When Marina Guerrero Salinas, 62, left her hometown and went to the city, people would constantly ask her where she was from. "I'd say, 'I'm Mexican', and they'd say, 'But here in Mexico there aren't black people,'" she says. "I would tell them, 'Look how you don't know everything about your own country. Because I'm from a place where there's lots of black people.'"
It's a question Afro-Mexicans are used to getting as they navigate being both black and Mexican in a country that doesn't believe that such a thing is possible. Never mind that Africans and their descendents have been present in Mexico for over 500 years and have been a major force in the nation's history. Still, Mexico has forgotten them.
Marina Guerrero lives in a rural town in the Costa Chica, a sliver of Mexico's Pacific Coast in Guerrero and Oaxaca states that is home to the highest concentrations of African descendants in Mexico today. She makes ends meet selling pizza from her home, but her true vocation is the arts. Her musical and visual works deal with unpacking blackness in Mexico in all its complexity, from songs dealing with discrimination, to stunning paintings depicting black life on the coast.
"I only like to paint black people," says Guerrero. "Remembering how we were before, here."
There are a bunch of theories of how Afro-Mexicans arrived in the Costa Chica, but the accepted view is that cimarrones (escaped slaves) from the region settled here, lured by the protection provided from the area's ruggedness and isolation. Over the years, they mixed with mestizos and indigenous peoples and formed a culture they refer to as criolla – Creole.
"After five centuries of this mixing, a way of being has formed," says Eduardo Añorve, a journalist and writer from the region. "A way of understanding the world, and living in it. Being criollo has to do with our music, such as chilena and cumbia. Or eating our foods. It's about a sense of belonging."
People of the coast are often ambivalent about being referred to as "Afro-Mexican," seeing it as a label imposed from afar by anthropologists, and ignoring their history as a mixed-race people. At the same time, black consciousness movements have slowly been taking shape on the coast and mobilizing people, with the goal of getting recognition for Afro-Mexicans as an official minority from the government (and the associated funding for much-needed community development projects).
According to Añorve, the resistance to embracing an Afro-Mexican identity is, in part, because Mexican kids aren't taught to value blackness. Eduardo himself says he himself didn't realize that he was black as a child, because he was inculcated in a version of Mexican history that didn't include blacks. He came to identify as black after he left the Costa Chica for university, and realized that others perceived him as such.
"The education they give you is that you are mestizo," says Añorve. "Because that was the concept of the state. The state says that 'We are all mestizos, there are no problems, and we live in harmony and in peace.'"
Añorve's realization led him to research his heritage, and he was amazed to learn that many of Mexico's greatest heroes were African descendents, including Vicente Guerrero, the Mexican president who abolished slavery in 1829, and José Morelos, who led the Mexican War of Independence from Spain. He learned that the charreada, a rodeo-like event that is Mexico's national sport, has African origins, and that the "chinitas" and "morenas" referenced in traditional Mexican songs refer to black women. "We need to re-write the history we teach to kids in elementary school to talk about these things, and people would begin to value themselves in a different way," says Añorve.
Another result of the lack of a national conversation about blackness is discrimination. When Marina Guerrero was a young woman, she left the coast for Mexico City to study theater ("I've always been very dramatic," she says). There, she began to feel the weight of discrimination when she fell in love with guy whose parents wouldn't let him marry her because she was black. She says that kind of prejudice has affected her throughout her life. "I've noticed for example that if you go to an office and there's a black woman and a white woman, they help the white woman right away, and the black woman stays waiting."
Such injustices have since become fodder for her songwriting. Guerrero has written over 200 songs, which she says come to her in the middle of night. She records them in a small notebook she keeps by her bed. They are heart-wrenching ballads about lost loves and hardscrabble lives, brimming with emotion and sung beautifully in a full-throated style reminiscent of Portuguese fado. Her lyrics celebrate blackness while also lamenting the difficult experiences many Afro-Mexicans have had. One of her songs, "Este Triste Mirar," tells the story of a woman with a sad look in her eyes:
This sad look – it tells me all that you have lived/ This sad look, it tells me all that you've suffered/ You have the fault of being good/ You carry the fault of having dark skin.
When Añorve, who lives a few towns over from Guerrero, first heard her sing this song, it amazed him. "I think it's extraordinary," he says. "Because nobody in the Costa Chica has written a song on this topic." As a collector of Afro-Mexican poetry, he began visiting her to hear her songs, and hopes to get a chance to help her record her music some day.
Unfortunately, Marina Guerrero hasn't yet had the chance to find platforms for wider audiences for her art and music through exhibitions or recordings, but that hasn't stopped her from expressing her enormous creativity and from telling the stories of her people, one notebook page at a time.