Insensitivity conflicts with heritage

July 29, 2005|By Diane E. Watson

WASHINGTON - The Mexican government recently stoked the flames of racial insensitivity by printing a series of postage stamps that celebrate a Sambo-like black child cartoon character known as Memin Pinguin. The stamps' debut followed President Vicente Fox's controversial declaration that Mexican migrants are willing to fill jobs in the United States that "not even blacks want to do."

The two incidents drew criticism from American politicians and civil rights leaders. The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson met with Mr. Fox in Mexico. The Rev. Al Sharpton extended an invitation to Mr. Fox to meet with him in Harlem, which Mr. Fox reportedly accepted. The Congressional Black Caucus sent a letter to Mr. Fox demanding that he withdraw the racially offensive stamps.

Slow on the uptake, Mr. Fox and many of his countrymen continue to express consternation and surprise at the outrage. But in some American eyes, the stamps and Mr. Fox's statement conjure up the stigma of race and class in Latin America.

The two incidents also suggest Mexico's ignorance of the role that Mexicans of African descent played in Mexican history and the development of its northern territories stretching from California to New Mexico.

Several of the most prominent Mexican families of the colonial era can trace their family progenitor to someone of African ancestry. Their experience contrasts with today's Mexicans of African descent who are subjected to widespread social discrimination and economic privation.

A number of factors worked in favor of the upward mobility of early African-Mexican settlers. Mexican independence in the early 19th century and the rise of republicanism made it easier for persons of African ancestry to secure land titles, grants and higher military rank.

The traditional caste system based on skin color and European ancestry lost some of its edge in the rough and tumble of frontier life. The sizable presence of mixed-blooded Africans in Mexico and the territories also helped to ease social and economic mobility. Out of this ferment emerged a number of African-Mexicans of accomplishment and rising social pedigree.

The success of the Tapia and Pico families, both of African-Mexican origin, admirably illustrates the point.

Born in 1789, Tiburcio Tapia entered the military and later became a successful merchant and served in the provincial legislature and twice as the mayor of Los Angeles. The Picos took a similar route and are said to have achieved the greatest success and social prominence of any family of part-African descent. In 1845, Pio Pico became the last Mexican governor of California, and a year later he presided over the territory when it was overrun by the United States during the U.S.-Mexican War.

The era of relative racial harmony in California and elsewhere in the northern territories came to an abrupt end at the conclusion of the 1846-1848 Mexican War. Under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico handed over California and its northern territories to the United States. In 1849, delegates to the California constitutional convention voted to disenfranchise Native Americans, Mexicans and African descendants.

President Fox need not visit Harlem to seek atonement for his remarks and the actions of his government. He should summon the ancestral spirits of his countrymen - Pico; Tapia; Vicente Guerrero, Mexico's second president, whose background was racially mixed; and the thousands of other African-Mexicans whose blood has blended into the larger Mexican population. He should embrace and celebrate the incipient spirit of inclusion and diversity that for a too-brief period germinated in California and elsewhere in the West.

And for those of us who live north of the border, the history of blacks in Mexico should be a lesson of the resilience of the human spirit and the fact that people will always migrate to areas where they believe their condition and that of their progeny will improve.

Diane E. Watson, a Democrat, represents the 33rd Congressional District of California.

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