Documenting Mexico’s strong African legacy

Times Staff Writer

Why is the proudly Afro-centric Pan African Film Festival, taking place at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, screening three movies about Mexicans?

Two documentaries from Mexico -- “The Forgotten Roots” and “African Blood,” in Spanish with English subtitles -- will be shown today at the Magic Johnson Theatres, along with the brief but lyrical “Tree From 2 Separate Seeds,” the story of the daughter of an African American and a Chicana.

The Mexican documentaries show Afromestizos are concentrated in the state of Veracruz on the Gulf Coast and in Guerrero and Oaxaca states in the Costa Chica region on the Pacific Coast south of Acapulco. They speak Spanish and identify themselves as Mexican, but they look black.


A strong African heritage has endured in Mexico for nearly 500 years since Spanish conquistadores brought in the first of 200,000 slaves, the films show. The African legacy continues to influence menus, music, dance and customs as well as showing up in various racial features among some Mexicans.

“The black population is not well known,” Sagrario Cruz, an anthropology and history professor says by telephone from the University of Veracruz, which offers the multidisciplinary program “Africa en Mexico.”

In two decades of research on black identity, she has documented distinct populations of slaves, maroons, black Seminoles and U.S. blacks, both free people and runaway slaves, who settled in various areas of the country before and after Mexico abolished slavery in 1829.

She has also found African aspects in physical appearance, religion, gastronomy, festivals and in the names of cities and towns, such as Yanga and Mandinga.

Mexico’s African ancestry has been obscured, says Rafael Rebollar, director of “The Forgotten Roots,” by the common belief that the national identity comes from two worlds: Spanish and Indian. His 50-minute documentary provides a history lesson.

Most slaves came through Veracruz, the oldest port in Latin America, from Africa and second-hand from the Caribbean, he explains. “They were brought in to work the sugar cane fields and [moved] inland to work the mines,” he says, and they also worked as servants. “In Veracruz, they mixed with the French when they occupied Mexican territory.” And with the Spanish and Indian.

“Music is the memory of the crossing of the races,” Rebollar says, describing the blended culture of Veracuz. In his film, he shows the African influence in dance, music and song.

“African Blood” director Roberto Olivares began his project after a visit to Oaxaca.

“I was surprised to see black people in Mexico,” he says via e-mail. His film features displays of African traditions: men in masks and costumes resembling West African bush devils to dance on All Saints’ Day. An elderly woman reminisces about growing up in a redondo, a round mud house with a thatched roof similar to those found in Africa. A musician plays an instrument made from a pumpkin that mimics a tiger’s roar. Women carry items on their heads.

Both Olivares and Rebollar credit Gonzalo Aguirre Beltran, author of “The Negro Population of Mexico,” for the historical foundation of their work. Aguirre Beltran laments in one of his last interviews, shown in “The Forgotten Roots,” that his book, first published in 1946, was not reprinted until 1972 because of lack of interest.

Lack of interest also kept black Mexicans largely invisible outside of their communities until 1992, when the Mexican government funded research to study and acknowledge “our third root,” Cruz, the professor says, adding, “Now, there is a very strong movement to recover that African heritage that has been hidden for centuries.”

Felicidad Gongora Berlin, associate director of cultural affairs at the University of Veracruz, has taken an active interest in showing these films to Mexican and U.S. audiences. She’s married to an African American and lived in Los Angeles for seven years. While here, she worked in the film industry, at one point at Sony Pictures, where she was in charge of dubbing movies into Spanish and Portuguese.

She introduced the Mexican films to organizers of the Pan African Film Festival. “The Forgotten Roots” was first screened in 2002.

Alva Stevenson saw it then, motivated by her personal black-Mexican connection."My grandfather migrated from Kerr County, Texas, to Guadalajara” during Reconstruction, says Stevenson, an administrator at the UCLA Oral History Program. “My great-grandparents, who were slaves, advised him that there were few jobs for black men” in the U.S.

He learned Spanish and became the go-between for the Spanish workers building a railroad and their white managers. He married a Mexican woman and they moved to Nogales, Ariz.

The films played to a standing-room-only, overwhelmingly black crowd when they were screened earlier this month, starting with Trifari White’s five-minute film.

Her black-and-white film is about her father, Earl, portrayed in the movie as an African man, and her mother, Diane, portrayed as an Aztec.

In her film, Trifari stands under a sign that reads, “No Dogs, Negroes, Mexicans” a statement of her dual heritage. She is also shown practicing Ife, a Yoruba religion from Nigeria that includes ancestor worship, and posing like self-portraits of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.

During a question-and-answer session after the films were screened, people in the audience mentioned the African heritage of several of the pobladores, or settlers, who founded Los Angeles and of Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor before California became part of the United States.

Two teachers who brought students to the screening pointed out the benefit of showing White’s film at high schools where African American and Latino students have clashed.

“When I was in high school, I saw them fighting at schools in Watts and Inglewood. I remember watching that on TV and crying,” White said recently at her parents’ home near Dodger Stadium.

She also remembers standing up to black friends who insulted Mexicans and Latino friends who cursed African Americans.

“When I was around my black friends, they didn’t think of me as Mexican, and when I was around my Mexican friends, they didn’t think of me as black,” she added. “I let people know, we live in the same communities. Our cultures are so similar.”


Pan African Film Festival

Where: Magic Johnson Theatres, 3650 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Los Angeles

When: 4:35 p.m. today

Price: $9.25


Running time: 80 minutes