By Guest Contributor Lamont Lilly
Marco Polo Hernández-Cuevas is the Interim Chair of the Department of Modern Foreign Languages at North Carolina Central University, where his interests lie in Transatlantic and Diaspora Studies. He is the author of five books, including The Africanization of Mexico from the Sixteenth Century Onward (2010) and Africa in Mexico: A Repudiated Heritage (2007). He is the founder and director of the Mexican Institute of Africana Studies. Read along as we discuss: Colonialism, Gaspar Yanga, Ivan Van Sertima and Mexico’s Little Black Sambo.
Lamont Lilly: Dr. Cuevas, as only the second individual I know to describe themselves as Afro-Mexican can you share some insight on the cultural connections that exist within such a powerful ethic mix? And why have figures such as Gaspar Yanga and Emiliano Zapata been omitted from history’s reference of heralded freedom fighters?
Marco Polo Hernández-Cuevas: Well, the reason you haven’t heard many refer to themselves as Afro-Mexican is because this is a relatively new term that was first coined by Eurocentric scholars like Melville Herskovits. It was Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán who coined it in 1945 in Mexico City, during the foundational meeting of the Institute for African American Studies. However, that doesn’t mean that a color consciousness didn’t exist in Mexico. Prior to that, we had a host of names such as “Casta,” “Chilango,” “Jarocho,” and “Boshito,” all terms that refer to the lack of blood cleanliness of non-white persons. That would explain why many people in Mexico do not identify themselves as Afro-Mexican. They refer to themselves as Casta, or any of the other names previously mentioned. Recently however, there’s been a movement in the South Pacific side of Mexico whereby Afro-Mexicans do not want to be called Afro-Mexican. They just want to be called Nĕgro — Black. It erases the science and intellectuality of such embedded complexities.
In the case of Gaspar Yanga, his omission from history obviously has to do with the revolt he led in the late 16th and early 17th centuries against the Spaniards. Mexico did not actually exist at that time, and the Spanish rulers were not eager to historicize such pursuits of freedom. Yanga and others went against their rule. Only after Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán did Mexicans become aware in the early 1970s that the town of San Lorenzo de Los Negros would be called Yanga (in honor of this Afro warrior). So we know there was an African presence in the region.
As for Emiliano Zapata, he has actually not been omitted from history. Though not as celebrated here, Emiliano Zapata is a very prominent and well-known revolutionary. He’s one of the people who fought in the area of Morelos, a southern part of Mexico, during the Mexican Revolution. What is omitted from history is Zapata’s African descent. He was an Afro-Mexican. This can be proven even beyond appearances by the fact that his motto was that the land belongs to the people who work it. This is a millenary Bantu way of thinking, that may be as old as a couple million years.
LL: Whether Maroon, Zambo or so called Negro, most persons of color throughout the Western Hemisphere are all “African Hybrids” of some varying degree. Considering such, how has colonialism maintained a successful barrier of division among our similar groups?
Hernández-Cuevas: These divisions you speak of Lamont, are engrained mostly through language. With the Spanish deploying a series of words that were heavily charged, yes, divisions were created. People were classified from the get-go when so-called “miscegenation” began. We were classified by the degree of whiteness we possessed. I don’t believe in this miscegenation business. Though all human beings are really one, various social constructs were invented to perpetuate European supremacy. Within a social pyramid, “pigmentocracy” was then introduced.
In the case of Mexico’s 500 years of colonization, which began in 1521, the physical colonization may have ended, but the mental “hold” continues to a certain degree. Many Spanish Eurocentric mental prejudices linger today as healthy as ever. Just look at the Mexican public school books our children use. We should examine more critically the one or two paragraphs that refer to African ancestry and their contribution to the building of the Americas. I can assure you, you’ll find very little, especially in Mexico. These barriers are nothing but the product of ignorance and manipulation. The trick is to unravel knowledge–to create connections by exposing similarities rather than exploiting differences.
LL: In our initial meeting you mentioned several writers whose works have been instrumental in your studies and daily life–Langston Hughes, Manuel Zapata Olivella and Dr. Ivan Van Sertima. Why such an appreciation for these three in particular?
Hernández-Cuevas: Well, Langston Hughes traveled quite a bit to Mexico. His father lived in the city of Toluca, as we are told, to escape racism in the U.S. Not only did Langston visit Mexico, he also learned to speak Spanish and would be become a strong voice throughout all of Latin America. His direct impression upon me lies within his explanation that there was a culture that had developed through marginalization–an articulation that when people are forced out of the mainstream, they are required to develop their own language, values, and expressions. This was key to my understanding regarding the formation of Afro culture here in the Western Hemisphere. Along with Hughes’ travels, he would also meet and influence such writers as Nicholás Guillén,whose poetry afterwards underwent a strong Afro metamorphosis. Due to Langston’s Spanish translations, in some instances he’s more widely known and appreciated in Latin America than in the U.S., just as James Baldwin.
In the case of Ivan Van Sertima, he’s one who has shown and directly presented evidence of an African presence in the Americas long before the arrival of Europeans. I became heavily intrigued when I first read Sertima’s book, They Came Before Columbus. Cross-referencing many of the points Sertima articulated in this work provided immense clarity. Eventually, I traveled to Tabasco, the place my mother is from and saw the Olmec Heads. Such artifacts cannot be refuted. The African contributions are undeniable, here. And while many right-minded academicians have attempted to discredit his effort, Sertima’s work and dedication speaks volumes–his interdisciplinary approach ingenious. I reference his work quite a bit in my classes.
As for Manuel Zapata Olivella, he’s one of the most prolific writers in the Spanish language. In addition to his pioneering series of novels, Manuel also completed full volumes of persuasive essays, poetry, children’s books, and anthropological literature. It was he and his sister who actually introduced Cumbia (a West African ritual courtship dance) to the world. Zapata Olivella, under the advice of Hughes, became perhaps the greatest activist in the recovery of the Black memory in all of Latin America. Culturally and historically speaking, his impact is of vital importance for anyone who suffers from this “African Amnesia” Syndrome.
LL: As mutual victims of imperialism and widespread and human rights infringement, what steps can the Afro [North & South American] take today in promoting more unity and collaboration? How do we gain sovereignty from the bowels of neocolonialism?
Hernández-Cuevas: The answer to that, my brother, is education! Education! Education! But real education and not this programming business–us doing our own research, finding out about ourselves, carrying the word from place to place. The key is in exchange. We must exchange heart and soul from our local communities to Afro communities elsewhere on the continent–not only from Haiti, Panama or Brazil, but from Mexico all the way south. We need people, particularly young people, who are endowed with the tools to do the research, with the tools to collect and document, with passion for film, writing and the arts. How else can we learn what really happened here? After all, we are really the same phenomena. Whether captives in the North or South, it’s the same people–different ships. It’s the same people–different ports.
Afro-Dominican novelist Loida Maritza Pérez details this in her work, Geographies of Home. And Antonio Olliz-Boyd, the emeritus professor from Temple University has just published a fine wine of a work entitled The Latin American Identity and the African Diaspora.Here, Olliz-Boyd dissects precisely our problems of communication, understanding, and perception.
This is why we must gather all of our perspectives as insiders. There’s more than 500 years of lies, abuse, genocide, and ethnic lynching to eradicate. The only way to do this–without going to war, that is–is by deconstructing the whole by its root. For those who may say they have nothing to do with the past, Louis Farrakhan once asked, “If you have nothing to do with what happened in the past, how come you’re enjoying all the fruits of the past?” My point is that if we have nothing to do with the past, then we can now redistribute the fruit of that labor that was exploited and mismanaged.
LL: I found your research on the caricature Memín Penguín to be quite intriguing. Interestingly enough, such a caricature draws an awful close resemblance to Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo. What is Memín Penguín’s cultural and political relevance to those of Mexican descent?
Hernández-Cuevas: Well, the same thing that was done with Little Black Sambo is being done with Memín Pinguín. The first work I published on this was in 2003; however, I’ve recently completed a comparative study on Memin Penguin and two other comics. I like to refer to them as “the dark side of light reading.” Dr. Richard L. Jackson, (one of my professors) has produced a great deal of work reflecting such material’s utter detriment. Ariel Dorfman–the Chilean exile now at Duke University–speaks on this as well.
This sort of inexpensive media reaches a lot of people in terms of the masses…and is easy to reproduce. It’s composed at a level where our young are easily indoctrinated. I’m talking about the mind–the wellbeing of our psyches. In his Slaves of the White God: Blacks in Mexico, Dr. Colin A. Palmer articulates in detail the grave horrors our folks endured in New Spain. Far from connecting us to that history, the Memín cartoon actually creates an “other.” It caricatures that experience of us as humorous. It only feeds what Quince Duncan refers to as Endophobia (or a hatred of one’s self). In Mexico City, we had this saying growing up as a kid, “At least I’m not as black as you are!” So you see, it’s the African part that we choose to chop off. We laugh at it, learn to make light of it as if our culture were some comedy show.
In order to really understand Memín Penguín, we’ve got to filter through the historical murk of imperialism. We should know that such material is produced from the outside and is really aimed as an attack, having little to do with a sense of humor. This is nothing but European denigration against the very people who’ve worked the hardest! This is the colonial vacuum in which Africa and its current descendants are still encapsulated. The Afro contribution is serious; it’s no damn joke! It’s generally when the discourse is fed from the outside that the consequences prove to be negative. Sure, my perspective and essays on this can be questioned. However, when Memin defenders call it “pure entertainment,” I don’t believe their explanations to be true or sincere. It’s time we start feeding cohesion and strength, not ignorance!
Lamont Lilly is a contributing editor with the Triangle Free Press, columnist for the African American Voice and organizer with Workers World Socialist Party. He is a freelance journalist based out of Durham, NC.