The Latin American Diaries |


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!”

Adaptive Economies in Latin America: How Mexico’s Holbox Became “Whale Shark Island”


by Professor Michael Redclift, ILAS Associate Fellow

Professor Michael Redclift, Emeritus Professor of International Environmental Policy in the Department of Geography at King’s College London, presents a snapshot of adaptive change on Holbox, just off Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, which has ‘rebranded’ itself as “Whale Shark Island”
(n.b. Cambridge University is hosting a conference on “Branding Latin America” on April 8, 2015).

OThe history of Holbox is wrapped in myth. Explorers Stephens and Catherwood stayed nearby, at Yalahau (Chiquila) on April 4, 1842, and mentioned the surrounding coast . At the time the pirate Molas was operating in the area with some success, and seems to have had the confidence of local fishing communities. However, it was not until 1883 that (old) Holbox was officially founded. In 1889 a serious hurricane destroyed the village and a new settlement was formed around a 100 metre square grid system. The village was complete by 1893 and it is still referred to as the ‘new town’ or ‘new Holbox’.

The early days of the Holbox economy

In the 1920s and 1930s Holbox featured at the margins of what was still viewed as a geographical periphery, even in Merida. Its founders, unlike those of Cozumel and Isla Mujeres (with whom Holboxenos have intermarried and whom they hold in high regard), were not Mayan refugees from the rebel Maya forces during the Caste War but descendents of sailors and non-Mayan Mexicans. (Today there are only three Maya speakers on the Island and they are all from outside). Most of the trade was in dyewood and some hardwoods. Some chicleros came and rested on the island after spending three or four hard months of work in the forests. Later the fishing activities developed for sale, especially shark fishing, which produced shark skin and shark fins, which were sold profitably. There was also some copra [husk of coconuts used for matting] production, mainly on the mainland, with which people from Holbox were associated.

mexican_fishermenAdaptation on Holbox: from fishing…

Fishing has always been the principal activity of households on Holbox. Before the 1970s the commercialisation of the catch was poorly developed and most boats caught a ‘random’ collection of species. Indeed, before 1960 the most important item was probably turtles (about sixty per cent by value) and shark, but after 1970s the number of turtles caught declined slowly. During the 1960s lobster fishing increased in importance: in 1969 it represented about three quarters of the value of the catch in Quintana Roo as a whole. Most of the lobster was exported to the United States, but with the growth of Cancun in the late 1970s and 1980s a local market came into play. Lobster fishing had some clear advantages for artisan fishers: lobster were easily available and had high commercial value; they could be caught using relatively simple technology and in shallow water; and lobster fishing could absorb a large number of fishers and enable the reproduction of the household economy without access to much outside investment.


The whale shark brand is everywhere on Holbox

…to developing the ‘brand’: Welcome to ‘Whale Shark Island’!

Nobody seems entirely sure who it was that first drew the attention of Holbox islanders to the tourist potential of the whale sharks. It is generally agreed that about ten years ago the fishing families began taking visitors out to see the whale sharks – initially this was a small scale venture. The waters where the whale-sharks congregate is far from the shore but the water is relatively shallow – just twenty metres or so. In most other parts of the world where whale-sharks congregate, such as off the Honduran coast and in India, the waters are much deeper. Consequently, it is easier to see, and to swim with, the whale-sharks off Holbox.  It is a measure of the adaptive speed of the Holboxenos that they quickly developed a ‘logo’ for their island that incorporated the whale-shark. The shark has come to inhabit the island, as it were, and the island to inhabit the shark. This logo is now used everywhere, on houses that have been refurbished, on the front of shops and cafes and in hotels. It is a piece of design genius which has enabled the locals who benefit from the whale-shark season, and the hotel entrepreneurs, to become a global brand – and be advertised on the World Wide Web. Local people also insist that their interest is in conserving the whale-sharks rather than hunting them so, in this at least, they are displaying conservation objectives. The brand is also used widely in web advertising for Holbox’s whale-shark season, which boosts local tourism.


Image attributions:
1.) Sarunas Burdulis (CC via Wikimedia)
2.) Tomas Castelazo (CC via Wikimedia)
3.) copyright Michael Redclift.