On Photos and Palabras / by Michelle Nicola

A few weeks ago I went to Mexico City for the First Annual Conversatorio de José María Morelos y Pavón. Morelos is a national hero, a man celebrated for helping win the war for independence. Look at these depictions of Morelos. What do you notice? 

You probably noticed that in the first painting, Morelos has lighter skin. The last depiction, the most recent, shows Morelos as clearly Afro-Mexican. What happened? Which image is closer to his true image? We may never know- the context of the time said that lighter skin was better, so many painted images of Morelos show him lighter-skinned than he may actually have been. Furthermore, physical phenotype (aka just looking at someone) is only one (not very scientific) way to tell someone’s ancestry. Take another look- What’s the one thing all of the images above have in common? Yep! You got it- his head covering. What historians know about that time period was that all Black folks were required to cover their heads. This is how many historians, sociologists and anthropologists I’ve interviewed are able to trace African roots in Mexico- by choosing a thread and trying to untangle it based on the context of the time.

What about words? How to they shape how we understand our history? How and why to they change? Turns out that just like in the US, Mexico also has conflict over words.  

Afro-mestizo: For some, including Professor Marco Polo Hernandez, Afro-mestizo is not the right word because mestizo implies a mix, which implies that there was, once upon a time, a pure race. Yet, in the town where I teach, there is a sign welcoming visitors to “Coyolillo, un pueblo de afro-mestizos.” 

Afro-descendiente: This term means simply of African descendants. I’ve heard both academics and activists and people from town use this term. Yet (and these are just my dos centavos- take ‘em or leave ‘em) this term also seems a touch problematic because a) Africa is not a country, it’s a continent and b) because Africa is a continent, people from countries like Morocco, Egypt, and Algeria who emigrate to Mexico (or the US for that matter) are technically “Afro-descendientes.” Technically pretty much everyone in Spain is “descendant from Africa,” because the Moors conquered Spain in 711 and stayed for several hundred years. But that’s not really what we’re talking about is it? When we use the term Afro-descendants, we’re not talking about people whose ancestors hail from Morocco, are we? We’re actually talking about Black people. 

Pueblo Negro: Literally “Black town” though one could also translate this to “Negro Town.” During the conference, I often heard people say that “negro is not an OK word in the US, but people have to understand that in Mexico it’s OK.” It took me a while to realize that they were translating negro to Negro, an outdated word in the US, and not Black, which for some is slowly replacing the term African-American. 

Afro-Mexican: Like African-American.  

All of this is leading me to the central questions for my Spanish World Language unit: How do our ancestors shape our identity? As a follow-up: How do we reshape our identities by better understanding the stories/histories of our ancestors? I’m curious to see what my students will do with those questions, as well as the uncomfortable fact that we really don’t know the answers to historical questions like which photo of Morelos is the “real” foto? And since we’re still co-constructing our language that we use to talk about all of it, I expect that my students in Coyolillo and I will bumble through answering these questions together.