Between her German mother and her father, whose family roots stretch from Nigeria to Iceland and Macedonia, Zendaya Maree Stoermer Coleman says she’s always been proud of her heritage, which comes spelled right out in her own multicultural name. Zendaya’s family tree mirrors that of many Americans, most of whom share one common journey.
Last year, a bilingual exhibition, The African Presence in México: Yanga to the Present, was mounted by the Oakland Museum and the DuSable Museumon both sides of the Mexican border - in the US and Mexico itself. It traced how Africans - fewer than 2% of colonial Mexico`s (1521-1810) population - significantly enriched Mexican culture through their art, music, language, cuisine, and dance. The African Presence in México invited Mexican-Americans and African-Americans to look at their identities in light of their shared histories in Mexico and the United States.
The Spanish first brought Africans to Mexico in 1519 to work in the agrarian and silver industries, under often brutal conditions. There were constant slave protests and runaways (cimarrónes) who established settlements in the mountains of Orizaba. In January 1609, Gasper Yanga, a runaway slave elder, led the cimarrónes (or maroons) to a successful resistance against a special army sent by the Spanish Crown to crush their uprising. After several cimarrón victories, the Spanish acquiesced to the slaves` demand for land and freedom. Yanga founded the first free African township in the Americas, San Lorenzo de los Negros, near Veracruz. It was renamed in his honour in the 1930s.
Slavery in Mexico was abolished in 1810 by Jose María Morelos y Pavón, leader of the Mexican War of Independence. As a mulatto (Spanish and African), Morelos was directly affected by Mexico`s prejudices. Racial mixes were seen as undesirable by a society that aspired to purity of race and blood (i.e., Spanish only).
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 raiz (the third root) of Mexican culture, with the Spanish and indigenous peoples. But the plight of Afro-Mexicans has not improved much since the recognition of 1992.
As Alexis Okeowo, a black journalist in the Mexican capital, Mexico City, attests, when she visited Yanga, her heart broke. “As I arrived in town,” she reported, “I peered out of my taxi window at the pastel-painted storefronts and the brown-skinned residents walking along the wide streets. `Where are the black Mexicans?` I wondered. A central sign proclaimed Yanga`s role as the first Mexican town to be free from slavery, yet the descendants of these former slaves were nowhere to be found. I would later learn that most live in dilapidated settlements outside of town.”
The next morning when she went searching for the Afro-Mexicans, Okeowo found that though she had grown used to the rarity of black people in Mexico City, it was different at Yanga, where she was not only stared at but also pointed at.
“The stares were cold and unfriendly, and especially unnerving in a town named for an African revolutionary,” Okeowo recalled. “`Mira, una negra,` I heard people whisper to one another. `Look, a black woman.` `Negra! Negra!`, taunted an old man with a shock of white hair under a tan sombrero.
“Surrounded by a group of men, [the old man] gazed at me with a big, toothy grin. He seemed to be waiting for me to come over and talk to him. Shocked, I shot him a dirty look and headed into [a] library`s courtyard.”
Okeowo continued: “The notion of race in Mexico is frustratingly complex. This is a country where many are proud to claim African blood, yet discriminate against their darker countrymen. Black Mexicans complain that such bigotry makes it especially hard for them to find work. Still, I was surprised to feel like such an alien intruder in a town where I had hoped to feel something like familiarity. Afro-Mexicans are among the poorest in the nation. Many are shunted to remote shantytowns, well out of reach of basic public services, such as schools and hospitals.
“Activists for Afro-Mexicans face an uphill battle for government recognition and economic development. They have long petitioned to be counted in Mexico`s national census, alongside the country`s 56 other official ethnic groups, but to little avail. Unofficial records put their number at one million.”
Jessy Terrero:When I moved to the West Coast, the Mexicans I saw were a little more fair skinned, they looked a little more different. So, people thought I was Black there. Or mixed. I'm Dominican. And most people look at me like, 'Oh where's that?'
Tayana Ali:People usually identify me with being Mexican. I even remembered when we first moved here, my mom would speak in her native language, Spanish, to other Spanish speakers and people are just kind of like looking at her funny like, 'Why is that coming out of your mouth?'
Laz Alonso:I've either been treated fairly or treated unfairly by the color of my skin. They don't look at me and say, 'Oh you're Latin. We're gonna treat you better.' No. You're Black, that's it.
Sabi:Growing up I felt I had to pick a side. Either I was Black or I was Latina but I didn't really fit in with the full Latina's or the girls who were all Black...
Maluca:When I did move out of the Dominican neighborhood, a lot of people at that time didn't know what the Dominican Republic is. I was seen as Puerto Rican or Black or Mixed and I would scream, 'I'm Dominican!!!'
Kat DeLuna:I went through this in high school, they would ask me, 'Are you Black or Latina?' And I would say, 'You don't understand, I'm a little bit of both!'
Christina Milian:I would see so many discussions on the blogs, people would say,'Oh she's Black' or 'No she's this, she's that'.
Javier Colon:I've definitely had folks who said, 'I was wondering why you had a name like Javier, we thought you were African American.'
Mimi Valdes:I've definitely been identified as African American before and it's not necessarily a wrong assumption because I do have African blood but I think what's more appropriate to describe me is as a 'Black woman who is of Puerto Rican and Cuban descent.'
It’s hard enough to find people who can relate to my multi-ethnicity, my multi-culturalness, and my multi-lingualness - let alone finding people who can relate to all that AND who I can date.
So I’m dating a monocultural white guy, who is bilingual out of necessity. His English is definitely not native-like, but he’s fluent and articulate.
We’re making out on his single bed, me on top, and take a break to shoot the breeze: I tell him he has beautiful eyes (he does - they’re sweet and sensitive, and the colour of a lake on a cold day). He says he’s never really known someone like me before,
“Exotic?” My face has got to be displaying a mixture of outrage and hurt confusion, because he clarifies:
“Yes. You’re exotic to me.”
I don’t receive it as a compliment (I can’t - too many years of hearing mixed-race women curse the very notion of ‘exotic’). I don’t receive it as a racial slur either - he’s just too sincere.
“In my country, we don’t have people with brown brown eyes, or very blue eyes, or very blonde hair, or black hair. We just have these colours in the middle. In my family, we all have sort of blue eyes.”
I think I’m starting to understand. In the winter, I’m white passing, sometimes - but still I just look different to any woman he’s ever spent a decent amount of time with.
So what should I do? Introduce him to this notion of 'exoticism’, and the sexualisation of the 'other’? Tell him that if he ever wants to compliment someone on their looks when they look different from him, not to impress upon the 'alien’ quality of their features? Or I could let him carry on using the word 'exotic’ to mean what he thinks it means: different, unusual, foreign.
Looking for people to start helping me put together a zine for mixed people
It’s in its grass roots stages right now but I have already purchased a domain name and talked to some magazine editors that I have hook ups with. I’ve also spoken to a few potential sponsors and have some basic outlines of what I want the magazine to look like. Very flexible right now, I am looking for people to help me mold this magazine into something great.
It will be an online magazine and I’m looking for mixed women of color who have prior journalism experience.
Unfortunately, I’ll be unable to pay for the first few issues so putting this together will be on a volunteer basis. If you want to work something out in regards to this (future compensation, compensation by other means, etc.) then that’s definitely open for discussion.
Just send me a message on this blog with anything you want me to know about yourself and we’ll talk from there.