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!”