Distance is not a passport out of the struggle: Afro-Mexican Edition

When I received an invitation From the U.S. Embassy in Mexico to speak to Afro-Mexicans on social justice issues, I was elated. This would be my first international speaking engagement and the topic could not be more relevant: Advances and Challenges in the Inclusion of Afro-Mexican people and Afro-descendants: Recognition, Justice, and Development.

The embassy gave me free reign to choose the topic of my presentation, as long as I made it clear that these were my views and not that of the U.S. government. Everything I knew about Afro-Mexicans came from a New York Times article that described them as being so marginalized, even most Mexicans didn’t know they existed.  Thus, I decided to present a lecture entitled: #BlackLivesMatter: The Modern Civil Rights Movement and the Development of Inclusive Public Policies in the U.S.

Hollis France, from the College of Charleston was also there to present on lessons lessons form earlier social justice movements in relation to the Afro-Mexican experience. The morning began with a press conference in which the Mexican media asked several questions about the socioeconomic status of African Americans in the age of Obama and the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. This was followed by a series of interviews for Mexican T.V. stations.  One woman asked me if I was proud to be American given the racial tension in the U.S.  Without hesitation, I said of course I was. As a naturalized citizen, America had afforded me many opportunities that I could not have gotten elsewhere (*cough cough, Dominican Republic*). It was because of this appreciation for what the U.S. has to offer, that I continued to strive for equality and justice for all people.

When the conference itself began that afternoon, Hollis and I looked around the room at the audience and felt reassured as black faces began filling the seats, looking back at us expectantly.  El Consejo Nacional para Prevenir la Discriminaciónand the Movimiento Nacional por la Diversidad Cultural de México y el Instituto Nacionel de Antropología e Historia had made sure that Afro-Mexican leaders were present at the conference rather than just intellectuals pontificating to one another.

During the other panels, I learned that Afro-Mexicans lived in the poorest of Mexico, largely on the coasts. They struggled for access to education, healthcare, jobs, and other basic forms of social inclusion. Most importantly though, they struggled to have their very existence acknowledged by the Mexican government despite their historic contributions to Mexico and its independence.  To deny their existence was to deny their rights to all the benefits the government provided other ethnic minorities.  Thus,  Sergio Peñaloza Pérez of Mexico Negro highlighted that because of the historic denial of their existence, many Afro-Mexicans claimed to be indigenous to gain access to social services, making it necessary to now also implement an education campaign to encourage people to embrace their heritage and self-identify as Afro-Mexican. “We don’t need platitudes, we need policy,” he told everyone present. 

Afro-Costa Rican, Afro-Guatemalans, South Africans and other members of the diaspora were also present to share the lessons from their own struggle for equality. Epsy Campbell Barr described the struggle to for state recognition in the Afro-Costa Rican community that culminated in finally getting a question placed on the census. What Afro-Costa Ricans realized was that, once people were able to self-identify, the number of people who claimed to be of Afro-descent in Costa Rica jumped for 1.9% to 8%.

The importance of being counted by the government cannot be minimized. It’s one thing to finally be acknowledged as an ethnic group, it’s another thing entirely to have census data that shows how many of your ethnic group exists, where they are concentrated, and what types of statistical analysis can be extracted from that data. For example, it would be impossible to know that African Americans make up 13% ofthe U.S. population yet make up 50% of the prison population without first having census data.  Being counted is a first step in achieving shaping the policies that impact your group, which is why many governments in Latin America are often resistant to granting minorities full rights and recognition 

When it as my turn, I gave a frank lecture on the post- Civil Rights Act America. I went through some of the public policy challenges facing black people in America and the disparities amongst African American communities. Given that economic and political oppression cannot happen without the complicity of the state in the form of police brutality, I then focused on how modern social justice movements responded to state-sponsored violence.

I also described to the audience my brief experience in Ferguson, MO. As a product of a brutal dictatorship in Haiti and having lived under Mubarak’s police state, Ferguson was the first time I’d felt that our government could and would easily kill us. When I showed a clip of the streets of Ferguson filled with peaceful protestors, militarized police, and tear gas, the audience responded, “That looks kist like Oaxaca."

I discussed some of the challenges, advantages, and progress made in the modern social justice movement. Finally, I ended by telling the Afro-Mexicans, “ Know that you are not alone in the struggle for equal rights. We see you and we will support you anytime, any place.” Afterwards many of them came to me to tell me how much those words had meant to them, and how important and useful it was to see the commonality in our struggle across the entire region.