AfroMexicans

Sobre ser afro-mexicano, Casa Coyolillo y el teatro con Enrique Mendez by Michelle Nicola

¡Hola a todos!

Ya que estamos en pleno verano tengo por fin algo de tiempo para dedicar a repasar todos los recursos que acumulé en México. Aquí les dejo con unas entrevistas que grabé con Enrique Garcia Mendez sobre ser afro-mexicano, su trabajo en Casa Coyolillo y cómo usa el teatro como herramienta de difusión de la historia.

Desgraciadamente, mi conocimiento de grabación, el sonido, editar y publicar un video es bastante limitado y les pido paciencia a la hora de ver los videos- está claro que mi destino no va a ser un Oscar por cinematografía. Eso dicho, Enrique dice muchas cosas que nos pensar, y espero que disfruten de aprender de su mirada ante esos temas.

How I'm Bringing What I Learned Home by Michelle Nicola

It’s been a busy few months since I’ve returned home.

I’ve started a new job teaching Spanish and instructional coaching at a new school, finished my Summative Report and Inquiry Project (a requirement for all Fulbright Distinguished Teacher Awardees), re-joined my Climate Justice Team colleagues to help strategize about how to teach our students to be climate change activists, re-wrote component 3 of my National Boards submission (because I found out in December that I didn’t pass by two points, smh!), re-joined my district’s world language leadership team to align curriculum district-wide . . . and started writing a novel?????

That last bit has five questions marks because a) I like odd numbers and b) I want to express my trepidation at taking on such a daunting task. I love writing. I love telling stories. My 7 year-old-self once aspired to be a writer, and my 12 year-old-self used to jam up the phone line for hours on end as she and her friend Amanda wrote what might have been an epic romance novel if we had not spent all our time debating the names of our characters. Committing myself to the project of writing about my Afro-Mexican’s friends’ stories, in a novel, for Spanish language learners, and proclaiming my commitment ON THE INTERNET no less . . . that makes me nervous.

I might fail.

I might not. I might write something useful, maybe even beautiful.

There’s a part of me that wants to not blog anything until I’ve written the book, found a publisher and have a fancy cover that I can snap a photo of for the blog post. But there’s another part of me that wants to document this process because if I get it right, then maybe other language teachers who want to write books can use it as a guide. And if I get it wrong, then it can still be a guide, just more of a “All the Things Not to Do" type of guide. Either way!

What’s clear to me is that writing a mini-novel a la TPRS mini-novels, is the best way to get this information in my novice-level students’ hands. I teach Esperanza by Carol Gaab every year, and my students learn so much about Guatemalan history and culture. We talk about immigration and this year I’m teaching them about the meaning behind the symbols stitched into indigenous clothing that I bought while in Guatemala. My dear friend Rita just published her first novel, Libertad, about her friend Dionisio’s journey from Cuba to the US. Rita told me that when she wrote her novel, she wrote a chapter, gave it to her students, they gave her feedback, and then she’d write another chapter. So . . . read on to the next blog post to see how I followed that lead.

Black is Beautiful by Michelle Nicola

I taught parts of Kara Hinderlie’s Black is Beautiful lesson in Coyolillo, and again in two towns outside of Pinotepa Nacional, Oaxaca: the town of José María Morelos and the town of Lagunillas.

It took a lot of preparation to get all of the materials I needed to teach this lesson, and I am so grateful to two of the best librarians in the world, my friends Ross Betzer and Emily-Jane Dawson. Thanks to their efforts, I was able to use a YouTube video of students in Seattle reading Ann McGovern’s book, Black is Beautiful, and borrow a digital copy of My People, Langston Hughes’ poem coupled with stellar photography. 

Both books are in English, and I knew students would need my help understanding the words, so I typed up a translation of each and had copies on hand, just in case. What I really wanted students to focus on were the images, so if they didn’t get all the words, I was ok with that.  

To start the lesson, I asked students to think of all the things they could think of when they thought about the color black. As students called out answers, another student wrote the answers on the board. In Coyolillo the list was primarily objects- clothes, phones, pens, until at one point Jesús called out, “People!” and the class laughed. “Jesús is right,” I said, “people can be Black too.” In both Morelos and Lagunillas, students readily shared that people are Black, and there was no laughter in the comment.

We looked at the list. What did they notice? Were these things beautiful? 

In Coyolillo and Morelos, I used my laptop and a projector to show McGovern’s book. As we looked at each image, I asked students, “What do you notice? What colors do you see? Are there fancy things or everyday things in the photos?” 

“Why did Señora McGovern write this book?”

”Because she likes the color black?” came a response.  

“It’s possible. Any other ideas? What is she trying to get us to think about?” 

”That Black is beautiful?”  

“Great, yes, but why is that an important message?” 

”Maybe some people don’t think it’s beautiful?” came a tentative reply. 

Next, I introduced them to Langston Hughes. I told them about how at one point in time, in lots of places in the States, Black people and white people couldn’t eat in the same restaurants, couldn’t use the same bathrooms, couldn’t marry each other. As I spoke, I noticed students’ eyes growing wide and the room growing quiet. 

“The thing about oppression,” I said, “is that it doesn’t fit with who we are. We were born to be free. And when we are not free, we will fight until we get back to our natural state of freedom.” I talked about the civil rights era, and how everyone used their talents to fight for freedom. Langston Hughes’ talent was his poetry. He wanted everyone to see his people as beautiful. 

Before we read My People, I asked students if they knew what a metaphor was. Most didn’t, so I gave them an example. I then asked them to turn to their partner and try giving their partner an example. 

We read My People the first time for meaning. I helped students translate words they couldn’t get collectively. The second time, I asked them to look at the images. Why that image? What does it say? The third time, we found the metaphor.  

Next, we tried to write a few verses as a class about the town where the students lived. Breaking down how to teach metaphor has always been hard for me, but by the time I taught the lesson in Langunillas, I had something that worked. I ask students, “How would you describe the people in your town?” Then, we wrote all the adjectives they shouted out up on the board. From there, I said, “OK, so people in your town are happy. What plants, animals, objects represent happy?” Students made a list, and from there we used Hughes’ poem as a sentence frame to write our own verses. With more time, I would have them break out of the sentence frame and into their own creativity, but I used the time and the resources I had on hand.

The final piece of Hinderlie’s lesson that I taught had to do with hair. In Hinderlie’s lesson, she uses the book Hair Dance by Dinah Johnson; for my lesson I thought of Sandra Cisneros’ book The House on Mango Street. There’s a chapter in the book where the main character Esperanza describes each person in her family based on their hair. A quick Google search provided me with a pdf of the Spanish version. 

I asked a few students to read the text out loud. Then, I drew 5 smiling, bald faces on the board. I invited students to come up as artists and draw each family member as I read each one. So much laughter! I asked, “What do we know about each person’s personality, just based on a description of their hair? Does Esperanza love her mother? How do you know?” 

Next, students drew their own families. I asked them to write words that described the hair for each member. What did it look like? What did it smell like? How could their hair be a metaphor for their personality?

Students worked together on their family portraits. The energy in the room was jovial, despite this being my last lesson with them. I asked students to share their portraits with a small group, and then, just like that, my time was finished teaching in Coyolillo. We didn’t get to the final part of Hinderlie’s lesson, in which students choose a Black historical figure to write about. And it’s really, really hard to know the impact this lesson had on students. Did it change their perspective? Did it reinforce a sense of pride they already possessed? Did it plant a seed for future insight?  

My next steps with this lesson will be to adapt it for students who are learning Spanish. I will be posting on that at some point! 

My homebase was Xalapa, in the state of Veracruz. I taught in Coyolillo 2-3 times per week.

My homebase was Xalapa, in the state of Veracruz. I taught in Coyolillo 2-3 times per week.

I visited two towns in Oaxaca (Lagunillas and Morelos) toward the end of my Fulbright where I taught the Black is Beautiful lesson.

I visited two towns in Oaxaca (Lagunillas and Morelos) toward the end of my Fulbright where I taught the Black is Beautiful lesson.

Here are a few of the “Pelos” family portraits by the students in Coyolillo.

De dónde soy by Michelle Nicola

As I thought about creating curriculum that focused on Afro-Mexican stories, I realized that I didn’t want to tell the students where they are from- how ridiculous would that be?! I wanted my students to tell me about their heritage. What makes Coyolillo, Coyolillo? What are they proud of and where does their identity as a town of Afro-Mestizos show up? 

I immediately thought of Linda Christensen’s Where I’m From lesson. Christensen uses George Ella Lyon’s ‘Where I’m From’ poem as a mentor text, a text that students can look to for guidance on writing their own poems and gather inspiration. I’d taught this lesson to Spanish learners in the past, but always had to either a) use a poem written in English as a mentor text or b) write my own poem in Spanish for students to follow. Both of these choices have drawbacks. In the first, students aren’t getting the Spanish language input they need to produce the language output. And in the second option, it’s not an authentic (written by Spanish-speakers for Spanish-speakers) resource. In my classroom, ideal mento texts are poems, stories and essays written by other students because it’s easier to envision yourself achieving something your peer has also done. I was hopeful that I could use this lesson to guide the students in Coyolillo in writing mentor texts for students in Portland. It was also an opportunity for student in Coyolillo to tell me about themselves and what it means to them to come from a town that’s “Afro-mestizo.”

First, I needed a mentor text for the students in Coyolillo. I decided to go with Option B and write a mentor poem for them for the simple reason that their English was not advanced enough to choose Option A.  

I passed out copies of my poem to my students. We read the poem aloud read-a-round style, meaning each student read one line until we finished the poem. I asked students to use a highlighter to highlight their favorite lines, which they shared with a partner and a few with the class. I accidentally forgot to put my name on the poem, but I used this as a way to get students to delve into its meaning.

“What do we know about the person who wrote this poem?” I asked. 

“That she comes from a cold place!” someone shouted out. 

”How do we know that?” I asked. 

”Because of the line about the blankets,” came the response.  

“Great! What else?”  

“That she’s got a family.” 

”Tell me about that- who is in her family?” 

I asked them questions for as long as it seemed they had answers and then I finally asked, “So who wrote this poem? 

”You!!!!” came the chorus of replies.  

“So how do you think a person writes a poem like this?” I asked. 

They looked at me blankly until one student ventured, “By writing it???”  

“Yes of course, but I want to teach you a technique that poets sometimes use to get started. Notice here how I mention things that are in my house? What other things do I mention?” 

The students noticed the places, the foods, names of people, things in my neighborhood and things in my yard. I wrote these topics on a piece of poster paper as headers for lists.  

“Ok,” I said. “I want you to copy down these headers. We are going to make a list of things for each one of these categories. Try to write as many things as you can think of, the more the better.” Because I have taught this poem to middle school students in the past, I knew to add, “Don’t just write TV in the list of Things In My House. Try to choose things that are really unique to your house. And if the TV is a central item, then tell me what’s always on. Is it soccer? Soap operas? The news?”  

Students got started working on their lists and I wandered the room, helping where necessary.  At that point, class was over, and unfortunately we wouldn’t get back to this poem until two weeks later. 

When we did get back to the poem, I asked students to look at my poem and figure out how I went from lists to a poem. I wrote what students said on the board, and let them spend the rest of the time crafting their poems. 

As I walked around the room, I noticed a lot of lines that said, Soy de carnaval- I am from Carnival. I challenged students to write a few more lines describing carnival with their five senses. What do you see? I asked. Smell? Taste? Feel/touch? Hear? A few students provided more detail after that description, but for the majority it was something I needed more time to work with them on. 

After students finished a draft of their poem, I read each one and provided feedback: “I can really see the church based on these lines,” or “I can tell how much you love Coyolillo by the way you talk about its food- delicious!” were the types of comments I wrote. Because this was our first assignment together, I decided to focus on what worked in each student’s poem. That said, I started creating a list of common areas to work on for our next assignment, such as descriptive language, metaphor and exploding a detail. Many students “borrowed,” lines from my poem, and I was OK with that. We learn new things by first mimicking others. With time and practice, our own creativity starts to grow out of those first seeds that were planted by someone else. World Language standards allow for this - novice students “use memorized words and phrases,” while intermediate students start to “create their own sentences.”

I’m including videos of a few of the middle school students reading their poems. The sound quality is unfortunately not where I would like it to be. My Fulbright experience was one of compact personal growth - of learning my strengths and uncovering some growth areas (like filming and video editing!) Please be kind and patient as I learn and grow! :)

Entrevista con Dra. Elisa Velázquez/Interview with Dr. Elisa Velázquez by Michelle Nicola

(English Version Below)

El XIX Encuentro de Pueblos Negros tomó lugar el 9 y 10 de noviembre de 2018 en El Nacimiento (Múzquiz), Coahuila. Durante dos días aprendemos de los activistas, acádemicos y artistas aliados a la causa de los pueblos negros de México. Abajo les escribo una compilación de los apuntes que tomé de la ponencia de la Dra. Elisa Velázquez, además de la entrevista que grabamos con ella.

Dra. Veláquez empezó su ponencia explicándonos las raíces de los encuentros. Los Encuentros de los Pueblos Negros en México empezaron en 1997 gracias a los esfuerzos del Padre Gyn Jemmott, entre otras personas. Tenían como pregunta central ¿Qué problemáticas tienen los pueblos negros? De ahí, muchas comunidades de la Costa Chica comenzaron a hacer conferencias.

Después, la doctora nos platicó un poco sobre el libro del Dr. Aguirre Beltrán quién escribió en 1946 un libro llamado La población negra de México. Destaca que en realidad los Afro-mexicanos no fueron la “tercera raíz” porque en muchas regiones durante muchos tiempos habían comunidades en las que el numero de afro-mexicanos superó el numero de blancos. De hecho, casi no había ciudad o región en México en la que no había una población de africanos importante. Ellos trabajaban en la minería, la caña de azúcar, y en el caso de los Mascogos y la gente de Veracruz, la ganadería.

Podremos decir que existen tres comunidades importantes de afro-mexicanos: los Negros Mascogos en Coahuila, la gente de Veracruz, y la gente de las Costa Chicas de Guerrero y Oaxaca. El hecho de unir esos tres pueblos en el XIX es un hecho histórico que se ha logrado después de 20 años de trabajo. Además de eso, se ha hecho una encuesta del INAH sobre la población afrodescendientes de México y se ve que son más o menos 1.4 miliones de personas que se auto-reconocen como descendiente de un pueblo de África. Ese reconocimiento numérico es un paso clave en resolver las problemáticas que padecen las comunidades afrodescendientes porque se puede empezar a sumarlas y ver tendencias y exigir que el gobierno proporcione herramientas y recursos para resolverlas. Hasta ahora son cuatro estados que han dado reconocimiento al nivel del estado a los pueblos negros: Oaxaca, Guerrero, Veracruz (más o menos) y Coahuila. Ese visibilización es fundamental para el respaldo de esas comunidades.

Según Dra. Velázquez, la primera violación fue el silencio y con él, el desconocimiento de su propia historia, y por eso la meta tiene que ser la visibilización. Y entonces, ¿cuándo desapareció la memoria negra? Por una parte, se puede mirar la época colonial cuando no se prohibía el matrimonio entre las razas (mientras en los Estados-Unidos esto fue prohibido hasta los años 60, casi 70), y asimismo existían prejuicios de mejorar la raza y también la opción de procrear con una persona indígena para que los hijos entrara al mundo por “vientre libre.”

Después, en el siglo XVIII, se ponía en voga las ideas de la raza, que fue algo “cientificamente” comprobado, y aunque hoy sabemos que es totalmente mentira, las consecuencias de esas ideas eran profundas. Ya para el siglo XIX, se inventó en México un país mestizo, un país en el que todos eran descendientes de los españoles y las indígenas . . . olvidando por completo las muchas otras culturas que formaban parte de que era “México.”

Mientras la escuchaba, empecé a entender de manera urgente la necesidad de hacer la pregunta sobre la afro-descendencia en el censo de México, y en preparación sensibilizar la gente para que comprenden y contesten bien esa pregunta. Según dicen, todavía hay muchos mexicanos que desconocen la presencia de sus compatriotas afro-descendientes o tampoco reconocen la presencia de esa raíz en ellos mismos. Las palabras que usan en el censo, cómo hace el escuestadora la pregunta, la discriminación que hace que algunos se ofenden con la misma pregunta . . . todos son problemas urgentes que hay que resolver para tener una medida la más cerca a la verdad posible en el censo de 2020.

Para que el gobierno tome decisiones públicas, se necesita conocer su gente. Se necesita saber quienes son, dónde están y cuales son las rutas históricas, políticas, económicas, sociales y espirituales que han tomado hasta ahora. Se necesita conocer sus problemáticas y también sus sueños.

Para terminar, Dra. Velázquez nos dijo que es lo que se podía hacer cuando se logre la legislación, y el reconocimiento constitucional: se puede poner museos para que todos conozcan su pasado y estén orgullosos de ello, se puede ponder programas para mejorar la economía, se puede poner más vias para las personas de color hacia carreras políticas y del profesor, se puede dar pasos hacia una sociedad más igalitaria porque una sociedad que no conoce su diversidad no puede ser igalitaria. Esa legislación puede servir para que haya más maestros trabajando en como enseñar esa historia, para que cambien los programas de estudios, para que hayan más talleres y más investigaciones fundado de un gobierno que realmente quiere conocer a sus gente.

Qué sea así, pensé, qué sea así.


The XIX Encounter of Black Peoples took place on November 9 and 10, 2018 in El Nacimiento (Múzquiz), Coahuila. For two days we learn from the activists, academics and artists allied to the cause of Black peoples in Mexico. Below is a compilation of the notes I took from the presentation of Dr. Elisa Velázquez, in addition to the above interview we recorded with her.

Dr. Veláquez began her presentation by explaining the roots of the Encuentros. The Encounter of the Black Peoples in Mexico began in 1997 thanks to the efforts of Father Gyn Jemmott, among others. They had a central question: What problems do Black Mexicans have? After the initial Encuentro, many communities of the Costa Chica began to hold their own conferences.

Later, Dr. Velázquez talked a bit about Dr. Aguirre Beltrán’s book, called The Black Population of Mexico (1946). She emphasized that in reality Afro-Mexicans were not the "third root" because in many regions and during many times there were communities in which the number of Afro-Mexicans exceeded the number of whites. In fact, there was almost no city or region in Mexico where there was not a significant population of Africans. They worked in mining, sugar cane, and in the case of the Mascogos and the people of Veracruz, livestock.

There are three main communities of Afro-Mexicans: the Negros Mascogos in Coahuila, the people of Veracruz, and the people of the Costa Chicas of Guerrero and Oaxaca. The fact that these three main branches of Afro-Mexicans united at the XIX Encuentro, is a historical moment, and the one of the fruits of 20 years of labor. In addition to bringing together diverse groups of Afro-Mexicans, the work of the last 20 years has resulted in an INAH survey conducted on the Afro-descendant population of Mexico. Thanks to this survey, we know that there are AT LEAST 1.4 million people who self-recognize as a descendant of an African people. This numerical recognition is a key step in solving the problems afflicting Afro-descendant communities. With this recognition, activist and allies can begin to look for trends in problems affecting the Afro-Mexican communities, and demand that the government provide tools and resources to solve them. So far there are four states that have given recognition at the state level to the black peoples: Oaxaca, Guerrero, Veracruz (more or less) and Coahuila. This visibility is fundamental to the support of these communities.

According to Dr. Velázquez, the first violation against the Afro-Mexican people was silence. Along with silence came the ignorance of ones own history, and for that reason a main goal of the people fighting for this cause is the visibilization of the Afro-Mexican people. So when did the collective memory of Black peoples disappear? On the one hand, we can look at the colonial era when marriage between races was not prohibited (in the United States inter-racial marriage was prohibited until the 60s, almost 70). There were also prejudices about the superiority of whiteness, and many people sought freedom through the practice of “veintre libre” (free womb). Africans who were enslaved would procreate with indigenous peoples, thereby gaining freedom for their children.

Then, in the eighteenth century, ideas about race- something “scientifically proven” came into vogue, and although today we know that these ideas are totally false, the consequences of them were profound. Already by the 19th century, Mexico had invented a mestizo race for itself, a land in which all were descendants of Spaniards and indigenous peoples. . . completely forgetting the many other cultures that were part of the nation of Mexico.

While listening to her, I began to urgently understand the need to include the question about Afro-descendants in the Mexican census, and in preparation to sensitize people so that they understand and answer that question as is true for them. Many people talked about how there are still many Mexicans who do not know the presence of their Afro-descendant compatriots or recognize the presence of that root in themselves. The words they use in the census, how the census-taker asks the question, the discrimination that exists in Mexico makes it so some people are offended by even being asked the question . . . all are urgent problems that must be resolved to have a census measure as close to the truth as possible in 2020.

In order for the government to make public decisions, it is necessary that the government know its people. The government needs to know who they are, where they are and what are the historical, political, economic, social and spiritual routes they have taken so far. The government need to know its peoples’ problems and also their dreams.

Finally, Dr. Velázquez talked to us about what could be done when the legislation and constitutional recognition for Afro-mexicans are achieved: museums can be put in place so that everyone knows their past and is proud of it, programs can be put in place to improve the economy, there can be more ways for people of color to access political careers . . . we can take steps towards a more egalitarian society because a society that does not know its diversity can not be egalitarian. The legislation can be used to have more teachers working on how to teach Afro-Mexican history, to change the curriculum, to have more workshops and more research funded by a government that really wants to know its people.

Let it be, let it be.

It’s the journey. by Michelle Nicola

IMG_6840.JPG

As a person who derives more than a degree of self-worth from getting things done, I always feel a slight internal eye roll when people remind me that it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters.

Uh-huh, I think, as I check another thing off my to-do list.  

And yet, my recent trip to the Mexican State of Coahuila served as a daily reminder that, while arriving at the event is definitely important, the journey, the struggle and tension of experiencing doubt and finding purpose, that matters too.  

It all started back in September when my friend Daniela told me about the XIX Encuentro de Pueblos Negros. Daniela and her team at Casa Coyolillo wanted to attend the Encuentro in order to represent their town and its heritage and to gain insights as to how other Afro-Mexican towns are advancing the cause of their people. One month later, I started a GoFundMe to help make this dream possible. In a little over a week, thanks to the many incredible and generous donations from friends and family, we had enough money to take four leaders from Casa Coyolillo on the journey to El Nacimiento, Coahuila. For two members of Casa Coyolillo, this would be the first time flying, and for all of us it would be a journey of self-discovery.

Me, Gaby and Karen before leaving Xalapa. Félix and Kelly came to send us off!

Me, Gaby and Karen before leaving Xalapa. Félix and Kelly came to send us off!

Boarding the plane!

Boarding the plane!

The story of the Mascogo people is a story of crossing borders and cultures, of resistance and freedom.

My first moment of self discovery came when arranging the travel- I won’t go too much into the details, but let’s just say that it’s a good thing I’m a teacher and not a travel agent, unless of course, you like journeys that take the long, complicated routes, and require you to pay a little bit more money. If that’s your travel style, hit me up- I can make that happen for you. ;)

Four bus rides and one flight later, we arrived in the town of Múzquiz in the state of Coahuila. My friends went to check out some of the festivities and I went to bed (at that point my need for sleep was greater than any FOMO). The next day we were up by 6 am to catch the 7 am yellow school bus that would take us to El Nacimiento, the town of the Negros Mascogos. 

The story of the Mascogo people is a story of crossing borders and cultures, of resistance and freedom. The inhabitants of El Nacimiento are descendants of enslaved peoples who escaped slavery in the United States and settled in Mexico, where slavery had been abolished in law thanks to the proclamations of Father Miguels Hidalgo y José María Morelos since 1810. In practice, however, the abolishment of slavery took a few more decades and shifted depending on who was winning the border wars fought by Great Britain, France and Spain in the Americas. The relationship between Texas (a slave state) and Coahuila (a Mexican state in a country that had abolished slavery) also affected the realities of freedom. All that said, at this point in history slaves, Native Americans and abolitionists all looked toward Mexico as the land of freedom.

Historians debate the origins of the term “mascogos,” but it seems to come from the union of two groups: the Seminole Indians, and enslaved Africans. Both groups lived throughout the areas no known as Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia, and the relationship between these two groups started towards the end of the XVII century. Many people know that enslaved Africans in the United States escaped to the North to gain their freedom, but I’m not sure how many of us knew that the south, especially the state of Florida, was another route to freedom. For a time, Spain controlled Florida, and attempted to maintain its control over the territory by accepting escaped slaves as free people, on the conditions that they convert to Catholicism and fight for the Spanish crown. By 1821, Spain had lost its claim to Florida for good, but the cultural and commercial exchanges that the Seminole and Black peoples was established.

Several wars and broken treaties later, the Seminoles, Black Mascogos and Kickapoo peoples decided to travel south and seek refuge in Mexico. In October 1850, the Mexican government recognized them as Mexican.

There is so much more to this story. So many more stories to read, listen to and consider. Much of the information I wrote above I obtained from the book Negros Mascogos: Una odisea al Nacimiento by Claudia Cristina Martínez García and Carlos Manuel Valdés Dávila.

My friends from Casa Coyolillo and I spent the next two days listening to stories like these - stories about doña Gertrudis, matriarch of El Nacimiento who songs are a mix of Spanish words and slave spirituals, of the fight to include Afro-Mexican on the 2020 census and of Francia Marquéz’s bold leadership in Colombia. We sang, danced and delighted in watching Afro-Mexican performers from the state of Guerrero dance “La danza de los diablitos” (The dance of the little devils). We ate the most amazing home cooked meals of beans, potatoes, tortillas, soup- all prepared over an open fire.

On the 3 buses (and 8 hour journey) back to Saltillo, Coahuila, the five of us were abuzz with questions. What are we going to do to prepare the people in Coyolillo for the census? What does it mean to be Black in Mexico? What is the difference between reclaiming a cultural tradition and a cultural memory? What does “progress” and “development” mean, and who does it benefit?

These questions don’t have easy answers, and in fact, the 8 hours of travel time wasn’t enough. That night, the five of us, along with two more friends who we met at the conference, Roberto and Pablo, stayed up until 1 am in the hotel restaurant, feeling out what we had learned. Daniela talked about the short film we had watched about doña Gertrudis. At the start of the film, doña Gertrudis introduces herself by saying, “Soy negra y fea pero tengo claridad.” (I am Black and ugly, but clear/frank/open-minded.) Daniela asked us, “Why? Why does she have to say she’s ugly? Why do we have to learn we are ugly, only to unlearn it?” Her words hit my heart. Why, indeed?

I’m back in Xalapa now, and it’s been a week since all of this happened. My notebook is filled with notes to review, my pockets filled with business cards, and the list of articles to read continues to grow. This is not something I’m going to be able to cross off my to-do list anytime soon. This is a journey that I was lucky enough to take with mis hermanos y hermanas from Casa Coyolillo. This is a journey that, in reality, has just begun- there are still so many fascinating stories to learn, so much work to be done to promote justice and self-love. And so, the journey continues . . . .

Two young women in traditional Mascogo dress.

Two young women in traditional Mascogo dress.

Veracruz represents!

Veracruz represents!

Karen, Daniela, doña Cruz Gaby & Enrique pose with dancers from Coyolillo and Guerrero.

Karen, Daniela, doña Cruz Gaby & Enrique pose with dancers from Coyolillo and Guerrero.

Casa Coyolillo, The Cultural Center that Opened its Doors to Me. by Michelle Nicola

For the past month or so I’ve been working in a small town outside of Xalapa called Coyolillo. I have many half-started blog posts about what I am doing there, the town’s history, etc. Given our recent success in fulfilling the GoFundMe campaign for the leaders of Casa Coyolillo, I thought I’d open the door to this town’s stories in the same way it was opened for me, by introducing you to a phenomenal woman named Daniela López Carreto, and telling you about the amazing work she and her friends have been doing.

versión español abajo.

Daniela with her grandmother, Doña Ufi

Daniela with her grandmother, Doña Ufi


As soon as I arrived in  Xalapa, people started talking to me about Coyolillo.
“You’re going to do a study on Afro-Mexicans? Oh, you have to go to Coyolillo!” they’d say.

More than one person told me about a college student from Coyolillo who was very active in raising awareness around Afro-Mexican history.  “You have to meet Daniela López Carreto,” they told me.

I asked for an appointment with her, so she could tell me about her town and her work there. We met at a restaurant called Plazoleta and Daniela started talking to me. For her, it all started about three years ago, with a community project that she had to do to maintain a scholarship at the university. She thought about her town, and Casa Coyolillo. At that time, the people who started Casa Coyolillo were about to leave. Enter Daniela and her friends, the “new generation” for Casa Coyolillo.

Daniela told me that in order to awaken the interest of the people, she started by showing a series of video documentaries about the history of their town and the Afro presence there.

“At first only the children were interested,” Daniela said to me, placing her elbows on the table and taking a sip of hibiscus juice. “But from there it began to interest more people, and the idea of doing something for Carnival came about.  In Coyolillo, Carnaval is a big deal, and people from all over come for it.”

Daniela decided she wanted to start an African dance group. For the first month or so, they didn’t have a teacher, so Daniela would watch YouTube videos and teach the kids what she learned.  For the past year, however, la maestra Gaby has taken over, and the group performs at festivals in nearby towns as well as their own Carnival. They’ve learned different rhythms, such as: kassa, synth, macuru, and Djole. When I participated in one of their classes, I noticed that maestra Gaby’s students are also learning things like how to name and recognize their emotions, how to build community, and geography and history.  This last September, Casa Coyolillo invited a drum instructor to join them, and they are beginning to play percussions, in order to have their own music in the future.
The creativity and activism of the new generation of Casa Coyolillo did not stop there. With very little money, they have already accomplished so much.

They have their mission:
We are an autonomous collective, dedicated to promote non-profit and multidisciplinary alternative activities in Coyolillo, Veracruz, which contribute to solving socio-cultural problems and encourage participation, integration and exchange of knowledge of different age groups, in a responsible and empathic manner.

Maestra Gaby with her students

Maestra Gaby with her students

And their vision:
To be a collective recognized at the regional level for creating initiatives of community interest, that strengthen the collective identity of African descent. To gain the recognition and defense of our rights, as well as to contribute to the formation of new, more conscious, autonomous and dignified generations; with greater capacities for organizing and solving community problems.

Casa Coyolillo has many projects that are in the making, such as a town mural depicting the town’s history, collecting oral testimonies, historical research projects, school presentations, and theater classes that promote justice and anti-racism.

I was speechless with everything my new friend is doing.

When I picked up my mouth from the floor, I asked a question that was bothering me.
“Daniela, how do the people of Coyolillo recognize themselves? I mean, I've talked with some people who told me that in Coyolillo people do not self-identify as Afro-descendants, that they're going to say 'we're brown and dark brown' but is it true?”

Daniela paused before she answered. “No, I do not think it's true. Maybe more in the past, but things are changing, and at Casa Coyolillo we are strengthening the identity, self-esteem, security and pride of being afro-descendant. . . we have to raise our voices to be heard.”

Another question that worried me:
“How can I help? I want to work with you, and I want to create teaching materials for my students in the United States, but this has to be a win-win relationship. What can I offer?”

Daniela giving a presentation at the local middle school.

Daniela giving a presentation at the local middle school.

And then Daniela told me that Coyolillo, as a historically documented Afro-Mexican town is a place of great interest to researchers.  “Many researchers come to Coyolillo, take their photos, do their interviews and leave- and the town is left with the same problems, we’ve always had,” she said to me, shrugging.  “Marcus Jones (a professor from the US), was different though. He gave a copy of the book he wrote to all the people who came out in it. And that’s really all we ask. Share your work with us, so that we can grow too.  Share the photos so that we can use them to create our own museum some day,” Daniela said.

Once again I was speechless, but this time it was because I wondered how someone could ethically go to a town to “study them,” without entering into relationship with the people there, without giving back.

Daniela looked at me and said, “Michelle, look, the only thing I ask is that whatever you do, that you share it with us so that we can use it for our own research. We want to put a museum someday, and all that work that people do will help us. But if after no one receives an invitation to photography, research or demonstrations, what happens? There are many things written about my people that I found by chance - it should not be like that.”

So that’s what we’ve done. On a few occasions I have been the unofficial photographer of events, in others the guest yoga teacher. So far our biggest accomplishment has been the GoFundMe campaign.  Thanks to the incredible support of my friends and family in the United States, we have raised enough money to send 4 young leaders from Casa Coyolillo to the 19th Conference of Afro-descendants in the north of Mexico.  

On each occasion that I have given something, I feel that I have received a thousand times more, which makes me feel humble and grateful. In just two hours of us meeting, Daniela opened the doors to her house and her town and I hope it is a friendship of support and love for many, but many years.

Versión española

Nada más llegué a Xalapa y la gente me habló de Coyolillo. -¿Vas a hacer un estudio sobre los afro-mexicanos? Ah, tienes que irte a CoyolilloTambién, más de una persona me habló de una estudiante universitaria de Coyolillo que era muy activa en su pueblo y en el tema de levantar la conciencia de la historia de los afro-mexicanos.

-Tienes que conocer a Daniela López Carreto, me dijeron.

Entonces, pedí una cita con ella, para que me platicara de su pueblo y su trabajo allá.  Quedamos en un restaurante que se llama la Plazoleta y Daniela me empezó a platicar. Para ella, todo empezó con un proyecto comunitario que tenía que hacer para mantener una beca en la universidad. Pensó en su pueblo, y en Casa Coyolillo.  En aquel momento, los que fundaron la casa estaban ya a punto de irse, y entonces llegaron lo que se puede considerar la nueva generación, Daniela y sus amigos.

Daniela me contó cómo ella inició su intervención comunitaria en Coyolillo hace ya tres años. Para despertar el interés de las personas primero se proyectaron una serie de video documentales sobre la historia de su pueblo y la presencia Afro ahí. Dijo que al principio solamente se interesaban los niños, pero de ahí se empezó a interesar más gente.  Salió la idea de hacer algo para Carnaval, entonces Daniela pensó en formar un grupo de danza africana. Actualmente llevan un año aprendiendo la danza africana con la maestra Gaby y se presentan en los festivales de los pueblos cercanos además de su propio Carnaval.  Los ritmos aprendidos son: kassa, sinte, macuru, Djole y están iniciando a tocar percusiones, para en un futuro tener su propia música.

La creatividad y el activismo de la nueva generación de Casa Coyolillo no paró ahí.  Tienen su misión:

Somos un colectivo autónomo, dedicado a promover sin fines de lucro y de manera multidisciplinaria actividades alternativas en Coyolillo, Veracruz, que contribuyen a resolver problemáticas socioculturales y fomentan la participación, la integración e intercambio de saberes de los diferentes grupos de edad, de manera responsable y empática.

Los estudiantes terminan sus clases en círculo.

Los estudiantes terminan sus clases en círculo.

Y su visión: Ser un colectivo reconocido a nivel regional por crear iniciativas de interés comunitario, que fortalecen la identidad colectiva afrodescendiente para el reconocimiento y defensa de sus derechos sin intereses particulares, así como para contribuir en la formación de nuevas generaciones más conscientes, autónomas y dignas; con mayores capacidades de organización y solución de problemáticas comunitarias.

Y muchos proyectos que están haciendo y por hacer, como murales, el proyecto de la historia oral para que pasen de ser un pueblo investigado por muchos a un pueblo que se investigue y se conozca a si mismo, los talleres en las escuelas y también hay la clase de teatro que está creando una obra de títeres en contra de la mina que quieren poner en un pueblo cerca.

Me quedé boquiabierta con todo lo que mi nueva amiga está haciendo. Cuando recogí mi boca del suelo, le hice una pregunta que me estaba inquietando.

-Daniela, ¿cómo se reconocen la gente de Coyolillo?  ¿O sea, yo he platicado con algunas personas que me dijeron que en Coyolillo la gente no se autoreconcen como afrodescendientes, que me van a decir ‘somos morenos y más morenos’ pero es verdad?

-No, no creo que sea verdad. Quizás más en el pasado, pero las cosas van cambiando, y en Casa Coyolillo estamos fortaleciendo la identidad, autoestima, seguridad y orgullo de ser afrodescendiente . . . hay que levantar la voz para que nos escuchen.

Otra pregunta que me preocupaba:

-Dany, ¿cómo puedo ayudar?  Quiero trabajar con ustedes, y quiero crear material didáctico para mis estudiantes de los Estados-Unidos, pero esto tiene que ser una relación de ganar-ganar. ¿Qué les puedo ofrecer?

Y entonces Daniela me contó que si, efectivamente, como son un pueblo de interés por tener esa herencia africana, muchos investigadores vienen a su pueblo, sacan sus fotos, hacen sus entrevistas y se van, y el pueblo se queda con los mismos problemas de siempre.  Han habido como dos investigadores, uno en particular que la gente de Coyolillo todavía me habla, el maestro Marcus D. Jones de los EUA, quién entregó una copia del libro que escribió a toda la gente que salió en él.

Otra vez estaba yo boquiabierta, pero esta vez por pensar que la gente puede padecer de la ética básica, de decir, bueno si yo tomo, también tengo que dar.

Daniela me miró y me dijo- Michelle, pues mira, lo único que te pido es que cualquier cosa que hagas, que nos lo compartas para que podamos usarlo para nuestras propias investigaciones. Queremos algún día poner un museo, y todo ese trabajo que hace la gente nos servirá. ¿Pero si después nadie recibe una invitación a las exposición de fotografía, investigaciones o demostraciones, qué pasa?  Hay muchas cosas escritas sobre mi pueblo que me las encontré por casualidad - no debe ser así.

Entonces quedamos en eso.  En unas ocasiones he sido la fotógrafa no oficial de eventos, en otras la maestra invitada de yoga, y está por ver qué más.  En cada ocasión que he dado algo, siento que he recibido mil veces más, lo cual me hace sentir humilde y agradecida. En nada más dos horas de conocernos, Daniela me abrió las puertas a su casa y a su pueblo y espero que sea una amistad de apoyo y amor por muchos, pero muchos años.



Después de bailar en el festival de Actopán.

Después de bailar en el festival de Actopán.

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.