callaloo – A Journal of African Diapora Arts and Letters and
The Center for Africana Studies, Johns Hopkins University
2008-10-22 through 2008-10-23
Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas


For more details, click here.

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