Who lives, who dies, who tells your story? / by Michelle Nicola

La Corrida de los Melones: Apparently this is only a thing in Xalapa, but Independence Day they take advantage of the streets closing, dress up some melons & race them.

La Corrida de los Melones: Apparently this is only a thing in Xalapa, but Independence Day they take advantage of the streets closing, dress up some melons & race them.

It’s been quite busy these last few weeks here in Xalapa.  I met with six different professors, read several 100+ page articles (in Spanish) and started zapateo classes.  And on September 15th, I witnessed my first “Grito,” the call to revolution the Father Miguel Hidalgo made 208 years ago, and one that countless Mexican presidents and governors have continued every year since.

For those of you who don’t know, there are a few celebrated heroes in Mexico’s independence:

Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, Josefa Ortiz, José María Morelos, Ignacio Allende, Vicente Guerrero and Augustín de Iturbe.  The official story goes something like this:

1808- The French invaded Spain, and Napoleon sent his brother, Joseph Bonaparte to New Spain (Mexico) to rule. The creoles (people born in New Spain to Spanish-born parents) were already talking about revolution- holding secret meetings to discuss the ideas of the Enlightenment (which was banned by the Catholic Church).  


1810- Doña Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez held revolution meetings in her home, and Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla and Ignacio María de Allende often attended.  There were plans for a revolution to begin in December, but on September 13, 1810 the colonial rulers caught wind of the rebels’ plans. Doña Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez was locked in her room to keep her from spreading the word, though eventually she was able to send a message to Father Miguel de Hidalgo.  Then, on September 16, 1810, Father Hidalgo rang all the church bells and gave a speech known as El Grito de Dolores, calling all revolutionaries to action. (An interesting aside I learned from Wikipedia: Hidalgo was a different sort of priest, one who called into question the virgin birth and clerical celibacy, and in addition to being a Father, was also a dad to about 7 children.)  

1810-1821: Father Hidalgo and Ignacio María de Allende became revolutionary leaders, as did Hidalgo’s relative, Father José María Morelos, whose first nine months on the battlefield saw him win 22 victories. However, when Morelos was captured and executed, Vicente Guerrero took the lead as Commander in Chief.  Guerrero’s father was against the rebellion, to which Guerrero is said to have replied, “You are my father, but the country comes first.” Finally, after 10 years of battle, and led by Guerrero and Iturbide, the people of New Spain won their independence, and Mexico was born.

Me in front of the city hall before El Grito. Much like in the US some Mexicans dress in the red-white-green colors of the flag, while many do not. I went for it, because ¡Viva México! (Though I ironically felt like more of a gringa walking through the streets than on any other day since my arrival.)

Me in front of the city hall before El Grito. Much like in the US some Mexicans dress in the red-white-green colors of the flag, while many do not. I went for it, because ¡Viva México! (Though I ironically felt like more of a gringa walking through the streets than on any other day since my arrival.)

Vicente Guerrero, Second President of the United States of Mexico

Vicente Guerrero, Second President of the United States of Mexico

1829- Guerrero kept making history after the revolution - in 1829 he became Mexico’s second president. During his presidency, he abolished slavery and also removed racial categories from the census, an act that would have unintended consequences later on.

Underneath this story are other stories, like the story about Morelos’ and Guerrero’s African ancestry.  The Catholic Church listed Morelos as “español” despite portraits of him showing a dark complexion. Initially, Guerrero’s African ancestry wasn’t mentioned either, yet today Wikipedia mentions Guerrero’s Afro-Mestizo ancestry in the first few lines, and Dr. Henry Louis Gates writes in his book Black in Latin America, that Guerrero was “mockingly called ‘el Negro Guerrero’ by his enemies,” (p. 76).


It’s all made me wonder about how I was taught history, and how I continue to teach it. Technically, I’m not a history teacher, but as a Spanish teacher, obviously my lessons contain history embedded within them.  How can I break away from teaching history in that straightjacketed, patriarchal, timelined way of first this, then that, next this happened? How can I teach my students to recognize and name the silences in our history when I’m still learning to do so?

A few days before El Grito, I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Rodrigo Zárate to discuss his article, “Somos mexicanos, no somos negros.”  Zárate points out, “In Mexico . . . the privileged social groups have never been members of the original peoples or African-descendants, but the descendants of the the elite mestizas and creole who undertook the fight for independence in the 19th century,” (p. 59)  In other words, those with the power get to put pen to paper. Their story becomes the timeline we teach, what we consider “the basics” educated people must know.

What about the other stories!??!

In another interview, I spoke with Dr. Sagrario Cruz Carretero. (She’s in Gates’ documentary, Black in Latin America, and I will admit to being a little star-struck upon meeting her.)  When our conversation turned to the Olmecas, Dr. Cruz Carretero blew my mind.

Cruz Carretero: When the African-Americans discovered this African ancestry in Mexico, they were fascinated and various groups of African-Americans started to come to see the Olmec heads.  I don’t know if you’ve heard of the arguments proposed by Ivan Van Sertima, you’ve seen his book, right?

Me: No

Cruz Carretero: They Came Before Columbus- look for that book.  He was a historian from Guyana, I think it was Dutch Guyana. He looked at the archelogical record here in Mexico, trying to find African roots. He tried to prove that there was an African immigration here before Columbus.  So that became the motivation for many African-Americans to come here, like a kind of pilgrimage, looking for their roots. The Olmec heads became a symbol of an ancestry of resilience, of many things.

Me: But so the other day I was in the Museum of Anthropology and the guide said, “Oh, you know lots of people think that these heads represent Africa because of stereotypical things like the nose and the lips.”  He said no, that wasn’t true. But you’re saying maybe yes?

Cruz Carretero: Part of the racism among scholars is the denial of this African heritage. Because how do you dare to say that Meso-American indigenous communities needed help from outsiders to be so rich and they flourish without anybody else? So, for me it’s clear to see the archaeological pieces with wide nose, curly hair, even the scarring decoration on their faces, and it’s clear that the Olmec . . . Actually it was Van Sertima who remarked that there is one Olmec head with braids and beads in los Tuxtlas. When you see these archaeological pieces, you say, “Wow! Well, probably he is right. And why couldn’t they arrive to Australia, and Africans could reach the Americas, if Columbus used the same ocean currents? Actually the places where the ocean currents arrive are the places where the archaeological pieces are discovered, here in the Gulf of Mexico and Panama. So for me it’s been very helpful to follow the ideas of Van Sertima like a hypothesis, because you cannot prove anything.  He’s been criticized. Yet, this can be another topic of discussion - you’re not going to reach anywhere because you don’t have the final answer. But why not discuss it?

Me: You are blowing my mind right now.

These last few weeks as I read, interview, re-read and try to piece together the puzzle of identity in Mexico, lyrics from Hamilton run through my head- Who lives, who dies, who tells your story? Did people from the continent of Africa arrive in the Americas before Columbus? Who are the other revolutionaries from Mexico’s past and present with African ancestry? How can we share the power of storytelling with everyone, so that our street names, national heroes and cultural stories reflect and celebrate diverse peoples?


What do you think? African roots? Or purely Meso-American?

What do you think? African roots? Or purely Meso-American?

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