Mexico ‘discovers’ 1.4 million black Mexicans—they just had to ask

For the first time in its history, Mexico’s census bureau has recognized the country’s black population in a national survey that found there are approximately 1.4 million citizens (1.2% of the population) who self-identify as “Afro-Mexican” or “Afro-descendant.”

The survey found that more women identify as black than men, by about 705,000 to 677,000. It also found that most Afro-Mexicans live in the states of Guerrero, Oaxaca and Veracruz, which is not entirely unsurprising given Mexico’s history.

Miguel Cervera, director general of sociodemographic statistics for the country’s census bureau (known as INEGI), told Fusion the 2015 survey is a preliminary effort to register demographic changes in preparation for the 2020 national census. He says Afro-Mexicans have always been included in past surveys, but were never given the option to identify themselves as such.

But times are changing, and thinking has evolved since Mexico conducted its last national census in 2010. Government agencies and civil rights groups have pressed for the inclusion of Afro-Mexicans in official stats, leading the census bureau to add the following question in their 2015 survey:

Based on your culture, history and traditions, do you consider yourself black, meaning Afro-Mexican or Afro-descendant?

- Mexico's 2015 intercensal survey

The inclusion of that question was initially considered a delicate matter. Cervera said that using the word negro (black) on the questionnaires was viewed by some as a touchy issue, since many researchers considered it a pejorative term. But that turned out to be mostly an academic concern; those who were surveyed didn’t object to the word and appreciated being able to identify as “Afro-Mexican,” he said.

“These groups want to count statistically, so they can solicit government or institutional support,” Cervera said.

One of the main takeaways from the first data set is that Mexico’s self-identified black population doesn’t appear to be trailing the rest of the population in terms of access to education or health services—something that Cervera says he was “pleasantly surprised” to find out. In general terms, Mexico’s black population seems to have better access to public services, education and work opportunities than the indigenous population, he said.

In any event, all Mexicans would be better served from stronger public policies and improved quality of life. And accurate census data is a first step towards diagnosing the problems facing different communities.

“We celebrate this inclusion,” said Benigno Gallardo, an Afro-Mexican activist based in the southern state of Guerrero. But he says much needs to be done to achieve full recognition. “In school they teach our children about Europeans and indigenous natives, but the history books practically don’t recognize our history.”

It’s a history that’s deeply woven into Mexico’s colonial past.

Some claim the first black people arrived with the Spanish conquistadors. After the fall of the Aztec Empire and the establishment of a Viceroyalty in what is today Mexico City, Spanish rulers began importing slaves from Africa to replace indigenous slaves who died from disease and epidemic. Soon the term “mulato” was coined to describe mixed-race generations of black people and white Europeans.

Under colonial rule, Mexican society was divided into a system of castes where different groups were ranked according to the ruling elite’s perception of “blood purity,” with the white Spanish at the top and mulatos and other mixed races at the bottom.

In the early 1800s, the country’s independence movement abolished slavery and many freed black Mexicans joined the insurgent forces against the Spanish. Subsequent generations settled in the Gulf of Mexico and in the south of the country, mainly in a region known as Costa Chica, which today is largely populated by Afro-Mexicans.

In recent years, the black Mexican population has become more visible, also in the United States. Interracial mixing between African Americans and some Latinos in South Los Angeles has even led to the term “Blaxican.”

Afro-Mexican protesters gained additional visibility in 2013 when they demanded answers regarding the death of Malcolm Shabazz, the grandson of American civil rights leader Malcolm X, who was beaten to death in Mexico City over an alleged bar dispute.

But the black population remains mostly marginalized by mainstream Mexico.

“We don’t want to be seen as different, we just want to be differentiated,” activist Benigno Gallardo told Fusion. He said his main goal is for the term “Afro-Mexican” to be officially recognized in the Mexican Constitution.

“This will help reinforce the recognition we’ve been fighting for,” said Paula Maximiana Laredo Herrera, head of the Oaxacan-based organization Network of Afro-Mexican Women.

Being seen as outsiders is also an issue.

“We don’t feel discrimination in our towns, but when we travel to other states or the capital of Oaxaca they see us in a different way,” she said.

But for now, recognition is a tentative first step towards acceptance and better inclusion in politics and society.