The cultural artifact I chose was a series in PBS called Black in Latin America, which is a four-part series on the influence Africans have had in Latin American, more specifically I chose the episode Mexico & Peru: The Black Grandma in the Closet. “This series is the latest production by Harvard scholar Dr. Henry Luis Gates Jr., a writer of many renowned literary works” (Black in Latin America Mexico and Peru: The Black Grandma in the Closet, 2011). Dr. Gates started this project in 1999 with the first documentary series discussing African people called Wonders of the African World that would extend to a trilogy documentary mimicking the triangle trade (Black in Latin America Mexico and Peru: The Black Grandma in the Closet, 2011). The second documentary talked about the Black experience in the U.S.: America Behind the Color Line (2004) and finally ending in Latin America with Black in Latin America (2011) (Black in Latin America Mexico and Peru: The Black Grandma in the Closet, 2011). Dr. Gates had envisioned this trilogy to be a platform for many Black voices that are always hushed by society and to highlight the contributions that Black culture has brought to the Americas (Black in Latin America Mexico and Peru: The Black Grandma in the Closet, 2011).
Mexico & Peru: The Black Grandma in the Closet took longer to produce according to Dr. Gates due to the lack of funding, “The first two were easier to get funding for. Everyone knows about black people from Africa, everyone knows about the Black American community. But surprisingly, and this is why the series is so important, not many people realize how “black” South America is” (Gates, 2011). Dr. Gates draws on the point that the Middle Passage put 11.2 million Black lives into slavery and of those lives an estimated 500,000 arrived in the United States (Black in Latin America Mexico and Peru: The Black Grandma in the Closet, 2011). It is obvious that there is a huge gap of Black history in Latin America where 10 million African lives have gone ignored. These 10 million African people who made their lives in different parts of Latin America, influenced many famous “Latino” dances, food, traditions, politics, religion, and fought for their freedom. This history is the one untold in Latino communities because of similar ignorance and systematic racism that is experienced in the United States today.
Mexico & Peru: The Black Grandma in the Closet caught my attention because slavery in the U.S. differed to the struggle of being a slave in Mexico. The film draws on the differences and similarities of struggles seen between the Black community and the Latino community. In my community there is very blunt racism that people see as “playful” jokes; there is a negative connotation in being from the southern states, such as Oaxaca. Many Mexicans, even in my family, make fun of people who resemble people from the southern states. People from southern states tend to be darker or what we call “Prietos,” have indigenous features, speak a different language, have an accent when they speak Spanish and are shorter in height. People from the northern and central parts of Mexico, a large population resemble the Spanish colonizers, so there is a hierarchy of races through out the country.
I never understood growing up that these micro-aggressions were instilled in my culture because of the Spanish influence in Mexico; killing off my indigenous ancestors and restoring labor with Black slaves. Reality is that these micro-aggressions have been in my community since African slaves were brought to the Port of Veracruz and my community has yet to heal from colonization. I still witness today in Mexico, how a light-skinned Mexican is treated better than a Moreno or dark-skinned Mexican. When I was looking into a cultural artifact I wanted to explore the Black history in my culture, the history that has always been denied by my community and this series helped me understand a little better the Black struggle in Mexico.
Although the series Black in Latin America was created in 2011, in an era that many claim that racism is over in many places such as the U.S. and Mexico, this video highlights the truth. The film touched on many important timeline points in Mexican history where the Black struggle can be seen, but I mainly focus on the slavery aspect of the film in comparison with racial slavery in the U.S. The film started by talking about the pueblo of Tlacotalpan, Veracruz where a couple miles from it is the port of Somber Veracruz. In 1535, the port had all its commodities shipped there, including slaves (Black in Latin America Mexico and Peru: The Black Grandma in the Closet, 2011). During this time, the Aztec Empire had fallen, Spain had taken over Mesoamerica, and indigenous people were dying at high rates from diseases. The Spanish did not have enough slave labor among indigenous people and there was a demand to exploit resources such as cotton and sugar, so they decided to bring slaves to Mexico. The interesting part is that Mexico’s slavery did not reach racial slavery like the U.S. even though they were such close neighbors because of the catholic churches influence and the platform of the Mexican Revolution.
A slave was sold for $150 pesos-450 pesos in compassion to a house, $450 (Black in Latin America Mexico and Peru: The Black Grandma in the Closet, 2011). This meant that slaves were valued at a high price and considered a luxury. Through out the film I noticed that Mexican slaves had similar jobs as slaves in the U.S. such as construction of buildings, sugar plantations, and in mines. To differentiate from U.S. history, as early as 1570 a slave rebellion took part in Mexico led by a Black slave named Yanga. Yanga was a slave who escaped the Spanish’s oppression and moved into the mountains of Veracruz with other runaway slaves including women and children. The slaves spent 30 years hiding and attacking the Spanish in guerrilla raids. “The Spanish could never subdue them and finally offered Yanga his own inde
pendent town in exchange for peace” (Black in Latin America Mexico and Peru: The Black Grandma in the Closet, 2011). This demonstrations the resilience of the slaves in Mexico, but also the Spanish’s willingness to give autonomy to slaves they lost the fight against. Slaves in the U.S. would have not been given the same fate; they would have been hunted down by the Slave Patrols and possibly lynched (Pittman, 2015).
There were many other instances that the Black struggle became part of Mexican history from the Veracruzeño dance called fandango to swearing in the first Black president in 1829. From 1810-1820, Mexico was fighting with Spain to gain its independence; a priest named Miguel Hidalgo initiated the war. Hidalgo promised the Mexican people independence on the platform that he would abolish the cast system. The cast system was set up by the Catholic Church to keep record of all the interracial marriages happening between Indigenous people, Mestizo people, Black people and Spanish people. Even though these cast paintings showed the diversity of communities in Mexico, it also created hierarchies among races and the very reason Hidalgo wanted to get rid of it. Vincent Guerro an Afro-descendent general joined Hidalgo in the fight for independence and ten years after was voted in as Mexico’s second president. Along the path to presidency, Guerro experienced racism and would often be referred as “Negro Guerro” which means “Black Guerro,” even after being president (Black in Latin America Mexico and Peru: The Black Grandma in the Closet, 2011).
In a form the Mexican people were more progressive than their neighbors at the other side of the border; the Mexican government allowed for autonomy of runaway slaves, interracial marriage, take part in federal jobs, and Black slaves were viewed as actual human beings rather than property. In the U.S. this was not the case, slaves were property; they were sold independently from family, not given proper healthcare, many children were mal-nourished, and other horrific situations (Pittman, 2015). This is not to discredit that racism was vivid in Mexico or that Black people were not treated like second-class citizens, but they did have a little more agency than slaves in the U.S. (Black in Latin America Mexico and Peru: The Black Grandma in the Closet, 2011).
The question is how and why overtime have blunt racism and micro-
aggressions about Black people persisted in Mexico, if it was a progressive country and emancipated slaves in 1829? The film discusses that the reason behind this is because after the independence of Mexico, Hidalgo’s plan to get rid of the cast system made “Mexico victim of it’s own success” (Gates, 2011). Dr. Gates alludes to the idea that when Hidalgo completely eliminated racial categories and the cast system, he believed that he would eliminate racism completely. Hidalgo had a noble idea, but by eliminating racial categories, he also erased part of the history, culture and identity of Mexico. This idea oppressed the Black communities’ contributions and history in Mexico. This romanticized vision for Mexico could not be successful because some people still bare the physical remnants of slavery and are being suppressed by not acknowledging the slave history. Today the only form for Mexico to escape from racism is to include Black people in the census in order for the proper “public policies, healthcare, education, and federal programs” (Gates, 2011) to bring social justice to a community who has been erased from a countries’ history and identity.
Rocio Evelin Carranza Jacinto
Black in Latin America Mexico and Peru: The Black Grandma in the Closet. Prod. Henry L. Gates. Perf. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. PBS, 2011. Online.
Gates, Henry Louis. Black in Latin America. New York: New York UP, 2011. Print.
Pittman, LaShawnDa. “Introduction to African American Studies.” AFRM 101 Lecture. University of Washington, Seattle. 2015.