Now Counted By Their Country, Afro-Mexicans Grab Unprecedented Spotlight For the first time its history, Mexico announced it would recognize people of African descent on its official census. What does it mean for Afro-Mexicans themselves — and why has it taken so long?
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Now Counted By Their Country, Afro-Mexicans Grab Unprecedented Spotlight

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Now Counted By Their Country, Afro-Mexicans Grab Unprecedented Spotlight

Now Counted By Their Country, Afro-Mexicans Grab Unprecedented Spotlight

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Here in the U.S., it's Black History Month. That's the time that's been designated to reflect on the history and contributions of people of African descent to the United States. And while some people still disagree with it, for the most part in this country, calling oneself or being described as black or African-American is not unusual. Not so in Mexico but that may soon change. For the first time in Mexican history, the government is planning to allow its citizens to officially recognize themselves as Afro-Mexicans in the upcoming 2020 census. We wanted to learn more about this so we called Luisa Ortiz. She is the CEO of Nova Mexico. That's a nonprofit organization that works with minority groups in Mexico. Hello, Luisa Ortiz, thanks so much for speaking with us.

LUISA ORTIZ: Thank you so much for inviting me. Hi.

MARTIN: For people who aren't really familiar with the history, could you just describe the presence of people of African descent in Mexico? How did this happen? As I understand it, this is a result of the Spanish conquest - that Spanish leaders imported slaves from Africa. Is that correct?

ORTIZ: It is. It is. And they're actually - you could say there are two big waves of arrival of people of African descent. One of them would definitely be the 16th century. And there is definitely a second wave, and that is in the '50s and '60s after the independence of several nations in Africa. Many people arrived in the region and they arrived to Mexico probably on their way to the United States or not. But some of them stayed. And I would probably even think now there could be a third wave of people of African descent arriving, coming from Haiti, coming from Cuba, coming from Venezuela or even from Colombia.

MARTIN: So why now, though? Why is the Mexican government now adding Afro-Mexican to the census? I take it there was no such option before.

ORTIZ: There has never been that option. The last time people of African descent were counted was in the 19th century. The Mexican federal government is arriving late to the party. I believe that this is the result of a bottom-up movement. Many, many organizations, for years now, have worked with communities in the coast and organizations that are mostly international found out and they saw that people happen to be of African descent. So this is the result of many, many years of philanthropy that bring to the fore organizations that today are becoming, politically, very active. I think that the federal government is reacting to the politicization of civil society that happens to be of African descent.

MARTIN: Well, I think a lot of people are familiar with the fact that people with indigenous backgrounds do feel that they face discrimination. Do Afro-Mexicans feel that they face discrimination?

ORTIZ: Absolutely, and they even feel discrimination from their indigenous brothers and sisters. It is not easy - it is not an easy debate. Until last year - until 2015, black Mexicans were requesting to be identified as indigenous because there was no category in the census. And they were asked if they spoke an indigenous language and they would have to say yes. But when they would have to clarify which language it was, you would come to interesting results, such as we speak some Patois, some Haitian, that form of French, some Yoruba or else, so it's very, very interesting.

MARTIN: What do you think the result will be of allowing this designation?

ORTIZ: I envision on the positive side, a lot of young men and young women who are feeling comfortable with who they are. And definitely, there is some sense of pride in seeing somebody you actually look like making it big, making a movie, winning an Oscar, being president of a country, a senator. So one the one hand, the result is that people globally are recognizing, with pride and dignity, who they are and what they can achieve. On the not-so-positive side, I believe this is definitely a political maneuver. Black Mexicans live in territories where there's politics, and the acceptance of their ethnicity could probably pigeonhole them to be members of different political parties in the coming elections. So I don't think it is so romantic. It is definitely far more nuanced and complex.

MARTIN: That was Luisa Ortiz speaking to us from Mexico City. She's the CEO of Nova Mexico. Luisa Ortiz, thanks so much for speaking with us.

ORTIZ: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: We wanted to hear more so we called several people who identify as Afro-Mexican. Here is one of them. She is Dora Callegas (ph). She's from the province of Veracruz in Mexico. She says she's very proud of her roots, but when she travels to different parts of Mexico, she feels different being Afro-Mexican.

DORA CALLEGAS: (Through interpreter) People looked at me and asked if I was Brazilian, Cuban, Colombian - things other than Mexican - because in Mexico, it's difficult for people to recognize that there are Afro descendants. Because of that, I became interested in finding my roots.

MARTIN: This is part of our series of conversations we're having for Black History Month called Black And. We're talking with people all over the country and the world about what it means to be Black And. We're interested in your ideas - the best way to reach us is via Twitter, using the #BlackAnd. That's B-L-A-C-K-A-N-D.

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