Race and Place in Mexico

Laura A. Lewis

Until the early 18th century, Mexico and Peru had the highest number of African and African descent people in the Americas. Today, the coastal belt of Mexico’s southern Pacific Coast  – the “Costa Chica” or “the small coast” — contains many historically black communities. Residents descend in part from slaves and free persons Spaniards brought to the area in the late 16th century to work in what would become one of the most important cattle regions in Mexico. Because the Spanish Crown and the colonial state put in place limited protective measures to shield indigenous peoples from slavery and many forms of labour, and because colonial authorities banned them from riding horses without a permit, African descent people worked in both free and unfree capacities for Spaniards, in the process becoming expert cattle herders. As a result, the Costa Chica developed a ‘cowboy’ culture that survives today.

Spaniards and African descent people displaced the Costa Chica’s indigenous inhabitants. Some struggled to maintain traditional lifeways; others comingled with African descent people, with whom they created kin-based villages. Today these villages are locally described as ‘moreno,’ a term that signifies a ‘race mixture.’ In the wider context of Latin American race classifications, moreno is not an unusual category. However, like any identity marker, an understanding of its meaning cannot be extrapolated from one region to another, nor is it easily translated into English. On the Costa Chica, moreno denotes a person of ‘black’ and ‘Indian’ ancestries, which are defined in local ways.

I lived and worked for more than a decade in one of the Costa Chica’s larger moreno communities: San Nicolás Tolentino, Guerrero, whose majority inhabitants self-identify as black-Indians. Like all peoples, San Nicoladenses have a complex and special history. Distinctive are how ‘blackness’ and ‘Indianness’ are conceptualized and deployed in a range of contexts. Thematically, maroonage, freedom, and willfulness demarcate ‘blackness,’ while ‘Indianness’ is considered more ‘native’ and deeply rooted. In a foundational story, the ‘authentic’ statue of San Nicolás’s patron saint – who was likely introduced to the coast by Augustinian friars in the 18th century – is said to ‘live’ in the church of a mountainous indigenous community 300 kilometers to the north of his coastal belt home. He ‘escaped’ from the Spanish priest who ‘stole’ him from the village of San Nicolás, where he was born, and he decided on his own to settle among ‘Indians’ in the Nahua village of Zitlala. During his September fiesta days, he temporarily abandons Zitlala to return to his people in the village of San Nicolás. While ‘moreno’ is considered a fixed racial category, within and outside of San Nicolás, narratives like this one, along with fiestas, histories, and everyday life, reveal how morenoness is constructed through mixture reflected in multiple and overlapping spatial and temporal dislocations.

Similar to other rural Mexican agricultural communities, neo-liberalism has displaced San Nicolás’s small farmers, sending many individuals across the border to the US. Today, the Mexican village has what might be termed a ‘daughter’ community in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, US. Given the everyday ways people from San Nicolás – resident there or not – think about borders and boundaries, I question ‘post-modern’ emphases on fluidity, instability, and de-territorialisation. I find that fixed places continue to be created through such unstable phenomena as migration to the U.S., as well as through village-based practices that include the historical and yearly peregrinations of the village’s patron and patronymic saint.

My research resulted in an ethnography about San Nicolás and the making of community in the context of Mexican and international discourses about the African Diaspora. It is the first full-length monograph on this region since the 1940s. It has led to new conversations about the varied ways in which race is constructed, and how it reflects differences in perceiving and being in the world.

Laura A. Lewis


(2012) Chocolate and Corn Flour: History, Race, and Place in the Making of “Black” Mexico: http://www.dukeupress.edu/Catalog/ViewProduct.php?productid=47406.

(2003) Hall of Mirrors: Power, Witchcraft, and Caste in Colonial Mexico: http://www.dukeupress.edu/Catalog/ViewProduct.php?productid=540