On Being Black in Mexico City

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In planning my three-month trip to Latin America, I did some research on how black people were viewed in each country I wanted to visit.

To people who never have to think about race (white people who choose not to), there is a sensitivity to why people of color or “the blacks” are always bringing up race. It’s pretty simple: it would not be smart for me to go to a place without understanding what people might think when they see me.

I’m not staying at an American hotel. I’m staying for a month, within their communities. I’ll be seeing life as a non-tourist and how I’ll be perceived is a reality I have to face, not a creation in my mind to annoy those who think racism is over.

I do the research because as a female traveling alone, I might want to pass on experiences that will be negative just based on my race. I’m not saying I would avoid a location for a lifetime, but maybe until my Spanish is better and I can more easily communicate. You don’t want to have to count on the generosity of others to try to understand you if they dislike you on sight.

In my research on Mexico, I learned that slaves escaped to Mexico during the time of slavery in the US. And the Mexicans did not send them back!

I always knew that slaves tried to make it to Canada, but I had no idea about Mexico. I went to parochial school and then southern, suburban secondary schools — both places where they put more trust in the Bible than in science or history — so I missed out on much important history. So there are African, or black, Mexicans! However, Mexico City is not one of the places they emigrated to, so I shouldn’t expect to see a lot of black people.


SIDEBAR/SOAPBOX: And some wonder why Black History month is important? If textbook publishers would represent history accurately to the benefit ALL Americans, it would no longer be necessary. As it stands, places like Texas give incorrect textbooks that refer the Africans who were brought to America in chains, as workers. And because Texas has such a large buying block for textbooks, students in many other states are being taught that perspective lie as well.


For the most part, my experience here has been as an American woman, not an African-American woman. Yet there have been a few instances that made it obvious that although there are plenty of people here who share my skin-tone, but perhaps not my heritage, they are not that used to black people.Here are some of my experiences.

DID YOU SEE HER?
In line for subway tickets, an older woman with years of sunburned skin spots me, gets visibly excited and demands that each of her daughters look at me. I don’t really know what she was saying to them as she explains something about me, but she was so excited, eyes sparkling, smiling so broadly – and almost…proudly.I could tell that she was teaching them something about my hair and skin (I gleaned from her hand movements). I wish I knew what it was. Her teenaged daughters were less than interested, but they were respectful to her and nodded that yes they saw, their body language saying that they wished she’d shut up. I mean it’s not like I’m Beyoncé.

These shoe shine stands are ubiquitous and almost always busy. Men take a lot of pride in their appearance.

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I passed, a shoe shiner on the street and as I waited for the traffic signal, he stopped his work, stared and when I finally crossed the street, I heard him utter an awe-inspired “guuuuaaaapo,”almost like he’d seen a mermaid or unicorn.

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In line at the movies, a 20-something woman in a group of friends spotted me and elbowed her friends to get their attention. Suddenly they fall silent and stare. After about 20 seconds of awkward silence, I finally look over, curiously, and they awkwardly go back to their conversations.
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Taco stands are plentiful. They cook fresh food in front of you and you stand or sit casually with others and enjoy an afternoon break.

Taco stands are plentiful. They cook fresh food in front of you and you stand or sit casually with others and enjoy an afternoon break.

In a group of 4 men having lunch at the taco stand, seated next to me, one of them stared at me constantly. Upon leaving, I smiled at him. He choked on his beer. I’m pretty sure that was not related to me being black though. He needs to work on his game.

BABIES AND DOGS

Littles generally find me fascinatingly. On a Saturday afternoon in the market, a little girl pointed and gasped “negra!” I didn’t find it offensive like I would if a child in the United States had done the same. If you live in the US and your kid is surprised to see a person of color, you are doing something wrong.

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Other children have lingered around me and stared. When I smile at them, they see that as a cue to either perform for me, mostly turning in circles and giggling. Or, they to try to talk to me – until I finally have to tell them “yo hable espanol poco poco” measuring my fingers at the smallest size possible.————————

One 2-year old in a cafe came up and started playing bongo on my butt, causing her mom unspeakable embarrassment. That is until her sister, maybe a 4-year old, fingered and then pulled my hair, fascinated by its texture.————————

Some dogs are afraid of me – well two dogs have been. It was night time and I was an imposing, large and dark figure they weren’t expecting. They lost their shit. They were both puppies though.

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Some of the experiences are not related to people, but products. For example, when I was looking at makeup foundation, the salesgirl aligned my skintone with a shade called NATURAL. Natural? Never in my life have I been the “natural,” “nude,” or “flesh” tone. I’ve always been the tone they needed to order, or mix two to get close to.
It’s funny, when I pass people on the street, I expect them to clutch their handbags or cross to the other side of the street (hello, America). That hasn’t been my experience. For the most part, Mexicans are a lot like New Yorkers – they mind their own business, but are helpful when you need it.
And overall, so far, I’m seen as just your basic Spanish-mangling AMERICAN.
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3 thoughts on “On Being Black in Mexico City

  1. Congratulations on your travel to Mexico City. I know from personal experience that it can be an overwhelming, but truly fascinating place. Since my original trip there in 2014, I have been making trips back about once every two -three months. I have fallen in love with the place, and being African American, feel much able to be free without the encumbrances of “American racial baggage”. I am considering retiring in the D.F. Anyways, keep an open mind, embrace the culture, and have a happy and safe journey.

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