There is little recognition of Afro-Latinx communities throughout Latin America, but Puebla’s “Africamericanos” exhibit is seeking to change that.
It wasn’t the first time I’d set out in search of African-descended cultures in Latin America. In fact, compared to other excursions, the two-hour bus ride from Mexico City to the self-described “magical town” of Puebla was small potatoes. I’d once endured two three-hour bus rides and a 30-minute drive with a confused taxi driver just to glimpse the statue of Gaspar Yanga, an African man who escaped slavery in the early 16th century and led numerous uprisings before Spain finally acquiesced and granted his colony of escaped enslaved Africans autonomy from Spanish rule.
I suppose I’m something of an anti-Columbus, determined to rediscover the cultures, histories, and traditions of the African Diaspora and share them with the world. It’s this impulse that led me to spend five months traveling throughout Latin America last year and it’s part of the reason why I returned to Mexico City this fall.
The enslavement of African people was integral to Spain’s conquering of the so-called “New World,” yet outside of places like Colombia and some parts of the Caribbean, there is little recognition of the Afro-Latin communities that survived colonization. It’s a problem that Puebla’s Museum Amparo set to tackle with their “Africamericanos” exhibit, which depicts the different ways that Blackness takes shape throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.
The location itself was a bit ironic as Puebla is home to a rumored 365 Catholic churches, all of them built by the Spaniards after decimating local Indigenous populations and forcing the remaining survivors into servitude. Museum Amparo was my primary reason for visiting the fourth-largest city in Mexico, but it ended up being the last stop on my itinerary. By the time I made it to the museum, I’d toured countless churches with pale-faced depictions of Biblical figures and even visited the Great Pyramid of Cholula, one of the largest pyramids in the world and where the Spanish attempted to outdo Aztec architecture by erecting a church on the hill above the pyramids.
Being immersed in this Spain-glorious version of colonization made Museum Amparo’s “Africamericanos” exhibit all the more affirming. The principal medium used throughout the exhibit is photography and looking upon the myriad of melanated faces made me feel like shouting a smug “I told you so!” to every person who’d told me, “No hay la gente de negro acá (There are no Black people here).”
A mix of historical, archived and contemporary photos along with original artworks, the “Africamericanos” exhibit begins by highlighting coastal communities in the Mexican states of Guerrero and Oaxaca. It profiles the Afro-Mexican communities that endured enslavement by the Spanish as well as those who escaped from the U.S., which abolished slavery more than 30 years after Mexico.
The exhibit profiles communities from Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Haiti, Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, French Suriname, French Guiana, Argentina, and more. In some cases, it introduces viewers to archival footage of Black revolutionaries from these places, like Victoria Santa Cruz Gamarra, an Afro-Peruvian activist and artist who is known as the “Mother of Afro-Peruvian dance and theatre.”
In another instance, it revisits a research project from Brazil that sought to challenge the belief that the South American country didn’t have the same race problems as the United States. To conduct this research, participants were asked for their first impressions of photos of Brazilians of different races. Unsurprisingly, white Brazilians were described in favorable terms, while Afro-Brazilians were labeled with stereotypes like “servants,” treacherous,” and “outsmarted.” These words decorate the walls of Brazil’s section within the exhibit, inviting the audience to consider how their perceptions have evolved in the decades since this experiment.
Spirituality is explored through the lens of colorful ceremonies in Venezuela and varied interpretations of the Yoruba Orisha Eshu. Vibrant photos of sensual, masked subjects highlight Haiti’s queer community and the magic of natural hair is celebrated with images of intricately braided styles.
My phone hardly dropped below eye level as I greedily snapped photos, eager for proof of the African Diaspora’s endless influence. As I was confronted with infinite expressions of Blackness, I felt some of my personal biases loosen their hold on my psyche. I recalled all of the things I had been told about myself and people who looked like me, yet mounted on the museum walls was proof that we were so much more.
One of the tenets of white supremacy is not just to elevate whiteness while demonizing people of color, but to sever our connection to communities similar to our own. Rather than look beyond our inconsequential differences and reach out to one another, white supremacy would have us mimic whiteness instead. It’s why colonizers bulldozed Indigenous places of worship to erect Catholic churches and why they punished enslaved Africans for speaking their native tongues.
Very rarely do Black Americans consider Afro-Latin Americans to be African Americans, but what else could they be? And who does it serve for us to keep making these distinctions? These were the questions I was left with as I finished the “Africamericanos” exhibit two hours later.
Alongside these ponderings was the reassurance that my quest to unearth the Diasporic cultures adjacent to my own was not in vain.
The “Africamericanos” exhibition is up for viewing at Puebla’s Museum Amparo through January 13, 2019. The museum is also hosting an Africamericanos’ film series in conjunction with the exhibit. For more information, click here.
Danielle Dorsey (she/her) is a native Californian who is currently traveling through Mexico and South America. She is fascinated by the infinite expressions of Blackness throughout the African Diaspora and determined to highlight its cultures and influence in her writing. Danielle is also a tarot reader and budding astrologer who explores non-traditional modes of healing through her writing.