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Dancing between Myth and Reality
Photographs by George O. Jackson and José Manuel Pellicer; foreword by Ben Vinson III

This study of African-based dance in Mexico explores the influence of African people and their cultural productions on Mexican society, showing how dance can embody social histories and relationships.

December 2010
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183 pages | 7 x 10 | 14 color photos (hardcover edition only), 62 b&w illus. |

While Africans and their descendants have lived in Mexico for centuries, many Afro-Mexicans do not consider themselves to be either black or African. For almost a century, Mexico has promoted an ideal of its citizens as having a combination of indigenous and European ancestry. This obscures the presence of African, Asian, and other populations that have contributed to the growth of the nation. However, performance studies—of dance, music, and theatrical events—reveal the influence of African people and their cultural productions on Mexican society.

In this work, Anita González articulates African ethnicity and artistry within the broader panorama of Mexican culture by featuring dance events that are performed either by Afro-Mexicans or by other ethnic Mexican groups about Afro-Mexicans. She illustrates how dance reflects upon social histories and relationships and documents how residents of some sectors of Mexico construct their histories through performance. Festival dances and, sometimes, professional staged dances point to a continuing negotiation among Native American, Spanish, African, and other ethnic identities within the evolving nation of Mexico. These performances embody the mobile histories of ethnic encounters because each dance includes a spectrum of characters based upon local situations and historical memories.

  • Foreword by Ben Vinson III
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Framing African Performance in Mexico
  • Chapter 2: Masked Dances: Devils and Beasts of the Costa Chica
  • Chapter 3: Archetypes of Race: Performance Responses to Afro-Mexican Presence
  • Chapter 4: Becoming National: Chilena, Artesa, and Jarocho as Folkloric Dances
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Anita González is Associate Professor and Associate Chair of Theatre Arts at the State University of New York at New Paltz. She is the author of Jarocho's Soul: Cultural Identity and Afro-Mexican Dance, and she has published essays in Modern Drama, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Community and Performance Reader, and Dance Research Journal.


Afro-Mexico: Dancing between Myth and Reality, as the title suggests, is a book about dancing. But more important, it is a book about how dance reflects on social histories and relationships. The photographs and text document how residents of some sectors of Mexico construct their histories through performance. The idea of Afro-Mexico is, in some ways, an enigma. While Africans and their descendants have lived in Mexico for centuries, many Afro-Mexicans do not consider themselves either black or African. Instead, members of this ethnic population blend into the national imagination of Mexico as a mixed-race country. For almost a century, Mexico has promoted an ideal of its citizens as a combination of indigenous and European ancestry. This construct obscures the presence of African, Asian, and other populations that have contributed to the growth of the nation. However, performance studies—dance, music, and theatrical events—reveal that African people and their cultural productions have consistently influenced Mexican society.


Festival dances and sometimes professional staged dances point to a continuing negotiation of ethnic identities between Native American, Spanish, African, and other constituencies within the evolving nation of Mexico. These performances embody the mobile histories of ethnic encounters because each dance includes a spectrum of characters based on local situations and historical memories. The photographs in this book illustrate dance events that are performed by Afro-Mexicans or are about Afro-Mexicans but performed by other ethnic Mexican groups. Most of the dances are part of festivals where artists imaginatively re-create myths and realities of Afro-Mexican lifestyles. In a society where ethnic heritage is not reconciled, myths encapsulate hidden histories. Afro-Mexicans dance between myth and reality because neither is finite. There are no unchanging myths and no fixed realities. Instead, performers find myths in the realities of everyday live and realities that circumscribe the practice of cultural mythologies. Afro-Mexicans, like most of us, locate themselves somewhere along this spectrum each time that they express a cultural idea.


Race in the Americas


The concept of race is continually being redefined. "Race" troubles academic theorists and affects popular social conceptions about origins and nationality. Political events like the rise of Barack Obama challenge existing myths about race and bring to questions the realities of racial mixtures in the Americas. In both local and global communities public understandings about blackness greatly influence who African Diaspora people think they are. Clearly, those who reside in Mexico are Mexican. However, self-perceptions influence both self-esteem and the sense of belonging. Recently, I was traveling by airplane to Costa Chica and picked up a copy of the magazine Intro*, which services the Oaxacan coast. Inside was a story about a surfer named Angel Salinas, an Afro-Mexican from Mancuernas, Pinotepa Nacional. Salinas is a surfing star who has won national and international tournaments. But he wears a wrestler's mask to cover his face when he appears in public. The article states that the surfer wears the mask as "a result of some advice that his mother gave him when he didn't appear in magazines because of his dark skin; he decided to do something that would make him different and that would show a Mexican cultural icon. Now he is known as 'the masked surfer.'" Angel Salinas feels the need to cover his face in order to feel Mexican. Although Mexico is a country where, at first glance, the races have mixed to become a "cosmic race," there are still urgent social discrepancies that manifest as internalized or blatant racism. This discrepancy between public policy and daily practices influences the kinds of lives that contemporary Afro-Mexicans lead.


Both North and South America have provided unique opportunities for racial mixing between Native Americans, Africans, Europeans, and Asians that did not occur on other continents. The vibrant and sometimes violent merging of phenotypes (physical racial traits) and cultural ideas has created novel societies within this hemisphere. Americans continuously struggle to define and articulate the shifting grounds of these racial relationships. In the 2006 anthology Globalization and Race, the editors write, "Blackness is being reconceptualized, a reconceptualization that requires new forms of interdependence and autonomy and that is grounded in new ideologies, practices, and modes of communication." Any study of Afro-Mexican performance involves rethinking the meanings of race and the impact of race on communities who are discovering new identity associations. Performance, with its dialogical communicative tools, is one way to examine burgeoning racial constructions in the Americas.


Since the advent of scientific rationalism, race has always been an invention, albeit one with extreme social and economic consequences. Stephen Mullaney writes about "wonder cabinets" created by Renaissance merchants that captured all the marvels of the world within single rooms. The hodgepodge of skulls, skins, trinkets, and plants were without a hierarchical order. In this early age of discovery, all races were equally scattered throughout the cabinet of wonders. Later, with the advent of scientific rationalism (spurred in part by the creative experiments of Francis Bacon), plant and animal species became codified. In the nineteenth century human racial orders were created through a layered system of "scientific" anthropology. Theories of social Darwinism placed European races at the top of the pyramid, with other races below them. The designations Caucasian, Negro, and Oriental that were developed in this system persisted well into the twentieth century. These artificial definitions were used to justify social systems such as slavery, apartheid, and Jim Crow segregation. The growth of the Americas as an interracial society challenges these finite categories. Through the process of ethnic mixing new racial categories continue to emerge.


It is when societies think within "gray" areas of social relationships that new performance forms materialize. Performance—music, dance, and theatre—is one method of expressing shifting perceptions of Afro-Mexican identity. Performance allows humans to clarify and articulate their history through embodied expression. By "becoming"—through either masked impersonation or crafted improvisation—the dancer is able to physically experiment with self-definitions. When Afro-Mexicans dance as devils, for example, they momentarily embrace their association with evil acts; they redefine themselves in opposition to mainstream ideals of "goodness." At the same time, the same individuals may then negate their image as renegades by singing corridos that justify their rebellious history. Experimentations with identities assist in the negotiation of social status, and these negotiations help to define Diaspora as a process. Rather than consider Diaspora as a formation that tends to "rely upon the idea of an initial dispersal or migration from an originary homeland," this volume considers multiple diasporic imaginations that contribute to communities' perceptions of themselves.


Academic Precedents for This Study


Published research about Afro-Mexico is a fairly recent phenomenon. Most scholars attribute early interest in the field to the writings of Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán, who published the first edition of his ethnographic study of Africans in Mexico, La población negra de México: Estudio etnohistórico, in 1946. Beltrán's volume recognized Afro-Mexicans as a distinct cultural community within the nation. Mexican scholars such as Barabas, Chávez-Hita, Cruz Carretero, Eugenio Campos, Guevara Sanginés, Guitiérrez Avila, Jiménez Román, Martínez Montiel, and Moedano Navarro, working with the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) and the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes produced several studies of Afro-Mexican populations in the 1980s and 1990s. These publications laid the groundwork for serious historical studies of the impact of African descendants on Mexico. Later, in 1991, Patrick Carroll published his English-language historical analysis, Blacks in Colonial Veracuz. U.S. authors have built on the work of Carroll and established a vibrant and emerging field of Afro-Mexican studies. The historians Ben Vinson III, Herman Bennett, Joan Bristol, and Nicole Von Germeten examine the colonial period, and social scientists such as Laura Lewis and Bobby Vaughn focus on the contemporary status of Afro-Mexicans. My own work incorporates the historical work of these scholars; however, my research is grounded in cultural studies and performance studies methodologies as well. My interest is in how contemporary cultural communities interact within social constructs that have been partially determined by histories. Dialogic exchanges between local communities lie at the core of my research.


Re-creating the Ephemeral Art: Performance Research Methodologies


The fields of dance and theatre studies have established precedents for this kind of study. These two fields have developed methodologies for "reading" the ephemeral art of gesture. The theatre historian Joseph Roach has shown that theatre and dance performances can uniquely capture histories and memories—providing an alternative way of filling the "vacancies . . . in the network of relationships that constitutes the social fabric." Performance has the capacity to "stand in for an elusive entity that it is not, but that it must vainly aspire both to embody and to replace." Performance scholarship incorporates analysis of archival documents, with the goal of comprehending broad historical trends. It may also involve practical field experiences: attending productions, interviewing artists, or collaborating on live performances. Language, both physical and verbal, becomes an important component of the research. Theatre scholars study text as an allographic blueprint for performances. Dance scholars study the nuances of human gesture that communicate. By using methodologies from both of these fields, I am able to interpret performance in Mexico. Because this involves decoding the expressive work of diverse ethnic communities, I draw from the methodological approaches of scholars who write about ethnic performing arts.


Some anthropologists have focused on the study of Latin American dance and performance in cultural context. In 2000 Zoila Mendoza completed Shaping Society through Dance: Mestizo Ritual Performance in the Peruvian Andes, one of the most thorough studies of festival performance. Her book uses anthropological methodologies to examine identity formation through performance. In a similar way, Olga Nájera-Ramírez writes extensively about Mexican festival performance. Her book, Dancing across Borders, coedited with Norma E. Cantú and Brenda Romero, builds on her earlier research in Jocotán (Fiesta de los Tastoanes). The more recent edited volume provides descriptive analyses and ethnographic testimony from authors representing a broad cross section of the field. Anthropological studies are helpful because of their "thick description" of community interactions; however, ethnic theatre studies resources trace cultural events across much broader landscapes. Jill Lane and Harry Elam have written about Cuban and African American performance histories using close readings of texts and performances. Their theoretical analyses of how black performance migrates across national boundaries are especially relevant to this study of Afro-Mexican performance.


Theoretical writings of dance scholars, in particular, those who evaluate African Diaspora performance, have had the greatest influence on this study. Dance studies scholars dedicate themselves to reading gesture and its communicative potential. For example, Brenda Dixon Gottschild's book Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance traces "Africanist" elements in the choreography of mainstream U.S. dance artists such as George Balanchine, Deborah Hay, Bebe Miller, and Doug Elkins. She identifies specific elements of African aesthetics: displacement and articulation of the hips, improvisation, energy, attack, off-centeredness, polycentrism, ephebism, and juxtaposition. What is important about Gottschild's work is the clarity with which she describes the African performance qualities visible in dancing of the Americas. Other dance scholars have also described U.S. African American performance styles. Steppin' on the Blues, by Jackie Malone, is one of several books that document popular performance styles. Emphasizing the vernacular, she locates the origins of steps and songs within specific regional communities. Malone's book captures the routines of marching bands and college step dance teams. She considers the rhythmic spectacles an important part of the cultural expressions of African Americans. Her work is valuable to this study of Afro-Mexican performance because it demonstrates how public, nontheatrical presentations contribute to the ongoing maintenance of cultural identities.


Finally, my book is supported by academic studies of Native American communities and their dances. Native American cultures coexist with African and European cultures throughout the Americas. Some performance genres are cross-fertilizations between the two racial groups. Historical events in the Americas forged especially close alliances between African descendants and Native American residents. In the United States, southern slave systems encouraged Africans to survive by intermarrying and uniting with the Seminole, Muscogee, and other nations. Policies of racial segregation and discrimination ensured that "Native Americans" and "blacks" would sometimes share impoverished communities and educational systems. In Mexico, Spanish governing practices relegated Native American and African residents to servile positions as slaves or servants. Colonial households in urban settings used whatever labor was available. As a result, ranches, plantations, and mines were multiracial settings that encouraged controversies and alliances across ethnic boundaries. Because Native American dances in Mexico comment on African presence, academic studies of Native American dance are important to this study.


The Smithsonian Institution publication Native American Dance: Ceremonies and Social Traditions, edited by Charlotte Heth, provides an excellent overview of styles of dance across North America. Tara Browner and Jacqueline Shea Murphy outline more specific analyses of Native North American performance practices in Heartbeat of the People and The People Have Never Stopped Dancing. Browner illuminates the history of the powwow and explains contemporary practices. Shea Murphy is more concerned with Native American presence in concert dance performances. Her book considers the complex negotiation of authenticity with identity on professional stages. Studies of the Maya are also relevant to understanding indigenous dance commentary in Mexico. Maya communities adjoin and often blend with Native American communities that live within Mexican national boundaries. Performance practices of the various ethnic communities intermingle. Renewing the Maya World by Garrett Cook is useful in its interpretation of Maya ritual symbols in festival performance. The spatial modalities of festival performance in highland Maya communities replicate aspects of Mexican festival performance. Some of the phenomena that Cook describes—cofradías, Corpus Christi celebrations, and the use of liminal time frames—are especially relevant to my investigations.


Collectively, the fields of anthropology, theatre studies, dance studies, African American studies, and Native American studies have helped to formulate the investigation that follows. Through performance analysis I hope to add to the burgeoning scholarship that considers how performances encapsulate local understandings about black identity within a global "call and response" of images.


On Approaches to Field Research: Collaborations and Investigations


Academic research is not my only tool for investigating Afro-Mexican dance. I am also a practicing artist. Mexico is an old stomping ground for me. I was sixteen years old when I first began living with Mexican families and traveling to village festivals and cultural sites. I have consistently returned to my foreign homeland over the past thirty-five years—for socializing, for directing and choreography work, for research and teaching, for two Fulbright grants, for Native American ceremonial activities, for soul searching, and for the weather. Each time I return a different part of the cultural landscape presents itself. Most of my friends born in Mexico are artists or scholars with interests in both local and international folklore and culture. In Mexico City I frequent performances at the national theatre complexes. When I travel to the provinces, urban friends connect me with local artists who connect me with local teachers who transfer the knowledge of cultural traditions to students through community centers (Casas de la Cultura), schools, and local dance groups. At all levels, there is an exchange of culture, artistry, and technique.


My first research travel to Mexico was a Fulbright grant in 1989. My project was to document dance video archive collections and encourage artists to collect and store media records of dances. The project gave me an opportunity to travel throughout many regions of Mexico meeting and exchanging ideas with artists. In 1992 I returned specifically to work with professional Veracruz dancers and actors on a binational project. African American and Jalapa artists collaborated on a musical version of the Greek myth Hymn to Demeter using our respective folklore. The final production was staged in New York City in 1993.


More recently, I have focused on the western regions of Mexico, traveling to Oaxaca and the Costa Chica to meet with music and dance artists who work in the region. A fellowship and research grant from the University of Texas-Austin facilitated this 2007 research. The Oaxaca investigations typify my field methodology. First, I use a network of contacts to identify working artists in the area. Next, I travel to the area to meet with dancers and musicians and to discuss their approaches to making art. The artistic dialogues are multilayered. We talk about whether there is such a thing as Afro-Mexican dance and if so, what the artists perceive those forms to be. This involves comparing and contrasting ideas about dance and culture in Mexico with ideas about dance and culture in the United States. Almost always, a discussion of actual dances and styles involves demonstrations. "I'll show you a buck dance step if you show me an artesa step." Or, "How do you play that bote instrument? Is it like the Brazilian cuica?" These discussions are the most fruitful and exciting for me because we are participating in collaborative exchanges of artistry. The back-and-forth generates questions and ideas about motivations and aesthetics. How do you maintain a tradition while modifying it for hotel performances? What do you leave out and what do you keep in?


Dialogues about performance are among my primary research tools. Usually dancers and musicians have videotapes or DVDs about the work that they do. These archival documents are reference points for theoretical discussion about practice. During my last visit to Rio Grande on the Costa Chica, for instance, the dance teacher Oscar Jiménez showed me several recordings of Devil dances that he keeps in his personal archive. Even though he teaches regional folkloric dances like the Chilena, he collects inside information about local festival dances. Jiménez was willing to share these personal tapes with me because I had participated in an earlier physical dance conversation. I had watched his students perform some folkloric dances, and in exchange, I had taught them some Horton modern dance phrases. Through this collaborative swap, my dance expertise had been certified. As we watched the tapes we could, as fellow artists, speculate about interpretations of the recorded dance.


My ethnicity, Afro-American and Afro-Caribbean, influences the way that I conduct my research. Because I wear dreadlocks, Mexicans of all ethnicities recognize me as an outsider. Darker-skinned Mexicans, whether Native American, mestizo, or African, either equate my personal style, speech, and mannerism with the United States or reference my Cuban grandfather as an explanation for my skin tones. As this volume demonstrates, race is largely in the eye of the beholder. How others reconcile my phenotype with my nationality depends on their previous experiences with African Diaspora cultural communities. Lately there has been much more interest in Afro-Latin America. Things are changing. Within academic circles there is evolving discourse about African Diaspora identity across national borders. Artists working in the field are also somewhat aware of the impact of African Diaspora dance styles on popular and folk culture. When I travel to Mexican sites local artists may want to see me dance hip-hop, an African dance, or a Cuban rhumba. I have found that Mexican artists are generally interested in learning more about African and/or African American cultural performance styles in part because of the popularity of black art styles within the mainstream media.


My status as a foreign researcher is also mediated by my gender. Mexico is a country where males dominate in business activities, including the arts. Women artists are active within urban theatrical sites, where female actors, directors, and theatre managers earn their living. However, the regional areas of Mexico are more provincial and conservative in their approach to gender relations. As a woman, it is sometimes difficult to gain access to official organizations or to maintain authority in public settings. The gender equality that typifies urban communities such as Mexico City or Guadalajara is not expressed in the same way in rural, conservative areas of the country. This means, for example, that a woman traveling alone in remote parts of Mexico may be viewed as vulnerable. If she is also an outsider, the community may want to protect her or, conversely, think she is "asking for trouble." I have found it beneficial to travel in Mexico accompanied by at least one male researcher or artist. Working with someone of the opposite gender allows me to bridge the gap and learn about the nuances of both male and female performance styles. The reasons that Mexican gender roles are more restrictive than those in North America are culturally specific and, of course, not the same throughout the continent. In historical context, gender relationships are influenced by Catholic religious inculcation, Native American hierarchical systems, and Spanish perceptions about proper social deportment for women. In Mexico women are generally expected to maintain respeto while males hold decision-making and organizational positions.


Finally, field investigations are based on seeing performances. I see performances in all types of venues and circumstances: concert stages, patron saint festivals, dancers' living rooms, indigenous ceremonies, or on videotape and DVD. Dance research involves "reading" performance in multiple venues. Concert dance performances that specifically reference Afro-Mexican traditions are rare. In 1997 I collaborated with a Mexican modern dancer named Serafín Aponte on a concert dance performance called Yanga based on historical events surrounding the first escaped slave community in the state of Veracruz. Aponte was interested in drawing from African Diaspora dance to express Afro-Mexican sensibilities. I know of no other concert performances that reference a distinct Afro-Mexican cultural tradition. There are, however, concert performances of folkloric dances. Currently, a commercial production called Jarocho that is similar to the Irish dance spectacle Riverdance is touring internationally (2007-2008). Audiences who view this dance spectacular would not equate it with African-descendant performance for reasons that I discuss in chapter 4. On the other hand, patron saint festivals are a primary way of viewing community dances. During patron saint days, the dates of which vary from town to town, local dance groups present their choreographies and their dancers to the public. Afro-Mexican dances and dance about Afro-Mexicans flourish in this environment. Ceremonial dances are usually more closed, yet many are attended and documented by individual artists. For the past four years I have attended a traditional Spirit Dance in Mexico where I have learned about how dance leaders maintain ritual performances that are based on annual rites. Some of the dances that are illustrated in the photographs in this volume are ceremonial dances. Seeing and participating in performances is an important component of performance research.


About the Meaning of the Photograph


This book uses the work of two photographers, George O. Jackson and Jose Manuel Pellicer, to illustrate the dances that I describe. Photographs are deceptive: they can capture a staged event and make it appear truthful, or they can distort the truth so that it appears to be an impossible myth. Here the photographs are of events staged in rural villages and town festivals. Some of them were taken during patron saint day processions, some of them were staged for the photographers, and some of them were dances re-created for local encuentros, or meetings, to share information. The photographs are not designed to document events exactly as they occurred. Many of them are stunning artworks, but I do not intend to "read" them for their artistic value. Rather, I use them as a way to illustrate steps, characters, and relationships that are common in Afro-Mexican and indigenous dance performances.


Jackson and Pellicer have spent many years working in Mexico to record the photographs that accompany this project. The three of us met in Texas in spring 2007 and immediately recognized our mutual passion for similar topics. While in residence at the Center for African and African American Studies at the University of Texas-Austin, I was looking for photographs to document dance festival performances. George Jackson had deposited much of his extensive photographic work in the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection. As I searched through the archives, I discovered that twenty of the photographs that I needed to document Costa Chica Afro-Mexican dance were missing. The librarian urged me to give George a call. He enthusiastically welcomed me and referred me to his photographic collaborator, Jose Manuel Pellicer, who lived in Houston. I visited with Pellicer, who immediately opened his collection and his home. The three of us met regularly over coffee, computer screens, and Vietnamese food to discuss the dynamics of cultural expressions in Mexico. The result is this collaborative volume.


Jackson has spent the better part of twenty years traveling through some of the most remote regions of Mexico photographing the spectacles surrounding Mexican village performances. Like Edward Curtis, he sees himself as documenting a disappearing set of lifestyles and performances. For Jackson, traveling to a remote village is as simple as saying "Let's go" and hiring a car to take him directly to the site. His enthusiasm and winning personality belie the years of meticulous effort that he has devoted to creating one of the most extensive photographic records of indigenous and mestizo lifestyles in the late twentieth century. Jackson initiated his "Essence of Mexico" project in 1990. For eleven years he photographed the dance, costume, music, ceremony, folk art, ephemera, and architecture of sixty indigenous Mexican cultural groups. His stunning photographs have been exhibited at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the Tyler Museum of Art, and the San Antonio Museum of Art.


Pellicer comes from a prominent Mexican family of artists with roots in poetry, cinematography, music, art, and politics. Early on, he lived between the countryside of Tabasco and the urban reality of Mexico City. Although university studies and professional practice propelled him into the commercial world, his conscience directed him to participate in the arts. In 1968 he decided to work with Purepecha communities in the state of Michoacán. He became a part of revolutionary movements in Mexico, Europe, and the United States. Pellicer worked within the penal system of the Costa Chica and inspired Veronique Flanet to write the book, Vivire si Dios quiere, about Mixtecan Native Americans and black mestizos from that region. As a photographer, he began to explore the contradictory presence of black Native Americans in Mexico. Pellicer now uses documentary photography and photographic manipulation to explore the spectrum of the "Atlantic" culture of the Americas: the rich music, dance, artistry, and politics of Africans, Europeans, and Native Americans.


The photographs by Jackson and Pellicer illustrate dance events that are similar to those I have witnessed over the past three decades of dance research in Mexico. Because performance is ephemeral, it cannot be captured in its entirety with a camera lens. Each audience views the dance from a different perspective and imbues the event with unique knowledge. The photographs illustrate performance elements that are common to the dance forms that they represent. Details of audience relationships, mask design, physical gestures, or motion are made visible through the artists' lenses. Each shot cannot provide a complete picture, but it is hoped that collectively the photographs will provide a better understanding of the intricate complexities of Afro-Mexican dance performance.


Defining Terms and Concepts


Some of the terms and conceptual ideas of the project need defining. I use the term Afro-Mexicans to describe people of African descent living in Mexico. To some extent this term is externally imposed, because the Mexican government does not recognize Afro-Mexicans as a national indigenous group. I prefer to use the term Afro-Mexican because it simplifies the grammatical structures of the writing. Because I am discussing multiple types of African identities, I believe that it would become cumbersome and confusing to use the terms African, African Mexican, African American, African indigenous, African North American, and so on. Also, the use of the hyphenated term more closely represents the use of the Spanish terms afromestizo, afroamericano, and afroindígena.


Indigenous is a word that means "originating in" or "native to." I would like to use this term broadly to refer to communities that originate from specific regions or geographic areas. I use the term Native American to refer to people who occupied the Americas prior to colonization. There are times when I may use the term Indian to refer to Native Americans because of specific local references or histories. Local communities use language—for example, the terms negro, indio, or moreno—to make racial distinctions based on phenotypes. During colonial times a casta system imposed by the Spanish viceroyalties clearly defined racial mixture. Today racial categories are slippery and relative. This book identifies communities where African presence is recognized through history, language, or self-identity. The boundaries are mutable, not fixed. Another term that is sometimes used in books and publications is Afro-mestizo or Afro-indio. These generally indicate subtler mixtures of ancestries, mixtures that I feel are impossible to isolate and identify in the twenty-first century.


Afro-Mexicans are a subcategory of what I call African Americans—people in the western hemisphere whose descendants came from Africa. Africans have been traveling to the Americas since at least the fifteenth century—as sailors, merchants, soldiers, workers, and slaves. Migrations from Africa continue to enhance the cultural landscape of the Americas. Collectively African Diaspora people may be called "African Americans," even though the English term most frequently refers to African Diaspora residents of the United States. The related term Afro-Latino describes African descendants who live within the geographic area of Latin America. This vast area includes several language groups, among them, Spanish, French, English, Creole, Garifuna, and Pidgin.


In this work I presume to examine dancing, yet I define this term broadly. Euro-American elite art traditions tend to separate the disciplines of music, dance, and storytelling, whereas Native American, traditional African, and Spanish folk forms like flamenco unite the disciplines. Consequently, I consider dance to include multiple performance forms. Dancing emphasizes the communicative power of human gesture, yet it is created in response to music, characters, stories, and visual symbols. The unique combination of various performance elements is what creates distinct cultural dances.


This book primarily documents festival dances. Festivals, as meeting grounds for human beings, become stages for enacting multiple cultural identities. Each human being is a conglomerate of identities, both public and personal. Personal identities are developed within the nurturing cocoon of friends and families, but public identities are formed and negotiated in public spaces. Street performance and outdoor gatherings provide unique opportunities for groups of people to come together to share a temporary identity space through performance. Parades, for example, bring U.S. citizens together to celebrate collective identities such as war veterans or Puerto Rican immigrant status. In a similar way, patron feast day celebrations in Latin America bring townspeople together to celebrate identities that are important to the Mexican collective consciousness. Public celebrations in Mexico commonly honor identities such as ranch worker, farmer, or Mexican patriot.


Often performances incorporate mythical or archetypal characters. Archetype is a troubled word. I use it here to mean a prototypical image that serves as a symbolic representation of an idea. An archetypical bull, for example, might represent valor; an archetypical devil represents evil. The symbolic meanings of archetypes change according to the society that generates and uses them. This project explores the resonance of archetypes in specific local contexts. Generally, societies use myths and archetypes to separate communities—to distinguish "us" from "them." However, when boundaries between communities blur, or racial definitions become indistinct, new cultural paradigms are developed to explain the discrepancies. Expressive culture—words, gestures, visual art, masks, and movement—communicate these cultural ideas. When maintained across time, these representations of ideas become myths that permeate local communities.


I would describe most of the dances that appear in this work as community dances. Their purpose is not to entertain or to make money but rather to unite communities around a common event that allows them to celebrate an experience that is unique to their location. Community-based theatres around the world "depend upon ongoing dialog between artists and spectators and explore ways of maximizing the agency of a local audience."27 The festival dances in particular grow out of a commitment to a local community or social group. Some of the dances presented here have arisen within Afro-Mexican communities; others originated in Native American or mestizo pueblos and include Afro-Mexican or black characters. Because blacks and Native Americans live and work together in close proximity, dance becomes an ideal way to reconcile differences and resolve community fears about shifting relationships between neighbors.


Afro-Mexican performances are truly multidisciplinary. Music, visual artistry, text, and gesture combine to create theatrical space for expression. Unlike concert art, where audiences focus on a single artistic discipline, popular festival performances integrate multiple art forms. The mask maker works with the local seamstress to create the theatrical outfits; the musicians inaugurate the performance space with song before the dancers participate and then continue to play while dancers execute steps; and characters cavort with bystanders. This aspect of festival performance can seem messy and disorganized. In situ, at the site of its origin, dance does not organize itself into choreographed lines of dancers moving through space in mechanized and recognizable figures. Rather, the disorderly chaos of life informs the forms and structures of the dances. Some events may look monotonous to the outsider and continue for hours or perhaps days. The climactic moment may be muffled or hidden from the spectator's eye.


Ultimately, the dances that occur at festivals or in public spaces are designed to affirm community. As Beezley writes, "Mexican local celebrations traditionally served simultaneously to reaffirm rights in communal lands and neighborhood structures, reinforce community solidarity, and redistribute wealth by requiring sponsors to underwrite their costs." The dances are collective celebrations of important events that establish the relationship of the community to collective, universal and seasonal time. Life cycles are emphasized through a theatrical mirror that reflects histories and social relationships accumulated within the community.


The Chapters


Chapter 1 provides a framework for the study by introducing a general history about Mexico. In this overview I emphasize broad theatrical movements that have contributed to the development of dance, drama, and festival performance. I also locate African presence within the broader panorama of Mexican cultural histories. The next three chapters discuss the way in which African presence in Mexico is represented through dance. The work is presented as a dialogic call and response of dance imagery. Afro-Mexican communities from the western coastal area of Mexico dance their own identities in masked performances that feature violent and aggressive archetypal characters. Mestizo and Native American communities respond to African presence with their own masked dances that re-present stereotypical and sometimes archetypal notions about African identities. Complementing these two responses to African presence are folkloric dances that originate within Afro-Mexican communities and are performed across Mexico by multiple ethnicities as representations of Mexico's mixed-race heritage. Elements of African presence are traceable even within these homogenized styles of dancing. Afro-Mexican dances, as described in the book's four chapters, are dialogic tools that illustrate myths and realities of African presence in Mexico. Mexican populations, both African and non-African, use dance to respond to ongoing processes of migration and cultural mixing in the Americas.


Chapter 2 discusses Afro-Mexican masked performances at festivals. In these dances performers break societal moral codes while hidden behind the faces of animals or supernatural creatures. This type of performance allows Afro-Mexican community members to break the rules and release hidden frustrations with social systems. At the same time, it unites Costa Chica communities in dance practices that are local and specific to each village. In chapter 3, I discuss festival performances in three communities: Huamelula, Ahuacoutzingo, and Coaxtlahuacan. Like reflective mirrors, these dance events provide images of blackness through the eyes of communities that lie alongside Afro-Mexican areas. Performances in these villages demonstrate the importance of local responses to the African Diaspora. The dance commentaries attest to an ongoing and active interaction between blacks and Native Americans at local sites; they underscore the fluidity of Native American interpretations of the African Diaspora in Mexico. Too often, Diaspora studies are framed as dialogues between European and African constituencies. Performance, as described in this chapter, provides an alternative analytical frame for rethinking the impact of Africans in the Americas.


Chapter 4 considers mainstream folkloric performance, dances that originated within Afro-Mexican communities and were later assimilated into international productions and/or national Mexican culture. Although these dances are similar to other Mexican national folkloric dance styles, they retain some elements that link them to the communities of their origin. Distinctive rhythms, rebellious lyrics, and improvisatory exchanges capture the histories of specific Afro-Mexican regions where Chilenas, Artesas, and Jarochos are most popular.


Each of the discussions of the dances, their practice, and their histories has been brought to life through photographs that illustrate artists in action. The dancer is a human being who creates a living art form. The image of the body in motion is what invigorates audiences and allows the dance to resonate as a performed history. Dancing between myth and reality is an active practice and an effective strategy for unsettling images of ethnic identity.




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