The first time I felt deeply uncomfortable being black was when I was a kid. My family had just moved to Alabama, and I was in a car with my father and my brother. A white woman with a harshly lined face and brown frizzy hair yelled out a racial slur as we drove by. Dad immediately put the car in reverse and drove over to her as she pumped gas at a filling station. "What did you say?" he demanded. She glared at him and refused to respond. Shocked into silence, my brother and I didn't say anything for the rest of the drive home. The second time was in a quaint town in Mexico. I am a journalist living in Mexico City and I had decided to take a trip to Veracruz, where hundreds of thousands of African slaves had been brought by Spanish colonialists five centuries prior. I wanted to visit Yanga, a place that called itself "the first free slave town in the Americas". The town was named for Gaspar Yanga, a slave who had led a successful rebellion against the Spanish in the 16th century.
I had only just learned about Afro-Mexicans, the isolated descendants of Mexico's original slaves, who reside on the country's rural Pacific and Gulf Coasts. After months of research and a visit to the remote Afro-Mexican community on the Pacific Coast, where most of them live, I felt compelled to visit the Afro-Mexicans in Veracruz on the Gulf Coast. I ended up spending most of my time trying to figure out Yanga. As I arrived in town, I peered out of my taxi window at the pastel-painted storefronts and the brown-skinned residents walking along the wide streets. "Where are the black Mexicans?" I wondered. A central sign proclaimed Yanga's role as the first Mexican town to be free from slavery, yet the descendants of these former slaves were nowhere to be found. I would later learn that most live in dilapidated settlements outside of town.
The next morning, I walked the few yards from my hotel to the town's library, my shirt sticking to my back in the heat. I had been told that the librarian was the best source of information about Yanga's history. While walking, I raised my hand to shield my eyes from the blinding sun, and also from the gaze of people in the roadside shops and central square. I had grown used to the attention in Mexico City, where blacks are a rarity, but this time it was different. The stares were cold and unfriendly, and especially unnerving in a town named for an African revolutionary. "Mira, una negra," I heard people whisper to one another. "Look, a black woman." "Negra! Negra!" taunted an old man with a shock of white hair under a tan sombrero. Surrounded by a group of men, he gazed at me with a big, toothy grin. He seemed to be waiting for me to come over and talk to him. Shocked, and suddenly transported to that one afternoon in Alabama, I shot him a dirty look and headed into the library's courtyard.
The notion of race in Mexico is frustratingly complex. This is a country where many are proud to claim African blood, yet discriminate against their darker countrymen. Black Mexicans complain that such bigotry makes it especially hard for them to find work. Still, I was surprised to feel like such an alien intruder in a town where I had hoped to feel something like familiarity. Afro-Mexicans are among the poorest in the nation. Many are shunted to remote shantytowns, well out of reach of basic public services, such as schools and hospitals. Activists for Afro-Mexicans face an uphill battle for government recognition and economic development. They have long petitioned to be counted in Mexico's national census, alongside the country's 56 other official ethnic groups, but to little avail. Unofficial records put their number at 1m.
In response to activist pressure, Mexico's government released a study at the end of 2008 that confirmed that Afro-Mexicans suffer from institutional racism. Employers are less likely to employ blacks, and some schools prohibit access based on skin colour. But little has been done to change this. Afro-Mexicans lack a powerful spokesperson, so they continue to go unnoticed by the country's leadership. "What we want is recognition of our basic rights and respect of our dignity," Rodolfo Prudente Dominguez, a top Afro-Mexican activist, said to me. "There should be sanctions against security and immigration agents who detain us, because they deny our existence on our own land."
If you have not heard of Mexico's native blacks, you are not alone. The story that has been passed down through generations is that their ancestors arrived on a slave boat filled with Cubans and Haitians, which sank off Mexico's Pacific coast. The survivors hid away in fishing villages on the shore. The story is a myth: Spanish colonialists trafficked African slaves into ports on the opposite Gulf coast, and slaves were distributed further inland. The persistence of this story explains the reluctance of many black Mexicans to embrace the label "Afro", and why many Mexicans assume black nationals hail from the Caribbean. Colonial records show that around 200,000 African slaves were imported into Mexico in the 16th and 17th centuries to work in silver mines, sugar plantations and cattle ranches. But after Mexico won its independence from Spain, the needs of these black Mexicans were ignored. Some Afro-Mexican activists identify themselves as part of the African diaspora. Given their rejection from Mexican culture, this offers a more empowering cultural reference. But with no collective memory of slavery (it was officially abolished in Mexico in 1822), or of any time in Africa before then, Afro-Mexicans are considerably removed from their African roots.
"Bienvenida, welcome!" called out Andres, the librarian, as he guided me into a chair. Andres is not black, but he was the first person to make me feel comfortable in Yanga. He acted as if my presence was perfectly ordinary, probably because he is accustomed to African-American visitors who are curious about his research into slavery in Mexico. During my visit, he was in the middle of teaching an art class to young children. He told me about the slave trade and African culture festivals in Veracruz while gluing together paper-maché masks. The kids smiled shyly at me. "There's a lot of racism here against blacks, isn't there?" I asked him, still confused about the town's hostility. "No, not really, we're all poor, that's the problem," he answered, brushing back his brown curly hair and laughing. Before he finished his sentence, a black Mexican woman came up to us. She exchanged a few words with Andres, and then delicately took my hand in hers. "Bienvenida", she said, before leaving.
After leaving the library, I decided to explore. I stopped in an office to ask directions from a group of Mexican men, who flirted valiantly before wishing me well. I wandered aimlessly, nearly melting in the heat. I brooded over Mexico's contradictory feelings about race. In a place where everyone is considered "mixed race", owing to the country's long colonial history, skin colour is clearly a symbol of status. Many Mexicans are generous and kind to me, viewing my otherness as interesting and lovely. Yet black Mexicans are often mistreated and ostracised. I think about this unsettling tension when I occasionally pass a black Mexican in Mexico City, and she gives me a slight, genuine smile.