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Monday, May 23, 2011

A review of “Black in Latin America” Episode Four

Episode four of “Black in Latin America” by Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates, Jr. focuses on the identity and history of those of Sub-Saharan African descent in Mexico and Peru. Like the previous three episodes in this breakthrough series, Dr. Gates takes viewers into new territory for most in the United States.  For those of us who have been swimming against the powerful tide of Latino stereotypes in the U.S. media, the series is a welcome counter-current.

With a focus on Mexico and Peru, episode four of the series traces the African ancestry in two nations where even many Latinos are unaware of the existence of people with African roots. While this episode accomplished its mission in raising awareness of the black presence in these nations, the historical background was covered in very broad strokes and lacked nuance, understandable in a 51-minute documentary.

One of the most salient features of episode four takes place in the Costa Chica region which Dr. Gates reports as Mexico “blackest” population center.  As we watch footage of the locals, it’s much more difficult to find people whose outward appearance indicates Sub-Saharan African ancestry than, say, Brazil or Cuba.  No mention of this phenomenon is made by Dr. Gates nor is any explanation given. This scarcity of African phenotypes seems especially striking as Dr. Gates accurately reports that nearly a half-million African slaves were imported into Mexico until 1833 when slavery was abolished. Here is where a greater insight into Latin American history would have helped.

Spanish colonization of the Americas stands in sharp contrast to that of the English. The Spaniards began colonizing the Americas nearly a century earlier than the English. More significantly, Spaniards were looking for the largest – and wealthiest  concentrations of native people to conquer and convert to their religion. After exploring the Caribbean along with North and South America, the Spanish conquistadores found these prizes in the civilizations of the Aztecs in Mexico and the Incas of Peru. In 1521 Hernan Cortes overthrew the Aztec rulers in Mexico, setting the pattern for a society consisting of large numbers of indigenous people dominated by a minority of Europeans.  Cortes was soon copied by Francisco Pizarro with the Incas in Peru in 1533. These historical facts explain why Sub-Saharan phenotypes are less prevalent in Mexico despite its importation of over 500,000 African slaves. The reason is sheer numbers.

Unlike Cuba, Brazil and other Latin American regions where indigenous populations were sparse (and further decimated by European diseases), the genes of a half-million African slaves were absorbed into the millions of Native American people living in Mexico. Today, the descendants of those Mexican slaves are much more genetically mixed than in many other parts of Latin America.

English colonists, arriving along the coast of North America because it was the shortest route from England across the Atlantic, typically came in family groups from all walks of life. Unlike the Spanish conquistadors who were mostly single men, the English had little use for the indigenous people as sources of brides or labor. What the English wanted most from the natives was their land. As a result, Native Americans were pushed westward through war and treaties by racially-segregated Anglo communities. Later, as lucrative plantation crops like tobacco, rice and cotton increased the demand for cheap labor, the English colonists entered the African slave trade on a large scale. This was the basis of the black-white racial dichotomy that would become the norm in the U.S. until late in the twentieth century. It is against this yardstick that Dr. Gates often measures race relations in Latin America during the series. This preconception is one of the shortcomings of the series.

Another recurring weakness marring “Black in Latin America” is an abundance of mistakes in cultural references. Throughout the series there are errors in indentifying music, places and food. In addition, Dr. Gates often slaughters Spanish pronunciations, something which could have been easily avoided with the help of a consultant. In truth, there are other U.S. scholars of African descent who are fluent in Spanish as well as Portuguese and have a much deeper understanding of Afro-Latino history and culture who might have been better hosts for the series. (Dr. Franklin W. Knight of Johns Hopkins University comes to mind.) 

All the same, “Black in Latin America” is a landmark television event. Dr. Gates has used his considerable media acumen to help enlighten the U.S. public about a topic woefully ignored. I hope the series is the start of a growing awareness and discussion about the diversity of Latinos, our African roots, and the racism that still haunts all the nations of the Americas.

Raul Ramos y Sanchez 

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