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Chocolate and Corn Flour: History, Race, and Place in the Making of "Black" Mexico (review)

From: Journal of Latin American Geography
Volume 11, Number 2, 2012
pp. 206-208 | 10.1353/lag.2012.0037

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Anyone pouring over a racial or ethnic map of the Americas has no doubt seen a small polygon running along the Mexican Pacific coast that identifies people of African descent. This book addresses a much-neglected topic in cultural anthropology and geography and masterfully fills in both the history of this Afro-Mexican enclave called the Costa Chica, with a special emphasis on how this community identifies itself in the modern, transnational world of today. Anthropologist Laura A. Lewis states: "The book coheres around places and boundaries. My objectives are to show how race, with which I begin, draws one to an ongoing "past," while migration, with which I end, draws one to an urbanized "modern," and elusive future" (12). The book's content concentrates on the subtitle since the title is a metaphor for African (chocolate) and indigenous (corn flour) miscegenation.

Eight chapters and a conclusion constitute the work, which is thick with description about magic, kinship, place, prestige, self-perception, and skin color. To the latter, there is an interesting discussion of terms like moreno, negro, prieto, morado, afromexicano, afromestizo, claro, blanco, and others. 'Black' (negro) is mostly used to refer to ancestors but conveys pejorative terms in certain contexts and intonations today. Moreno appears to be the term used most commonly among the San Nicoladenses and others of the Costa Chica. This unique subculture is particularly tolerant of homosexuality and have a 'live-let-live' world view that distinguish them from a largely homophobic Mexico. Hair textures, too, define the level of blackness (chino, cuculuste, lacio, crespo) in more nuanced ways that the one-drop rule that many of this immigrants encounter in the American South in particular, and the U.S. at large.

Chapter Eight, "Transnationalism, place and the mundane," discusses these dark Mexicans' lives in the USA. Waughtown (aka "Little Mexico") is a district in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It is home to about 1,000 San Nicoladenses. The author has been able to visit them often because of her close proximity in southwest Virginia where she teaches. Originally, migrants headed for California but since the mid-1990s, a new stream out of Mexico's Costa Chica (an area between Oaxaca and Acapulco containing about 20 communities of African descent) head to the east coast of the United States to find work. In Winston-Salem, they tend to labor in the construction, manufactured housing, other light manufacturing, and service industries in a part of the U.S. were textiles once reigned supreme. We learn that San Nicoladenses adorn themselves differently than African-Americans in North Carolina, and the perceptions of how American Blacks view dark-skinned San Nicoladenses and others from the Costa Chica region make for intriguing reading.

Remittances, of course, drive this international and often illegal migrant stream and often has the reward of allowing these dark-skinned Mexicans to build shelter back home: "Cement in small peasant communities has turned into a symbol of progress. To construct a house out of cement [as opposed to wattle and daub]...has been a common goal. Disdain for regional materials has become an illness" (p. 288). This sentiment is no doubt shared by other migrants in Latin America and elsewhere. Crossing the U. S. border means many things: a rite of passage in a laborers' search, exposure to violence and rape, and the chance to work and send money home. Lewis weaves these stories with discussions of race, globalization, and kinship.

Two minor points interrupted an otherwise gripping read. The author draws on 15 years or so of extensive fieldwork funded by the most prestigious organizations. That she is 'credentialed' and has gained 'entry' into her community to conduct this ethnography are made awkwardly clear by the second photograph of the book. It shows Dr. Lewis being kissed by a San Nicoladensa (a Black woman whose pseudonym is Delia) as the smiling and youthful white author sits with the local on the artesa. I do not know what to make of this and have not seen anything like it before. Also, the two maps fronting the opening page of the text sorely need an inset box around the large-scale maps; different fonts and perspectives...



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