The Geography of Race in 19th-Century Mexico: Capitalism, Culture, and Language

Thursday, January 4, 2018: 1:50 PM
Virginia Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park)
John Milstead, Michigan State University
Gazing over Antonio García Cubas’ exhaustive Porfirian era map of Mexico’s racial and cultural landscape, it is possible discern the contours of the country’s complex pre-Hispanic and colonial heritage. Although the cartographer included Spaniards and mestizos, Tzotzils and Zapotecs, Tarahumara and Tarascans, one group – Afro-Mexicans – was missing altogether. For him and many nineteenth-century intellectuals, people of African descent did not comprise one of what he termed “Mexico’s many nations.” These scholars codified a lengthy project of silencing blackness. This process began after independence with the first group of historians who downplayed Afro-Mexican contributions in national histories and located them along the country’s two coastlines. Journalists expanded on these themes by fixing blackness on the coast, relegating their contributions to the past, or leaving them off the cultural landscape. However, the evidence indicates that Afro-Mexicans in Oaxaca preserved unique identities in their private lives and created a new lexicon of race.

This paper seeks to examine these new forms of expression by analyzing this interplay during the nineteenth century. Building on the work of colonial scholars, bottom-up historians of state formation, and anthropologists of Latin American blackness, I employ newspaper accounts, land disputes, and political records to argue that culture, regional geography, linguistic ability, and socio-economic ties created a space by which Afro-Mexicans demarcated racial boundaries. Intellectuals at the local and state levels mapped these distinctions into the state’s geography. Journalists compiled this information and published numerous descriptions of Afro-Mexicans at the national level as inhabiting dangerous areas in need of economic exploitation. On the other hand, García Cubas portrayed a different Mexico and left them off the cultural map altogether. Such ideas influenced post-revolutionary intellectuals and led to the silencing of Mexico’s third cultural root for decades.