Breanna Reeves |
Afromexicanos — Mexicans with African roots — make up just two percent of Mexico’s total population. For hundreds of years, Afromexicans have fought for recognition and in 2020, for the first time, the country’s 2020 census counted its Afromexican population of 2.5 million, officially recognizing the underrepresented communities that exist across the regions of Oaxaca, Guerrero, Veracruz and Coahuila.
In 2019, the Mexican government issued a decree which recognized Afromexican communities as part of the “pluricultural composition of the nation and thus guaranteed their self-determination, autonomy, development and inclusion.”
As Black History Month comes to a close, the Anthropology Museum at the California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB) celebrated AfroOaxacan culture through art, dance, music and food. The free, two-day event celebrated the richness of Afromexican identity and encouraged attendees to learn more about the history of Afrodescendants in Mexico.
“I hope that more people are aware that there are Black people in Mexico and Black people across Latin America. Unfortunately, it’s just something that’s not taught. It’s not anybody’s fault that they don’t know that, it’s just not a common part about how we think about Latin America,” explained Arianna Huhn, associate professor of anthropology at CSUSB and director of the CSUSB Anthropology Museum. “I hope by coming here that people realize there are Black people and that there are rich cultures and histories associated with those populations as well.”
Using artifacts (traditional drums), photography (photo exhibit by Mexican photographer Nicolás Triedo), traditional Oaxacan music and food, the event transported participants to the Black communities in Mexico. Displays featuring cultural instruments and masks told stories of the ritual dances of Afromexican culture from the Costa Chica region of Guerrero, such as the Dance of the Devils, the Dance of the Cattle Herders and the Danza de la Tortuga (Dance of the Turtle). According to the exhibit, the dances are symbolic depictions of societal identities and each dance dramatizes different issues. The Danza de los Diablos (Dance of the Devils) and the Danza de Vaqueros (Dance of the Cattle Herders) demonstrate problems related to mistreatment and dangers for agricultural laborers. The Danza de la Tortuga represents problems related to pleasure and love.
During the two-day festivities, attendees were encouraged to join Esteban Zúñiga, a Los Angeles-based artist, in crafting large turtle and bull structures using bamboo sticks and twine, which were later used to perform the ritualistic dance at the Garcia Center while Los Guajes Oaxacan Ensemble played traditional Oaxacan songs on stage. Live music was also performed by Academia Maqueos, a Los Angeles-based music academy that performs traditional Oxacan music, led by co-director Yulissa Maqueos.
In addition to the photography exhibits and live music, the celebration displayed artwork from Afromexican children who participated in a contest that asked them to draw or paint images that represent their experiences, identity and culture. The annual contest is organized by the la asociación México Negro, a non-profit civil society organization with the mission of organizing the Afrodescendant communities of Mexico, alongside Raíz De la Ceiba. The drawings depicted the daily life of children who “know and love who they are” and demonstrated that art is a way to “maintain identity” and exemplify unity like the many colors of a Black rainbow — “arcoíris negra.”
The CSUSB Anthropology Museum used the children’s drawing to create free pins for attendees to take and wear to “raise awareness about and encourage pride in the Afrodescedants of Mexico.” There was also a section at the Garcia Center where guests were invited to create their own art or write their own messages to encourage the youth of Costa Chica. Letters were collected and will be sent to Raíz De la Ceiba.
Garcia Center for the Arts Executive Director Jorge Heredia explained that with the large Latino population in San Bernardino, it’s nice to highlight the African heritage in the Latino community, especially during Black History Month, where the community can have conversations about the diversity that exist among the community.
“That’s kind of the conversations we have with people in our area. Our area is so diverse and being able to highlight those connections and that diversity, and really break beyond these monolithic definitions of people, like a Latino person is this or a Black person is that — being able to break away from that and bring awareness to those connections,” Heredia explained.
Perhaps one of the best parts of the event was the food. Cenaduria Oaxaquena Donaji, a family-based business serving Oaxacan food in Riverside, served a variety of delicious foods and beverages including a breakfast menu of Oaxacan mole tamales filled with chicken and wrapped in a banana leaf, café de olla (Oaxacan coffee) and pan de Yema (sweet bread). For lunch, Cenaduria Oaxaqueña Donaji served tlayudas, handmade corn tortilla spread with acientio, ground black bean, cabbage and authentic Oaxacan cheese; memelitas, corn masa tortillas with ground black bean and authentic Oaxacan cheese; and molotes, corn masa stuffed with potatoes and chorizo.
“I think there was a lot for people to do, to experience, something that a lot of people might not have experienced before. I think it was definitely a very enriching event for people to experience,” Heredia shared. “It was nice to be able to offer the food for free to the community and they didn’t have to worry about being able to pay for the food and being able to try grasshoppers for the first time and the traditional Oaxacan food.”
The snowy weather did not stop attendees from enjoying the freshly prepared food and warm drinks as people sat at tables outside. Many people joined the event to learn more about Afromexican culture while others attended as a way to share a sense of community with Afrodescendants in Mexico, like Jeff, who attended the event with his wife who is Mexican and his daughter. Jeff is Panamanian and grew up in Rainbow City, in the Colón region in Panama as his dad served in the U.S. Air Force. Like Afromexicans, AfroPanamanians account for a small percentage of the population, who are African descendants of slaves brought to the region or descendants from West Indian/Caribbean immigrants who came to Panama to work on the Panama Canal.
The AfroOaxcan celebration was presented in association with Afróntalo, an exhibition exploring Afrolatine cultures, histories and identities, with an emphasis on Afrodescendants in Mexico and Afrolatine Californians. The exhibit opens at the CSUSB Anthropology Museum on Sept. 15, 2023.
The event was supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, with support from California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional sponsors include the Garcia Center for the Arts, the CSUSB Anthropology Museum, CSUSB’s Office of the Provost, CSUSB College of Extended and Global Education and the Black History Month Program Committee at CSUSB.