On the Cusp of Recognition: The Afro-Mexican Racial Moment in Mexico City

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Student Research Reports, Summer 2017

Experiencing a Movement in a Moment

Nicole-Marie Cotton


There is a current movement of Afro-Mexicans petitioning for recognition in rights in Mexico. As the “Third-Root”, Afro-Mexicans have played a significant role in the development of nation as early as the colonial period -where at one point they outnumbered European settlers. They held key roles of leadership in gaining Independence from Spain and during the Revolution. Vicente Guerrero, the second president of Mexico was Afro-Mexican. Yet, their important contributions have been erased and history ignored. It is not uncommon for Afro-Mexicans to tell you that when traveling outside of their communities, they are harassed and accused of being an undocumented immigrant from Central America. The failure to realize there are people of African descent who are also Mexican is not uncommon. 

 Cotton at the Comision de Derechos Humanos

Cotton at the Comision de Derechos Humanos


Despite structural challenges and marginalization, Afro-Mexican communities have organized and petitioned for official recognition and legal protection from discrimination. Within the past two years Afro-Mexican activists have successfully won a place for Afro-Mexicans on the Mexican census an important stride because they would be counted for the first time since the colonial period which would allow for greater visibility. The states of Oaxaca and Guerrero, which are home to the highest concentration of Afro-Mexican communities, have also recently adopted language acknowledging Afro-Mexican communities in state multicultural reforms.

This year marks is the 100th Anniversary of the Mexican Constitution. In an initiative called “Defense of the Constitution”, the law makers of the Federal District of Mexico have added recognition and protection of vulnerable populations- including Afro-descendants. As a researcher who studies on sustainable development in Afro-Mexican communities in Oaxaca, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the nation’s capital was taking on the struggle of Afro-Mexicans despite not having a substantial portion of the population that identifies as such. This was big news. Mexico City is the legal hub of the nation and has a significant influence on other Latin American nations given political and economic flows. I had to go and witness this racial moment of visibility, rights and recognition within the republic. 

Undertaking this research within the limited time the Tinker grant was not going to be an easy task. It took some time to get to see things in action. Individuals interested in exploring human rights and social justice or in the nation’s capital might gravitate toward the Museum of Tolerance. The museum located in downtown is a work of art. Outside are busts of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Theresa. Despite what I may have assumed from the exterior, inside the museum there was no exhibit on civil rights movements within Mexico. Instead, the museum focuses on the major acts of genocide in the 20th century with most square footage dedicated to the Holocaust and chronologically following through to the current situation in Darfur. The only clear connection that the exhibits made to Mexico were the displays of passports of refugees the nation took in. I was somewhat disappointed after my visit, but it showed me what the discussion was like around tolerance. 

I was excited to attend the National Commission of Human Rights commission’s forum “Por la Defensa de la Consititusion Politica de la Ciudad de Mexico.” Here, senators spoke about the process of including marginalized groups into the constitution- as a living document to ensure the human rights and dignity of all citizens. There was commentary social movement leaders, and academics acknowledging the progress, yet conscious that still more work needed to be done to enforce the newly awarded rights. Being in the audience, I was pleased at the public nature of these discussions. Inclusivity and open access to information be encouraged in these spaces. As 100th anniversary of the Constitution, anti-discrimination rights were not only awarded to Afro-descendants, but also people with disabilities, elderly, children and LGBTQ individuals. I highly encourage any researchers who engage in human rights with any of these intersecting identities to visit Mexico City. The National Commission of Human Rights has a wealth of information and the staff are extremely helpful. Another great resource is their sister organization CONAPRED.

Foro for the defense of the constitution 

The Mexico City Commission of Human Rights event " Forum for Defense of the Consitution of Mexico City" 


I came to know CONAPRED (National Council for the Prevention of Discrimination) through their notable social media campaign “Soy Afro! Me reconozco y cuento!”. This effort featured headshots of Afro-Mexicans from various parts of the nation with the hashtag #soyafro to encourage participation in the national survey- the precursor to the census.  Often underneath each picture statements like “No somos extranjeros, Somos Mexicanos”, “ Like si eres Afrodescendiente”. These statements have a double impact: to shake off any shame in identifying as Afro-desdendant, and also show those who discriminate against them that the organizations behind this effort were in support of these communities. 

I visited the offices in search of some of the posters to bring back to the United States. The Council has a library. One of the librarians told me the origins of the campaign and guided me through online archives. He said that the library is a resource to people who might feel they have experienced discrimination and are ensure of their rights. There was a black face on the brochure about immigration discrimination and what rights immigrants had in Mexico. He also showed me a wealth of demographic and legal research done on Afro-Mexican communities conducted by the organization.

Passports from the Mexican National Archives (Photo by Nicole-Marie Cotton.)

Passports of Refugees in Mexico (Photo by Nicole Marie Cotton.)

The highlight of the trip was attending the International Forum of the Afro-descendant organizations in Latin America. Here, I saw organizations from various parts of Latin America speak about their challenges and their successes organizing for better resources in their respective countries. I met Afro-descendants who were able to get leadership positions in international organizations as well as individuals who were from local organizations. Since this event took place in Mexico City, Afro-Mexicans organizations made up most of the attendees. Some had traveled over 12 hours on bus just to attend. By coincidence, I sat next to a man who worked for CONAPRED during the announcement of the inauguration of the Afro-Mexican Museum in Guerrero I was confused because there is an Afro-Mexican museum in Oaxaca Mexico. He explained to be that the old museum is called the Afro-Mestizo Museum and names matter as people might not identify that way. He introduced me to the woman who made that museum happen, Teresa Mojica Morga. She is the federal deputy of her region of Guerrero. She is an important figure because she is an Afro-Mexican woman in a position of governmental power. She was glad to make the museum a reality for her community and invited me to take a look on my next visit. 

I was also introduced to a popular leader originally from Congo who is a naturalized Mexican citizen. He has lived in Mexico City for decades and works at CONAPRED. He gave valuable insight on what the movement was like from his first-hand experience. Much of academic literature on social movements in the diaspora is produced by U.S. academics, so it was a special treat to have someone with a more global prospective.

Peaceful busts outside of museum (Photo by Nicole-Marie Cotton.)

Peaceful busts outside of Museum of Tolerance and Memory. (Photo by Nicole-Marie Cotton.)


There was a moment of tension in the forum when Wilner Metelus, a well-known activist and a naturalized Mexican citizen of Haitian origin interrupted the panel presentation to ask about the treatment of Haitian refugees at the Mexico and U.S. border. This trip came at a time where there was a mass deportation of Haitians waiting to cross the border. Indeed, after the Haitian earthquake there have been cases of discrimination and human rights violations of Haitian immigrants. Metelus was escorted out of the building by a handful of security guards after a suspenseful handful of minutes. 

I did hear from a few people that they were happy with some of the progress made however they felt like not enough attention were given to Afro-Mexican’s specifically. For instance, the re-working for the constitution uses the term “afro-descendant”. On one hand, the term is considered more inclusive than alternatives because it includes everyone with African descent. On the other hand, some feel it further erases Afro-Mexicans because they are not specifically mentioned. When one constantly needs to prove they are Mexican simply because their history is erased, it is understandable to want something that re-affirms their existence.  Afro-descendant certainly includes Afro-Mexican, but it also includes immigrants and naturalized citizens. Since Afro-Mexicans have been mistaken for foreigners and asked to sing the national or provide additional identification, some feel the disappointed that more must be done to fully acknowledge their existence. 

I was surprised in how much I learned in my brief time in the fieldwork. The fourteen days felt like a blink of an eye, but this movement is having a big moment in Mexico. As a node of political power, Mexico City was the perfect place to spend a short time given the important anniversary of the consititution to meet leaders in the Afro-Mexican movement and see how discussions play out.

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