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Amid a yellow and orange gradient, the blue silhouette of palms trees sit on the horizon. at the forefront of the image is a Afro-Mexican woman with dark hair and gilded bangle earrings that read "Mexico". She looks hesitant and distant from the   silhouettes of white figures that are behind her. Their bodies--all of white Mexicans--are faintly outlined by dark blue line-work.
(Arantza Peña Popo)
A Proud Afro-Mexicana Finds Her Way In LA
When you feel invisible in the country you were born in — and even more so in the country that you adopt.
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Moving away from your home country is never easy. You lose connection with family and friends, eventually even with your roots.

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  • This story is part of an LAist series called Being American. It’s inspired by the success of our year-long Race In LA series, in which Angelenos shared personal stories about how our race and/or ethnicity shapes our lived experience.

It’s even harder when you realize you need to reaffirm your identity, again and again, to people who have no idea that people like you exist.

I moved to Los Angeles last year from Mexico City, where I’d lived since I was a child. I came here to be with my husband, Brian, who is a U.S. citizen.

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A young woman, left, and young man in dark sweatshirts sit in a garden outdoors, with greenery behind them.
Diana Pinacho, left, with her husband, Brian Lopez.
(Leslie Berestein Rojas

Last summer, Brian and I were on our way to a Daddy Yankee concert in Inglewood. A few of our friends, also big reggaeton fans, accompanied us. During our commute, we were discussing the details of our upcoming wedding. I don’t remember how it came about, but I showed one of our friends a photo of one of my bridesmaids, my friend Zonaly, who has dark skin.

Our friend, who is part Mexican and part Colombian, asked me, “Is she Mexican?”

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“Yes,” I said. “She is Afro-Mexican.”

He replied, “I didn’t know Black people lived in Mexico.”

It was shocking to hear this from someone who knew me, as I, too, am Afro-Mexican.

The next day, I spent time thinking about my maternal grandmother, Rosa Elba Hernandez Cruz, who is a Black woman. I also thought about her father, Próspero Hernández, a Black man who fought in the Mexican Revolution.

The author's grandmother is sitting inside a church in Guerrero. She is wearing a brightly patterned dress and is holding her walking stick.
The author’s grandmother, Rosa Elba Hernandez Cruz, at church in Guerrero in 2018.
(Courtesy of Diana Pinacho)

Not many people talk about the Black Mexicans who fought in the war; it wasn’t until a few years ago that this became a topic. Yet it’s believed by some that the revolution’s most recognizable figure, Emiliano Zapata, may have had Black ancestry.

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Afro-Mexicans have deep roots in my country, yet our presence is erased. And here in the U.S., as I have learned, few people even know about our existence, or our efforts to be seen.

Monte Alto, Guerrero

You don't realize you’re different until you have something to compare yourself to.

When I was growing up, my family and I split our time between Mexico City and Monte Alto, a small town in San Marcos, Guerrero, in Mexico’s Costa Chica region, where my mother was born.

The author’s aunt poses for a photo holding an umbrella under palm trees in Monte Alto.
The author’s aunt Esmeralda under palm trees in Monte Alto.
(Courtesy of Diana Pinacho)

I was not conscious about my racial identity, nor did I notice my grandmother's skin color, until one day when I was around 6, when she was visiting us in Mexico City. She went to pick me up from school, and I saw her next to my classmates' grandmothers. It was then I realized that she looked different from them.

A photo of the author at age 1 walking on the sand at Playa El Dorado in Guerrero; a palapa, beachgoers, and the ocean are seen just behind the child.
The author at age 1 on the sand at Playa El Dorado in Guerrero.
(Courtesy of Diana Pinacho)

Another time, a classmate approached me and asked, “Why does your mom have a Cuban accent? Is she Cuban?”

“She’s not, she’s from San Marcos, Guerrero,” I responded. I then realized that in Mexico City, being from Guerrero meant being different.

In Monte Alto, where we spent all of our summers, many people are dark-skinned, including my mom’s family. Some of our cousins there have curly hair.

People dance chilenas at weddings. Families serve traditional meals of black beans and white sticky rice with cotija cheese and chiles en vinagre. Girls there used aceite de coco —coconut oil — on their hair and skin before it became popular.

These are some of the most beautiful memories I have from my childhood summers in Monte Alto, memories that are still vibrant to this day.

I didn’t know that our culture in Monte Alto was Afro-Mexican culture, only that it was my culture.

The moment it clicked

Growing up the rest of the year in Mexico City provided me the opportunity to explore the chaotic beauty of a big city. I more or less blended in, though I was often referred to as “la morena,” the dark one. (In Monte Alto it was the opposite — friends and family there called me “la blanquita,” the white one.)

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Then one day when I was about 24, I was walking on the avenue known as Paseo de la Reforma when I saw an outdoor photo exhibit. Displayed along the avenue was a series of photos of people in hammocks, of arroz con frijoles, and other images that resembled Monte Alto. Some of the people in the photos looked like my family.

At the end of the sidewalk exhibit, there was a sign that read: “Mexico Negro.” I realized that the Mexico I knew in Monte Alto was Black Mexico.

Left: A photo of a woman with dark hair, seated, wearing a leather jacket; right: a photo of the same woman, wearing a beige jacket and a ponytail.
Left to right: The author in Mexico City, 2020; a recent photo in Los Angeles.
(Courtesy of Diana Pinacho)

For me, this was the beginning of my journey of self-recognition.

After that, I began learning about the Afro-Mexican population. I joined Afro-Mexican social media groups. I went online and read about our history and traditions. I even looked up and met the photographer whose photos from Costa Chica started me on my journey.

I learned that the erasure of Black people in Mexico has been going on for centuries. The Mexican government long promoted the concept of “Mestizaje,'' which nullified many other ethnicities in what today is known as Mexico.

A sepia portrait of the author’s grandmother, at around age 16. She has her hair up and is wearing a pearl necklace.
A portrait of the author’s grandmother, Rosa Elba Hernandez Cruz, at around age 16.
(Courtesy of Diana Pinacho)

As I read more, I learned that in the 16th century, a census performed by New Spain counted approximately 40,000 Black people in Mexico. Most of them were enslaved. It is estimated that at least 250,000 to 500,000 Africans were brought to New Spain.

Today, two of every 100 Mexicans are identified as Afro-Mexican.

But for centuries, the Black population has been rendered invisible, along with its customs and traditions.

University of Cambridge sociologist Dr. Monica Figueroa, herself a Black woman from Mexico, called out Mexico’s “whiter the better” attitude in a 2016 talk about racism and beauty ideals: “Although the idea is we are all mestizos,” she said in a 2016 talk, “there are some who are ‘better’ than others.”

Yes, Mexico is a racist country.

This is why I had difficulty identifying the roots of customs and traditions from my mother’s side of the family. Affirming my Black identity was a process, and still is to this day.

In 2018, I became part of a civil organization in Mexico that fights to create recognition and visibility for Afro-Mexicans. It was a long journey that filled me with self-doubt. People questioned my “Afro-Mexicanness” because of my physical features and almost-straight hair. But it helped me recognize that as Afro-Mexicans, we’re all different. I learned that our skin color represents the variations in each of us, and that we are a diverse and beautiful unification of different cultures.

Moving to L.A.

Then I moved to Los Angeles.

That conversation on the way to the Daddy Yankee concert, where my new friend told me he “didn’t know Black people lived in Mexico,” was one of many I had after coming to this country.

When visiting a cousin in Bakersfield, I had the opportunity to meet some young acquaintances of the family, also Mexican. As I was telling them about my activism on behalf of Afro-Mexicans back in Mexico City, one of them said, “But you’re not Black.”

I then had to explain my family’s history.

It made me realize that here in the United States, the idea of “Mexican” — among Mexicans and non-Mexicans alike — is based on the mestizaje ideology.

The author poses for a photo with her grandmother, a yellow balloon arch hovers over them.
The author, at far right, with her grandmother and her mother in 2018, in Monte Alto.
(Courtesy of Diana Pinacho)

L.A. exposed me to the historic Chicano movement, which embraced an Indigenous and Mestizx identity, but here also, the Afro-Mexican element was missing. I’ve realized that racism in Mexico has been moving to the United States from Mexico through the migrant population, from one generation to the next. And with that, so has Afro-Mexican erasure.

Here in California I have also heard young Mexican-Americans use the world “Oaxacx” to insult one another, an insult based on anti-Indigenous racism. Unfortunately, the colonialism in our population is so deep that it moves with us wherever we go.

I’ve had my identity challenged in other ways here. About a month ago, I joined some new friends at a screening of a documentary about African traditions in Mexican food. Afterward, over dinner, one offered me this unsolicited advice: “Don't announce yourself as an Afro-Mexican, because when I see you, I don't see an Afro person, and that can be a problem in the United States."

Her advice was that I should always explain my multiracial ancestry, clarifying that I am descended from African, Indigenous and European ancestors. I appreciated her concern, and I am also very aware of my privilege due to the skin tone that I have, even among my siblings. But I am still Afro-Mexican.

'Making it known'

I remember attempting to explain to others in Mexico City that there were Black people there who are Mexicans — not Cubans, not Brazilians, and not Colombians. Now, I feel I’ve come full circle.

Los Angeles has the largest Mexican population of any U.S. city. But all that Angelenos see is the hegemonic vision of Mexico, and its association with tequila, mezcal, mariachis, and piñatas.

A plate of food: Costa Chica-style pescado frito (fried fish) with salsa, black beans and rice.
Costa Chica-style pescado frito (fried fish) with salsa, black beans and rice.
(Courtesy of Diana Pinacho)

I’ve been making it known since I arrived that there is also the Mexico from La Costa Chica; from Tamiahua, Veracruz; from El Nacimiento, Coahuila; from Pinotepa, and the Mexicans from those areas who brought with us our pescadillas, our mole rojo, our calabaza en tacha, our tamales de elote, and our plátanos fritos y hervidos. I’ve been telling anyone who will listen that even here, there is an Afro-Mexican population.

I am beginning to love this city. And I need to encourage myself to stand up for my Afro-Mexican identity when people say, “You don’t look Mexican.”

My response will always be, “Of course, because I’m Afro-Mexican.” Wherever I go, I will say that I grew up with Afro-Mexican culture, that my grandmother is a Black woman, and that Mexico has Black people who continue to fight for our rights.

It’ll be a long journey, but I am ready. If racism can cross the border, so too can our identity.

  • Diana Pinacho is an Afro-Mexican writer, immigrant, and human rights activist. She is based in Los Angeles, her new home since 2022. Diana is on Twitter @itsme_diaan.

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