Tag Archives: Mexico

Review of PBS’ “Black in Latin America”: Mexico/Peru

An 18th Century Casta Painting from Mexico, showing different racial combinations.

In my mother’s home country of Ecuador, there’s a province that is unlike any other.

Where the majority of the population is of either pure indigenous or mestizo (mixed white-indigenous) extraction, Esmeraldas appears as a stark contrast to the norm. The province, located on the northern coast abutting Colombia, appears better suited to the Caribbean than to an Andean country. Even with large white and native populations, Esmeraldas is dominated by Africans imported during the Spanish conquest of the 16th Century. Its culture and traditions point farther east than the Andes, towards the coasts of West Africa from which their ancestors were taken.

Athletes from Esmeraldas are especially successful. A glance at Ecuador’s soccer team would have one think they were from Cuba, Trinidad or Jamaica—anything but a South American mountain republic.

There are enclaves like Esmeraldas in many countries in Central and South America. In the last chapter of PBS’ Black in Latin America, Henry Louis Gates looks at two such areas: the black peoples of Veracruz and the Costa Chica in Mexico and the enclave outside Lima, Peru.

Unlike the Caribbean, Central and South America’s native population was too vast and too concentrated to be wiped out. The cultures of these areas, thus, carried a more Amerindian hue. The exception is the Southern Cone, where marginal native populations, as well as Africans, were absorbed into large European immigrant communities.

Yet according to Gates, the African influence is much larger than we realize—especially as African influences were absorbed or subsumed into the larger Hispano-Amerindian community.

More Africans were imported into Mexico and Peru than the United States. Almost half of all enslaved Africans imported to Spanish America came to Mexico. Cities such as Lima and Veracruz contained a distinct African hue, in contrast to the Spanish-native hybrid culture that surrounds them. Many Mexicans and Peruvians contain some African blood, even those that look mestizo. Furthermore, cultural aspects such as music, dance, and food contained as much African influence as from Europe and the Americas.

So apart from a few enclaves, where did all the Africans go?

In Mexico, the slave boom was early and brief, through the 17th century, and emancipation came sooner (in 1829). Blacks intermarried earlier and more vigorously, and by the 1920s it was difficult to even tell who was of African descent. Officially, scholars and politicians extolled the multi-racial “brownness” of Mexico’s people—a homogenization of all cultures that pushed black identity into the background.

A similar pattern occurred in Peru and other South American nations. Although emancipation was more gradual in South America, the overwhelming native and mestizo populations mixed just as vigorously into African families, creating a similar “brownness” to the Mexican experience.

The most dramatic—and tragic—example is on the Rio de la Plata in Argentina, where black populations were almost entirely integrated into either mestizo or, more commonly, European immigrant populations. In effect, this did in fact wipe out the African influence on the Southern Cone, with the exception of Uruguay, where blacks and mulattos from neighboring Brazil buttress their own communities.

So in looking at these groups, and the series in a whole, I’m left with one question: Is racial intermingling and color-blindness necessarily a good thing?

A common theme in this chapter, and in the series, is the mistaken benevolence of color-blindness. For many in Latin America, especially places like the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Brazil, it was thought that the mixing of races would create a new pan-racial harmony that transcended labels and heritage. Gates himself points out that this benevolent “openness” is in itself a form of racism, in that it refuses to deal with the realities of culture and especially domestic social problems.

To be honest, Gates has a point. People are not ingredients in a soup, where different flavors and textures get blended together to make one uniform concoction. There will always be shades of color among us, and whenever there is difference, there is usually some form of discrimination be it overt or subtle. Otherwise, the enclaves of Afro-Latin Americans in Esmeraldas, Veracruz, Lima and the Costa Chica would not exist.

Yet I also get a sense—and I think Gates feels it also—that even though it may be merely a pipe dream, “racial democracy” is something worth striving for. There is hope that in the future there can be a time where all people are treated equally and fairly—while at the same time acknowledging and celebrating the different cultures that have shaped the American continent.

That hope was seen in the universities in Brazil, among young people in the Dominican Republic, in the activists striving in the Costa Chica in Mexico, and even the underground rappers and artists in Cuba that fight for their identity even when official policy condemns them as treasonous.

Whatever the future holds, this much is certain: the cultures of Latin America would not be the same if it weren’t for the millions of Africans kidnapped and brought to these shores. They gave far more than they ever got in return.

In acknowledging their contributions, it goes a small way to repaying that debt.

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Videos for the Classroom: BBC’s “Conquistadors” – The fall of the Aztecs

Today’s video is Episode 1 of Michael Wood‘s 2001 BBC documentary The Conquistadors.  This episode covers the first post-Columbus push into the American continent: Hernan Cortes‘ 1519-1522 expedition into Mexico.

In 1519, Hernan Cortes led a band of adventurers and treasure-seekers into the flourishing Aztec empire.  By utilizing resentment of imprisoned tribes, as well as exploiting Aztec legends of the god Quetzalcoatl, the Spaniards managed to penetrate Mexico all the way into the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan and the embattled Aztec emperor Montezuma II.  Within a couple of years, the Aztec empire collapsed, and the Spanish would establish the colony of New Spain, with Mexico City built on the ruins of the old Aztec capital.

Wood’s movie is important, in that it not only chronicles the Cortes expedition and its aftermath, but also views the events through the lens of modern Mexico, highlighting how the conquest has affected this area even today.  As so many students are now studying the first European encounters in the Americas, this film would make a worthwhile compliment to your unit planning.

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This Day in History 5/5: The Battle of Puebla and “Cinco de Mayo”

Let’s be perfectly clear, once and for all.

Cinco de Mayo is NOT Mexico’s independence day.  That would be September 16, the day Mexico declared its independence from Spain.

And it was not an invention Corona and Jose Cuervo, either…despite what the marketing at happy hour tells you.

In 1861, Benito Juarez, president of Mexico, stopped all interest payments to Mexican loans from European countries.  Most countries wished to occupy the port of Veracruz until the debt was paid.  The French, however, tried their hand at occupation.

A 6,000 strong French army reached the town of Puebla, near Mexico City, in 1862.  They were the cream of France’s military, including Chasseurs d’Afrique (Hunters of Africa), feared colonial troops, Zouaves, and the French Foreign Legion.  The Mexican army totaled 4,500-4,600, mostly veterans of the Reform Wars, a civil war that swept through Mexico a decade earlier.  Though not exactly the ragtag army of legend, the Mexicans were perceived as outmatched.

Yet the French made a grave miscalculation.  They thought the local population would be friendly to the French invaders, since they were on the wrong side of the Reform Wars.  Those old animosities didn’t matter anymore.  After wasting their ammunition and a bad turn in the weather, the French were beaten back by the solid defense of the Mexican veterans. 

462 French soldiers died, with over 300 wounded and 8 taken prisoner.  The Mexicans lost only 83, with 131 wounded.  It would be the last time a European army would formally (emphasis on formally) attack a country in the Western Hemisphere.

Suprisingly, even though Benito Juarez declared a national holiday for May 5, it is not considered a federal holiday in Mexico today.  On this side of the border, Cinco de Mayo has degenerated further, from a celebration of Mexican culture to an excuse to get sloshed on bad margaritas and buckets of Corona.

So tonight, as you tie one on with your umpteenth tequila shot, remember why we celebrate today.  The video attached, while a little crude, gives most of the important details.

The Epilogue of the Cuba Chronicles will return next time.

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If We Lose, It Doesn’t Count – America’s “Small Wars”

“There are no good wars, with the following exceptions: the American Revolution, World War II and the Star Wars Trilogy.” – Bart Simpson

There have been times in our history when a declaration of war could not come fast enough.

Most students have knowledge of a list of conflicts considered the major wars of US history: the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War and the Iraq War (I don’t think we count Afghanistan yet.  If I’m wrong, let me know.)

Yet these have not been our only use of military force.  According to a report published by the Congressional Research Service, the United States has been involved in hundreds of military actions since independence.  Most have been actions recommended by the President and authorized by Congress.  In some cases, a country declares war on us, and we don’t bother–we simply blow them up.

Whatever the case, here are some of our “small wars”, our smaller military engagements overseas.

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Undeclared War with France 1798-1800

What happens when you have to pay a  bill from a restaurant that’s “under new management”?  You get a naval war with France.  The French Revolution put a stopper on the alliance the United States signed with the old Kingdom of France in 1778.  Along the way, the US decided to no longer repay its debts to France, arguing that they made a treaty with the previous government, not the current one.  Furthermore, the 1795 Jay Treaty helped smooth things over with Great Britain.  France responds by going ape-shit on our shipping, capturing hundreds of tons of US cargo.  This brief scuffle existed mostly at sea, and a sit-down with Napoleon Bonaparte in 1800 settled the matter–far too late to get John Adams re-elected President.   Maybe Johnny should’ve turned this one into the real thing.

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First and Second Barbary Wars 1801-1805, 1815

The Middle East was always a pain in our ass, dating back to Thomas Jefferson.  The Barbary States of Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli were supposedly part of the Ottoman Empire, but they decided to ignore Constantinople since the 17th century for big money.   These states supported pirate fleets across the Mediterranean, and demanded tribute from European powers wishing to sail in its turf.  The British and French could afford the payouts, but not the US.  They tried paying out in the 1780s, but the Barbary demands proved too much.  Cue the nascent US Navy, whose four frigates and numerous small craft dealt a four-year pounding to the Barbary fleets–and helped create the Navy’s first heroes.  It also helped that Britain and France were too busy fighting each other to mind.  Treaties were signed by 1805, but apparently didn’t stick.  By 1815, another whupping was needed.  This time, they got the message.

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Chinese Intevention 1843, 1854, 1866, 1894-1895, 1898-1899, 1900, 1911-1912, etc.

Sometimes it just doesn’t pay to be the nice guy.  The United States had a mission in China since the early 1800s, when the European powers were carving up the country into “spheres of influence.”  The US decided to take the high road and enforce all countries to trade equally with China through the “Treaty ports” as in Canton, pictured above.   Our forces found out, really quickly, that (a) keeping the foreigners in line was no easy task, and (b) keeping the locals in check was even harder.  Throughout the 19th Century, the US would be engaged in skirmishes with locals, pirates, smugglers, other navies, etc.  The climax was the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, which pitted rebellious Chinese–and their do-nothing government–against an eight-nation supersquad armed to the teeth.  By now, the Americans were sick of being the nice guy and just wanted to get what’s coming.  Our forces would be in China, off and on, until the Communist takeover of 1949.  Something told me Chairman Mao was not thrilled about having us there. 

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Philippines Rebellion 1899-1913

America got into the imperialism business late: by the time we entered whole-hog in 1898, all the good stuff was taken–damn you, Belgium!  Anyway, the only way to get our own foreigners to boss around was to steal them from someone else.  Who better to steal from than the wounded gazelle that is the Spanish Empire.  The Spanish-American War in 1898 gained us a colonial empire virtually overnight.  The Philippines, however, did not understand this, and had the nerve to revolt against their US “liberators”.  So began a brutal war of attrition that officially ended with the surrender of the rebels in 1902,  but would continue sporadically in the hinterlands until 1913.  The intervention was extremely controversial in the States, with Mark Twain doing his best Sean Penn impression as a celebrity meddling in politics.  Thus began another great American tradition–celebrities sticking their noses in places where they don’t belong.

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Mexican “Pancho Villa” Expedition 1914-1917

Another one of America’s great sticking points is Mexico–or as Zachary Taylor may have called it, “the part we didn’t steal.”  I think they’re better off without California, to be honest.  Anyway, the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1929 was putting Mexico into political and social turmoil.  The American military was monitoring the situation closely, especially that of an erratic guerrilla leader named Francisco “Pancho” Villa.  In 1915, in retaliation for US support of a rival presidential candidate, Villa’s forces crosse the border and attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico.  A 10,000 man force led by General John Pershing was sent to find and punish Villa.  The men found tequila and the brothels, instead, as Pershing was bogged down by orders and directives from Washington.  The men withdrew in January 1917, just in time for the big dust-up across the Atlantic.

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Nicaraguan Intervention 1912-1933

Remember the Monroe Doctrine?  That 1825 protocol that stated that European nations cannot meddle in affairs in the Western Hemisphere?  Well, for at least a century, the United States felt this was carte blanche to do whatever we wanted.  Teddy Roosevelt even said so in his Roosevelt Corollary of 1904, when he extended US “police powers” to any Central or South American country that reneged on its debt payments.   In this case, the US felt that the Panama Canal wasn’t enough: a bigger canal was needed across Nicaragua.  Federal troops entered the country in order to (a) make sure no other country tries to build a canal, and (b) prop up the conservative governments in Nicaragua that have been so friendly to US interests.  Yet time and the Great Depression would take their toll.  The long-standing–and expensive–occupation ended in 1933 when Augusto Sandino led a group of revolutionaries against the occupation forces.  US forces would withdraw, only to fight a proxy war with the same group fifty years later.  Who do you think the Contras were fighting against?  Does the word Sandinista ring a bell?

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Dominican Republic 1916-1924

In 1916, after a period of political instability, the United States issued a warning to the Dominican Republic: pick a president or we’ll pick one for you.  The guy the Dominicans picked turned out to be a dud, so the United States invaded the island nation and established a military dictatorship that lasted until 1924.  The Dominicans, naturally, resisted this foreign rule, and rebellions were met with brutal suppression by US forces.  However, the dictatorship managed to do what previous Dominican governments couldn’t–balance the budget, preserve order and stability, lowered the debt, built new roads and created a professional military for the country.  By 1924, agreements between the DR and the US provided for free elections  to be held, and the occupation was over.  Today, Santo Domingo’s greatest ballplayers have come to return the favor. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Haiti 1915-1934

Hispaniola is a small island, after all, and Haiti wanted its share of US aggression, as well.  By 1915 Haiti had 6 presidents in 4 years, all of whom were killed or forced into exile.   The US was worried that a German contingent in Haiti would wield too much power, so forces were sent in 1915 to “protect American and foreign interests.” They stayed as the de facto government until 1934.  All decisions by the Haitian government had to be okayed by the military occupation.  Infrastructure was built using forced labor gangs.   Education was reorganized so that both rich and poor were equally pissed off.  A rebellion in 1918 was crushed by Marines to the tune of 2000 Haitians dead.  Even withdrawal between 1932 and 1934 didn’t help: Haiti would see a series of US-backed military dictatorships for the next half century.

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