Mexico's lost culture

CUAJINICUILAPA, Mexico — The common story goes that somewhere off Mexico's southwest coast, a Spanish slave ship crashed in the 1600s. Its human cargo fled to shore, adapting to a new life of freedom.

Hundreds of years later, descendants of these ships are the reason for the distinctly African features of villagers living throughout what today is known as the Costa Chica.

While the concentration of Mexico’s ethnic blacks along this friendly stretch of pristine coast lends credence to this theory, there are two major flaws: why was a slave ship on that coast in that era, and how did the slaves manage to free themselves from the shackles to get to shore?

“It’s a myth,” said Eduardo Anorve Zapata, a local historian, journalist and author. “Oral [historical] culture comes with its fantasies. Historically, there is no way it's possible, it's not logical.”

Anorve Zapata’s beliefs fall more in line with another theory: the location of Spanish haciendas on the coast.

Though Oaxaca is highly arable and rich in resources, the heat, insects and disease made it an undesirable place to live for Spanish conquistadores. Thus, as early as 1519, they moved slaves from Veracruz — Mexico’s primary port on the Caribbean coast — to labor on the haciendas and plantations on the lush lands slightly inland from the coast. Meanwhile owners opted to live in more hospitable regions.

American anthropology professor Bobby Vaughn, who runs the website Afro Mexico, says research shows that Afro-Mexicans outnumbered those of European descent up until 1810 and by a factor of roughly 2:1 until the 1700s.

As Spanish rule in the region weakened and eventually fell with Mexico’s War of Independence (1810-1821), the former slaves slowly established their own settlements near their former estates, some of which remain today.

Despite lack of formal support, traces of African culture remain in pockets along the coast. Ties to food and language seem to have largely disappeared. But the presence of musical instruments such as the bote and cultural events such as the Baile de Diablo trace back to traditions brought from Africa.

Yet, overall, residents know little about the unique heritage of their region. Many rural areas offer little to no education about black history in Mexico, despite its visible presence.

“I’ve never thought that much about it,” said David Perez, a student near San Jose del Progreso. “It's true, a lot of us are blacks near here, but we don’t know why. It's not something that we talk about.”

Lessons on the history or culture of the region’s African heritage have been absent at home and at school, he said.

This has been the case for generations, said Ernesto Noyola Macial. He and his wife Hacintha Habila Norga have lived an hour up a potholed, dirt road from the region’s main highway in the coastal village of El Azufre since roughly 1960.

Like many in the predominantly black village, they say they moved to the coast from inland Oaxaca because they were poor and fishing offered a constant food source. At two generations older than Perez, they are among the oldest in the village, but say they have no knowledge of their ethnic roots to pass along.

“No one has the mentality that they are black here,” said Norga, “they don’t celebrate it … There is no one on this coast who knows anything about the history of it.”

This break in the chain of passing along traditions causes some to question whether connections to this culture will slip away altogether. Outside of the Costa Chica region, Afro-Mexicans are rarely seen, and knowledge on the topic is generally nonexistent around Mexico, despite the major role slavery played in the early colonial years.

A small, though professional museum in Cuajinicuilapa, a few academic publications and a handful of local leaders define the current reach of the topic. Yet, Anorve Zapata sees no reason for worry that this culture will disappear. In fact, he sees momentum swinging the other way, to bolster the few existing cultural practices and to help make this history accessible to the Mexican public.

Now, an unofficial group from the region is appealing to Mexican senators for a new law to recognize Afro-Mexicans and improve official historical recognition of the topic.

If this succeeds, it will be an important first step toward developing a more robust relationship between residents and their ethnic history.

“The knowledge exists,” said Anorve Zapata, “but it exists in the halls of academia. It has to come down to the people.”