Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Afro-Mexican Dance of the Devils (I)

Y el cuerpo al filo del agua,
al filo del viento,
en el eterno signo
de la danza.

Nancy Morejón. Elogio de la Danza

1. African roots of the Dance of the Devils

The Dance of the Devils and other popular Afro-Mexican expressions, such as corridos (folk ballads), Sones de artesa[1] (Artesa son), oral tradition, cuisine, and popular medicine, have been an important part of the local culture for centuries. Historians and anthropologists assume that Spanish colonizers settled the Costa Chica region since the 16th century. They brought slaves to the current municipalities of Jamiltepec and Pinotepa Nacional in Oaxaca, and to Cuajinicuilapa in Guerrero to work in their haciendas and cotton plantations where blacks worked as ranchers and cowboys. [2] At the time of slavery in Mexico, black men were consigned to work in mines and plantations, whereas women were destined to carry out domestic labor in the masters’ houses. On Costa Chica’s cotton plantations and cattle ranches, the situation was not different.
Oral and written testimonies[3] collected during my field work at different stages from 2004 to 2007, reveal that the origin of the Devils Dance may be found in the segregation of blacks from festivities and public celebrations organized by the masters of the haciendas. As in many other countries, blacks contested segregation by performing their own festivities. Beyond the hacienda’s walls, they would perform rituals to their African gods, play drums and dance till exhaustion. Then, the master would come out and shout at them to stop; otherwise, they would be accused before the Inquisition of adoring the devil. Similar stories have been attested in Cuba, Venezuela, and in different countries of the Caribbean. In these countries, scholars have reported different versions of Dances of devils, such as the Cuban diablitos performed by Afro-Cubans during the Epiphany (Fernando Ortiz 1992:46-64; 1998:171-177). In the same manner, Venezuela’s Devils of Corpus Christi, although more related to religious conversion have been also reported in the literature (Pollak-Eltz, 48-53; Rosenberg; González et al.).

One of the most difficult tasks for scholars to studying the African diaspora has been to locate the precise origin of enslaved Africans who were brought to the Costa Chica. As one of the pioneers of African studies in Mexico, Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán started archive investigation in the Archivo General de La Nación (AGN) in Mexico City in the 1940s. He left an important route for further Afro-Mexican studies. In his work, La población negra de México [1949] (1989), he emphasizes that many African sources can be traced during the slave trade; however, not all of them were easily obtained because several factors obstructed his search. Among other difficulties, Aguirre Beltrán points out, “most slaves entered the New World under a generic name, such as blacks from Guinea, Angola, Cabo Verde, Congo and São Tomé” (La población 102); yet, the most recurrent name he founded in historical archives was that of the group Mandé. According to Aguirre Beltrán, this ethnic group was the most influential for Mexican culture during the 16th century. He writes, “They entered under the general denomination of Mandingos, and left as a testimony of their presence, numerous geographical places in the New Spain that hold their name as well as the persistence of the word ‘mandinga’ as a popular designation of the devil” (La población 107).[4] Why this association of blacks with the devil? Obviously, there are religious implications here, as much as stigmatization on the part of the colonizer trying to break the will and culture of the colonized. I return to this issue below.
In regards to blacks introduced into Mexico during the three centuries of Spanish colonization, Aguirre Beltrán writes:

Blacks were in Mexico a minority representing 0.1% to 2.0% of the Colonial population; the number introduced by the slave trade was no bigger than 250,000 individuals in the course of three centuries. However, the number of Spaniards were small, and certainly, in New Spain they represented a smaller number than the blacks (Cuijla 8).

Having lost their freedom and being sold as slaves, Africans were disseminated throughout the entire territory of Mexico. Gradually, they blended with the rest of the population, giving as a result the profound mestizaje which currently characterizes modern Mexico. Hernández Cuevas asserts that the present reality of modern Mexico’s mestizaje cannot be accounted for without the blacks’ contribution. In his work África en México, he has pointed out:

In Mexico, dark and pale blacks, from the point of view of positive mestizaje, are not in a process of assimilation. Black men and women of yesterday and today, together with other no less important components, form the ethnicity and nationality. Blacks exist in Mexico. Black people are in the mestizos with the rainbow of their cultural contributions; blacks formed the nation and nationality. Blacks’ capacity of resistance has allowed them to persist by means of survival strategies such as mestizaje. As such, the African cultural contributions are fundamental parts of the Mexican and Mexicanity. This is verified by popular culture: oraliture, food, music, dance, sense of humor and religious symbols. In other words, Africa is medullar energy of the Mexican spirit, or African-Mexican from the Afrocentric point of view. This is ratified by the carnival and the Mexican fiestas. (17)

Hernández Cuevas’ deconstruction of traditional Mexican discourse in regards to mestizaje, from José Vasconcelos to Agustín Basave Benítez,[5] is a new claim that overtly challenges both past and new narratives about Mexican mestizaje. By overlooking the historical presence of blacks, Mexican post-revolutionary mestizaje’s ideology erroneously assumed that mixed people are the product of Amerindians and Europeans only. In the same manner, Mexican scholars in the last two decades doing investigation about the so-called “third root” of Mexico have unanimously taken for granted the concept afromestizos as a general term for Afro-Mexicans. It seems that the concept was taken from Aguirre Beltrán who originally proposed in La Población a variety of terms to classify the different types of racial blending; thus, afromestizo -together with indomestizo and euromestizo-, are no different than hypothetical racial categories derived from a more general concept that justifies the prevalence of mestizo as dominant in Mexico. Indeed, the term afromestizo taken up by the Mexican academy has not been used by most of the population of African descendants in Mexico because they do not identify themselves as such. In this regard, Vinson III has declared:

Mexico is the only Latin American country where some scholars still refer to black people as afromestizo. Although this term would seem to identify a special characteristic of the Mexican “mixing” in the Costa Chica, individuals recognized today as blacks do not show more particularities of “mixing” than the rest of the blacks of the African diaspora. In fact, the tonalities of the skin color as well as a wide range of phenotypes are the norm amongst African descendants. Therefore, Mexico is not the exception. (57)

The presence of black culture in Mexico has been systematically ignored, due to political segregation and cultural Mestizaje. Currently, there is more investigation to support its importance, and also to account for the existence of black nucleuses perfectly distinguished but still marginalized and living sometimes in worse conditions than native Amerindians.[6] The reality of the contemporary black population on both coastal sides of the country as well as in various cities of the central plateau reflects not only the abundance of the African phenotype but also a visible African influence. Various cultural characteristics including behavior, language, music, dance, popular medicine, and oral tradition are notable African features inherited by the current population of these coastal regions of modern Mexico. In the same manner, the manifest Mexican pleasure for dancing, equally attributed to all Latin American nations as a sign of strong African influence (Chasteen 112-113); signifying[7] and double meanings in language used to provoke fun (picardía, cabuleo), are tokens of African heritage imbedded in current Mexican mestizaje.

[1] The artesa is a kind of zoomorphic trough made out of a ceiba or parota tree log. The artesa is placed on the ground upside down so that a couple may dance bare feet on it. Sones de artesa are another type of Afro-Mexican music and dance now in decay. For more information on the revitalization of the only two groups in all of the Costa Chica region, one in San Nicolas Tolentino, Guerrero, and the other in El Ciruelo, Oaxaca, see Ruiz Rodríguez 11-37.
[2] See Aguirre Beltrán, Cuijla 8-12, and Vaughn “Mexico in the Context of the Transatlantic Slave Trade” 2-4.
[3] Comité de cultura. “Danza de los diablos de Collantes.” Casa del Pueblo, Santiago Collantes: n.p.: 1988.
[4] All translations from Spanish into English are mine unless otherwise indicated.
[5] José Vasconcelos as Secretary of Education in the 1920s postulated in his work La raza cósmica the notion of the mestizo as the cosmic race, the race of the future. This notion eventually turned into official ideology through education and culture after the Mexican Revolution of 1910. More recently, Agustín Basave Benítez in his work México mestizo, while criticizing to a certain extent the idea of Vasconcelos, continues praising him. On the other hand, both Vasconcelos and Basave ignore the black element in their notions of mestizaje. See Basave Benítez 136.
[6] See Bobby Vaughn’s “Los negros, los indígenas y la diáspora. Una perspectiva etnográfica de la Costa Chica,” in Vinson III and Vaughn. Afroméxico 84-85.
[7] For more information see, Marco Polo Hernández Cuevas’ essay “El Signifying chango que chinga en Chin Chin el teporocho.” África en México 79-95. Also, see Henri Louis Gates Jr., 685-723.

1 comment:

  1. I believe Mejicanos and the Chicanos of the U.S. are one in the same and I believe the history books written by those who tried to hide the African slave trade of Mexico have done all Mejicanos ( in Mejico or the U.S. "Chicanos) a disservice with the Spaniard teachings of how it is a social disgrace to be dark skinned. We were never told that Mejico had several presidents of African decent. We were never told that the last Governor of California before it had become a part of the U.S. was a man of Indigenous / African blood (Pió Pico Rivera) We were never told that Emiliano Zapata wa of Indigenous and African Blood...... I remember as an elementary student in Ca. reading a history book that said the Indigenous people worked as slaves and died from the Spaniard diseases and were no longer able to work in the silver and gold mines but I don't ever remember hearing the teacher say that the Indigenous peoples were replaced with African slaves.... The history books were written by our conquerors and some of them that remained in Mexico after Spain took all that they could, tried theirs best to make New Spain or Mejico a Mestizo nation. During the colonization of Mexico the Spaniards encouraged Miscegenation between Indigenous and African people with the promise of free children. This of course continued even after president Vicente Guerrero ( The First Black President of North America)) abolished slavery in Mexico. Well the left over peninsulares (Spaniards born in Mexico) wanted to hide the African diaspora that existed in Mexico so they murdered President Vicente Guerrero and miscegenation continued with every dark skinned Mexican knowing that DARK SKIN EQUALS SUFFERING so parents always insisted that their children marry someone of lighter skin ( this still exists in Mexico as well as in the U.S. with Chicanos) So history continued in Mexico with the continuing concept of hating your dark skin... White people or los blancos y blancas son gente bellisima or so this is what we were taught..... When was the last time Mexico had a president that looks like me or those in my neighborhood? No, instead Mexico elects idiots like Vincent fox, yes I said Vincent since his father was an Irishman born in Cincinnati Ohio!!!! Give me a break..... Vincent Fox represents the entire population of Mejico???? I don't think so..... Vincent Fox was just another white guy who slipped through the cracks of all the years of brainwashing the Mejicano into thinking if you are not white with blond hair, you must be an ugly Indian or Zambo Zambo is the Spaniard term for a Mejicano of Indigenous and African blood(like Emiliano Zapata) Oh yes, they had names for everything. African slaves born in Africa were called Bozales, African slaves born in Mejico were called Criollos, Spaniards born in Spain were called Espanoles and were considered higher class than the one's born in Mejico. African slaves to the Port of Veracruz and they continued to bring slaves up until the beginning of the 1800's. Portugal had a stronghold on slavery and Spain wasn't allowed to bring anymore African slaves to Mexico anymore ( BUT THEY DID ANYWAY) and if their slave ship was being pulled over by the Portuguese the Spaniards would just throw the slaves overboard (of course the slaves were all chained up to one another so the weight of each one would pull them all down under. It was cheaper to lose the entire slave cargo than to pay a fine and have to deal with Portugal. I'm sure just about every Latino, be it Mejicano, Cubano, Peruano o Puertorriqueno, we all have an Aunt or a cousin that loves to tell the story of their CASTILLIAN BLOOD..... I for one am SICK of hearing about CASTILLIAN BLOOD..... How can they be CASTILLIAN when their brother or sister is twice as dark than I am with hair that goes beyond curly!!!!!! HOW????? WHY??????? IT'S WHAT WE WERE TAUGHT BY OUR CONQUERORS!!!!!!!!!!!!