[NOTE: This article was originally published by LAist on March 3, 2023.] A special museum exhibit coming to San Bernardino this year will highlight a little-known aspect of Mexican culture: the Afro-Mexican community.
Preparations were underway late last month. Within sight of the nearby snowy mountains, a crowd huddled around tables laden with steaming tamales and hot café de olla in the chilly courtyard of San Bernardino’s Garcia Center for the Arts.
A few feet away in a small auditorium, a Mexican brass band warmed up. On the floor by the door sat a giant pile of what looked like giant reeds.
“In Oaxaca, we call them carrizo,” explained Esteban Zúñiga Ruiz, a Los Angeles artist with Oaxacan roots who was working with the reeds. “Carrizo, which is arundo sticks. They’re related to sugar cane, and it’s really flexible.”
At the center of the room, Zúñiga and an assistant were using the arundo sticks to build two large wearable sculptures, their frames made from arundo and constructed from woven palm fronds and fabric. They were big, about five feet tall and wide.
Zúñiga pointed to one that looked like a small dome with green painted spots.
“What we’re looking at right here is a structure of a turtle,” he said, then motioned to another creature, still under construction, resembling a bull, “and what I’m doing over there is a ‘toro de petate,’ that is what they call it there.”
Zúñiga added, “All of this represents La Costa Chica de Oaxaca.”
La Costa Chica
The Costa Chica region spans the Pacific coasts of two Mexican states, Oaxaca and Guerrero. It’s the epicenter of Afro-Mexican life and culture in Mexico. About 2% of Mexico’s population identifies as Black or of Black descent. But unlike places like the Caribbean, where Afro-Latino culture is well-recognized, Afro-Mexican culture in Mexico is not.
Highlighting this under-represented group is what the San Bernardino gathering was all about. The wearable turtle and bull sculptures will form part of the exhibit at Cal State San Bernardino, planned for September.
CSU San Bernardino anthropologist Arianna Huhn is the lead organizer.
“The idea is really to focus on looking at Afro-descendants in Mexico, specifically, and Afro-descendants in the Americas broadly, which is a subject that unfortunately a lot of people don’t know about,” Huhn said.
The exhibit will be titled “Afróntalo,” used here as a play on words. In English, the term means “face it.”
“There’s been a history of erasure of Black communities in Latin America,” Huhn explained. The idea of the exhibit, she said, isto “face this,” and to acknowledge the presence and contributions of Afro-Latinos in Mexico and elsewhere.
While the bulk of the exhibit will focus on Mexico, Huhn said, it will also include biographies of 21 Californians of Afro-Latino descent.
The “Afróntalo” exhibit is being put together with co-curators from Afro-Mexican communities in Mexico, she said. One is in Oaxaca — and that is where the giant bull and turtle come in.
The creatures are used in dances and processions during the Day of the Dead, Huhn said, and in other celebrations and merry-making. (The turtle dance is especially irreverent .) Huhn wanted to use them in the exhibit, but “they were too big and too fragile to send from Oaxaca, and so we made arrangements with our community curator there to build them here.”
The reeds were collected from Southern California watersheds, and Zúñiga was brought on to bring the creatures to life. The Garcia Center’s executive director, Jorge Osvaldo Heredia, worked with Huhn to turn the building of the wearable sculptures into a weekend celebration of Afro-Oaxacan culture at the art space.
“There’s like embedded racism within cultures,” Heredia said, “and so events like this I think are really important and impactful … just kind of recognizing that African heritage.”
Out in the courtyard, Diana Pinacho and her husband sampled the tamales as they waited to go inside. Pinacho, who drove out from Los Angeles, is a recent transplant from Mexico City who identifies as Afro-Mexican — she spent her summers on the Costa Chica of Guerrero, where her mother was born.
Pinacho said growing up in Mexico, she felt the Black culture she grew up with was ignored — and that relatively few people even understood that Mexicans like her and her family existed.
“I think that people really don’t see that in Mexico we have a Black population,” Pinacho said. “Having a Black population means having traditions, having music, having food, etc. … so I think that this is so important.”
Others came just out of curiosity, among them Robert John Fielder and his partner, Kim Jones, who heard of the event word-of-mouth. Fielder, from Altadena, said he felt a connection to Afro-Mexicans as an American of Black and Mexican heritage.
“My family migrated here from Mexico and Texas,” said Fielder, who has Mexican ancestry on his mother’s side. “And I look at it as we’re all equal.”
El Toro De Petate
Inside the auditorium, as a crowd gathered around, Zúñiga was busy putting the finishing touches — some painted-on bovine brown spots — on the “toro de petate.”
Zúñiga, who was born in the U.S. and spent part of his youth in Oaxaca, identifies as Zapotec with family roots in Oaxaca’s mountain region. But while he’s not from the Costa Chica or Afro-Mexican, “I like to represent all the regions from Oaxaca,” he said proudly.
Once the bull was ready to go, Zúñiga put the structure on, balancing the reed frame on his shoulders and peeking through an opening in the front.
Then, with only his feet showing underneath, he began a “zapateado,” tapping out a beat on the tile floor.
The band followed suit, striking up an accompanying tune — and the celebration of La Costa Chica was officially underway.