"The African Presence in Mexico" Breaks New Ground
A rich exhibition explores blacks' influence on Mexican culture.
By Agustin Gurza
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
February 2, 2008
CONSIDERING all the recent speculation about hostility between blacks and Latinos, you have to cringe when you hear what happened to historian Christopher West on a working trip south of the border four years ago. The African American academic was helping research the influence of tourism on children in Isla Mujeres, an idyllic island near Cancun, when a local boy on the street threw a piece of pan dulce at him.
The insult (not the first he had encountered) might be seen as more evidence of that racial animosity, currently fueling the notion that some Latinos are cool to Sen. Barack Obama because he's black. But West considered the gesture an anomaly and went on to shoot some hoops with his Mexican friends and colleagues.
In fact, the historian says he's been accepted as family in some parts of Mexico, thanks to his wife, Ilda Jimenez, a Mexican American anthropologist he met when they were students at USC. The union of the two communities is reflected in their surname, which they changed to Jimenez y West. Today, as history curator at the California African American Museum, Christopher Jimenez y West continues to explore the often overlooked cultural connections between the country's two largest minorities. This week, he was busy preparing for the opening of a groundbreaking exhibition, "The African Presence in México: From Yanga to the Present," which celebrates what is called the Third Root of Mexican culture, adding African to the mix of European and native Indian.
Through paintings, photos, lithographs and historical texts, the visiting exhibition tries to dispel the myth that blacks had a minimal influence on the culture of our southern neighbor, a myth held by many Mexicans either through ignorance or prejudice. In addition, two related exhibitions explore the connections between blacks and Latinos in the U.S., highlighting shared social roots in leftist politics and showcasing local collaborations between African American and Latino artists.
News about racially charged street killings and campus brawls tends to overshadow the day-to-day, positive interactions between the two communities in Los Angeles, says Jimenez y West. "Part of the tension is simply the result of people being uninformed, at all levels," he says. "The reality is this is a long-standing conversation."
You could call it perfect timing for the exhibit to open on the eve of Super Tuesday. But the idea originated more than 10 years ago at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, where it was first shown in 2006. It's been more of a mission than an exhibition for Cesareo Moreno, the Chicago museum's visual arts director, who co-curated the show with Sagrario del Carmen Cruz Carretero, a Mexican anthropologist. Moreno's passion was evident as he gave me a preview at the museum, located in Exposition Park. He gestured like a conductor, still excited about his discoveries.
"This topic, this idea, this truth, if it gets out there, has so much potential for people to understand one another and themselves better," says Moreno. "The history lesson in these galleries is extremely powerful."
If ignorance is the problem and art the solution, then this exhibit should be a required field trip for schools from now until it closes on June 1. I consider myself relatively well-informed about the cultural contributions of blacks in Latin America, especially the irresistible music coming from countries (Cuba, Brazil, Peru, Colombia) on the routes of the slave trade. Like many, I thought the African influence in Mexico was limited to the Caribbean coast, especially Veracruz.
Think again. The exhibition illustrates the depth and reach of African culture. You suddenly see African features in a pre-Hispanic Olmec sculpture or in the faces of miners from the central Mexican state of Guanajuato. The influence is unmistakable in the rhythms of the son jarocho and the architecture of round huts with thatched roofs in the Costa Chica, a coastal region south of Acapulco with a strong African presence that is documented in the striking portraits by African American photographer Tony Gleaton.
It's in this region, straddling the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca, that Moreno was first struck by a part of Mexican culture that had seemed invisible to him until then. How many times had he hung that 1910 photo by Agustin Casasola of a Mexican revolutionary, "Portrait of a Female Soldier From Michoacan," and still not seen it? "I was blown away that it had never before crossed my mind that this woman is of African descent," he says. "I felt like an idiot. There she was staring me in the face and I had never recognized her before."
Racism has led to denial in Mexico, where the census doesn't even have a category for counting blacks and even Afro-Mexicans prefer to be called brown or Cuban, according to the exhibition's meticulous and beautiful companion book. At the same time, Moreno notes, interracial marriage has helped blur race lines in Mexico almost since the Spaniards arrived.
Still, Mexico has had its Afro-Mexican heroes, including President Vicente Guerrero, who outlawed slavery in 1829, a move that helped spark the confrontation with Texas, a slave state, and the subsequent war with the United States. (Like Lincoln, Guerrero was assassinated.)
The first organized efforts to celebrate Afro-Mexican culture didn't come until the 1990s. Today it's the focus of carnival celebrations in the Veracruz city of Yanga, named after an African who led a rebellion of runaway slaves, called cimarrones.
The two complementary exhibitions bring the history home. In "Who Are We Now: Roots, Resistance, Recognition," we learn that the Harlem Renaissance took some inspiration from Mexico's revolutionary muralists and that Langston Hughes, the inspired African American poet, wrote his first short story, "Mexican Games," while living in Mexico. Hughes, the text tells us, "enjoyed social freedoms in Mexico that he was denied in the U.S."
"Common Ground" was added for Los Angeles and features 20 Latino and African American artists exploring black/brown relationships. They include John Outterbridge and Jane Castillo, a Colombian born in East L.A., who collaborated on an installation in the lobby, a tall cylinder made of multicolored rags tied together with knots, symbolizing the region's cultural fabric. They call it "Outcast," a play on their names.
"The world today to all of us is a very tiny place," says Outterbridge, former director of the Watts Towers Arts Center. "We live together, we play together, our children get happy together. So working together, as African American and as Hispanic or Latino artists, it's not new to us."
"The African Presence in México: From Yanga to the Present" runs through June 1 at the California African American Museum, 600 State Drive, Los Angeles. Admission is free. Information, (213) 744-7432 or at www.caam.ca.gov.