[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #3 in September 2006]
Mexicans and African Americans combine to make up a huge percentage of the population in the US, and a majority (56%) here in Chicago. Bringing these two groups together could result in important social changes that could take the shape of anything that is meaningful to both groups, from reforming the public education system to electing the next president. This has occurred already in Chicago with the election of Mayor Harold Washington and in Los Angeles with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. However, before this can happen on a larger scale, the groups must feel solidarity with one another, a sense of empathy that springs from having a common purpose.
Participating in another’s struggle means making it your own. One of the things that can inform such collaboration is history. Knowledge of a shared history counteracts the ignorance and fear of others that combine to create prejudice. In turn, this knowledge can generate solidarity, which can encourage action.
As curator of museum exhibitions, I am in the business of disseminating information and ideas that can foster collaboration and solidarity. I work for the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum (mfacm) and I curated one of the exhibitions that was on view this past spring and summer, Who Are We Now? Roots, Resistance, and Recognition.
Who Are We Now? was part of the larger project, The African Presence in M\xe9xico, which consisted of three exhibitions, more than 20 public programs, a catalog, and an eight-unit curriculum. Another exhibition in the project, From Yanga to the Present, told the story of people of African descent in Mexico over the past 500 years and explained how the Afro-Mexican population became virtually invisible in Mexico. In fact, the long and rich history of African presence in Mexico should be incorporated into elementary school education in Mexico and the US, especially since it has the potential to bring together two often disparate groups.
My exhibition, Who Are We Now?, is the one people walked into after seeing The African Presence in M\xe9xico. The intention was that people would learn about the connection between Africans and Mexicans, and then bring that information home to bear on their experiences in the US.
Who Are We Now? dealt with the relationships between Mexicans and African Americans in the US and between African Americans and the country of Mexico. Since people in the US tend to think that these two groups don’t or can’t get along, I set out to tell the history of collaboration between them, which is substantial and not well known. My hope was to take a step towards bringing people together, making a true majority out of two so-called “minorities.” If Mexicans and African Americans who saw the exhibitions left the Museum either feeling related in some way, or simply feeling more informed about each other, then the exhibitions worked. From what I can tell, they did.
As it was for many of the museum’s patrons, the exhibition was very personal to me. My parents’ families are Mexican and Polish. When I began the process of assembling Who Are We Now?, I felt no particular kinship with African Americans as a group. I named the exhibition Who Are We Now? precisely because what I learned from The African Presence in M\xe9xico and during the research process changed the way that I think of myself and my family.
The turning point came when I sent my father the draft of my article for the catalog to edit. He took the manuscript to San Antonio with him while visiting his family—the Mexican side of our family. He called me from Texas after reading my article to tell me that my cousin Sarah is Black. I had to stop myself from brushing off the idea and really consider the fact that the African presence touches all of Mexico, as the exhibitions at the Museum show. Many staff members at the Museum are considering similar questions of identity within their own families as well. When I saw the picture of Sarah that my father sent me, my initial reaction was to think that she looked simply Mexican, not necessarily Black. She almost certainly thinks of herself the same way that I do. But Mexican-ness includes an element of Blackness, which is something that we’re not used to acknowledging.
My work on Who Are We Now? became an act of solidarity between my Mexican self and African Americans in the moment I saw the connection between us. Knowledge of history produced a feeling of solidarity in me that became translated directly into action, beginning with giving the exhibition a name that encourages people to question their own histories. The responses to the exhibition, by the press and the public, have been overwhelmingly expressions of gratitude that the Museum has chosen to tell these stories that bring people together, and that we have succeeded in doing so in a very respectful way. Our success was largely the result of intense work by the Steering Committee made up of staff of the mfacm and African American leaders such as Jacqueline Atkins, the director of Museums in the Park; Amina Dickerson, the director of corporate contributions for Kraft Foods; and Tracye Matthews, the associate director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture. It seems that this would go without saying, but, as the political climate in this country clearly shows, it doesn’t: it is important to bring everyone with a stake in the result into any discussion from the beginning.
All of the exhibitions included images of people who look African (be that Afro-Mexican or African American) and people who look Mexican appearing noble, dignified, and empowered. As a white Latina, I didn’t understand until recently why people needed to see themselves on the wall of exhibitions or in the pictures in textbooks or on TV in order to become invested in whatever discussion was taking place. I have always seen myself in these places, and so I, like most people with white skin, took that for granted. I think, though, that it has been a good experience for African Americans to come into a Mexican museum in an overwhelmingly Mexican neighborhood in Chicago and see their people on the wall. Seeing themselves, in and of itself, sends a strong message of solidarity that becomes even stronger when the visitors understand its basis in history.
We need to continue to use the history that binds Mexicans and African Americans together to unite these groups. This can be done in numerous ways, including exhibitions, public events, and (especially) by revising curricula in schools to include this information. In the moment that African Americans and Mexicans see each other as family, they will begin to share common goals and empathy. Once that happens, they will work together as a majority that is capable of generating real change.