FP Antonieta Gimeno Attends Conference on Black Mexicans

 

 

MEXICO 1

Professor Lowell Gudmundson and Frances Perkins Scholar Antonieta Gimeno Cardona look over a map of Mexico.

Entering the Frances Perkins Program at Mount Holyoke in fall 1999 gave Antonieta Gimeno Cardona the opportunity to fulfill a long time goal: to study Latin American history and culture. In March, that goal led to her participation as an observer at the fourth "Gathering of Black Towns" (Encuentro de Pueblos Negros) in Collantes, near the Pacific coast in Oaxaca state, in her native Mexico. The grassroots conference, organized by and for Mexican peoples of African descent, is part of an incipient movement to address issues that affect an historically invisible and therefore neglected population.

Gimeno's academic work during her first two semesters served as a foundation to explore issues of Latinos and the African diaspora. During spring term, she began working with Lowell Gudmundson, professor and chair of Latin American studies, on his research into the history of Guatemalan Blacks. This led to additional readings about Black Mexicans and to the development of a proposal for her own research, with objectives to guide her observations while in Mexico, focusing on women's participation, local definitions of black identity, and the role of art, theater and music in those definitions.

"As soon as I arrived in Collantes I was welcomed by everyone with openness and generosity," says Gimeno. "I was impressed by the contrasts in the region. On the one hand there was the breathtaking beauty and richness of the land, which produces mango, coconut, lemon, corn, and watermelon, with a river flowing behind the people's homes. The first day of the conference we were taken by the village fishermen to enjoy the Pacific ocean, followed by a 'treat' of roasted corn. This was paradise! On the other hand, there was the obvious poverty in terms of housing, resources, services, and income, the very issues that brought together women in this and past encuentros."

The encuentro was a small community effort convened by a core group from Collantes and its neighboring black communities. Young women of high-school and middle-school age were in charge of registration and accommodations. The hard work of the local community not only attracted Black Mexicans from nearby communities but also grassroots organizers, artists, anthropologists, and teachers from Morelos, Oaxaca City, Queretaro, and Veracruz. There were also a small number of African American observers from the United States, some of whom have visited the region on a regular basis.

In both plenary sessions and small workshops, organizers and local participants evaluated the goals and results of this encuentro as well as the three previous ones. Several women and men took the microphone to share their experiences as Black Mexicans. They spoke of their pride in being black and of the importance of building ties among these communities. Others presented testimonies of instances of harassment by the local or state police who question their nationality. One local young man studying for the priesthood in Oaxaca City said: "I was detained for several hours and interrogated. They forced me to sing the national anthem to prove that I was Mexican. Still they said, "You are Cuban or Honduran, you are not Mexican.'"

Speaking with the women from Collantes in charge of feeding the participants was particularly revealing of their harsh realities, says Gimeno. When one woman was asked how she defined being a Black Mexican, she spoke with tears in her eyes of the financial difficulties of simply surviving. Another added that being black meant people treat you badly and assume the worst about you. Such testimonies reflect the basic reason for the encuentros: to develop a black consciousness and to educate others about these issues. "I was impressed with the encuentro because it represented a grassroots and participatory process based on the ideas and opinions of the community members rather than those of academics," says Gimeno. The gathering included an art exhibit by local mask makers and a drumming and singing workshop for youth, who displayed their talents to the audience. The closing event was a festival of traditional dances depicting stories of special historical significance for this community.

Gimeno's participation in the encuentro was supported by the Latin American studies program, the dean of the college's office, and the international relations, African and African American studies, and women's studies departments. Her plans for the major in Latin American studies include independent study research on these topics and continued collaboration with the Collantes community and its projects.

 

photo by Nancy Palmieri

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