If you haven’t heard of Mexico’s African population, you’re not alone. Unlike several neighboring countries, Mexico has one of the most racially homogeneous peoples in the Americas. But on a stretch of Mexico’s rural Pacific Coast and in the Gulf Coast state of Vera Cruz, poor, isolated communities of Afro-Mexicans have coexisted with Mexicans since the 1600s.
Mexicans — and Afro-Mexicans — have long assumed that the slave descendants hailed from Cuba. I often get asked if I’m from Cuba, Brazil or just “Africa” (Mira, mira!). But Cuba is usually the most common question, according to anthropologist Bobby Vaughn, because Mexicans see Cuba as a mysterious black nation.
Yet it’s so much more.
The range of diversity, from blonde hair and blue eyes to black hair and honey-colored eyes, is kind of awe-inspiring. Cuba’s race relations aren’t perfect, but there’s a level of acceptance there that is interesting. Afro-Cubans would break the ice with me by pointing to our similar skin color and raving over my African heritage.
West African culture is evident in the religion, the music, and countless other parts of Cuban life. Apparently, even a traditional Nigerian chief makes a trip down every once in a while to, you know, hang out.
All of this leads to Orishas, a sweet group made up of Afro-Cubans who now live in Europe but still pledge allegiance to their island. Orisha is the name of a god in Nigeria’s Yoruba culture and Cuba’s Santeria religion: