African Roots Still Run Deep For Blacks on Mexican Coast

By Alexis Okeowo
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 28, 2009

You have to really want to go to Chacahua. The island is nestled along Mexico's Costa Chica, a 200-mile-long strip that straddles the states of Oaxaca and Guerrero on the Pacific Ocean; the nearest hub is Puerto Escondido, a developed beach in Oaxaca.

After your flight from Mexico City or Cancun, the easy part of the trip is over. From Puerto Escondido, you need to reach El Zapotalito, a tiny spot on the coast. The land journey can be done by private taxi or, for the braver, by public transportation. From El Zapotalito you can take a boat to Chacahua.

Luckily, I did want to go. I was on the hunt not only for an idyllic beach getaway, but also for a hidden group of people who call themselves Mexicanos negros (black Mexicans). The end of slavery after Mexico's independence from Spain left black Mexicans throughout the country, but today black towns remain only in remote areas. The African part of Mexican history was neglected by the new Mexican leadership, leaving slave descendants to wonder about their origins.

Yet with the rise of tourism to Costa Chica in recent years, modernity has slowly come to the fishing villages that rest on a sultry, stunning stretch of the Pacific coast. In Chacahua, virgin beaches, glittering lagoons and fresh-seafood-only menus have created an alluring destination that is still little known -- much like its inhabitants.

In Puerto Escondido I squeezed into a colectivo (public van) headed for Rio Grande, not far from El Zapotalito. As the hour-long ride went by, the crowded beaches gave way to lush, neon-green grass; the sun seemed to get brighter and hotter, the waters bluer, the people browner with kinkier hair.

In Rio Grande, I made my way to a taxi stand to cram into another shared car that would take me to the boats. As I walked with the driver to his cab, he smiled down at me. "Hermanas. You two could be sisters," he said, pointing back at the taxi stand. There, a black Mexican woman who was staffing the stall watched me with curiosity.

Chacahua is divided in half by a series of lagoons filled with exotic birds. The surroundings make for a gorgeous ride whether you hire a private boat or take a public ferry to the island. The boat can take you straight to town or you can disembark, as I did the first time, on the island's edge.

I then hopped onto a pickup truck, along with other Chacahuans, for a half-hour's ride on rocky sand past scraggly bushes and cactuses into the village. Once we maneuvered around rams and cows that had decided to congregate in the middle of the road, I had finally reached my destination -- three exhilarating hours after leaving Puerto Escondido. My escapade had begun.

"They say a boat full of slaves, with dark skin like me, was headed for South America," Omar Corcuera told me over lunch the next day at Restaurant Punto de Quiebra. The young surfer, with deep-brown skin and a shock of naturally blond-brown hair, was recounting the far-fetched tale of a wrecked ship whose survivors populated the shore; I would hear it more than once.

What historians know is that the black Mexicans on the Pacific coast hail from the African slaves who were brought by the Spanish to work on cattle ranches during the 16th and 17th centuries. (On the Gulf coast, slaves were mainly deployed on sugar plantations.) Overall, the Spanish brought more than 200,000 Africans to Mexico for slave labor. The residents of Chacahua say they do not know much about their history, and different tales have gotten jumbled together over time.

The community of black, white and mestizo Mexicans (those of mixed Spanish and indigenous heritage) on this island numbers about 700 and has been around for some two centuries.

Nevertheless, Omar said, "I feel that I am African and Mexican."

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