Where are you from, morena?

"I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also much more than that. So are we all."

James Baldwin
 

The moment that passed between us, in a little, cement-floored seafood restaurant on the Guerrero coast, was like many I'd experienced: the nod from the South African businessman crossing the Friendship bridge between Thailand and Laos; the wave from the African-American soldier, on vacation with his German wife and kids in Croatia; the smile on the face of the Brazilian bike mechanic when I walked into his store in Naples, Italy. At some point I started calling it the "Global What's Up", that moment of recognition between people of African descent in an unexpected place.

But this was slightly different. As much as the woman's gentle use of the word morena acknowledged our common roots, her question also contained a statement: I am from here. You are not.

The histories and realities of people of African descent in much of the Americas (the US, Cuba, Brazil) are well-documented and broadly disseminated; not so with the blacks of the Costa Chica of Oaxaca and Guerrero, whose stories are relatively unknown.

As an African-American—part of a culture that is constantly grappling with its history, citizen of a country where analyzing the intersection between race, ethnicity, and identity is a national pastime—spending time asking costeños "Where did you come from?" and having the question repeatedly answered by a mix of geographic references, historical half-truths, and flat out myth was nothing short of perplexing.

Every year for eleven years Father Glyn Jeemott has organized an encuentro, an annual town hall meeting for the black communities on the coast. The 2006 event was attended by about 20 African-Americans, anxious to learn more about this corner of the diaspora, eager to support Father Glyn's work.

While the area residents held seminars in Spanish on protecting the local waters from overfishing and addressing social fragmentation caused by migration to the US, the African-Americans formed a separate group and talked in English about black identity and what resources we might be able to offer the towns.

It was another moment of dislocation: with our flat r's, American struts, and expensive clothes, are our eyes any less foreign here than those of any other gringo? How can I expect this community on the Mexican coast to have more in common with me than with their indigenous and mestizo neighbors, with whom they share a language, customs, and more than 500 years of history? Local experience matters.

And yet there is a link. Common ancestry counts too, as does a legacy of being a minority, of demanding that our respective societies include us in the national vision. This brings us together, despite the fact that my Virginia-born grandmothers cooked collard greens, not nopales.

Yo soy americana, I replied to the woman at the restaurant. She smiled and embraced me. I felt both the gratefulness of a well-received guest, and the warmth of finding long-lost family.