Exploring Blackness in Mexico Part II: Easing on Down the Road & Black Ain't Ugly
Update as of 10/6/17
If you like this story and are intrigued by the story of Yanga, join me in February 2018 to celebrate Carnival in Veracruz among Afrodescendant communities. More details here.
Intention Meets Confirmation
Coming off the heels of slight disappointment in what I'd heard (and not heard) from some of the folks in Coyolillo about their black heritage, I'd almost made the decision to call it a trip and simply head to the coast for a few days of relaxation and souvenir hunting. Even though that same disappointment led to an epiphany and my hypothesis about blackness in Mexico--that it's suffered erasure, and that Afro-Mexicans have sought to survive by denying/downplaying their heritage --I felt jaded. I was literally asking myself what’s the lesson that I was being taught and why'd I have to come all this way to learn it?
Then I met Pati Blanca.
I saw a beautiful brown skinned lady. She was slim, caramel in color, with closely cut curly gray hair. She was wearing stylish sunglasses and a colorful shirt, a reflection of her cool personality. Just like someone's auntie on the Southside of Chicago. Her brownness against the bright yellow walls of the church, and her coolness called me to her.
I went over and said hello, opening with the line that I led with my entire trip: I am here visiting Veracruz from the US, and I am trying to find the black folks. Just like that. She tilted her head, smiled, and hugged me tight. She said, “The blood called us together”. It was as if she felt the same good energy as I did when I saw her. Auntie. Her name was Pati--Pati Blanca, she clarified. And she explained that she was Brazilian, but lives in Xalapa, and that her parents were from a nearby town called Yanga. She emphatically said that I need to go there if I want to meet black Mexicans. Before I left, we took a selfie (one with my phone, one with her phone--I told you she was cool) and she told me that whenever I'm back in Xalapa that I can come find her at the church when she’s there for prayer group.
I left her and went back to my room to make a game plan on how to get to Yanga. Just moments before this chance encounter, I had settled with heading to Veracruz City to chill and relax on the coast, but now I had to get to Yanga! Again, the Universe, certain about the clarity of my intention for this trip--nudged me in the right direction.
I strategically didn't book any accommodations after leaving Mexico City the day before I arrived in Xalapa. This enabled me to create an on-the-fly itinerary which now included getting to Yanga and back in a single day. I chatted with the lady at the Office of Tourism kiosk again and created a game plan. I’d check out of the hotel and head to the bus station early the next morning and hop on a bus to Cordoba. From there I’d transfer to a local bus that would take me on the 35 minute ride to Yanga.
Ease on Down the Road
Yanga is known as the first free town in the Americas. The uprising against the colonial forces was led by Principe de Yanga (Gaspar Yanga) who was kidnapped in Africa and brought to Mexico to endure years of cruel forced labor. After rebelling against colonial rule and resisting violent attacks from the Spanish, Yanga led his town of maroons (freed and escaped blacks) to achieve freedom and self-rule in 1618. Principe de Yanga is a national hero in Mexico. The town would be known as San Lorenzo de los Negros, and later, simply as Yanga. Having read this history, and talked to Blanca, I assumed that the town would be very black, like blackety-black---that I’d feel right at home around other black folks going about their daily lives.
I got off the bus and stepped into the heat of Yanga’s plaza flanked by the church on one side, businesses and restaurants, and the municipal building on the other side. But I didn't see anyone who I assumed to be black. I immediately felt the same disappointment that I felt as I walked around Coyolillo asking folks about the history of black people in the community.
Hunger hit me, so I sat down at a food stand to have tacos. And I sang my line again and asked about the black folks. After some thinking, the wife and husband stand owners told me that I wouldn’t find many black folks around here, but that I needed to head down the road to Mata Clara, and that I could get there by taking a short bus ride. I paid them and left. The excitement that I felt when I left Xalapa on a whim to get to Yanga had turned into more discomfort and uncertainty. This was certainly a wrench in my plans--that I would have to get on another bus to a place that I had never heard of and hadn't done any prior research about.
I told the driver I wanted to get to Mata Clara. He let me off at one of the streets that intersected the highway. I walked up to a family-run business and asked how I could get into Mata Clara. They pointed me back toward an intersection about a block away from where I'd gotten down from the bus.
When I got to the intersection I approached a lady in her store and asked her the same question I’d asked several other people that day: where are the black folks, or someone who can tell me about them? She was unsure, but pointed toward a row of houses and mentioned that the family that live on that block might know someone. I was so exhausted with being redirected that for a fleeting moment, I considered hopping on the bus back to town. But I pushed on. Besides being afraid guard dogs that might rush me as I neared the property (very common in Latin America), I was up for the challenge of approaching a stranger’s house and asking them weird questions about potentially politically sensitive topics.
I called out from the corner of the block, drawing out each syllable, “Hooooolaaa! Hoooolaaaa! Hoooolaaaa!”. The sun was lighting my ass up! I was sweating and panting. I didn't see anyone even peak around the corner. I called out again and a short brown skinned lady with cropped black hair came out of her house into the yard. I started my spiel again as she approached.
Ser Negro No Es Feo
Sofia met me with a smile and responded hesitantly to my questions about blacks in the community. I heard the same reticence in her voice that I’d heard from some of the townspeople in Coyolillo two days earlier. As we continued talking in the sun, she invited me to put my bag down. She went on. She mentioned an uncle who had died a few years back, and that he had possessed all of the knowledge about black people in Mexico, that he had copious notes and histories written in his notebooks---in cursive, unintelligible by his surviving family members. In my mind, I pictured Esther Rolle saying, “damn, damn, damn!”. Sofia warmed up to me, and went on to talk about the experience of the blacks in the area. She told me that many foreigners would come to Mata Clara after being redirected there from Yanga. That there aren’t many black folks in Yanga, and that Mata Clara was the place I needed to be. She brought up racism before I could even ask. She talked about the marginalization of the black communities, and how maintaining pride in their ancestry was an act of resistance. I asked her if she and her family are black. She said yes, as if I were asking a question to which the answer was obvious. Sofia said, “Ser negro no es feo”. Being black isn’t ugly.
The community’s ancestry is honored and remembered through the annual Carnival celebration, and a local comparsa (an organized group of festively costumed dancers and musicians that perform in parades during Carnival) that Efrain, one of her family members organizes. She sent a young boy to call him to come to her yard immediately. Efrain came and met us. Sofia disappeared and returned with boxes of family photos, and framed portraits. She wanted to show me how black the people actually were. And they were. They could be anyone’s mixed race family members back home. I thumbed through the pictures, humbled at this family’s willingness to share.
Efrain insisted that he show me the rest of Mata Clara, including other black families. I mentally hesitated again. It was hot and I was not up for parading through town in the heat. He called his taxi driver friend to come get us, and he paid for it from his own pocket, even after I offered to. We met matriarchs and children of the Virgen family. The boys looked like some of the kids at the barber shop at home, the women reminded me of my paternal grandmother; friendly and gracious, yet stern and disciplinarian when it came to order in the household. As is custom in Latin America, they initially offered me a seat outside. We sat and chatted about my purpose here and the story of their family. After they were convinced of my good intentions, they welcomed me inside--a respite from the scorching sun--but not much better because of the aluminum roof which radiates the heat. Kids scurrying about trying their best to contain their natural buoyancy, one of the adult daughters showed me the walls of the home, covered in family photos of black folks. In total there were 9 children, and countless grandchildren, and even more great grandchildren. The pictures chronicled their lives from baby portraits, to wedding photos. I was thankful. As it neared my time to go, they offered me a bag of ripened mangos so sweet that flies followed me down the street.
My new friend Efrain and I walked down the road. He pointed out more black families, talking in low tones and pointing to their homes--almost as if we were saying bad things about them. He said that most folks make their money by cultivating sugarcane--the same backbreaking work that their ancestors once did. Unlike slaves, the people now own the land. He explained that he runs the comparsa and was in the process of planning for next year’s Carnival by requesting funds from Yanga municipality to buy costumes for the youth, and practicing new songs and dances. He told me that his group researches African songs and learns them (reclaiming culture) to use as the comparsa marches and dances thru the streets in their elaborate outfits. He even had the organization's charter in his hands, a document that he would need to submit to the local government in order to seek funding. I wondered if he had brought this paper just to show me that he’s legit. Efrain is a food cart vendor. He sells hot dogs in the evenings, and said that he sometimes doesn’t make any money at all.
Efrain walked me back to the highway to catch the bus. He waited with me as the trucks blew dust and gravel in our faces. Its times like that when I wonder about the kindness of strangers--folks that I see as guideposts ushering me in the right direction, like the parade of characters that the shepherd boy met in The Alchemist. Folks that I would affectionately call brother, sister, auntie--folks that are eager to share, and willing to trust a stranger with good intentions. It's the one inexplicable component of travel that I might never have the answer to. After saying goodbye to Efrain, I climbed onto the bus with my bag of mangos and sat down. I was contented.
I visited and shared with the black communities, and brown individuals that I was on a mission meet. By visiting Yanga, Mata Clara, and Coyolillo, I came into contact with varying perspectives on blackness in Mexico--from the mouths of the people that live that existence every day. Some in Coyolillo prefer to emphasize their national identity (nothing wrong with that--it simply has some implications for erasure of their African heritage--whitening as it's called in history books). Others in the small town actively proclaim, and celebrate their black heritage through its artistry and culture. Although the only thing black is the statue of Principe de Yanga outside of the municipal offices, just down the road lies Mata Clara, an enclave of black families that thrive by farming sugar cane just as their ancestors did--but under different terms. Folks in Mata Clara didn’t shy away from their blackness at all; they were actively searching for new ways to reclaim it and preserve it.
When I travel, I have to fight the urge to carry what's often called the white man’s burden. If I had succumb to it, I would have probably forced Efrain to take my money for the taxi that he paid for, maybe written him a check for the costumes for his comparsa, and ultimately, I would have felt it my responsibility to persuade all Afro-Mexicans that I came in contact with to love and celebrate their blackness. But I reject that responsibility. As a traveler, very much like a scientist, my role is to observe, learn, and not take anymore than I am given. I did that. And being that I do not live the daily lives of these people, I cannot insist that they change any of their ways; ways which were born out hundreds of years of precursory events and circumstances that shape their current reality.
Getting to Yanga
Take a Plateados operated bus from the second-class terminal (a few yards past the first-class station) to Yanga (14 MXN one-way)
Get off at Yanga town center, you’ll see the yellow church on the left in the direction of travel
Yanga to Mata Clara
Take bus east on 150, get off at Escuela Telesecundaria Octavio Paz (painted turquoise)
Follow the road south toward the town plaza