Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Africans in Mexico?

Photo of female revolutionary soldier, by Agustin Casasola, 1910

Yes, there were thousands and thousands of African slaves brought to Mexico (and other parts of Latin America) from the 1500s to the 1700s. It is not talked about often. In fact, there are few communities that show any signs of this story. The National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago organized an exhibition on the subject a few years ago and it has been traveling throughout the country. It is now in Washington, D.C. at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum.

Sometimes you have to look out to see in. An exhibition at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum about Africans in Mexico is not about race in America, or African American identity or what it means to be black in the United States. But by focusing on the particulars of African existence in Mexico, it reveals far more universal wisdom about race and identity than so much of the often rancorous "discussion" of the subject on this side of the border.

"The African Presence in México: From Yanga to the Present" was first seen at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago in 2006. Using art from the colonial era, photographs and contemporary crafts, sculpture and imagery, the exhibition documents the arrival, disappearance and reappearance of African identity in Mexico over the past five centuries. Beginning in the early 16th century, when enslaved Africans were brought on the first missions of discovery and conquest, it explores how the Spanish (long familiar with interracial existence given their proximity to Africa) articulated race into categories, including mulatto (half Spanish, half African), mestizo (half Spanish, half native) and 14 other permutations. The Catholic Church kept the records, slotting every newborn into one of the basic categories that would determine one's chances for an education, a career and even the most basic of

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