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Shades in Time: Attitudes towards African Descendants in Mexico by Maria de la luz Matus-Mendoza


This paper is part of a larger project which looks into the African legacy in Mexican Spanish language and culture. It’s rooted in an exhibit at the African Museum of Art in Philadelphia two years ago; this exhibit brought to light issues that Afro-Mexicans had faced and might still be facing in Mexico. Drawing on a sociolinguistic approach which loosely encompasses perceptual dialectology and critical discourse analysis, attitudes towards Afro-Mexicans will be analyzed as seen in three popular movies from the late 1950s and a popular soap opera from the mid 1980s. The following pages are dedicated to answer two questions: Are Mexicans prejudiced against Afro-Mexicans? Have Mexicans’ attitudes towards Afro-Mexicans changed?




Mexico was a Spanish colony for three centuries; its name was New Spain. Africans were brought to the Americas as slaves or as descendants of slaves starting in the sixteenth century; an economic motivation fueled this phenomenon. Men were put to work in “mine labor or heavy field work such as sugar cane…while women did domestic labor or light agricultural work…cotton cultivation” ( Zelisky 1949: 158; López Morales 1998). There are incomplete records of the number of Africans brought to the New World and the dates of their arrival; however, it is estimated that more than one and a half million African slaves were taken to Spanish America. Veracruz, Mexico; Cartagena de Indias and Portobello, Colombia were some of the most important ports of entry for African slaves among other Latin American ports (Lipski1994). In Mexico, they worked in the mining towns located in the highlands.


Several scholars have tracked down their presence and influence in the country; however, few enclaves of Afro-Mexicans have been found along the east and west coastlines: the Costa Chica [Guerrero and Oaxaca] and Tabasco and Veracruz respectively (Aguirre Beltrán 1994; Vaughn 2005; Muhammad 1991). According to Muhammad (1991: 169), “the last census to collect data by ethnic group was in 1810 when Afro-Mexicans represented 10.2%. A 1950 estimate revealed that Afro-Mexicans was about 5.1%”. Currently, the National Census doesn’t account for Afro-Mexicans; none-of the questions address this information. Unofficial estimation considers that 0.04% of the population is Afro-descendant. Research has been done mainly from the cultural and anthropological perspectives: Hernández Cuevas (2003; 2004) analyses several Mexican cultural practices and finds their origin in African roots, and Vaughn (2005) and Muhammad (1991) contend the existence of a subtle discrimination against African descendants in the country.


This paper bridges between these approaches and the sociolinguistic perspective from critical discourse analysis and perceptual dialectology. Critical Discourse Analysis considers language use as a form of social practice. Paraphrasing Fairclough and Wodak (1997: 258) when describing discourse as a social practice, one establishes a relationship between a particular event and the social structures that frame it. In this relationship, the discursive event is shaped by the situation and social practices, but the event shapes them too. Perceptual dialectology studies the attitudes toward one’s own language and other linguistic varieties; this is measured through language attitude which are people’s feelings towards their own language or the language of others. Here, the term is adapted to analyze attitudes towards Afro-Mexicans. 


Since attitude is “an internal state of readiness, rather than an observable response, we must report on the person’s reports of what their attitudes are or infer indirectly from behavior patterns” (Fasold 1994: 147). A totally indirect method is used to measure non-African descendant attitudes towards Afro-Mexicans: (1) looking at the story line and setting of the films and soap opera; (2) Afro-descendants’ origin, education and job; (3) Afro-Mexican characters’ opinions about themselves and non-Afro-Mexicans’ opinions towards the first group; and (4) actresses playing Afro-descendant and non-Afro-descendant characters. A brief synopsis of the four items analyzed is necessary.


“Angelitos Negros” “Little Black Angels’ (henceforth LBA) is a classic [1] movie that is played repetitively in the Mexican channels and now in the cable Classic Mexican Cinema.  LBA is about a famous Mexican singer who falls in love with and marries a blonde woman, Ana Luisa, whose mother, Mercé, is her deceased rich father’s maid. Ana Luisa doesn’t know that her nanny is her mother and she is extremely prejudiced against blacks. Ana Luisa bears a daughter who is born mulato; she blames her husband and rejects her daughter. José Carlos Ruiz, her husband, accepts the blame to protect Ana Luisa from having a nervous breakdown. Ana Luisa doesn’t show any love for her daughter and makes her extremely unhappy. Mercé cares for the granddaughter.  Mercé in an attempt to stop Ana Luisa from running away from home is pushed downstairs causing her death. At that point, Jose Carlos shouts that Mercé is her mother. The movie ends with José Carlos and his daughter accepting Ana Luisa’s repentance in the name of Mercé who dies before forgiving her.


“Pintame Angelitos Blancos” ‘Paint Little White Angels for me’, (henceforth PLWA) the second most popular movie [2], is about a rich general who is married to a blonde younger woman who is unfaithful to him. His son, who ran away after his father’s marriage, dies leaving a widow and two children. Upon receiving a telegraph informing him of his son’s decease, the general goes to the small town by the ocean to pick them up and take them home with him. However, when he discovers that his son married a black woman and has a white daughter and a black son, he refuses to take them with him. Nevertheless, his daughter in-law convinces him to take his granddaughter. The general and his granddaughter, Titina, hide the mother’s and brother’s race to Ana Luisa, the wife. When Titina’s mother goes to see her, she remains in the house as the cook with the condition of never telling the general’s wife that she is his granddaughter’s mother. Because Ana Luisa doesn’t believe her husband, the general forces María Dolores to deny her daughter. Ana Luisa fires María Dolores who goes back to her hometown. Later Ana Luisa runs away with her lover. After Ana Luisa leaves, María Dolores shows up with her husband’s former boss, an Afro-Mexican, demanding the general to tell Titina that she is her mother. The general apologizes for his actions and affirms he will tell Titina the truth. The movie ends with the grandfather, the mother and the grandchildren being together in what seems to be a happy family ever after.


“Negro es mi color” ‘Black is my color’, (henceforth BIMC) the least popular movie [3] of the group, is about a white woman, Luna, who is the bastard daughter of a rich man and a poor black woman. Luna is tricked into believing that she has wed a white sailor on board of his ship. After being intimate with her, he jumps ship as soon as they dock. When the captain informs Luna of the deception, she promises to take revenge on all whites by making one of them fall in love with her. Later on, she becomes a famous singer changing her name to Blanca del Rio. Blanca’s father is the owner of the cabaret where she sings. There, she has two suitors: a pilot and the cabaret’s administrator who is truly in love with her. Both men are prejudiced against blacks. Blanca decides to have sex with the cabaret’s administrator after he criticizes blacks. The following morning, she reveals to him that she is black and has him fired from his job. Blanca’s father invites her to go on a trip with him without knowing that she is his daughter. Blanca’s mother goes to the city looking for her and finds her. Ashamed of her mother, Blanca allows her to stay at her house as a maid concealing her true relationship. The fired cabaret’s administrator reveals her origin to the pilot who rejects Blanca. Then, she decides to go away with her father without knowing who he is. Nevertheless, Blanca’s mother recognizes him when he goes to pick her up and reveals to him that he has pursued his own daughter. Upon finding this out, Blanca runs away. She is pregnant and wants to end the pregnancy fearing that she might have a mulatto child. After deciding to keep the child, she goes back home to find her mother’s funeral. When she is crying, heartbroken, the cabaret’s former administrator shows up; he has discovered that he is truly in love with her and forgives her deception. The movie ends with a hopeful perspective for the couple.


“El derecho de nacer” ‘The Right to be Born’ (henceforth RTBB) is the remake of a Cuban radio soap opera. It is about a rich family’s daughter María Elena who gets pregnant out of wedlock and her father asks a black servant to kill the bastard grandson to hide his daughter’s sin. María Dolores, the rich woman’s daughter’s black nanny saves the child and takes him away from his grandfather because she promised Maria Elena to take care of him. María Dolores raises the white child as her own giving him her last name, but informing him that she is not his birth mother. Even though Alberto knows that María Dolores isn’t his birth mother, he doesn’t tell it to anybody; not even his fiancé who has prejudices against blacks which ends their engagement. Later on, he falls in love with the adopted grandchild of his grandparents. The truth is revealed to him and he forgives his grandfather and father for everything they did against him. The end of the soap opera is a happy family scene where Alberto and his girlfriend get married and his grandparents, birth mother and adopted black mother are proud of him.



These films’ and soap opera’s plots agree with what Monsiváis calls “melodramas”, the prevailing fifties storylines, “where good and bad characters interact; where everybody suffers physical or emotional pain regardless of their social status; where rich people apparently suffer less than poor people; however, they are alone and destroyed” (1984: 36). In this context, it is noteworthy to emphasize that Afro-descendants are always illegitimate children who are only recognized by their rich fathers once they are born white: Ana Luisa in LBA and Titina in PLWA. Ana Luisa’s father, Agustín de la Fuente, gives her his name and fortune in LBA. In PLWA, a white man, Jaime de la Barra, marries an African descendant woman after she bears a white child, “The day she was born, we saw that she was so beautiful that her father, with tears in his eyes, asked me to marry him.” Jaime’s prejudice might be supported and strengthened by his widow’s comment referring to her second born, “When Benito was born, Jaime’s eyes turned sad”. In contrast, Luna’s father, Don Álvaro, disappears from her mother’s life after he impregnated her. The fathers’ last names suggest these characters’ Spaniard ancestry and wealth: “Don Agustín de la Fuente”; “Don Jaime de la Barra” and “Don Álvaro”. The Afro-descendant women, conversely, never hold a family name in any of the films; they are always addressed by their first names which might suggest their lower position in their society: “the ways members of one ethnic group speak among each other are of course related to their position in society, and how they are spoken to and spoken about by the dominant group members” (Van Dijk et al. 1997: 145). Not only does María Dolores in the 1982 soap opera hold a family name, but also other characters question the fact that nobody seems ever to have asked her last name. These two facts might suggest an attitude change in the population. However, she is not Alberto’s birth mother, but his adoptive one.


Three stories considered here have the coastline as the setting: PLBA, BIMC and RTBB. Setting refers to the physical environment where the story takes place. The coastline has been documented as the port of entry to Africans and their main settlement site. In the soap opera, RTBB, the port of Veracruz is clearly identified. Even though LBA takes place in Mexico City, whenever there is a musical performance where Afro-descendants appear, palm trees and tropical scenery surrounds the performers. 


About Afro-descendants’ education received and job performed, there seems to be a clear distinction between the color of the skin and the characters’ education and occupation: the Afro-descendants, Mercé in LBA; Luna’s mother in BIMC; María Dolores in PLWA and in RTBB hold meager jobs; they are maids. In fact, an Afro-descendant man, Bruno in the soap opera is the man given the task of killing his boss’s illegitimate grandchild. He even states that, “he is in charge of doing his boss’s filthy jobs.” The occupations displayed by Afro-Mexicans agree with Muhammad (1991: 176) who states that “their primary sources of income are fishing, farming and domestic work”.


The mulatto children have slightly different occupations: Ana Luisa is a school principal (LBA); Blanca del Río is a singer at night clubs(BIMC); Titina is a ten year old who sings and dances to entertain her grandfather and neighbors; her brother, Benito is the comic relief in the whole movie (PLWA); and Alberto Limonta (RTBB) is a physician. In LBA, two other Afro-Mexicans are musicians and dancers who appear on stage with the main character. Entertainment seems to be mulatto children’s and the supporting actors’ main activity. This agrees with Jackson who, quoting Lemuel Johnson, finds that “dating back to Spain Golden Age [drama] and before…has made the Black a literary toy, an orphic buffoon, a bongo-beating idiot mindlessly singing and dancing his way down through the centuries” (Jackson 1975: 470). The roles assigned to these characters also strengthen their image given in the early days of filmmaking which is “stooges, retainers (maids, butlers), brutes, dancers, thieves, child-like” (Snead, 1994: 139).


Notwithstanding, in spite of the fact that Titina in PLWA has an entertainment role dancing and singing, she also questions the treatment given to her sibling and mother due to their skin color. This is reiterated by Alberto Limonta’s character in RTBB; his questioning is strengthened by the fact that he is an adult. These comments take us to the Afro-descendants characters’ statements about themselves. All Afro-Mexicans make self-deprecating comments about themselves: Mercé calls herself black and ugly; as if one were a natural consequence of the other; Titina’s mother asks her daughter not to tell anybody that she is black because she is ugly; María Dolores in RTBB affirms that she is dark skinned therefore ugly. This agrees with Vaugh’s findings, “Afro-Mexicans commonly lament that their skin color and facial features make them ugly. The words feo [ugly] and negro seem to be synonymous in many instances” (2005: 52).


Most of the African descendant children also make negative and offensive comments towards their skin color: Blanca del Río in BIMC rejects her ancestry; Ana Luisa is ashamed of having a mulatto daughter and denies her when a blonde friend visits. She adds that she would rather be dead than having an Afro-Mexican mother. In contrast, Titina and Alberto aren’t ashamed of their mother’s skin color. Other characters in BIMC make discriminatory comments towards Afro-Mexicans or look at them as something exotic. Considering this attitude, and the fact that the ten year old-Titina criticizes the differential treatment that Afro-descendants suffer, might indicate a change of attitude towards this group starting in the mid-fifties. This idea is strengthened by the sharp criticism that the young adult, Alberto in RTBB voices against people who give a differential treatment to others due to their skin color. He emphasizes that people are worthy because of their moral values and not because of the color of their skin or their wealth. These statements bring the issue to light which starts the conversation on discrimination against Afro-Mexicans and might suggest a possible social change in attitude.


Regarding the actors and actresses in the films and the soap opera, it should be that pointed out the Afro-Mexican mother is played by the same actress, Rita Montaner; she was a Cuban actress who had heavy black makeup to make her look darker. The same blonde actress, Emilia Guiú plays Ana Luisa in LBA and in PLWA. This might point to the Cinema Studios’ working contract or the lack of blondes and Afro-descendant actors in Mexico during the years of movie production.


The answer to the two questions posed at the beginning of these pages is not black or white, but it might be positive with a caveat. Indeed, the films’ storylines, settings, Afro-Mexicans’ occupations and education suggest strong discrimination against Afro-descendants. However, there seems to be a clear evolution in the characters’ attitudes from mid-fifties and early sixties to early eighties: even though Afro-descendants are rejected and discriminated against in the film PLWA and the soap opera (RTBB), two main characters voiced their rejection towards any discrimination against Afro-Mexicans. Titina indicates to her grandfather that it isn’t Afro-descendants’ fault to have a dark skin color. She also narrates a fable which depicts Afro-descendants as the mixture of the best of all races. This fable might be interpreted as a modified version of José Vasconcelos’s Cosmic Race La Raza Cósmica [4] which proclaims Latin Americans as the mixture of the best of the races in the continents: African, Amerindian, Asian and Spaniard.


It is also important to consider what Monsiváis (36) writes about how the melodrama works in Mexican society: “it is a general explication of reality which is accepted by the public because it doesn’t have any other alternative…There isn’t labor exploitation, there is bad luck; there isn’t pillage, there is pain in this world…” Since the media are shaped by society and also play a role in the diffusion of social and cultural changes; “Media texts constitute a sensitive barometer of sociocultural change, and they should be seen as valuable material for researching change” (Fairclough 1995: 51-52). Thus, it might be possible to infer a process of change towards Afro-Mexicans as shown in the films and soap opera discussed here.


The conversation on discrimination against Afro-Mexicans, that seems to take place in the films and soap opera considered here, has transcended the celluloid characters and has been projected on the screen of society; the fact that the most popular movie, LBA, continued to be broadcasted and the lack of modern films addressing this topic suggest that this issue is still current in modern Mexico. Conversely, the INAH (Mexican Institute of Anthropology and History) recorded “corridos” and “sones” which are popular Afro-Mestizo’s songs [5] in La Costa Chica in the Pacific Coast, and in the Atlantic Coast of Mexico in 1967 as part of a project [6] to rescue Afro-descendants’ traditions (Muratalla, 2000).  Moreover, the topic on Afro-Mexico has attracted scholars’ interest within and outside the country since the last decade; Mexicans are generally blamed for denying their Afro-Mexican roots and having prejudices against this group. More recently, a controversy between the United States and Mexico in 2005 sprang from the release of a postage stamp which featured a popular cartoon character from the 1940s igniting the discussion on Mexicans’ prejudice against Afro-descendants [7]. It is noteworthy to point out what was indicated earlier about the current National Mexican Census which does not account for Afro-descendants; whilst this is true, none of the questions addresses anybody’s ancestry, except for a question dealing with speaking an indigenous language. The inclusion of this question is quite recent in the census. Consequently, there is still a long way to go before everybody is accounted for in Mexico.


The conversation on discrimination against Afro-Mexicans should continue, however, labeling each other as the “other” should be avoided: “Discourses of Otherness are articulated by both dominant majorities and subordinate minorities. Others are not just groups that are devalued, marginalized, or silenced by dominant majorities (Riggins, 1997: 6)”.  Diversity and multiculturalism should be embraced within and outside Mexico; one should recognize and praise Afro-Mexican cultural contribution to modern Mexico and any discrimination should be eradicated; currently it seems that the conversation has been steered into the right direction. 


[1] This assertion is based on the fact that the movies chosen here form part of the African Influence Exhibit in Mexico and Hernández Cuevas (2000) quoting Maximiliano Maza who affirms that this movie belongs to the Mexican Cinema Golden Epoch period. It was made in 1948.

[2] This film was made in 1954.

[3] This film was made in 1951. It is rarely broadcasted; not many people know it and it is extremely difficult to purchase a copy.

[4] Vasconcelos exalts Latin American men’s origin as the mixture of all the races. Several scholars have criticized this perspective on the Latin American as a way to conceal the African presence in the region.

[5] Some scholars have called them “Afro-Mexican” songs instead.

[6] Muratalla indicates this in his introduction to the recorded “corridos”.

[7] The postage stamp portrays a very popular cartoon created in the forties as part of the series honoring the most popular cartoonists in Mexico by Mexican Postal Service. It will not be discussed here the merits of the controversy; this illustrates the Afro-Mexicans’ importance in contemporary Mexico.




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