Blackness and Mestizaje in Mexico and Central America

Blackness and Mestizaje in Mexico and Central America

  • Blackness and Mestizaje in Mexico and Central America

by Elisabeth Cunin and Odile Hoffmann


In the last decades of the twentieth century there were many attempts in the Americas to establish new “national agreements,” enshrined   in reformed constitutions to include the principles of recognition of difference and respect for traditions and customs specific to certain sectors of the population. Multiculturalism entered into the discursive practices and the laws and regulations of various countries.  For indigenous  groups organized  since  the  1970s,  this  period  definitively  marked a break  to  the  extent  that  it legitimized  their  struggles  and demands  for special treatment as autochthonous people and made  them  interlocutors with  states  and  governments,  now obliged to negotiate with them the sharing of certain resources and some reforms  (Sieder 2002). Be it as “peoples,” “nations,” or “ethnic groups,” indigenous people gained bargaining power in their  respective  countries  and in international arenas, but they did not necessarily achieve material benefits or definitive policies (for an analysis of empirical  cases in a comparative perspective between Mexico and Colombia, see Hoffmann and Rodríguez 2007). The different “regimes of multicultural citizenship” included, with specific social logic, Afro-descendants in different degrees or forms, especially after the international Conference in Durban in 2001.


Indeed, in the same period and in articulation with the indigenous sector, the black movement began to emerge as a visible force in Latin America. However, unlike the earlier indigenous movements, it did not enjoy a legitimizing discourse in the international arena as an “autochthonous” or “indigenous” group. It began to grow, then, in a very disperse form around localized demonstrations based as appropriate  on the fight against  discrimination and  racism,  cultural  claims, demands for land or access to health and education, among others. The diversity of action largely reflects the wide range of situations in the places inhabited by African descendants  in America, which Juliet Hooker (2010, 46-47) organized into four main “types”: the “afro-mestizos,” descendants of colonial slaves and mixed in the societies for several centuries, and who have not developed specific collective identities; those who are also descendants  of colonial slaves, but  who have developed racialized identities, as in Brazil; the descendants  or members  of communities  of escaped slaves, like the Garifuna;  and finally the West Indians of African descent who arrived in Central America in the ninetieth  and  twentieth  centuries,  mostly  as migrant  workers  in plantations or on the railroad.


We do not wish to delve into this typology and its relevance, but rather to stress that this variety shows that it is neither possible nor desirable to seek a unique pattern relative to black populations, not even that which is based on diversity, hybridity, fluidity, and mobility united around the concept of “Diaspora” in the works of Appadurai (1996), Gilroy (1993) or Chivallon (2004), particularly in the case of Latin America (Cunin 2009).


As for public policies of difference related to populations of African descent, we also recognize several lines developed from the 1990s. Two countries have been the subjects of multiple investigations because of the magnitude of the changes intro- duced:  Colombia and Brazil. In Colombia  the  “multicultural revolution” of the 1990s has been studied, based on a definition of multiculturalism that  is pragmatic  but  accepted,  concrete, regulated and effective, even if partially, and that recognizes territorial, political, and social rights of Afro-descendants, considered as an “ethnic group.” In Brazil, studies have shown that, on the one hand, there is recognition of the territorial claims of the Quilombolas, yet on the other hand a model of quotas is adopted to regulate differential access to educational, health, and other resources on a phenotypic and explicitly racialized basis. More  recently, other Latin American countries have begun to develop their own measures, using these two models (Ecuador), introducing more radical changes (Bolivia), or simply acknowledging cultural rights or promoting research (Argentina).


How are Mexico and Central America located in this range of positions and orientations?  In Mexico the interpretive models, developed since the 1950s and especially in the 1980s around the idea of a “third root,” described the populations of African descent as a “historical fact,” a group that was the carrier of certain “cultural traits,” but that until a few years ago had no political presence (Hoffmann in this volume). Indeed, they were denied any sociological relevance, which led the African militants to consider themselves the “missing link” of America in the great concert of Afro-Latinos, a population that would suffer from a lack of identity or, worse, that would deny its origins and identities.  In Central  America the story is different, not  only because of the demographic  importance  of Afro-descendants that came with colonization and trade (the so-called “black colonials”) but also because of the presence of the Garifuna, and French  and British West  Indians  (Barrow and Priestley 2003, Euraque  2004, Hooker  2005, Amaya 2007, Anderson  2007). However, there are few countries that have implemented specific measures, despite legislative initiatives in this direction in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras in the 1980s and 1990s. This region allows us to deepen the relationship between nation and the role of peoples of African descent, as it is marked by the complex dynamics of nation building intersecting with regional divisions (the “enclave” of the Atlantic coast) and transnational forces (political movements, plantation economy, and social movements).


This book argues that people of African descent in Mexico and Central America do not suffer from “identity deficit” but rather they do not fit into the “classical” interpretations and are therefore not easily categorized in known analytical schemes. By the same token they have much to teach us, and their analysis has to be located at the intersection of ethnic and political per- spectives, mestizaje ideology, and cultural viewpoints. Mexican and Central American configurations, because of their originality, force us to adopt  plural visions, and not always from the binomial  dominant-dominated, but  also toward  the  margins, the edges, the borders, with particular emphasis on situations of mixtures and ambiguous categories (Afro-indigenous,  creoles, mestizos), multiple belongings (national and transnational), or seemingly  contradictory practices  (black music  and  religion without black people, mobilization without ethnic claims). We will rely on the collective work of D. Euraque, J. L. Gould, and C. Hale (2004) on Central America, returning to their idea of continuity between mestizaje and multiculturalism, as ideologies of government for the management of differences. This concept leads us to propose that, beyond the ideal of a homogenized citizenship produced by mestizaje, there are complex dynamics of claims based on difference and indifference, stigmatization and fascination (Lhamon 1998), homogenization and othering. In this regard, we believe that  mestizaje is not only a “myth” and multiculturalism a “challenge” to it, and that  we have to further investigate the different processes of racialization, ethnicization, and negotiation  of the belongings that characterize mestizaje as multiculturalism.


This begins  to  depict  what  might  be  some  specificities of the political projects  for African groups  and collectives in Central America and Mexico: their necessary renouncement to unambiguous  explanations.  Using the debates  on the respective weights of agency and structure,  political actors and institutions,  transnational networks  and initiatives rooted  in local areas, the state and grassroots organizations, the essays in this book go beyond simple proposals and hope to assert and prove the political dimension  of the negotiations  of rural and urban communities  and  collectives of Afro-descendants with  their respective environments.


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How to Cite:


Cunin, E., & Hoffmann, O. (2013). Blackness and mestizaje in Mexico and Central America. from

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