The Latin American Diaries |

Archive: Jun 2015

Exploring Whiteness in a Black-Indian Village on Mexico’s Costa Chica


by Laura A. Lewis, Professor of Latin American Anthropology at University of Southampton and Visiting Fellow at Institute of Latin American Studies

During the early colonial period, Mexico had one of the largest African slave populations in Latin America. Today, there are numerous historically black communities along the coast of the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca – a region known as the Costa Chica. Towards the end of the 16th century, the Spanish Crown granted tracts of land in the region to several conquistadors who had quelled local Indian resistance. These conquistadors brought to the coast cattle for ranching, and – in the colonial vernacular – blacks and mulattoes, both free and enslaved, to work as cowboys, in agriculture, and as overseers, including of Indian labor.

As time went on, two ethnic zones developed: the foothills and highlands of the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range at the Costa Chica’s northern edge held Indian communities, while the zone closest to the coast became an ethnic mix that included Indians drawn willingly or unwillingly into the colonial ambit. On the coast, blacks, mulattoes and Indians worked together for Spaniards. Indians also taught blacks and mulattoes native healing, agricultural techniques and local building styles. Because demographics tilted towards African-descent males, informal and formal unions between them and Indian women were common. By the middle of the 17th century, many coastal belt villages were Afro-Indigenous.

One such village was San Nicolás Tolentino, Guerrero, historically a ranching outpost for Spanish and, after Independence, for white ranchers. Today, San Nicolás’s majority residents identify as black-Indian or what they call moreno. Over many years I conducted ethnographic fieldwork focused on race and place there. Part of my research explores how San Nicolás’s moreno residents negotiate Mexico’s national mestizaje ideology, which rests on the belief that the Mexican nation is embodied in the mestizo of European/white and Indian descent. This form of mestizaje, which is both racial and cultural, is notable for its denial of blackness. However, San Nicoladenses do not simply favor a “black” and “Indian” mixture that reflects their moreno identities. Instead, they mimic the national form of mestizaje by placing Indians at the heroic center of the Mexican nation, as in this Independence Day celebration when Indians defeat Spaniards during a mock street battle to take their country “back.”


Indeed, as in the above street battle, and as a challenge to national mestizaje ideology, many festival practices and everyday discourses exclude whiteness from local space and identity construction. For instance, during festivals whiteness is often mocked by Carnivalesque figures, who don white masks to play lewd and aggressive roles. The village’s agrarian conflicts – and villagers’ narratives of those conflicts – feature white antagonists; and locals claim more generalized white oppression from the government, the “rich,” and commercial interests. No whites have lived in the community since the 1950s, when several white traders were murdered.

In July one year I attended San Nicolás’s annual festival for Santiago, the white patron saint of Spain whose iconography reflects his roles as “defender” during the Spanish Reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula and as conqueror during the Spanish conquest of the Americas. The highlight of San Nicolás’s festival centers on a cat and several roosters, which are hanged from crossbars in the central plaza while young men on horseback gallop back and forth below them, pulling at the roosters’ heads and a medallion hung around the cat’s neck. Whoever kills a rooster gets to eat it, and whoever kills the cat wins a cash prize.


In a festival for a white saint who represents both Catholic fealty and a colonialist conquest ideology not embraced locally, commentary that challenges whiteness is perhaps more hidden than in historical narratives and everyday discourse. But while the significance of the the cat and roosters was not immediately obvious, I eventually came to understand them as part of this commentary too.

For instance, San Nicoladenses would routinely tell me that – in contrast to other festivals – the one for Santiago was distanced, as it was “not from here.” “It’s Spanish,” one woman explained. Eventually I learned further bits: along with the roosters, a man said, the sacrificed cat is always male. Killing the animals, he told me, in a nod to colonial history, “was like the Inquisition. You know – decapitation and paying a fine.” Someone added, “cats are very proud.” Finally, when the animals were said to “represent Spanish haughtiness,” it all seemed to make sense. Now I have come to understand this as another example of white defeat, this time by young men using the equestrian skills their ancestors long ago learned as slaves and servants of Spaniards. As an elderly resident of San Nicolás once exclaimed to me, “Very few whites have come and gone from here without problems!”

The Latin American media is ignoring climate change at its peril


by Javier Farje, Journalist, TV Presenter, Consultant, and former Editor of Latin America Bureau

In 2009, on the eve of the Conference of the Parties 15 (COP 15), in Copenhagen, the World Bank published a revealing document. Entitled Low Carbon, High Growth, Latin American Responses to Climate Change, the document stated in no uncertain terms that global warming was a danger for the region. The report contained a stark warning. ’The “unequivocal” warming of the climate system – it says – reported by the IPCC is already affecting Latin America’s climate’. This important book contains a wealth of information. From the Andean mountains to the sub-tropical forest of the Amazon; from the planes of Argentina to the beaches of the Dominican Republic, climate change is punishing the continent with the melting of glaciers which affects entire communities who depend on the water those iced summits provide; the increase of malaria due to the upsurge of temperature; the droughts and floods that have affected the agricultural output of the southern plains, the increase of rain and the Central American region, with its bursting rivers washing away entire towns.


Laguna Glaciar, Bolivia


In the same year of the publication of the World Bank’s report, The Konrad Adenauer Foundation of Germany decided to carry out an exercise. Between 15th February and 15th March of 2009, The Foundation monitored the news coverage of the most important newspapers in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela. Despite the fact that 2009 was a very active year in relation to climate change, owing to to the high expectations about an agreement in Copenhagen, the coverage of global warming had an average share of 0.60% of the total bulk of news in those newspapers. And there were sources galore to give good exposure of climate change and its consequences for the region. The World Bank report was only one of the many publications related to climate change released that year. Furthermore, most Latin American governments, especially those countries ruled by left-wing presidents (Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua) had politicised the issue of climate change in terms of the North-South divide and that merited good coverage of the issue.

Perhaps the country whose media comes out worse in this situation is Brazil. This is particularly serious because Brazil is one the top ten greenhouse gas global emitters. They are responsible for almost 70% of the total emissions of those gases. The coverage of climate change issues in the two most important media organisations in the country, Folha de Sao Paulo and O Globo, between 1996 and the present time, is abysmal, to say the least (Time to Adapt, by Mike Shanahan). Those two giants of Brazilian media consider that climate change is an environmental story, with 36% of its coverage as a ‘green issue’, and only 19% of the same coverage is related to the economic consequences of global warming. And less than 2% of their coverage deals with the impact on climate change in poor people. This is a staggering statistic because there is plenty of evidence that there is a direct link between climate change and poverty in Brazil. In Low Carbon… a map with data provided by all Brazilian municipalities clearly shows that, in those regions where climate change is rampant, mainly in the north of Brazil, poverty has increased.

In Mexico, two of the most important newspapers, La Reforma and El Universal (Schmidt, Ivanova & Schaffer) have increased their coverage of climate change since 2005, but mainly due to a national debate related to the production of biofuels. Mexican media tend to give a great deal of importance to ‘uncertainty’ about the link between climate change and meteorological phenomena, despite plenty of scientific evidence that there is a direct link between the intensity and frequency of hurricanes and rains and global warming. The publication of the IPCC’s 4th and 5th assessment reports in 2007 and 2014 respectively was totally ignored by Televisa, the biggest TV conglomerate in Mexico. The IPCC’s assessment reports are the most important documents dealing with the current state of global warming and its consequences for the planet. And Mexico has been the subject of significant analysis in those reports.

Peruvian media, mainly the second biggest newspaper in the country, La República, is critical of the government’s policies in relation to the inadequacies in fighting climate change. Bolivian media, which is mainly owned by the opposition to the government of Evo Morales, ignores climate change mainly because the president blames global warming on the capitalist system and the right-wing media does not want to be seen as siding with the government on its ideological anti-capitalist crusade.

In some Central American countries like Honduras, the media tends to ignore climate change. The British think-tank Panos interviewed a group of Honduran journalists a few years ago. They concluded that climate change is not editorially important for editors and media owners. They tend to rely on CNN for their coverage of climate change-related issues without bothering to conduct their own investigations. A group of activists and scientists in the Dominican Republican told the author in a programme for the Spanish-speaking network Hispan TV, that the increase in sea levels has caused the disappearance of beaches and coastal towns. They bitterly complained that the Dominican media is not interested in the problem. The World Bank has published a report that states that the Dominican tourist industry is in danger of disappearing within the next 50 years because of high sea levels and the impossibility to keep its holiday resorts safe from such increases. And yet, once again, the Dominican media shows no interest.

La Barquita, Dominican Republic, which has suffered from regular flooding in recent years

La Barquita, Dominican Republic, which has suffered from regular flooding in recent years

All in all, the coverage that Latin American media gives to climate change leaves a lot to be desired. The Centre for Science and Technology Policy Research of the University of Colorado Boulder, in the USA, monitors the trends in the media all over the world. Since 2004 to the present day, Latin American newspapers perform poorly in relation to the rest of the world. Indeed, Latin America has the worst record of climate change coverage, worse even than the media in the Middle East, which, for obvious reasons, has other priorities.

There is another element that helps to explain this lack of interest. Climate change does not sell. This is particularly acute in the case of television. Tacky reality programmes, ill-educated so-called chat show presenters and soap operas generate advertising, the retreat of Andean glaciers or the change in agricultural patterns as a result of climate change don’t.

The IPCC has stressed the role media plays in exposing the dangers of climate change and holding governments to account. Indeed, climate change constitutes a goldmine for investigative journalism in particular in Latin America. And the IPCC’s assessments and reports are a unique source of information to investigate the human consequences of climate change; and more than ever, universities and think tanks make their material widely available to the public. Furthermore, many of the people affected by climate change have been denouncing their situation without getting much attention from the media. These changes will severely damage the economic growth of the region. The dangers faced by the region as a result of climate change will be devastating. The complete melting of the Andean glaciers, the rise in sea levels affecting the coasts in the region, droughts and rain, entre communities devastated by meteorological changes caused by climate change are some of the examples where Latin American media organisations could devote resources to a comprehensive new type of investigative journalism. But the Latin American press is so far failing to grasp the seriousness of the situation. The region cannot afford such irresponsible complacency.

PS. On a positive note, a group of Venezuelan journalists formed in 2009 a network called Journalism on Climate Change.The network is growing. Not all is lost.


(n.b. this post was originally published via Linked-in)