Mexico is not the first country that comes to mind when the issue of Afro-descendants in the Americas is discussed. Unlike the better-known cases of Brazil and Colombia—with 91 million and 15 million Afro-descendants, respectively—Mexico’s national statistics agency recognizes only an estimated 500,000 citizens as Afro-descendant, less than 0.5 percent of the total population. However, the accuracy of that number has long been questioned.
But the lack of attention to Afro-Mexicans, concentrated largely in Oaxaca, Guerrero, Veracruz, and Chiapas states, is slowly being remedied. In September 2012, the National Forum on Afro-Descendant Populations in Mexico City explored the long-neglected heritage of the country’s Afro-descendants. The forum built on the Mexican government’s Nuestra Tercera Raíz program of the 1990s, though the results of both efforts have been mixed.
Laura A. Lewis, professor of anthropology at James Madison University, has made a significant effort to fill the void with Chocolate and Corn Flour: History, Race, and Place in the Making of “Black” Mexico. Based on over a decade of fieldwork in San Nicolás Tolentino, a predominantly Afro-descendant and Indigenous agricultural village in Guerrero state, the book attempts to unravel the complexities of race, ethnicity and identity in Mexico.
San Nicolás Tolentino is located in Mexico’s Costa Chica—an area recognized for its Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities—and considered part of the “cradle of Afro-mestizo culture” in Mexico. In Chocolate and Corn Flour, Lewis challenges this label as an oversimplification. She places “Black” in quotation marks to argue that people in San Nicolás see themselves as morenos or “Black Indians,” and not solely “Black.” This is why “corn flour” is used in the title of the book: as the author discovered in conversation with a local friend, residents joke they are “all mixed up” like a chocolate atole, a traditional Mexican corn-based drink.
Chocolate and Corn Flour is the latest contribution to a body of literature focused on Afro-Mexicans. Perhaps the best known work is La población negra de México, by Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán in 1946, who later conducted the first ethnographic work in Cuajinicuilapa in the Costa Chica.
Lewis builds on Beltrán’s research. While the book is not an attempt to question the accuracy of his work, Lewis points out instances where he was guilty of “fallacies in logic” and of following U.S.-based racial and cultural paradigms shaped by his mentor, U.S. anthropologist Melville Herskovits. Some of Lewis’ concerns are valid, yet others come across as unsympathetic, particularly given that her field study benefited from advantages Beltrán did not have, such as new scholarship and better access to the communities due to infrastructure improvements.
Lewis maintains that san nicoladenses are the victims of inaccurate paradigms of racial and ethnic identity projected on them by outsiders through “cultural promotion.” The focus of “politicians, artists, photographers and media types, scholars and social activists” on identifying “African survivals” blinds them to the reality of how locals perceive themselves, she writes. Instead, san nicoladenses are a cohesive and insular community that follows patterns similar to other rural Mexicans who use transnational linkages to improve their living standards and family well-being.
At the same time, Lewis notes that the daily challenges faced by san nicoladenses are substantial: poor infrastructure, illiteracy, and a low overall quality of life. The book underlines the importance of leveraging academic scholarship to accelerate locally driven, tangible goals as well as promoting understanding and sensitivity with regard to identity.
Lewis also looks to the diaspora community, primarily located in North Carolina, whose remittances have changed the landscape of the village from adobe homes to “cinder-block houses.” But the community’s insularity recurs in the U.S.: emigrants from San Nicolás keep a distance from their English-speaking neighbors, including African-Americans. These dynamics would have been a fruitful area to explore further, but Lewis uses only a handful of interviews—not enough to substantiate her broad generalizations.
Nevertheless, Chocolate and Corn Flour should inspire future work on racial identity and inclusion in Mexico and elsewhere and expand the limited knowledge base of ethnological work in the field.