A lot of people I know view Cinco de Mayo simply as an opportunity to socialize and drink margaritas at their favorite local Mexican restaurant. When asked about the history behind the day, most shrug their shoulders or ramble something about Mexican independence. Really, the Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Battle of Puebla, fought during the French Intervention in Mexico. Every year I learn a little bit more about the day and share a few facts on my social media accounts in hopes of educating a few folks about the true meaning behind the celebration.
I read up a little on the battle of Puebla last Cinco de Mayo and this year I took my research a step further, delving more deeply into the French Intervention. The first thing that caught my attention were the Senegalese soldiers, also know as tiraillleurs, who fought in the French army. Throughout history, French colonial subjects routinely fought on behalf of France, sometimes willingly, sometimes not. The French Intervention in Mexico was no different. During my reading I remembered a time back when I was giving museum tours at the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture. One day I had the pleasure of meeting a Chicano Studies professor from California. At some point during our tour we began talking candidly about the tendency in Mexico society to deny or collectively forget the contributions of people of African descent to the Central American nation. Not only did we talk about the fact that nearly 400,000 enslaved Africans were brought to Mexico during slavery, but he mentioned how Napoleon III abandoned thousands upon thousands of Senegalese soldiers there after the fall of the French Intervention.
Thus, as I began my Cinco de Mayo research this year I thought about this and all the kinky haired Mexicans I encountered growing up in Los Angeles in the early to mid 1990’s. I did some more digging and came across of variety of informative documentaries (links below) on the history of Africans in Mexico as well as the current plight of communities of African descent in Mexico today. Not surprisingly, Mexico has a truly rich black history. Sadly, however, blacks in Mexico face similar challenges to those of their black counterparts in North America. Historically black communities throughout Mexico like Veracruz, Costa Chica and other areas are some of the most impoverished in the country. They suffer from unemployment/underemployed, substandard schools, they lack infrastructure and in many cases basic sanitation. Yet, when they leave their homes in search of better opportunities black Mexicans are often faced with routine discrimination . Racial profiling by police is a big issue. Many Black Mexicans are assumed to be illegal immigrants from Cuba, Dominican Republic and even Africa and are often threatened with deportation. Thus, Afromexican communities tend to be tightly knit and, as is the case with many diasporan communities, they have held on to an abundance of African cultural traditions, many of which have contributed to the significantly to Mexican cultural identity (though this is not alway acknowledged).
There are a variety of reasons behind the attempted erasure/denial of African contributions in Mexico, the pervasiveness of white supremacy being a large factor. There is also hope for a better future. There has been talk of plans to include a section for Mexicans of African descent in the 2020 census. Having a more accurate idea of the size of Mexico’s black population is a step in the right direction. The government must first acknowledge black Mexicans exist before it can work meaningfully to improve conditions in its black communities.
As we continue to organize around the concept of black lives matter, it is important to keep in mind that black communities suffer worldwide from the legacy of slavery and white supremacy. We must stand in solidarity with one another #BlackLivesMatter