LATINO VOICES
01/27/2016 01:46 pm ET

Mexico Finally Recognized Its Black Citizens, But That's Just The Beginning

In Mexico, like everywhere, identity is complex.
Afro-Mexican musicians in Cuajinicuilapa, Guerrero. Cuajinicuilapa has one of the biggest black population in Mexico.&nb
AFP via Getty Images
Afro-Mexican musicians in Cuajinicuilapa, Guerrero. Cuajinicuilapa has one of the biggest black population in Mexico. 

Last month, for the first time ever, the Mexican government recognized its 1.38 million citizens of African descent in a national survey. The survey served as a preliminary count before the 2020 national census, where "black" will debut as an official category.

A major force behind the government's recognition was México Negro, an activist group founded in 1997 by Sergio Peñaloza Pérez, a school teacher of African descent. México Negro works for, among other initiatives, the constitutional recognition of Afro-Mexicans and to increase the visibility of Afro-Mexican culture. 

The Huffington Post recently caught up with Peñaloza to discuss his organization, why recognition matters and what's next for black Mexicans. 

The Black Mexican Agenda

"We have been working for twenty years without much government response, so the events of the past year have been huge progress for us," Peñaloza told The Huffington Post on the phone from his home in Cuajinicuilapa, Guerrero.

Cuajinicuilapa is one of the major pueblos negros, or black towns, of Mexico. It's also at the center of the "Costa Chica," the southwestern states of Guerrero and Oaxaca where the Afro-Mexican population is concentrated (the nation's capital has a smaller black population than you'd think). So, from a distance, México Negro campaigned for recognition by INEGI, the census agency that did the initial count of Afro-Mexicans, and CONAPRED, the National Council for Preventing Discrimination.

The Dance of the Devils (la danza de los diablos) is a dance performed by Afro-Mexicans in Costa Chica.
México Negro, from XVI Encuentro de los Pueblos Negros
The Dance of the Devils (la danza de los diablos) is a dance performed by Afro-Mexicans in Costa Chica.

Peñaloza told HuffPost that CONAPRED's actions are overdue, especially given the UN's announcement to focus on the rights people of African descent. "But committed officials in both agencies have bypassed institutional sensitivity to support that Afro-Mexican national movement," he said.

Brisa Solis, CONAPRED's communications director, said its main goal in 2016 is to translate the results of the INEGI census survey into better race-related public policies. In November, INEGI sought representatives from black and indigenous communities to help inform their policy decisions, and acknowledged that "racial discrimination persists in our country against blacks."

Why Has It Taken So Long?

Until last month, Mexico was one of only two Latin-American countries (the other is Chile) to not officially count its black population. As a result, the move to recognize Afro-Mexicans has been met with some pushback from Mexicans who believe that mestizo identity (the mix between indigenous people and Europeans) is more important than specific ethnicities. 

Mexico's post-revolutionary government made a conscious effort to create a national mixed-race identity that melded Hispanic, indigenous and African ethnicities. Article 2 of Mexico's 1917 Constitution recognized its "multicultural composition," and today, over 60% of Mexicans identify as mestizos. So in modern Mexico, "blackness" is still a tenuous identity, and many use labels like "criollo" (creole) or "moreno" rather than the ones black Mexicans tend to prefer. Peñaloza, for instance, describes himself as "afrodescendiente (of African descent), negro (black), or afromexicano (Afro-Mexican)." 

Peñaloza said one of México Negro's strategies going forward is to ally the black rights movement with indigenous rights, which are generally more widely recognized. In 2013, leaders from 26 indigenous communities in Oaxaca released a statement pushing for constitutional reform that addressed the rights of both indigenous people and Afro-Mexicans; this month, they jointly criticized the local legislature for failing to act on their recommendations.

Sergio Peñaloza, at center, at the XVI Encuentro de Pueblos Negros on November 14, 2015.
México Negro
Sergio Peñaloza, at center, at the XVI Encuentro de Pueblos Negros on November 14, 2015.

What's Next For Afro-Mexicans?

"We couldn't seriously push our socioeconomic agenda when we were not even officially recognized as a group," said Peñaloza, but they can set their sights higher in 2016.

In 2016, México Negro's most important outreach effort will work on having elementary and high schools include material on Africans and people of African descent in school curriculum.

On the university level, Rosa Maria Castro Salinas, the chairwoman of the Association of Women of the Costa Chica of Oaxaca, told HuffPost that her group is launching a professorship at the Benito Juarez Autonomous University of Oaxaca to study Afro-Mexican women.

In addition to increased visibility in textbooks, Jaime Bernardo Ramos, a documentary filmmaker in Mexico City, told HuffPost it will be important to increase representation in film and media. Citing the handful of famous black Mexicans, like singer Johnny Laboriel and the black Cuban actor known as Zamorita, he said afrodescientes are few and far between on the national stage.

"Darkness is seen as negative," Ramos said, "and Afro-Mexican youth have no icons. It seems like their only options are to immigrate or be delinquents. But that can change. I am very hopeful."

Mexicans of African descent, from "Afrodescientes en Mexico," 2012 CONAPRED report.
CONAPRED
Mexicans of African descent, from "Afrodescientes en Mexico," 2012 CONAPRED report.

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