In what is being hailed as a step forward for people of African descent, Mexico has for the first time recognized its Afro-Mexican population. The decision reflects a larger issue of what it means to be Black in Latin America.
The Mexico national census is now accounting for the 1.38 million people of African ancestry, as the Huffington Post reports. Since the 1910 Mexican Revolution, people of African descent have not been documented. The Latin American nation has maintained a national identity of “mestizaje”–which ignored the descendants of African slaves, while acknowledging those who came from a mixed background of indigenous peoples and Spanish colonizers. And yet, this happened despite the role of people such as Gaspar Yanga, a national hero who established a free society of formerly enslaved Blacks, and Vicente Guerrero, one of the leading generals in the Mexican war of independence from Spain and the second president of Mexico.
As Colorlines has noted, Mexico and Chile have been the only Latin American nations to exclude its Black population from their constitution. This has resulted in an invisibility of Black people in Mexico. The advocacy organization, México Negro, initiated a campaign for formal recognition of Black people in the census in order to allocate more resources “so that the Mexican state pays off its historical debt with Afro Mexicans.” Afro-Mexicans have been fighting for this formal recognition for 15 years, according to Remezcla.
Representing 1.2 percent of the country’s population, Mexico’s population of African ancestry live primarily in three coastal states, including Veracruz, Oaxaca, and Guerrero, where they comprise about 7 percent of the population. For the most part, they are less educated and have higher levels of poverty than the general population, according to Quartz.
The challenges facing people of African descent in Latin America are clear. For example, the #BlackLivesMatter movement is resonating in Colombia, which boasts the second-largest Afro-descendant population in Latin America behind Brazil, as VICE reports. Although Colombia has one of the most progressive legal frameworks for the protection of Black people—with a 1991 Constitution that recognizes Afro rights, affirmative action and declares the nation a “multicultural” and “multi-ethnic” society—the Black population has been neglected and excluded from the economy. Deprivation in the Pacific and Caribbean coasts has led to a Black migration to the cities, where Afro-Colombians suffer from extreme poverty, gang recruitment and violence. And the two seats in Congress reserved for Afro politicians are currently filled by non-Black mestizos. Further, there has been an increase in violence against Afro-Colombians, according to Al Jazeera, a reflection of systemic racism, and a civil war that has displaced 2 million Black people.
The Dominican Republic is a nation of Afrodescendant people which has whitened its history, and has come to view blackness as a trait of its neighbor Haiti, the nation that once controlled them. The Dominican Republic’s racism against dark-skinned people, including Haitians, is reflected in their citizenship policies. This includes a ruling which effectively revoked the citizenship of 200,000 so-called “undocumented” people, with a threat of their expulsion from the country. They are primarily those born to Haitian immigrants, many of whom are multigenerational and only speak Spanish.
In Brazil, the last nation in the Americas to abolish slavery, racism against Black people continues. With the largest African descended population outside of the African continent—and second only to Nigeria–there are approximately 106 million Afro Brazilians, or 53 percent of the population, according to the New York Times. According to UNICEF, Black Brazilian children ages 12 to 18 are three times more likely to get killed than whites, in a nation where Blacks are 68 percent of all homicide victims, and 62 percent of all prisoners. Further, Blacks are more likely to be killed by police, and are more likely to live in poverty, Blacks comprising 70 percent of those in extreme poverty. According to News One, not a single company on Brazil’s stock exchange has a Black CEO, in a nation which is majority Afrodescendant. Further, a survey conducted by the IBGE research institute fund that Black and mixed-race Brazilians earn half of what their white counterparts make.
Meanwhile, Black people in Latin America are making efforts for recognition. A legacy of slavery has resulted in around 150 million people of African ancestry in the region, which amounts to 30 percent of the population, according to the United Nations.
On December 4 and 5, the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African & African American Research hosted a symposium on the Afrodescendant movement in Latin America. Entitled “Afrodescendants: Fifteen Years after Santiago. Achievements and Challenges,” the conference took place on the 15th anniversary of the adoption of the term ‘Afrodescendants’ by the Latin American Regional Conference Against Racism in Santiago de Chile in 2000. The meeting of activists, academics and agency officials examined the achievements and obstacles facing this movement in creating anti-racist policies in Latin America.
As The Root reported, a number of Latin American countries have pushed for constitutional measures to address racial discrimination, acknowledge minority groups and their cultural and territorial rights, with 18 countries having government agencies to enforce anti-discrimination laws. However, representatives from Uruguay, Costa Rica and Bolivia noted that these governmental anti-discrimination agencies are under-resourced and ineffective, and fail to address the needs and challenges of Afro communities. Structural racism is an issue in countries such as Bolivia, preventing Black people from enjoying the full benefits of citizenship. Further, while the Afrodescendant movement is present in nearly every Latin American nation, people of African descent remain invisible, often sidelined by their governments and by international bodies in the formulation of policy.
Through recognition and visibility, Afrodescendants will claim their power in the countries in which they live.