By Liliana Corona
Mexico’s Afro-descendant population is part of Mexican identity, from our DNA to our music. However, it is under-recognized, despite its undeniable presence at genetic and cultural levels.
When the Spanish came to Mexico, people of African origin were also brought as slaves, thus beginning a process of acculturation. Although the presence of African genes in Mexico is more evident in areas near the coast, millions of Mexicans have something of this gene in our blood.
All of this is explained in an investigation carried out by Agustín Ávila Casanueva*, Paula González-Rubio, Omar Zamora, and Alejandra Pájaro, winners of the 2018 Mexican Journalism Prize in the category of Scientific Communication and Cultural Dissemination, which was awarded recently. Their work, El fandango de la identidad afromexicana [The Fandango of Afro-Mexican Identity], is an effort to upend the belief that Mexicans are only the result of the intermingling of Spanish and other European peoples with indigenous Americans.
“The aspect of this story we’re most proud of is how it puts genetics together with music, food, culture, words, language, and history. It’s a story that talks about science and culture, creating a musical atmosphere which represents that Afro-descendant heritage. We didn’t attempt to talk about these communities from a single point of view, but included all those elements,” emphasizes Agustín Ávila, who is a member of the prizewinning team and also a teacher at Prepa Tec Cuernavaca Campus.
The story, which is in audio format, can be heard in full here. It strives to prove that African heritage is ever present in our daily lives. As the work says, “In Mexico, Afro-descendant populations were erased from our national identity. The African people brought as slaves during colonization contributed not only their genes, but also elements that form part of our most cherished cultural expressions. If we’re capable of recognizing our genetic and cultural legacy, we can aspire to being a less racist society with equal opportunities.”
Did you know that words like chingar, marimba, tararear, zumba, chambear, and many more come from Africa? Jamaica, tamarindo, mochila, conga, tanga, alcatraz, cumbia, and a large variety of the words we use every day come from African ethnic groups.
These cultural contributions to our speech and our genes began five centuries ago in what is now Mexico with the intermingling of indigenous Americans and hundreds of thousands of Afro-descendants who were brought to the region as slaves. In fact, during the colonial period, Afro-descendants were the second-largest population after indigenous people, according to the research by Ávila and his colleagues.
Today we continue to benefit from their contribution to medicine, customs, traditions, music, and language. In recent years, there has been an effort to give credit to the African contribution to Mexican culture. “In our cramped educational curriculum, I do take advantage of the part on human evolution, from the origin of humans in Africa and how they trekked all over the world and got to Mexico, as well as talking about our country’s genetic makeup,” says Ávila on how he teaches new generations about the history of African development and its impact on Mexico at Prepa Tec.
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One of the effects of African heritage can be seen in the area of health, as knowledge of the Mexican genome wouldn’t be complete without studying its African side. “There isn’t just one Mexican genome. It’s influenced by a lot of different variables that help us understand ourselves as a diverse nation. We have to celebrate our diversity. To celebrate it is to recognize minorities, their rights and needs from the perspective of health, as well as their social and cultural hallmarks,” says Ávila over the phone. “One part focuses on diagnosing those genetic disorders that most affect Mexicans (…) to be able to make our own models and get a better idea of who we are for prevention and treatment (of disorders),” he adds.
To eliminate racism
Recognizing our African origin as Mexicans is also a way of beginning to solve the problem of inequality in the population, which expresses itself as racism and classism.
“We want to do our bit with this work. One of our goals is getting people to recognize our diversity and that diversity is good. Having diversity makes us all better. We don’t want to hang on to this idea of a nonexistent average citizen that’s been imposed upon us. I hope this contribution to the discussion means that if people hear it, share it and discuss it with their family and friends, they’ll help to create a better idea of who we are and that diversity is something we should appreciate,” concludes Ávila.
To this end, the National Council to Prevent Discrimination (CONAPRED) has made inroads for the defense and recognition of Mexican Afro-descendants. “Fortunately, Mexico’s so-called ‘third root’ (i.e. our Afro-descendant, indigenous, and Spanish origins) is becoming more visible,” reported the organization last year.
An intercensal survey carried out in 2015 by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) revealed that 1.16% of the population self-identified as Afro-Mexican, living mainly in the states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Veracruz. CONAPRED said it was necessary “to step up the work of raising awareness so that more accurate and extensive data can be gathered in the 2020 census on the presence of this population in the rest of Mexico.”
María Elisa Velázquez and Gabriela Iturralde, authors of the CONAPRED publication Afrodescendientes en México. Una historia de silencio y discriminación [Afro-descendants in Mexico: A History of Silence and Discrimination], say that education should be the keystone of a culture of respect which recognizes the contributions of the Afro-descendant population to Mexican culture.
* Agustín Ávila Casanueva holds a bachelor’s degree in Genomic Sciences from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). He’s a science communicator, collaborator, and reporter for the website Cienciorama, producer and presenter of Ciencia Beat, and teacher of the subjects Fundamentals of Life, Health and Society, and Energy and Transformation I and II at PrepaTec, Cuernavaca campus.