A Geographer’s Field Notes: Exploring Connections Between Mexico and Senegal

By Karen Barton

In this essay, CAORC-NEH Senior Research Fellowship alumna, Karen Barton, discusses how the fellowship, which she carried out in Senegal in 2018, opened up numerous doors for her as both a scholar and field researcher. Karen Barton is a Professor of Geography and Sustainability at the University of Northern Colorado.

I had the unique privilege of traveling to Mexico as part of a Fulbright Hays fellowship from August 1-30, 2021. The field program, entitled, The Third Root: Exploring African Heritage in Mexico, was organized by the U.S. Department of Education and led by COMEXUS (Comisión México Estados Unidos para el Intercambio Educativo y Cultural), an independent organization funded by the governments of Mexico and the United States. Based in Mexico City, Veracruz and Oaxaca, this intensive program presented an overview of African contributions to Mexican society for the team of sixteen, interdisciplinary university and community college faculty who were selected for the award. Given the seminar’s emphasis on African heritage, it also served as a personal extension of the work I completed in Senegal as part of my CAORC - NEH Senior Fellowship in 2017-2018, an experience for which I’m extremely grateful given the impact it had on both my professional and personal lives. Together these programs gave me an opportunity to research African geographies on both sides of the Atlantic realm.

Fulbright Hays Seminar Group at Mexico Naval Museum, Port of Veracruz (Photo: Author)
Afro-Censo Mexico Map 2020 (Source: Copera)

On the Mexico Fulbright we learned how, beginning in the late 1500s, thousands of slaves were ferried from West Africa to work in the sugarcane haciendas, cattle estancias, and mines of New Spain, and by the 17th Century, Africans and Afro-descendents were said to outnumber the Europeans who preceded them. But despite this representation of Africans in Mexico, it

was not until the intercensus of 2015 that Mexico quantified and recognized Afro-descendants in their official records and cartographies. In total, these census results highlighted how 1.16% of the country’s population declared itself Afro descendent with the largest concentrations registered in the states of Guerrero (6.5%), Oaxaca (4.9%) & Veracruz (3.3%). Yet these extremely conservative numbers do not match the African presence on the ground, where African art, dance, and forms of resistance are clearly evident across Mexico’s diverse landscapes. As one example, our delegation traveled to southern Veracruz, home to Jarocho culture, a term that refers to the mixture of indigneous and black populations and the everyday practices that these cultural groups embody to this day. And in Yanga and Coyolillo, Veracruz towns founded by freed slaves in the 17th century, we witnessed firsthand the cultural manifestations of Afro-descendents by way of cuisine, music, and agriculture. Our COMEXUS hosts organized dozens of lectures and museum visits with experts in Afro-Mexican history, and the materials gleaned from these experiences enabled each of us to produce and disseminate curriculum projects for our students back in the United States. At its core, the Department of Education program worked to address the invisibility of African heritage in Mexico through firsthand field visits and lectures. While Mexican academia was slow in addressing Afro-Mexican issues due to its focus on the richness of the nation’s indigenous populations, that is certainly not true today. Mexican scholars are working diligently to amplify the history of Africans in Mexico and our team was happy to play a small part in this ongoing national initiative.

Yanga Mural (Photo: Author)

On a personal level, the Fulbright seminar provided me a rare opportunity to connect my research on West African maritime communities in Senegal - sponsored by CAORC-NEH - with those issues facing Afro-Mexican communities in states like Oaxaca and Veracruz. It was fascinating to see the ways in which challenges facing West Africans - water scarcity, climate change, land dispossession, and racism - also play out in African communities like Coyolillo. In many ways these long standing political ecological issues have been duplicated on the other side of the Atlantic, but much like in Africa, local Mexican activists continue to lobby for recognition and change. In Xalapa, I had the privilege of meeting Hector Ad Quintanar, a photographer and lecturer at the University of Veracruz, who has used the power of photography to showcase Afro-Mexican rituals; his work is receiving enormous traction in media publications like The Guardian. Next year we plan to bring a small team of University of Northern Colorado students to Mexico -many of whom are first generation scholars and have not yet traveled outside the United States - to work with Quintanar in order document African heritage in Xalapa, Oaxaca, and Veracruz. We ultimately aim to fold these collected images and videos into ESRI story maps that can be disseminated to K-16 audiences who want to learn more about African history in Mexico.