The complexion of mexicanidad along the Costa Chica
By Aran Shetterly Original Print Publication: April, 2007
The tradition of the tono
[A tradition] that, although not limited to Afro-Mexicans, is central to their ethnic identity and may point to an African origin is the belief in the tono, variously known as the nagual or simply as el animal. The tono can be understood as an animal spirit alter-ego that each individual is assigned at birth. This wild animal is a kindred spirit and roams the surrounding wilderness.
Should harm befall this animal, it’s human counterpart will likewise fall ill.
The most common tonos are the bull and the tiger, but almost any animal can be a tono. [The] belief in the tono is embraced by blacks as part of their own traditional culture.
–Bobby Vaughn from his 2001 dissertation, Race and Nation: A Study of Blackness in Mexico
Where do we come from?
What are we?
Where are we going?
– Paul Gauguin
Image:Sarah Meghan Lee
Laura Bárbara Mayoral Hernandez, 13, laughs with girlfriends before a graduation ceremony from school in Cuajinicuilapa in the Costa Chica on June 30, 2005.
I sat in the shade under a palapa and waited for the boat taxi to carry me from the small town of Zapotalito across Lagunas Chacahua to the even smaller town of Chacahua, which sprawls among the mangroves at the edge of Mexico’s Pacific coast. Just off the rickety wooden pier, frigate birds dive-bombed pelicans, hoping to scare a fish loose.
The boat came into sight and moments later the whir of the engine reached my ears. About 30 feet from shore the pilot cut the power, lifted the prop, and coasted to the beach. A man hopped out, barefoot, wearing old yellow surf shorts and a t-shirt. A full afro ballooned from beneath his baseball cap.
I tossed my backpack into the boat and centered myself on the cross thwart as my chauffer polled us toward deeper water. Turning to look back at Zapotalito, I watched him lower the outboard into murky water.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Cuba? How did you end up here?”
The man laughed. “A slave ship was wrecked off the coast. Some of the slaves made it ashore. We’ve been here ever since.”
He pulled the cord, the motor roared, and I held my hat as the boat picked up speed and headed into the lagoon’s labyrinthine channels, leaving me to wonder how a Cuban slave ship had arrived along Mexico’s west coast.
A little known population Few people, including most Mexicans, realize that a significant black Mexican population lives along Mexico’s “Costa Chica” which runs just east of Acapulco down to Huatulco, in the state of Oaxaca.
If one does think of African-Mexicans it tends to be of Veracruz on the country’s Gulf Coast.
Mexico’s Caribbean port of call, Veracruz is known for its carnival, Cuban danzón, and a 16th century African freedom fighter named Yanga who established a free black town in the mountains there.
And yet, the black population on the west coast is significantly larger, though less well researched or understood due, at least in part, to its geographic isolation.
According to American scholar Bobby Vaughn, “While the population of contemporary black Mexicans is very small in Veracruz as compared with the Costa Chica, the discourse on blackness in Veracruz is pervasive. Veracruz is envisioned in the popular Mexican imagination as a black state, and while this is due in part to the slave legacy in Veracruz, this imagination stems more from a nineteenth century Cuban cultural exchange.”