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Rethinking Identity: Afro-Mexican History

Rethinking Identity: Afro-Mexican History

El Costeño by José Agustín Arrieta (1802–1879).

“This is the country of my ancestors. It includes the fandango—music that takes Spanish instruments and plays them with African style, songs like ‘La Bamba’ that trace their way back to slavery and still influence music today, and a Mexican president with both Spanish and African ancestry. This is my history, but no one is talking to us about it,” wrote Daniel as he reflected on the Afro-Mexican unit our class had just completed.

Several months earlier, I was searching for a way that my Spanish speakers class could support African American Heritage Month activities at our school. At De La Salle North in Portland, Oregon, students organize month-long activities to celebrate and critically consider the histories of the many heritages represented in the student body. I wanted to support these student-led projects with lessons in my classroom, but how? Driving home one night, the solution hit me: Nicholas Marshall.

Nicholas was a memorable student from my first year of teaching. One day he looked at me, eyes wide, and said: “Wait, Señorita! There are Black people who speak Spanish?”

“Yes,” I had said. “There most definitely are.” I developed a whole unit for my Spanish World Language class based on Nicholas’ question. I decided to adapt that unit to meet the needs of my current students. I hoped that, by the end of the unit, they would be able to identify ways that enslaved Africans and their descendants shaped Mexican culture, and describe the historical and political forces that led to Afro-Mexican invisibility. I wanted students to complicate their narratives about Mexican identity and realize that Afro-Mexican resistance weaves through the fabric of that heritage.

My students at De La Salle were heritage language speakers. Heritage students have both a cultural and a linguistic connection to a language other than English. Our class of 23 juniors and two seniors each shaped the definition of heritage Spanish speaker in their own way. For example, Marta didn’t consider Spanish her native language—she favored English, although she spoke Spanish with her parents. Ana Maria emigrated from Mexico at the age of 10. She learned to read and write in Spanish, and then learned to do the same in English. Daniel grew up in the United States but spoke Spanish at home and often with his friends. Itzel was from Guatemala and English was her third language, after Mayan and Spanish. Alex’s father was from Ecuador and his mother from Chile, so his Spanish was peppered with words that differed from those of his peers.

They all spoke, read, and wrote with high levels of fluency in Spanish, yet they weren’t “native” Spanish speakers because most of their formal schooling had been in English. They switched between cultures and languages and, in Daniel’s words, sometimes felt “stuck between two countries I’m not wanted in.” In that sense, the definition of a heritage speaker is not just about language; it also includes socio-emotional factors.

Where Did the Africans Go?

On our first day, I announced that we would be uncovering the history of Black Mexicans. “Does anyone already know anything about this topic?”

My students’ faces were blank.

“When I was preparing this unit for you, I found out that many people believe the first Africans arrived with the first conquistadores. By the 16th and 17th centuries, one out of every two Africans who were enslaved and taken to the so-called “New World” was sold in Mexico. In fact, until 1650, the number of African-heritage Mexicans equaled the number of Spanish-heritage Mexicans. Yet today, no one seems to know much about the story of Afro-Mexicans and their descendants. So where did they all go? How did they become invisible?”

“Maybe they left the country,” Josué called out.

“It’s possible,” I replied. “Any other ideas?”

“Maybe they got kind of mixed,” Lalo ventured.

I pulled out my trusty teacher phrase: “Tell me more.”

“You know, Ms. Nicola, the birds and the bees, and then the kids got lighter skin or something.” The class laughed.

“You may be on to something, Lalo. I want you to keep these ideas in the back of your minds throughout the unit. Keep asking the question: How does a history, a culture, and a people become invisible? I want you to collect stories of things you didn’t realize had a connection to Africa, but that are deeply rooted in African cultures and that have shaped what we think of as ‘Mexican.’

“Now grab your bags,” I said. “We’re going to the computer lab.”

Once in the computer lab, I gave my students a piece of paper with the URL for the Afropop Worldwide website “La Bamba: The Afro-Mexican Story” (see Resources). “Chicos,” I called out, moving to the center of the lab. “Remember that even though the website is in inglés, your notes need to be en español.” Although I wanted our class to read, write, think, and speak in Spanish 100 percent of the time, the reality was that my students don’t live in a 24/7 Spanish-speaking world. Too often, I ended up resorting to English-language resources.

The website contained a wealth of information, and I wanted to give students the autonomy to explore what they found interesting. So the only instruction I gave them was to spend time reading and writing down what they found interesting. At the end of the unit, students would need their notes for their essays, but I didn’t bother them with that detail for the moment. Instead, I gave them time to let their curiosity lead the exploration. As they clicked from page to page, I wandered around the room, checking on their notes and gathering snippets of their conversations.

“Whaat? The fandango is African?” I heard Eduardo exclaim.

“Eduardo, don’t forget to write down what you are learning,” I reminded him.

Estamos hablando de cómo el son jarocho tiene raices africanas (We’re talking about how son jarocho music has African roots),” Evelyn commented to me as I walked by.

Maestra, what is this about the ‘third root’?”

Bueno, Alex, read it and you will see. That part is important, so write it down.”

Alex jotted notes on la tercera raíz (the third root). In 1992, as part of the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the Spanish in the Americas, the Mexican government officially acknowledged that African culture in the country represented la tercera raíz of Mexican culture, along with Spanish and Indigenous peoples. Since then, many Mexicans (especially those living on the west coast) have reconnected with their African heritage through dance, theater, radio, and political mobilizations.

Daniel called out to me. “I’m interested in this guy Vicente Guerrero. He was a hero in the war for independence, and it says here that he was Mexico’s first Afro-Mexican president—the Barack Obama of 1829!”

I smiled. My students were already rethinking some of their ideas about Mexico. They were collecting stories of things that they had taken for granted as “just Mexican” and uncovering a more complex version of those stories.

By the time we had finished our first lesson exploring the Afropop site, students were hooked and energy was high. It was a good launching pad for our next question: If Afro-Mexicans have been living in Mexico since the days of the slave trade, why wasn’t anyone talking about it?

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