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Exploring Blackness in Mexico Part I: Bittersweet Black Coyolillo

A sign at the entrance to Coyolillo proclaims it as of mixed African ancenstry, carrying on the history, culture, and traditions.

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.

Every time I approached a representative at the local tourism office kiosk, I led with the introduction that I traveled to Mexico to see the black folks. They'd slowly look up with wide-eyed, blank expressions, then apologize that they didn't know anything about the topic. I should not have been shocked. There were several articles published late last year indicating that for the first time in its 2015 census, Mexico had provided an option for citizens of African descent to identify themselves---for the FIRST TIME---and it resulted in 1.4 million people self-identifying as black. Even though the tour office couldn't give me much information, I’d done pre-departure research and had town names on hand. Coyolillo. I wanted to get there. And the tourism office reps were helpful in providing directions to get there by bus. Equipped with bus stop locations, the names of bus lines, and my favorite map app for offline use, I set off on a day trip to the village of Coyolillo.

Right Where I Was Supposed to Be

My intention to explore the Afro descendant heritage in Coyolillo hit me head on as I got off the bus. I asked another rider to point me in the direction of the town center--I always use the town center as my launching point. Instead, she pointed me toward a guy that was also getting down from the bus. She said he’s who I wanted to talk to: Octavio Lopez-Zaragoza. I told him the same thing that I told the folks from the tourism office: that I wanted to find the black folks. Without much conversation, I followed him to his house next to the town’s neon pink church. When he opened the door, I saw teal walls covered in hand-carved wooden masks in the shape of various animal heads: goats, bulls, a humming beard, a devil, Santa Claus, and even a pink skinned Spanish conquistador. These were the same masks worn in the video that I had seen on Facebook nine months before. At that moment, I knew that I was right where I was supposed to be.

Octavio stands in his home holding a mask that one of his students made, in front of a wall of his own creations.

I came to understand---by the way he talked about his community, the Congolese ancestors in his own lineage, and the artifacts that he showed me--that Octavio was the community’s premier ambassador for its Afro-Mexican heritage. Clearly, he’d dealt with curious foreigners seeking to quench their thirst for knowledge about how Coyolillo became known as a black community--and in what ways that community still embraced it’s blackness, and celebrated that heritage. At the foot of the hill on which the community sits, there reads a sign that says, “Coyolillo, Pueblo Afro-mestizo, con historia, cultura, y tradiciones. Habitantes 3.700” and the same carved bull heads painted on either sides of the black block letters.

Octavio showed me each of the carved masks intricately painted, some adorned with real livestock horns. He explained that he was returning home from teaching others how to make these masks at at a school for learning artesania and crafts at the Taller de Arte Popular in Xalapa. He explained that they are used primarily during the town’s carnival which coincides with the carnival in Xalapa in February, three days before Lent. This carnival celebration is an infusion African rhythms and dances traced back to (Mali, Mozambique, and Zambia) with indigenous, cultural and colonial origins.

After talking more with Octavio and meeting his family, he invited me to eat barbecued chicken (it was not lost on me how black of a thing BBQ is), homemade tortillas, and freshly made melon juice. I bought one of the precious masks and headed off to explore the town. I wanted to speak to the people. I was expecting that this town whose entrance proudly proclaimed it to be Afro-mestizo, would ooze with unapologetic blackness (me thinking in my black American social-justice framework of ethnic pride, anti-white supremacy, and the understanding that black lives matter). As I walked the hilly streets, I could feel myself being watched from brightly painted porches and open windows. There on a mission, I walked up to several families to ask them about the town, and specifically, its blackness.

Blackness or Nah?

One family literally laughed at my questioning about the town’s purported black heritage and ancestry. They said those folks (the black ancestors) had long died off. When I asked if this community is black--of African descent, they replied that it's said to be true, that some folks might be, ultimately, they could not confirm it. I then asked if they considered themselves to be black. They said, “we consider ourselves to be Mexican”. I quickly bored with this game of talking around the issue--the ownership of one’s blackness. As I continued walking, I confronted myself about my need to hear folks say that they are black.

What value would these words spoken in Spanish from the mouths of brown skinned folks hold for me? I’d answered this question for other folks in Mexico when I explained the purpose of my trip: it is affirming to witness other descendants in the African Diaspora recognize and claim their heritage despite the oppression faced by black and brown people in the world. The value those words hold for me lie in the strength of active resistance in which I participate. To feel a part of a community that spans language and culture, one that actively seeks ways to discover, preserve and celebrate a common heritage is the value that witnessing others own their blackness holds for me.

Finally, I came to one more family sprawled out on their shaded porch; one of the teenage boys literally face-down and asleep on the patio’s tiled (and probably much cooler) floor. Two women welcomed my curiosity. They told me that yes, Coyolillo is full of folks descendant from black people that lived here many years ago; that most of the people here--whether they acknowledge it or not--have black blood. My heart stopped for a moment. My mood turned upbeat for a few seconds. They admitted to not knowing much, and told me that their uncle who knew a lot about their heritage took much of that knowledge to his grave, something I would come to hear in another Afro-Mexican community a few days later.

I was exhausted by this point. I went to sit in the shade under the trees in the plaza outside of the hot pink church. As I was taking notes and reflecting on my redeemed disappointment, Octavio called me over to his house again. He wanted to introduce me to his family and friends. He beckoned over person after person; they appeared increasingly black in phenotype with each new introduction. They had dark curly hair, brown skin, and thicker lips and noses. I felt my disappointment melt away. I asked him why his community members would answer my questions in the way that they did. He said that some folks simply deny their blackness. Before I left, he gifted me a bag of sweet mangoes-so sweet we had to shoo the flies away-- and sent me on my way toward the bus stop so that I could get back to Xalapa before dark.

The sweetness of visiting Coyolillo turned out to be more about the folks that live there, and the myriad unknown challenges that they may face--whether they own their blackness or not---that may create the conditions where denying their blackness is an act of self-preservation. It became more about an acknowledgement of the complexities of the society and its inhabitants’ quest for survival, and the power of national identity as a tool in erasure. It also ended up furthering my thirst for knowledge about communities like Coyolillo and how they seek to create spaces to own their identity, in the same way that Octavio does through his artistry, and the town does each carnival season.

Getting to Coyolillo from Xalapa

Coyolillo is named for the coyol plant and its edible fruit, similar to the coconut which had been present on the outskirts of the area where the town is today. Coyolillo is a small village of 3,700 located about 21 km east of Xalapa in the municipality of Actopan. There are buses leaving Xalapa headed to the village about every hour and a half-- a very scenic 45 minute ride in a collectivo which will cost you about 18 MXN each way. You can catch the bus at the intersection of Francisco Villa and Antonio Chedrahui Caram (on the opposite side of the street from Chedrahui Shopping center, and on the far side of the railroad tracks). Ask the vendors and riders nearby for guidance on which buses go to Coyolillo. Get off in the town center, not at the bus stop that says Parada Coyolillo. Ask locals for the departure times for buses heading back to Xalapa. If your hotel is in downtown Xalapa, ride the bus all the way back to the terminal. You can also catch a non-shared taxi from the same departure spot for about 35 MXN.

Points of interest

  • Town church (bright pink building in center of town)

  • Plaza and street leading to church - markets set up on some days

  • Library - meager collection of academic books, run by local family

  • Hilltop with crucifixes overlooking town center

  • Natural spring (ask locals to guide you)

Thanks for reading about my experience in Coyolillo. Before you go, take a look around and take our quick travel survey!

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