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Chocolate and Corn Flour: History, Race, and Place in the Making of ''Black'' Mexico

Chocolate and Corn Flour: History, Race, and Place in the Making of ''Black'' Mexico

by Laura A. Lewis

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Located on Mexico's Pacific coast in a historically black part of the Costa Chica region, the town of San Nicolás has been identified as a center of Afromexican culture by Mexican cultural authorities, journalists, activists, and foreign anthropologists. The majority of the town's residents, however, call themselves morenos (black Indians). In


Located on Mexico's Pacific coast in a historically black part of the Costa Chica region, the town of San Nicolás has been identified as a center of Afromexican culture by Mexican cultural authorities, journalists, activists, and foreign anthropologists. The majority of the town's residents, however, call themselves morenos (black Indians). In Chocolate and Corn Flour, Laura A. Lewis explores the history and contemporary culture of San Nicolás, focusing on the ways that local inhabitants experience and understand race, blackness, and indigeneity, as well as on the cultural values that outsiders place on the community and its residents.

Drawing on more than a decade of fieldwork, Lewis offers a richly detailed and subtle ethnography of the lives and stories of the people of San Nicolás, including community residents who have migrated to the United States. San Nicoladenses, she finds, have complex attitudes toward blackness—as a way of identifying themselves and as a racial and cultural category. They neither consider themselves part of an African diaspora nor deny their heritage. Rather, they acknowledge their hybridity and choose to identify most deeply with their community.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"In the 1940s, when Mexican anthropologist Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán first brought Afromexicans into academic and public discussion, African presence in Mexico had been under erasure for so long that Mexican national identity had elided Africa altogether. Today, Mexico’s 'Third Root' has gained national and international recognition. This process has gone hand in glove with a new politics of identity. Laura A. Lewis's ethnohistorical study of race probes the local politics of autochthony, nationality, and citizenship in the Pacific heartland of Afromexico."—Claudio Lomnitz, author of Death and the Idea of Mexico

"The kind of great ethnography much needed in research on Latin American blackness: Laura A. Lewis puts a crimp in recent multiculturalist constructions of Afromexican 'blackness'—but also in Mexican mestizo nationalism—by revealing local meanings attached to being moreno as a complex historical mixture of blackness and indigenousness."—Peter Wade, author of Race and Sex in Latin America

American Ethnologist - Leigh Binford
“This delightful book, based on well over a decade of research in Mexico and the United States . . . traces the history and social relations of a self-described moreno community from the colonial period to its contemporary diasporic dispersal to the United States.”
Hispanic American Historical Review - Matthew Restall
“As Lewis takes us, along with the people she has studied, to the edge of the present and before a tentative future, she maintains a narrbative richly textured with research and detail yet poignant and engagingly clear in its composition.”
Journal of Anthropological Research - Bobby Vaughn
“This ambitious ethnography…. presents a very useful history of the Costa Chica region that specialists will relish.  The book also includes a well-researched discussion of the anthropological work of central pioneers in the field of Afro-Mexican studies…. Where Lewis most successfully brings to bear her wealth of experience in the region is in her discussions of transmigration and the persistence of family ties despite the economic challenges that often separate families across borders.”

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Duke University Press Books
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6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

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Chocolate and Corn Flour

By Laura A. Lewis

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2012 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-5121-4

Chapter One

The Lay of the Land

San Nicoladenses use the terms white, moreno, and Indian in reference to the three broad "types" of Costa Chicans, which is why I use them too. As discussed in the following chapter, that terminology can become more complex. But for the purposes of imagining the geography of the coast it works because the locations of the communities associated with whites, morenos, and Indians largely coincide with socioethnic stratification. Thus at the macro level race can be spatially mapped onto place.

The Costa Chica's hot and humid savannah zone, or the "coastal belt" closest to the ocean, is historically home to morenos and continues to be one of Mexico's most important agricultural regions (Valdez 1998:19). The belt's temperatures range from 68 to 93° F (20 to 34° c), the soil is deep and fertile, the land quite flat, and production yields, especially of corn—the staple crop—relatively high (Bartra 1994:132). If the weather cooperates, "you can just plant any little sapling and it grows—here there's always fruit—maybe mangos, coconuts, then watermelon, cantaloupe," José mused as we discussed how few go hungry in San Nicolás. Indeed, the land is so fertile that white planters from Mexico City and foreigners from abroad (today including Japanese) buy or rent it for agribusiness.

From the colonial period on, Spaniards and whites were the large landowners (hacendados, latifundistas, or terratenientes), and white professionals, traders, and businesspeople still dominate the Costa Chica's larger cities and towns, which embody "national [mestizo] culture" and control trade to and from moreno and Indian communities (Cervantes 1984:39–40, 44–45; Flanet 1977:212; Valdez 1998:44–49). These cities and towns cluster around or have easy access to federal Highway 200, which runs just north of the coastal belt. Part of the Panamerican Highway, it is one of the only upgraded thoroughfares on the coast. With the exception of stretches near Acapulco, it has one lane in either direction.

Indian communities are located north of Highway 200 in the cooler Sierra Madre del Sur foothills, and they are populated in the main by monolingual Amuzgo and Mixtec speakers, the majority and linguistically related Indian groups on the Costa Chica today (Así somos 1994). Amuzgos live in and around the municipal seat of Ometepec (population 18,000), which is dominated by whites and reachable from Cuaji (population 10,000) via an upgraded branch of Highway 200, as well as in the neighboring municipalities of Xochistlahuaca and Igualapa. Mixtecs live in the Mixteca de la Costa, which includes the municipality of Pinotepa Nacional, Oaxaca, the coastal belt's largest city (population 35,000), and around Ayutla (de Los Libres) north of Cruz Grande.

Land in most Indian communities is less fertile than on the coastal belt. Typically, it is far from the villages to which it pertains, has been illegally usurped or leased to outsiders for minimal payments, lacks irrigation, or is located on deforested hillsides where erosion rates are high and soil quality poor (Bartra 1994:132; Flanet 1977; Valdez 1998:21, 36–37). Residents are forced to frequently rotate land as they are displaced into the mountains, further and further from their villages (Cervantes 1984:48; Flanet 1977:49). Much of it produces only one crop a year—mostly corn, hot peppers, or beans, which are staples of both Indian and moreno diets.

Moreno villages are socioeconomically sandwiched between white and Indian ones. Most are not as impoverished as the latter, but even though morenos speak Spanish as their native language, they do not have the material and political capital of whites. Inequalities also exist within and between moreno villages, due in large part to irrigation access. Thus, poorer San Nicoladenses, morenos from neighboring villages, and outside Indians work as peons in San Nicolás or for the region's whites. In San Nicolás, moreno peons are paid a bit more than Indians because the former live nearby, bring their own food, and return home each day. "Indian peons don't even bring tortillas," Rodrigo explained, "so they are paid and given food. They stay the whole week working in the bush, removing branches and the like." Because Indians stay for long periods, lodged with their employers, Rodrigo added that they sometimes keep "one or two small calves" in San Nicolás.

Highway 200 was completed through the Costa Chica in the mid-1960s. It was largely responsible for a leap in the region's economic and population growth. Before the road was built and without access to a light plane, it took eight days to reach Acapulco from Cuaji on foot, or one night in a boat. "Only important people went to Acapulco," Don Gregorio recalled, "and even fewer went to Mexico City. News from Acapulco and Mexico City arrived on vinyl records. It would be played on a Victrola." Even today it takes three hours to navigate the 150 kilometers between Acapulco and Cuaji by car because Highway 200 is narrow, twists and turns, and passes through local towns with speed bumps. The trip is even longer on buses that make frequent stops.

Highway 200 constitutes Main Street in many coastal belt communities, such as San Marcos, Cruz Grande, and Marquelia close to Acapulco, Cuaji on the southeastern border with Oaxaca, and Pinotepa Nacional, Oaxaca, 50 kilometers southeast of Cuaji. The road is the only way for costeños (people from the Costa Chica) to reach Ometepec, which has two hospitals, Acapulco, the national highway to Chilpancingo, Guerrero's capital, or Mexico City, several hundred kilometers north of Chilpancingo. It is also the road to Pinotepa, with the closest banking centers, a supermarket, a large open-air market, opticians, and other amenities and necessities.

San Nicolás is about equidistant between Cuaji and the ocean. It is the largest town pertaining to Cuaji which, for San Nicoladenses, is the first stop for a variety of foodstuffs, medicines, some medical specialists, and services, including a recently installed bank branch whose ATM often runs out of money. Until the late 1990s most San Nicoladenses traveled there in open-air trucks lined with benches (camionetas), which ran on a fixed schedule beginning at 5:00 a.m. In the late 1990s several San Nicoladenses purchased taxis with migrant remittances. The fleet is now regularized and has replaced the camionetas. Taxis are the only way to get into and out of town without a private car, and they are expensive for many San Nicoladenses, who, depending on their needs, might have to reach Acapulco, Ometepec, Pinotepa Nacional, or points beyond.

The relationship between Cuaji and San Nicolás is similar to the one Karen Blu describes between the Lumbee, North Carolina, center of Pembroke and the nearby former cultural center of Prospect (1996:207–12). Like Pembroke, Cuaji is something of a miniature metropolis. Its more urban residents characterize San Nicolás as home to "country" folk who do not speak proper Spanish (variously said to be "wrong," "archaic," "uncultured," or "black") and who preserve the older ways, though many Cuaji residents remain ignorant about how San Nicoladenses live. For their part, San Nicoladenses insist that Highway 200 was supposed to come through their town, which would have made San Nicolás larger than Cuaji. Unlike Cuaji, San Nicolás still does not have a functioning, community-wide drainage system, a first-class pharmacy, consistently present healthcare providers, sufficient markets, or a finished plaza, which is a parody of the Porfirian ideal of a bandstand that should be surrounded by brightly painted walls, benches, and lush vegetation, all of which Cuaji has. Before each municipal or gubernatorial election minimal work is done, only to be quickly abandoned after a short time. Thus projects are completed bit by bit. Today the plaza's roads have been paved, as has the turn road from Cuaji at Montecillos. But the bandstand is still a shell, the plaza has no paint or vegetation, drain pipes burst, and electricity—only installed in the 1970s—constantly goes out, sometimes for days.

Mexican towns are subordinated to their municipal seats, which are subordinated to the state capital. Every six years, governors distribute checks to municipal presidents. The money is earmarked for communities in the municipality, but the presidents spend it as they wish, depending on which political party is in power in which community. Those communities whose mayors (elected yearly) are of the same party as the municipal president can expect their community to receive more funds. Because Oaxaca has seven times as many municipalities as Guerrero, and a considerably denser population, money flows more freely there due to more direct interaction with the state government. Generally Oaxacan roads and infrastructure are superior. A recent study confirmed that "Afromestizo" communities in Guerrero have poorer access to medical services than those in Oaxaca or Veracruz, and that moreno Guerrerenses lack the education to maximize agricultural production, as well as the economic infrastructure that would prevent young people from leaving (Rodríguez 2008). Because San Nicolás is always arguing with Cuaji over funds for infrastructure, in 2009 it petitioned the state government to become its own municipal seat with jurisdiction over ten towns. As of this writing that petition has still not been approved.

Wet and Dry, High and Low

The Costa Chica is a tropical zone with a dry and a wet season. The dry season (tiempo seco) runs from November to June, and nights can be cool from November through February. As the air becomes more humid from mid-March on, daytime highs can reach more than 100° F on the belt. Just before the rains, the sky becomes overcast as clouds roll in and land is cleared for planting. In mid-June, if all goes well, the rainy season (tiempo de lluvia) begins, and the coast becomes astonishingly green and lush, providing rich pasture for its beautiful Zebu, Swiss, and Holland (Holstein) cattle (some of them cross-bred for the tropics), which often graze in majestic palm groves that punctuate the landscape.

Cattle have been integral to the region's political ecology since they arrived with Spaniards. They continue to be a source of sustenance and even wealth for many costeños, as well as for some state elites who graze their herds on the coastal belt, where new grass strains continuously permit more intensive cultivation (Sánchez 1987:268). Cattle are bred for both milk and meat. Some San Nicoladenses wake every morning at 5:00 A.M. to milk by hand, as there is no mechanized milking; others let their cows drip. Everyone drinks unpasteurized milk, and many women make cheese, rice pudding, and flan.

Cows bred for meat are fattened and slaughtered almost daily by local vendors such as Doña Lupe, who purchases a cow to be butchered in the interior patio of her family compound. The beef (carne de res or carne) is ready for sale by the early morning, when an announcement goes out over one of San Nicolás's loudspeakers. While good cuts are a luxury, every last scrap sells. Ranching is therefore lucrative, but with about one hundred head needed to make it viable, as cows only birth once a year, the cost for a herd runs into thousands of dollars, and milking or pasturing such a herd is impossible for most. Although a few wealthy families have more than one hundred cattle, most have between four and twenty.

San Nicolás lies in a savannah zone with elevations ranging from five to thirty meters. Its ejido consists of some eight thousand hectares. Those with rights to community land (ejidatarios) include about eight hundred family heads, mostly men but also single women and widows. Anticipating naFta (North American Free Trade Agreement) in the early 1990s, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari privatized ejidos by amending Article 27 of the 1917 Mexican Constitution. The ejidatarios of San Nicolás now own between 2 and 150 hectares, averaging 5 to 10. They produce corn for their own consumption, as well as sesame and fruit (mango, papaya, and watermelon) for markets where prices are always low, in part because imports undercut local products, which also enter the market all at once for seasonal reasons.

Field plots are divided between highlands (los altos), at twenty to thirty meters above sea level, and lowlands (los bajos), at five to ten meters above sea level. Those with hectares in the highlands, and land and irrigation in the lowlands, can produce three crops per year and water cattle year round, as cattle graze in the highlands during the rainy season and in the lowlands with irrigation in the dry season. But people without lowlands or irrigation can only produce one crop a year, and then only if rain is sufficient. If it is not "there's hunger," Rosa said one year, "we don't have anything." By mid-June people start to fret if there is no rain or if it is inconsistent because cattle cannot graze nor can planting begin until the land is damp. Even then, if the rains stop, corn shoots wither and die in the sun. August can be a hungry month if a summer crop from the highlands is not yet ready, if a rainless summer has destroyed it, or if a spring crop from the lowlands is long gone. Cattle are sometimes sold off or die.

If summer rains are hearty, torrential afternoon downpours occur from June through September. But these can be too hearty, drowning cattle and crops in the lowlands. In October 1997, Hurricane Paulina hit the coast with a vengeance, causing mudslides that devastated Acapulco's hillside shantytowns. Paulina wreaked havoc on coastal villages such as Collantes, where one person drowned, adobe houses were destroyed, and residents lived in the church on higher ground for five days. San Nicolás suffered crop and cattle losses. Trapped in their houses, Sirina and Rosa periodically called out "neighbor, neighbor, are you alright?" as the waters rose.

During the hurricane Sirina's cousin also tragically drowned when his truck was washed away by the rising creek known as the "Cold Waters" (Aguas Frias) that raged across a dip in the road to Cuaji. A bridge over Aguas Frias was finally finished in 2008, but only because taxi drivers had protested the situation. That paved but pitted road full of dangerous twists and cave-ins continues south to Punta Maldonado or El Faro (The Lighthouse), a small fishing village on the only significant bay between Acapulco and Puerto Escondido. El Faro supplies San Nicolás, Cuaji, and other communities with fish and seafood. During two days of the year—New Year's Day and the Saturday before Easter Sunday—it is packed with modestly dressed locals. Only occasionally does an intrepid foreigner find El Faro. Thus it sees few bikini-clad tourists, although tourism is Guerrero's principal industry and the state government periodically tries to promote its Costa Chica beaches. San Nicoladenses once speculated that El Faro would become a resort. But Paulina devastated the village. While fishing survives, tourism has never taken hold.

An ethos of violence?

With few paved highways and little railway, Guerrero is still "at the margins of industrial growth," partly because of difficult terrain and partly because of ongoing interruptions to foreign investment, including during the Mexican Revolution of 1910–20 (Estrada 1994:12; Jacobs 1982:61). Although tourism and agroforestry are significant, they primarily benefit multinational corporations, politicians, and the federal government. Only in the colonial silver-mining town of Taxco, near Mexico City, do locals consistently benefit from tourism. The closest beaches to Mexico City are in Acapulco, but the latter city has become blighted by drug violence. In 2009, with battles raging between traffickers and the Mexican army, the U.S. State Department issued a travel alert after eighteen people died in a shootout that had tourists running for cover. Massacres continue to occur as the violence spreads down the coast. Last year it hit close to home when Sirina's brother was abducted from Cuaji in broad daylight, tortured, and murdered. A devastated Sirina told me over the phone that the police had not investigated, that unknown people were driving through San Nicolás at night, that residents were keeping their doors closed and locked, and that the lawlessness was just like that of "the revolution."

Agroforestry has wreaked ecological havoc in parts of the state and has caused violent conflicts between peasants and multinationals such as Boise Cascade, which extracted timber for export to the United States in the 1990s, including in 1995, when police in Aguas Blancas infamously murdered seventeen Guerreran farmers from the Costa Grande, north of Acapulco, who were on their way to join a protest, including against forest removal (Gutiérrez 2004; Wines and Smith 1998). One year after the massacre, the EPR (Ejército Popular Revolucionario, or Popular Revolutionary Army) emerged on the Costa Grande. It continues to operate in southern Mexico.


Excerpted from Chocolate and Corn Flour by Laura A. Lewis Copyright © 2012 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Laura A. Lewis is Professor of Anthropology at James Madison University and the author of Hall of Mirrors: Power, Witchcraft and Caste in Colonial Mexico, also published by Duke University Press.

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