Life Between Borders: Black Migrants in Mexico

With Trump’s rise to power, thousands of Haitians seeking entry to the US are now left stranded at the northern Mexico border. But black migration is not new to Mexico, as people from the African Diaspora have lived here for centuries. In this short documentary, we meet Haitians stuck at the border as well as Africans in Mexico City to explore black migration and identity in Mexico.

Vodou and Race

Race and how it ties into Haitian vodou is a very important and incredibly complex topic to write about, and it’s one I’ve been wanting to write about for awhile. I’ve been really reticent to do so for one big glaring reason: I am white. I do not want my privilege and background to take center stage when I talk about vodou, but it is an inevitable topic that is bigger than I am and that white and/or European practitioners routinely do not talk about. I understand why, at least from my perspective and experiences–for me, I do not want to engage Haitain vodouisants and people of color in conversations that are really not desired. One of my goals in my vodou community that is largely made of Haitian practitioners is to be as unobtrusive as possible to other people’s experience and practice of vodou, be it social or religious, and so I do a lot of listening and not a lot of talking, particularly when the topic of race and the participation of white folks comes up.

But, it is vitally important to talk about race and how it is tied with vodou, especially for white and/or European practitioners and for outsiders, and it is important for white folks to do the talking about whiteness in vodou, instead of leaving the burden on Haitians. Vodou has consistently been taken advantage of by white folks who exploit the practices for personal gain and the participation of white folks is routinely waved about [by white folks] as this sort of ‘going native’ trope, wherein the white person is participating in this exotic practice and lending credibility to it, even if said white person completely goes far afield from what vodou actually is.

When you boil it down to bare bones, vodou is two things; a framework for healing in a world where suffering is the norm, and the living history of Haiti and the Haitian people. I’ve written a bit about how vodou heals, so I’m going to leave that by the side for right now. The living history of Haiti, though, is another matter and it’s one that is hard to explain in a way that makes sense if you haven’t seen vodou in person, but it is what vodou is–it traces the history of Haitians from Africa through enslavement to independence.

You can’t separate the history of Haiti from race and therefore cannot separate race from vodou. Vodou’s foundation was built upon the backs of enslaved Africans who dreamed of something better and then reached out and took it. From the very beginning, white Europeans have been the oppressors–first the Spanish, then the French, then the French again post-revolution when France demanded reparations for the loss of the colony, then the US using the Monroe Doctrine, then the US again when Aristide was deposed [accounts say it was US Special Forces that ‘escorted’ Aristide out of the country during the coup d’etat], and, most currently, the US-populated UN ‘peace-keeping’ forces that have trafficked Haitian women and children. Haiti is a popular cause for white folks to rally behind in an effort to make themselves feel good, but almost nothing is actually done–see the Red Cross financial debacle post-earthquake.

Post-revolution, almost every single white European was either ejected from the country or executed. A few were allowed to stay, and they were doctors and medical professionals, a group of soldiers who had deserted from the French forces, and a small group of Germans who had been allowed to live in the north prior to the revolution and who had aided Africans escaping enslavement.

One of the lasting effects of the French occupation after the revolution has been the social stratification based on skin color. Very light-skinned or white folks are often still referred to as gwo blan/big whites and light skin and ‘good hair’ [hair that mimics European characteristics of being non-textured] is a highly valued trait. White folks in general and especially those in positions of power are often distrusted, and with good reason.

So, how does that all play out in vodou?

The biggest example that I like to talk about is Ezili Freda*. Freda is considered the Lwa who most often concerns Herself with perfection [versus love]. She is the one who helps create the best possible life in the most pleasing manner.  She IS perfection embodied, and that’s where the reflection of the history of race comes in. Freda is almost always portrayed as very light-skinned or white with straight or slightly wavy hair, as She reflects the desire and embodiment of what is considered perfection among many Haitians. That’s not to say that Haitians don’t find all shades of skin attractive, but the underlying message is that lighter-skinned and/or white folks hold the power and are able to achieve more, and that’s not necessarily wrong in the context of colonial power structures and the matrix of white supremacy abroad.

Another piece of how Freda moves in the world also reflects the reality of skin color in Haiti. She is often unhappy because nothing is as good as She would like it to be–nothing is actually perfect. When She comes down into possession, She often cries or sobs. This is not necessarily because She is displeased with anyone, but more because nothing is ever good enough in Her mind. It is never, ever perfect and She is never, ever treated how She envisions to be the perfect manner.

This diverges in two ways. First, it reflects the idea and reality that white folks have this insatiable appetite for the finer things in life, which is also not inaccurate. Haiti sees a lot of white tourism and I can’t imagine what it must be like for a Haitian who makes an average of $100/year to see white folks with designer handbags and expensive sneakers staying in gated, fenced resorts and touring their neighborhoods to gawk at the relative poverty.

Second, it reflects the reality that even a light-skinned mixed race person will not be treated the same as a white person. Part of Freda’s story is that She is always the mistress and never the wife–She is what men seek out for comfort and entertainment, but She is often not valued as much as the white woman they may seek to marry. There’s a lot about gender and sexual politics in there, too, but it’s also a comment on the perpetuation of the ‘one drop’ rule that was and is alive and well in Haiti and beyond.

Ezili Freda is not the only light-skinned Lwa–Met Agwe is considered light-skinned with light eyes–and there are a few white Lwa, including Ogou Sen Jak, who, depending on lineage, is white and French, and there is a Lwa who I am not sure is part of my lineage or who comes separate from Freda who is often white or exceptionally light-skinned.

White is also held up as a ‘clean’ color in vodou. We wear white for a lot of Lwa, take white baths, cover our heads with white during certain things, and generally hold white up as a bastion of purity. The color white is assigned a lot of power, and indeed holds a lot of power. Damballah, the Lwa who often takes the form of a huge white snake, is the epitome of this. He is considered to be one of the strongest, oldest Lwa, and His primary form is the white serpent [If He chooses to take the form of a man, He does not come as a white man]. Anything given to Him must largely be white, from the libation He takes to His food and His gifts. In possession, He is covered by a white sheet so He is protected from anything impure.

In contrast, the Lwa that are considered to largely be Haitian in origin [sometimes this is accurate and sometimes not] are mostly dark-skinned and They are often considered much more volatile in temperament than Lwa who are often conceived of as originating in Africa. Sometimes it is [inaccurately] held that the darker-skinned a Lwa appears in a dream, the more malevolent They are. In addition to holding subtle and not-so-subtle comments about race within Their appearances, They also reflect Haitian people directly–the majority of Haitians are not what would be considered light-skinned. Light-skinned and white people are definitively the minority in Haiti, yet they are believed to, and do, hold an incredible amount of power and social status thanks to the underlying racism that took hold during the occupation of the island by Europeans.

Haitians, however, have a loud and definitive history of not accepting colonial rule. Vodou reflects this beyond the remembrance Bwa Kayiman and resultant independence and ejection of the imperialist French. I’ve mentioned it before, but the beginning of the priye/opening prayer of every ceremony is always in French and specifically the Old French that the colonizers would have spoken. This is a covert-to-the-outsider way of remembering the rasin/roots of revolution and a clear message of ‘this held us back, now we take it and use it for own purposes’. Vodou keeps history fresh–slavery and the overthrown of the French is not distant, but lives as a clear part of current Haitian reality and memory. Vodou is a means of constant revolution as it empowers those who practice it to mitigate the effects of oppressive factors in day-to-day life.

After it was made it clear that vodou was not just something I was going to witness and have no part of, my very first conversation with my Manmi–who is Haitian–began with me very hesitantly asking if it was even appropriate for me to be there because I am white. I didn’t get to finish my SUPER AWKWARD delivery of my question before Manmi cut me off and told me the Lwa are for everyone regardless of skin color. It seemed like the question exhausted her and I’ve never brought it up with her again. She’s pretty open about the fact that she gets a lot of shit from other Haitian manbos and houngans because she has white people in her house, and not an insignificant number, either. The way she tells it, other Haitians get jealous because they assume she is very financially well-off due to having many white children and, while this is not true, it speaks to a larger issue in Haiti and the Diaspora–whites hold a significant amount of wealth while being a minority in Haiti and Haitian vodou.

Not all lineage heads feel the same way about white folks as my Manmi does. In the city where Manmi’s US residence is, there are close to twenty other active sosyetes and very few will entertain a white person attending services, nevermind initiating into their lineage. I get questions a lot from other white people about this that boil down to ‘it’s not fair that they exclude people based on skin color’, and it makes my head hurt. Like, are you listening to the words that come out of your mouth? I can’t speak for anyone else, but I find it COMPLETELY LOGICAL that many Haitians want nothing to do with white people and won’t have white people in their sosyete. Beyond the blatant history of terrible treatment at the hands of white people, there is a huge trend of white people showing up to vodou and then departing and staging ‘voodoo rituals’ or declaring themselves a priest/ess and doing and selling things as authentic vodou that is anything but. Lots of white folks can’t seem to get out of their own way and realize that not everything is up for grabs, no one is bound to teach us anything, and we do not and should not have access to every space no matter how interested or sincere we may be. We do not get points for being polite or being ‘good’.

The trend for white folks to pick up vodou is kind of scary–and I say this being a white person who has picked up vodou. There’s a lot of bullshit, and a significant amount of it is perpetuated by white folks who want to appear exotic or like they have picked up special mystical powers from being in proximity to people of color who do things that look strange and unusual if your only exposure to religion has been the inside of a church. White people often complain that vodou costs money and requires a lot of work, and that is both an expression of privilege and an absolute blindness to the fact that white people have contributed to a lot of that. Vodou is insular not just because there are ritual secrets to be kept, but because white people show up to play tourist and by ‘voodoo dolls’ and otherwise be gross. Keeping the religion insular and a lot of information bound by initiation ensures that it is easy for a legitimate practitioner to spot a fraud and keeps information that could be dangerous in the hands of the stupid and unsupervised away from public consumption.

Most recently, there has been this growing practice to take Haitian culture out of vodou with the goal of making it accessible to white folks, which is gross, or only utilize the aspects of vodou that are palatable to white people, which is also gross. Most often, it is removing the liturgical language of Kreyol–which removes a LOT of meaning and information that someone who doesn’t speak Kreyol doesn’t realize they are missing–or doing away with animal sacrifice, which is a key component of initiation, agreements with Lwa, and baptizing a temple. Not including these things leaves you with something, but it’s not vodou.and it will result in ceremonies that are missing the pieces that make them work as religious ritual. Vodou is plenty accessible if you are white, the Lwa want you, and you are willing to do the work.

The key bit is being willing to do the work. The Lwa can shout in your ear all day that They want you to be a priest or want you to do <insert vodou thing>, but if you aren’t willing to put in some sweat equity and deal with being uncomfortable in a space that is not oriented to white folks, none of it matters. Being a part of Haitian vodou requires Haitian community endorsement–if you don’t have a community behind you, the gate will not open for you. Part of vodou is this living contract between the Lwa and Haitians. If you cannot get out of your own way as a white person, deal with your own stuff, and refrain from offending the Haitian folks you are working with to the point where they don’t want to deal with you, then no amount of intervention from the Lwa can help you.

I also get asked a lot if I, as a white person, am ever uncomfortable at services and the cold hard truth is that sometimes I am. Much of my discomfort is amplified by the fact that I am visibly queer and gender-non-normative, but sometimes it’s because I’m white and visitors at Manmi’s services are not happy to see me there. When I started with vodou, there was a HUGE amount of culture shock for me because I had never spent extensive time in a cultural space that didn’t have white folks as a big part. I missed out on a lot of cultural cues and didn’t understand others, like how the concept of personal space is often different for many Haitians, and it left me really out of sorts for a bit. I had to do a lot of work–and will always have a lot of work to do–to get out of my own way because there was no way I could have remained a part of vodou if I wasn’t willing to shift my worldview, dig at my own ingrained white supremacy, and orient myself to the idea that I was not going to be the default center of everything and not everyone is going to be okay that I am present. I think it’s easy for white people to take that–people not being happy to see us–as a personal insult, but that’s the effect of privilege on world view.

Of course, I can only talk about race in vodou as a white person, so my view is skewed by that. I have no idea what it is like to be Haitian, or Haitian in the United States where white supremacy is so cemented into everything. I think it’s important, though, that white practitioners take the opportunity to talk about how race and colorism relate to vodou because it is too often delegated to people of color to teach and educate about race and how white people have and continue to perpetuate white supremacy. Being trans is not a comparable experience to being a person of color, but the best way I can relate to it is that I fucking H-A-T-E teaching people about gender identity and trying to explain how and why I and other trans people should be granted the same dignity and respect as cisgender people. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have to do that about your skin color or country of origin.

The Lwa didn’t have to pick me up and the lineage I’m a part of didn’t have to welcome me, so I feel pretty indebted to the Lwa and the Haitian community. Part of how I try to express that is writing as much as I can about my experience and understanding of vodou, and that includes writing about race and colorism. I don’t want to be the center of that sort of writing, because it’s not about me as an individual, and I hope that any errors or unintentionally privileged statements only reflect on me and not on vodou at large.

*It should be noted that my discussing Ezili Freda should not be taken as criticism of Her, but merely illustration of Her backstory. I adore Her and owe Her quite a bit, and find Her equal parts gorgeous and terrifying.


LMFAOOOOOOOOOO this shit never gets old 

ubernegro  asked:

This is the same rollback that dismantled post-Haitain Revolution and Seminole Wars, post-Civil War reform, post Civil Rights movement, the Black Panthers, and fucking bullshit. Everytime, People of color lost. In order to win, because I am sick of just resisting, we have to be better than an derivatives. We have to be smarter. We can't just organize and protest against a majority and hope for moral victories. If we are truly the most educated generation ever, we have to actualize that.


C: I feel as if I’m not alone when it comes to not succumbing to the very blatant fear mongering done to get Black people to vote for Hillary.

White liberals are having a legit breakdown over Trump and honestly…I’m glad. I’m not concerned about who’s running the country cause at this point we deserve all the garbage that is about to be dropped on us anyways. We are socially, economically, and politically backwards. That’s not gonna change if Hillary or Trump wins in November.

As long as the KKK isn’t seen as a hate group, as long Haitain, Somali, Ethiopian, etc refugees are blamed for our economic issues, as long as we keep fucking fracking and pouring money that could be used for eco friendly solutions nothing is gonna change.

Let go of this idea that you can be equal in a capitalist society and don’t buy the “one nation under his” shit either because this country was created for White men and it is run by White men and putting a White woman or White male bigot in the White House isn’t gonna change that. The fucked up shit to come will just vary in presentation.

It doesn’t matter who we vote for to be honest because the war will rage on; we will continue to be imperialists and bomb the homes of Black and Brown people. We will still be the largest importer in the world while our GDP stays weak. I MEAN the only people truly scared about who is going to be our next President seem to be White and Non Black. Because for Black people not shit is gonna change. Many of us are already poor and scared of the police…and the police who support them. We are already dealing with the gentrification of our neighborhoods especially those who are African American. We have to face that almost every damn day. Could it get worse? I mean it’s already pretty fucking bad. Our people are stolen and sold into human trafficking, raped by the police, shot by the police, and killed by the police. We are pushed into the prison industrial complex. Non Black people continue to exploit our oppression and profit off of it. President Obama, a biracial man, spent most of his presidency ripping apart the Black community.

I mean I just don’t fall for the fear mongering because I see my own people living with legitimate concerns and worried about the cops killing their babies or raping their friends…Will voting for Hillary change the aversion to blackness? Absolutely not.

So if Trump wins oh well. We are gonna end up in a bad spot anyways so why not? At this point I’m surprised if any actual positive change will happen.