In response to activist pressure, Okeowo said, Mexico’s government released a study at the end of 2008 that confirmed that Afro-Mexicans suffered from institutional racism. “Employers are less likely to employ blacks, and some schools prohibit access based on skin colour. But little has been done to change this. Afro-Mexicans lack a powerful spokesperson, so they continue to go unnoticed by the country’s leadership.”
Rodolfo Prudente Dominguez, an Afro-Mexican activist, told Okeowo that all they wanted was recognition of their basic rights and respect of their dignity. “There should be sanctions against security and immigration agents who detain us, because they deny our existence on our own land,” said Dominguez.
Okeowo continued: “If you have not heard of Mexico’s native blacks, you are not alone. The story that has been passed down through generations is that their ancestors arrived on a slave boat filled with Cubans and Haitians, which sank off Mexico’s Pacific coast. The survivors hid away in fishing villages on the shore. The story is a myth: Spanish colonialists trafficked African slaves into ports on the opposite Gulf coast, and slaves were distributed further inland. The persistence of this story explains the reluctance of many black Mexicans to embrace the label ‘Afro’, and why many Mexicans assume black nationals hail from the Caribbean.
“Colonial records show that around 200,000 African slaves were imported into Mexico in the 16th and 17th centuries to work in silver mines, sugar plantations, and cattle ranches. But after Mexico won its independence from Spain, the needs of these black Mexicans were ignored. Some Afro-Mexican activists identify themselves as part of the African diaspora. Given their rejection from Mexican culture, this offers a more empowering cultural reference,” Okeowo reported, adding:
“In a place where everyone is considered ‘mixed race’, owing to the country’s long colonial history, skin colour is clearly a symbol of status. Many Mexicans are generous and kind to me, viewing my otherness as interesting and lovely. Yet black Mexicans are often mistreated and ostracised. I think about this unsettling tension when I occasionally pass a black Mexican in Mexico City, and she gives me a slight, genuine smile.”
Okeowo’s report has been confirmed by other writers such as Bobby Vaughn, an African-American whose interest in Afro-Mexicans has made him an expert on the subject. On his website, he compares census figures from colonial Mexico dating from 1570 to 1742, and shows that in 1570 while there were 6,644 Europeans in Mexico, there were as many as 20,569 Africans there, while native Mexicans were in the region of 3,366,860. By 1646, these figures had rocketed to 13,780 Europeans and 35,089 Africans, but the native population had decreased to 1,269,607. At the same time, the population of Africans of mixed race (Afro-Mestizos) had increased to 116,529 (from only 2,437 in 1570), while Europeans of mixed race had shot up to 168,568 (from 11,067 in 1570).
In 1742, however, the African population had decreased to 20,131 while the European figure had slightly come down to 9,814. But there had been a huge jump in the Afro-Mestizos population to 266,196 while the Euro-Mestizos had increased to 391,512.