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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.

Afro-Mexican Traditions in Coyolillo, Mexico (Photo: Hector Ad Quintanar)
The MV Joola Before the Disaster (Photo: Carol Kiecker)

The purpose of this essay is to underscore how the CAORC-NEH Senior Fellowship to Senegal opened up numerous doors for me - both figuratively and literally - as both a scholar and field researcher, many of them unanticipated. Thanks to support from CAORC, in 2018 I was able to conduct four months of intensive fieldwork among communities in Casamance researching Senegal’s Joola shipwreck, in which 1,863 people died aboard a passenger ferry bound for Dakar when it sailed into a storm. I’m especially proud that my book, “Africa’s Joola Shipwreck: Causes and Consequences of a Humanitarian Disaster” was released in 2021, an accomplishment that would not have been possible without the support of CAORC - NEH. This Fall, the National Association of the Families of the Victims of the Joola (ANFV) awarded me the Knight of the Order of the Joola for my bringing Senegal’s story to an American audience, their highest honor. While I am grateful for this important accolade, I also believe there remains significant work ahead as we launch a second, collaborative book highlighting the 20th anniversary of the wreck, post-disaster recovery, and community resilience. We will return to Casamance, Senegal in 2022 to work on this project, while also commencing a new study featuring the cultural values of baobab

Photo: Senegalese Baobab Grove, our next research project with partners in Casamance.

trees and the threats they face due to climate change across Africa. In short, the CAORC-NEH Senior Fellowship allowed me to work, publish, and engage with colleagues and locals in West Africa. Yet I never would have envisioned the ways in which the CAORC project would evolve into a transnational collaboration involving Afro-descendent communities on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in Mexico. I am grateful to both CAORC-NEH and Fulbright Hays for these existing opportunities, and I remain energized by all the possible synergies that are yet to come.


Karen Barton is a Professor of Geography and Sustainability at the University of Northern Colorado. In 2016 she traveled to Senegal as part of the Fulbright Hays scholar program and was also a 2017–2018 CAORC-NEH Senior Research Fellow. In 2016 she traveled to Senegal as part of the Fulbright Hays scholar program and was also a 2017–2018 CAORC-NEH Senior Research Fellow. Professor Barton’s teaching and research focuses on community resilience, fishing and farming communities, climate change, and geographic education. She is President-Elect of the Society for Women Geographers, Co-President of the Colorado Fulbright chapter, and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and Explorers Club.


The CAORC-NEH Senior Research Fellowship is made possible thanks to support from the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Fellowship Programs at Independent Research Institutions (FPIRI) program. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.


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