Blacks try to rediscover heritage as overlooked 'third root' of Mexico's culture

June 08, 1993|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Staff Writer

SAN NICHOLAS, MEXICO — SAN NICOLAS, Mexico -- A round adobe house with a cone-shaped roof of straw standing in a field of dried weeds and brush is one of the few reminders that an old African culture once existed here.

That and the inhabitants who look different: Their skin is deep brown, their noses are wider, and their hair grows in soft, spongy curls. Most wear short Afros.

They represent the "third root" of the Mexican culture, descendants of African slaves.

But the traces of Africanism are almost all gone in the villages of the Costa Chica that stretches along the West Coast of Mexico between Acapulco and Huatulco where most of Mexico's 20,000 surviving blacks live in poor, remote towns without hospitals, means of transportation, clean drinking water or telephones.

"The ideology pushed since the time of the revolution is that Mexico is a country established by Europeans and Indians," says Rafael Rebollar, a filmmaker who has produced an educational video about Mexico's African communities.

"There has never been much mention of the African influence. I don't think that there was any embarrassment of those influences. They were simply ignored," he says.

But Miguel Mayoral, whose family of African origin moved 50 miles north from San Nicolas to Cuajinicuilapa in search of better economic opportunities, is less generous.

"The government has forgotten us," he says during a visit back to San Nicolas. "They have ignored our needs and our culture. They do not help us survive, and they have not helped our culture survive."

For years the 6,000 residents of San Nicolas, mostly corn and chili farmers, have worried about keeping their children fed from one rainy season to the next. But Mr. Mayoral says many Costenos, as blacks of the Costa Chica are called, have begun talking about their cultural poverty. They know very few details about their heritage.

"Our grandparents didn't want to talk about their history because it was filled with pain and torture," says Efren Noyola Rodriguez, a 46-year-old father of seven. "They had to forget their culture and blend in if they wanted to have anything in life.

But he adds: "I feel like we can't really have anything if we don't understand where we came from."

The culture they cherish is almost as old as the discovery of the New World.

Slaves shipped in 1520s

The Spanish shipped African slaves to Mexico as early as the 1520s after most Indians were killed off by disease or torture and the survivors were freed from slavery. The African slaves worked throughout the country, then called New Spain, building cities and farming the land.

A century later, the first free-slave town of the Americas was established in what is now the eastern state of Veracruz. The city, called Yanga, is named after an African who escaped slavery, organized a band of guerrillas and fought the Spanish until they gave up and allowed Yanga and his troops to settle a small piece of land.

At one time, it is estimated that some 200,000 slaves toiled under harsh conditions in Mexico. The number of African men brought to New Spain was twice that of women. Many Africans started families with Indian or European spouses, and most blacks were a mixture of races -- called mestizos or lobos -- by the time of abolition in 1829. In the process they surrendered their customs and their language and adopted Mexican ways.

Yet, even 30 years ago, the houses in the black villages were all like the one round adobe house in San Nicolas that residents hope to use as a cultural center, where they will teach their children about their African roots.

No recorded history

Many of the middle-aged and elderly people of San Nicolas do not read or write. Neither did their ancestors, and therefore there was no way for them to record their history, their mythology or their music.

"Only the dances remain," says 70-year-old Julia Mayoral, Mr. Mayoral's mother. "We aren't sure exactly where the dances came from, but when we were children, we learned. And we still dance them."

For different holidays, people in communities such as San Nicolas gather to perform dances that are distinct from those of Indian communities.

Mr. Noyola emerges from his house with a wide grin to show visitors his "tambor." It is a dusty, wooden, rectangular box with a worn sheet of deer skin stretched tightly over one side.

"We play it like a drum," he says, motioning to a friend to help him demonstrate.

Mr. Noyola sits at one corner of the tambor, a friend at the other. With a quick nod of Mr. Noyola's head, the two men begin rapping on the instrument.

Women gather around them, stomping their feet and swaying their hips to the quick beats. One woman begins shaking a short, hollow tree branch filled with tiny stones, called a huachara.

"That dance is called La Artesa," Mr. Noyola explains. "We usually do it during weddings to show thanks to the families for bringing their children together."

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