Things That Matter

How Afromexicanos Fought For Their Place on the 2020 Mexico Census and Why It Took So Long

Photo via SusanaHarp/Twitter

Black history month is the time of year that we shine a spotlight on the rich and unique history of people of African descent in the United States–a past that has consistently been downplayed, ignored, and in some cases, erased from our history books.

At this point, it’s evident that the Black experience is not a monolith–there is no “one way” to be Black. And yet, many people still struggle to comprehend the fact that Afro-Latinos exist.

When you hear the term Afro-Latino, you might immediately think of a few Caribbean Spanish-speaking nations with explicit ties to the African diaspora–Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, for example.

But the fact is, Black people are everywhere in Latinidad. But Afro-Latinos in non-Caribbean countries often feel overlooked, erased. And this phenomenon is especially true for afromexicanos.

In 2020, after years of fighting, Afro-Mexicans finally got recognition on the Mexican census.

The question was simple, but powerful: “Por sus costumbres y tradiciones, ¿se considera usted afromexicano, negro o afrodescendiente?” (“Based on your culture and traditions, do you consider yourself Afro-Mexican, black or Afro-descendant?”)

For Americans, especially, it can be hard to understand why the question wasn’t on the census in the first place. After all, Americans live in a country where identities are divided into strict categories: Black, white. Hispanic, non-Hispanic.

But for Mexicans, the concept of race and ethnicity is a bit more complicated. To critics, separating people into Black, white, and Indiegnous categories on the census seemed divisive. Many Mexicans identify as mestizaje–a combination of indigenous, European, and, to some extent, African roots.

But for the organizers of the #AfroCensoMx campaign–a campaign to add the negro/afromexicano to the census–the movement was more than just identity politics.

Self-identifying as Black on the Mexican census is, of course, a little bit about pride in one’s identity, but it also has more practical concerns.

The census numbers who also inform organizations about socio-economic patterns associated with being Black in Mexico–information that is invaluable. Because as of now, afromexicanos have unique experiences that are informed by their heritage, their culture, and their place in the Mexican stratum.

As Bobby Vaughn, an African-American anthropologist who specializes in Black Mexicans, put it bluntly: “Mexicans of African descent have no voice and the government makes no attempt to assess their needs, no effort to even count them.”

But for afromexicano activists, being identified as such on the Mexican census is empowering.

Lumping all Mexicans together and ignoring their (sometimes very obvious) differences can have the effect of making certain groups feel erased. Yes, Black Mexicans are simply Mexicans–that fact is not up for debate. But stories abound of afromexicanos being discriminated against because of the way they look.

An Afro-Mexican engineer named Bulmaro García from Costa Chica (a region with a significant Black population) explained to The Guardian how he is grilled by border guards and asked to sing the Mexican national anthem whenever he crosses into Guerrero.

He says the guards’ behavior is “classic discrimination due to skin color. [They think] if you’re black, you’re not Mexican.”

The differences exist, and by acknowledging it, we are more able to speak truth to power.

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