Editorials | At Issue | June 2005
|Black Oaxacans Demand Recognition|
Alberto López - El Universal
Pinotepa Nacional, Oaxaca - Seated in the dusty front yard of her ramshackle home in the El Ciruelo community of Pinotepa Nacional, Elena Ruiz's bright white blouse accents the deep ebony color of her skin. "We (Mexican) blacks are not even in the history books," she laments. "It's as if we were invisible in the eyes of the government."
Further down the road from El Ciruelo is Llano Grande, another predominantly black community of the municipality of Pinotepa Nacional where, says local farmer Fulmencio González Mariche, "there's not even anybody left to see us." A few children play in the street while their grandparents relax nearby in hammocks, but people of working age are noticeably absent. "The young folks have all gone to North Carolina," says González Mariche.
In Collantes, which like El Ciruelo and Llano Grande, is one of the "pueblos negros," or "black towns," of this southwestern corner of Oaxaca, resident doña Fidela Bernal Noyola regretfully admits that "the majority of us never went to school, and as a result, we don't know how to read or write." Trapped in poverty, Bernal Noyola has managed to eke out a meager living by shucking corn, making coconut oil, or hauling gravel from the nearby river.
Corralero is another riverside community of Pinotepa Nacional where "the fish are all gone and the earth is dry," say local residents. Corralero local Anastasio Colón Rodríguez, admits that "nobody really knows where my ancestors came from, although around here they say that our roots are in Africa, which, owing to the color of my skin, I don't deny."
Along the Costa Chica, or "Little Coast" of Oaxaca, lie dozens of small communities inhabited primarily by Mexicans of African descent. Exactly how many African-Mexicans live here, or in the rest of the country, is uncertain, because blacks are not counted as a distinct minority by the federal government. Instead, say community members and leaders, African-Mexicans are largely ignored by government services, marginalized by racist attitudes and, like doña Fidela Bernal Noyola, relegated to lives of poverty and illiteracy on the fringes of society. As a result, many black communities like Llano Grande are experiencing an exodus of young African-Mexicans who are leaving in search of better opportunities elsewhere.
With indignation, Elena Ruiz asks: "If our ancestors fought for the cause of independence, why is it that Mexican history does not recognize us in textbooks? It's just one more form of discrimination against blacks and it makes us feel bad to know that we have no place in history."
Ruiz is the granddaughter of Artemio Ruiz, one of a group of castaways from an African ship that reportedly made its way to Puerto Minizo, Oaxaca, in the early 20th century. The other members of the African-Mexican community here are descendents of 17th- and 18th-century slaves brought here by the Spanish.
Elena remembers that as a child, others would tease her with the name "negra vendepescado" or "black fishmonger." Sometimes she even used her fists to defend herself, she said, "because the color of my skin is a source of pride, not ridicule."
Gladis Arellanes Herrera, a teacher at the secondary school in the community of Llano Grande Tapextla, related how discrimination and racism has affected her. "My partner, with whom I lived in a common-law marriage, was getting a lot of flak from his family," she says. "They would tell him: 'Are you really going to marry a black? Those blacks have some really ugly customs, you know,' and so he left me with a child that he doesn't even know."
LOSS OF IDENTITY
Obdulio Serrano Morales, a 75-year-old fisherman from Corralero, said he has little idea of his ancestry. "I don't know anything; no one has ever told us the story about how our ancestors got here," he says. "All I know is that this is where I was born."
The organization Mexico Negro, or "Black Mexico," is now working to help African-Mexicans like Serrano Morales to learn about their heritage. Pedro Baños, director of the local cultural center and a researcher for Mexico Negro, says that the first Africans arrived at Costa Chica on the southwest corner of Oaxaca state 470 years ago as slaves who were brought to pick cotton. Many died from disease upon arrival, he says.
The Africans who came to this area were primarily from the Congo, Mozambique and Angola, says Baños. His organization is also working to help the black community recognize its rights and to embrace its cultural identity.
"The problem of the loss of cultural identity, along with that of racial discrimination, is that even some black people will deny their own racial heritage," said Elena Ruiz.
Gladis Arellanes Herrera, the Llano Grande teacher, recalled that when she finished her master's degree, her mother told her: "Now you are old enough to marry, but please don't marry another black. Just imagine what that would mean for your children."
According to Pedro Baños, the black population of the Costa Chica is slowly beginning to die out due to a poverty-driven exodus. "Since about four years ago, there has been a large migration of people trying to escape the bleak economic situation," he says. Today Baños estimates that there are little more than 5,000 people of direct African lineage left on the Costa Chica, and another 15,000 of mixed AfricanMexican descent.
"People are leaving because there's no work here," says Higinio Guillermo Verónica Cruz, a municipal representative from Tapextla who only recently returned from a five-year stint as a migrant laborer in North Carolina. "The cornfield is no longer producing, and so there's no money to be made here."
In the "pueblos negros," the lack of proper sanitation is alarming. "There's no sewage system nor waste treatment centers. The health clinics don't have doctors nor medicine. You have to drink from the wells because there's no other source of potable water, and the dusty roads and dusty floors of most homes make the children sick with bronchitis," says Verónica Cruz.
Surrounded by this scenario, Fulmencio González Mariche sits at his Llano Grande home beside his bed-ridden wife, waiting for the traveling doctor to make his visit to the town. He's at least 30 days late. "There's not even anybody left to see us," repeats the elderly farmer.