The following is a republication of an interview made by Valeria Angola and originally published by collective site Afroféminas. The piece has been re-edited and published by Global Voices with permission.
Scarlet Estrada is a Mexican anthropologist and a student of journalism in the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Her work studies the sexualization of black women in Mexico City. She has also participated in numerous events discussing human rights and debating the self-determination of black peoples. Estrada has been actively advocating for the recognition of Afro-descendant communities in Mexico City statistics, in order for Mexico’s National Statistics and Geography Institute to take these figures into account in the upcoming 2020 census.
In this conversation, Estrada explores what lies behind the idea of belonging in Afro-descendant communities, and the difficulty of the process in a country like Mexico, where the national imaginary excludes and invisibilizes Afro-Mexicans.
Valeria Angola: When did you begin acknowledging yourself as an Afro-Mexican woman?
Scarlet Estrada: It’s a never ending process. People has always pointed out how I was different all my life. That means, clearly, I’m not the same as the others. I remember that since a very young age people always asked where I was from. My nationality was always questioned. That makes this acknowledgement process an ongoing thing, particularly in Mexico, where Afro-descendant communities are invisibilized.
VA: At what point did you get closer to understanding the reasons behind this?
SE: I had never thought about it until I started studying anthropology. In one of my classes during the second semester, the professor invited a young woman from Colombia to tell us about afro hair and afro-feminism. This woman spoke about her hair, about the significance of letting it down, leaving it curly, letting it loose, because for her setting it free meant freeing a part [of her] that had been oppressed. She said that she had always felt forced to change her hair in order to be accepted, to fit in with society. I also went through this during my childhood and adolescence.
VA: Is that how you discovered that you were black?
SE: I think I always knew, it’s more like I hadn’t given it a name. I used to watch the Barbie cartoons and I always identified with the brownest, because of the curly hair. In any TV show I saw, I would relate to the black characters. Furthermore. I think it also had something to do with Afro-Mexican people beginning to acknowledge me…you know what you are because you see yourself reflected in others.
VA: What does it mean to acknowledge yourself in that way in Mexico?
SE: It means realizing that populations have been made invisible for many years. Again, we should embrace and accept what’s different, empowering ourselves too. We should not try make our bodies and everything else fit into other types of beauty that do not pertain to us. Furthermore, I believe recognizing one belongs to an Afro community also means becoming aware of the inequalities, discrimination, and racism that are experienced, among the African and the rest of Mexico’s indigenous populations.
VA: How does that feel?
SE: I feel free and empowered. I no longer feel guilty about having this big and beautiful butt; I no longer feel guilty because my hair curls. I feel very liberated, with love, loving this body. Sometimes I get conflicted, but it’s great to be able to give a name to the abuse that specifically us black women suffer. I have the freedom and the power to put a name to that abuse and fight against it.
VA: How would you describe the functioning of racism in Mexico?
Even though racism in Mexico can be evident in very explicit ways — like when there are attacks on social media against actress Yalitza Aparicio every time she appears in a magazine cover — it also comes about silently when the political, social, and cultural participation of black people is omitted from the national history. People say that there are no black people in Mexico. That’s not true.
What purpose did nationalism serve Mexico if not to silence the voices and deny the black skin of the enslaved peoples who came from Africa? Silence and invisibility hide under the sham that is Mexico’s racial intermixing and its racial democracy. Intermixing as biopolitics denied the existence of black communities in this land. Today these rebellious communities rise up, talk, meet, discuss among themselves, and organize to reconfigure the popular discursive dynamics that deny their presence. Black people in Mexico exist: here we are!
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