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As a Black Oaxacan, I Have No Choice But to Betray Mexican Nationalism

Relaciones is a monthly series that helps Latines navigate interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships by unpacking the tough but necessary conversations that come up in our communities. This month, columnist Alán Pelaez Lopez writes about their relationship with their country of birth, Mexico.
It’s 10:12 p.m. on August 4, 2021 and two government officials raid our bus. I am sitting next to my grandmother. We do not look alike. I wear thick long locs, a hoodie, gold hoop earrings, and sneakers in their last month of life. I am asked to stand up. I am asked where I am from. I say de aquí. I am asked to provide proof that I am telling the truth. I reach for my backpack and take out my Mexican passport. The government official doesn’t believe I am the same person as the one on my passport. I am interrogated about where I am from again and I say that my pueblo is just an hour inland from where we are. Officials ask what my destination is, and I say la Ciudad de México. The officials never ask my grandmother for papers. 
The bus is full, and the officials only harass four of us. We are all visibly Black. I am the lightest-skinned Black person they harass; this is important because I am also the one who is least humiliated and fastest believed. The others have no such luck. The officials reach for a woman’s afro. She does not protest. Perhaps, she has learned that to save her life in our native country she must negotiate when she should fight back and when it is safest to remain quiet. 
On a bus in Oaxaca, Mexico, none of us Black Mexicans are considered Mexican, we are all transformed into migrantes irregulares. Ironically, all four of us are Afro-Oaxacans, descendants of formerly enslaved Africans who sought refuge in rural parts of Oaxaca when slavery was the rule of law. But our Mexican citizenship does not protect us from the raid, humiliation, or physical interaction. Instead, all four of us are questioned and harassed because our physical bodies threaten what it means to be “Mexican,” which to put simply means a non-Black mestiza.

"Our Mexican citizenship does not protect us from the raid, humiliation, or physical interaction."

Alán Pelaez Lopez
Unfortunately, this is not the first encounter I have had with racial profiling in my country of birth. In 2019, I was working with the Black LGBTQ Migrant Project alongside the Transgender Law Center and the Haitian Bridge Alliance to build relationships with Black LGBTQ migrants waiting to file for political asylum in the United States. Five of us — all Black — crossed the San Ysidro-Tijuana border to meet a congregation of Haitian migrants who had made Tijuana their new home. I was the only one of my colleagues who had a Mexican passport, and yet, I was the only one of the five of us to be questioned by Mexican federal agents.
Upon presenting my Mexican passport, the agent first commented that my passport looked falsified, then asked me if I was Mexican. I made a shady comment about being an Afro-Mexican and Afro-Mexicans being constantly erased from Mexico. The agent then replied, “Afro-Mexican?” — as if she had never heard of such phenomena. I wanted to talk back and raise my voice, but I knew that my meeting with migrants in my country of birth was more urgent than my erasure as a Black Mexican citizen. I stood in silence. The agent didn’t know what to do. There were visa stamps on my passport, so she let me into my country of birth.
These two experiences, while not new to me, are experiences that most Mexicans will never have to live through. According to Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía, as of 2020, only 2% of the Mexican population (who participated in the census) identify as Afro-Mexican. I am one of the few Black nationals from the country, but according to historian Colin A. Palmer, approximately 200,000 kidnapped Africans were forced into chattel slavery in Nueva España what is now known as Mexico. Palmer argues that “in the sixteenth century, New Spain probably had more enslaved Africans than any other colony in the Western Hemisphere.” 
It’s important for me to highlight these statistics from Mexico’s legacy of slavery and describe two recent events in detail because every time I am in my birth country, I am forced to negotiate and grapple with the relationship between my physical Black body and my country of citizenship, Mexico. 

"Every time I am in my birth country, I am forced to negotiate and grapple with the relationship between my physical Black body and my country of citizenship, Mexico." 

Mexican citizenship is supposed to protect us from human rights violations in the country, but it doesn’t. In truth, I, like some of my Black, Indigenous, and Asian Mexican friends, cannot trust that my birth certificate, passport, or Mexican voter ID card will protect me. If citizenship is a contract between a nation and the citizen, I am learning that Mexico hasn’t held up its end of the contract. Therefore, I have no choice but to betray my Mexican nationalism.
I worry that as Mexican nationalism grows in the United States among Mexican Americans and Mexican migrants, experiences like mine will continue to be erased. Nationalism, within the context of a Mexican citizen who is now living in the United States, has often been a tactic I used in my life to distinguish myself as “Latine” and not as American. I had to distance myself from the grammar of being an “American” because I lived as an undocumented person in the U.S. for nearly two decades, meaning that I faced the danger of incarceration and deportation at any moment. At the time, I didn’t realize I could make my lived experience known to others without leaning on a compulsory patriotism that gave Mexico more power than it has ever afforded its minority populations. 
The journey to unlearn nationalism is tricky. Sometimes I think of places like Puerto Rico, where a nationalistic Puerto Rican identity allows the Puerto Rican subject to insist on sovereignty and demand that the archipelago no longer be occupied by the United States. Or, I think of places like Haiti, where Haitian nationalism allows for a celebration of Black resistance against colonizers who dreamt of a permanent slaveholding society in the island of Kiskeya. But Mexico is neither Puerto Rico nor Haiti. Mexico is one of the superpowers of Latin America and, therefore, I must build an analysis of what Mexican nationalism does or does not do for Black, Indigenous, and Asian Mexicans. 

"Mexico is one of the superpowers of Latin America and, therefore, I must build an analysis of what Mexican nationalism does or does not do for Black, Indigenous, and Asian Mexicans." 

I am not the first to speak of this. Jumko Ogata, an Afro-Japanese Mexican living in Veracruz has documented her experience of anti-Blackness and anti-Asian violence in Mexico through her podcast Yo Soy Negra. Similarly, Dr. Tito Mitjans Alayón, a Black Cuban migrant living in Mexico, has documented the ways in which anti-Black racism and transphobia in Mexico severely limit Black and trans futures in the country. 
So, while I encourage Mexican Americans and Mexican migrants in the U.S. to retain our pride in culture and community, I think we should no longer feed Mexico more power through the stories we carry about the country. Instead, I ask that Mexican Americans and Mexican migrants in the U.S. and other countries begin to interrogate their relationship with Mexico. 
A few questions we can ask to engage this process are the following: how do race and racism operate in Mexico? How much do I know about the Black pueblos in Mexico? What are the needs of Asian Mexicans? And what are the demands of the Indigenous communities in the specific state I or my family are from? 
When we begin to explore these questions, we can gather a more nuanced narrative of our own country, and in doing so, radical possibilities for multiethnic, multicultural, Black, Asian, and Indigenous futures open up. 

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