Beyond Presencia: Afromexican History and the Biographical Turn

AHA Session 81
Conference on Latin American History 15
Friday, January 4, 2019: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Salon 6 (Palmer House Hilton, Third Floor)
Ben Vinson III, Case Western Reserve University
Joseph Michael Hopper Clark, University of Kentucky
Norah L. A. Gharala, Georgian Court University
Pablo Miguel Sierra Silva, University of Rochester
Danielle Terrazas Williams, Oberlin College

Session Abstract

In 2020, following a decades-long grassroots effort, the Mexican national census will allow individuals to self-identify as Afromexican for the first time since independence in 1810. The movement to acknowledge Afromexican communities in the present emerged alongside an intensification of scholarly interest in the Afromexican past, particularly in the colonial period. In the mid-twentieth century, scholars built the first demographic, anthropological, and social profiles of colonial Mexico’s Afro-descended communities, calling new attention to a population that had been mostly ignored in the post-colonial era. More recently, a second generation of scholars examined Afromexican history through the lenses of major colonial institutions, highlighting black participation in militias, confraternities, civil and religious courts, and tax systems. This work provides a more comprehensive accounting of the ways in which Afromexicans interacted with the colonial state and church, both as individuals and in corporate groups. Importantly, by demonstrating that it is possible to render detailed, source-driven narratives about Afromexican communities that go beyond substantiating their mere existence (presencia), institutional studies also point the way forward for the next generation of scholarship on Afromexican history.

This roundtable discussion highlights new directions on research on Afromexican history in the colonial period, focusing in particular on the biographical turn and its implications for local, national, and global narratives of Mexican and African diaspora history. It responds to recent appeals to transcend the study of “black presence” in favor of more intimate portraits of black lives, families, and experiences. In so doing, our work builds on a previous generation of scholarship to understand not only how Afromexicans interacted with the colonial church and state, but also how they engaged in discourses of loyalty to achieve individual, familial, and communal goals. Some panelists look within Mexico to scrutinize how highly particular local conditions in plazas, parishes, and neighborhoods influenced Afromexican identities, while others look beyond Mexico to understand how black individuals defined identities that built on the transnational networks of the Caribbean, Atlantic, and Pacific worlds. Whether emphasizing local or global narratives, our research traces the ways in which Afromexican individuals shaped social and cultural meanings in specific spaces within the colonial landscape. At its heart, Afromexican biography elucidates a diversity of ways of being Afromexican: of defining race, status, and religious belonging; of constructing gender and family relationships; and of asserting regional and transnational loyalties. In turn, our discussion considers how biographical methodology complicates, critiques, and refines established understandings of colonial Mexican history.

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