Remembering Africa in México in Anacostia
By Melanie Henderson
Earlier last week while handling some business in SE, DC, I saw a gorgeous royal blue billboard on the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum building with a deep-skinned woman caressing her neck. The squint of her eyes implied she was facing the sun. The billboard read: The African Presence in México: From Yanga to the Present. I immediately pulled over, but the museum was closed.
This past Sunday, I journeyed back to the south side to try again. The exhibit is compelling delving into the complex and little-known/acknowledged presence of Africans in México via new and well-preserved old paintings, sculptures, carvings, and photos by Alfred J. Quiroz, Augustin V. Cassola, Maximino Javier, Mario Guzman Oliveres, and many others. The information is extensive, but still manages to provide a completely comprehensive overview of African influence in México. The tour guide, Robert Lee, and his passionate delivery only add to the experience.
At once, I was nostalgic thinking about the time I spent in México. I first traveled to Mexico in 1998 at 16 through an awesome organization called Amigos de las Americas. I stayed in the shed of a family’s home w/ two other “Amigos” in Ex-Hacienda de Peña Blanca in Guanajuato. For a month, we promoted good health practices with the goal of empowering the people of that little town in Guanajuato to be self-sufficient in maintaining good health habits (i.e., using their natural resources to make toothbrushes, build latrinas – outhouses- away from central water sources, building estofas, making dehydration kits for infants suffering with diarrhea, which is major cause of infant death in certain parts of México, etc.).
My time there was both beautifully unforgettable and difficult for many reasons: it was my first time outside of the U.S., it was my first time traveling alone (without family or friends), I had a functional use of Spanish as I had only studied it for two years at that time, and finally, my grandmother passed days before I was set to leave. So at a time I wanted and needed to be with family, I was in a far off, unfamiliar place with folk who didn’t understand me in more ways than one.
The beauties to note are endless! I remember Manolín, the little pig that ate the meals I couldn’t stomach. Though I never became a fan of nopales (cactus), I became an immediate fan of the chicken móle made special for the town’s big celebrations like First Holy Communion, Confirmation, and the beginning of school at the end of June. The schoolhouse was modest, but what I remember most are the children’s big, bright eyes.
A river runs through Ex-Hacienda de Pena Blanca
I remember how the river rose after rain and the moms hurried to catch the new water. On dry days, the river was easily passable by donkeys and people alike, but it was also full of potential health hazards for a community who relied on the river for all the reasons people need water- drinking, cooking, tidying soiled clothes and cleaning our bodies.
I remember venturing into the city to visit the hospital which was nearly an hour or more away. One of my shed mates got an infection from an insect whose name I can’t recall, so we climbed over the canyon, the dips and valleys, the low water into the neighboring town, San Lucas, to convince someone to drive us in. On older man agreed, for money of course, and we piled into the back of his pick-up truck, watching the breadth of Mexico in reverse, her breath in our hair. The ride back wasn’t as pleasant. The cab driver refused to take us into Ex-Hacienda de Peña Blanca because the rocky, unpaved scape would damage his taxi, his bread and butter. So, he dropped us right outside of San Lucas, with the rabid dogs, their snarls more scary than anything I’ve known before. Perhaps, the danger was more real and promised. The dogs with rugged spots and nearly white eyes covered the townspeople’s homes as if guarding them, so we had no choice but to risk climbing the canyon in the pitch black night, the glowing eyes of coyotes howling prayerfully on the canyon’s other hip. As if holding an ocean of water in our heads, the tears flooded our faces when we reached the other side. I had a new appreciation for Timberland boots after making it over. As our feet touched the parched dirt of Ex-Hacienda de Peña Blanca, the sky wept for us too as if it were waiting to cry until we made it safely. Our clothes and spirits were soaked. Our house mother welcomed us back with café con canela and little biscuits. I was too shaken to eat anything. Instead, my grateful tears and I went to bed and waited for the morning.
Bean Field in Guanajuato
The bean fields where so expansive and green, and seemed to soak every beam of light the sun emitted before night came. After our day’s work was done, I enjoyed sitting in the middle of the field, staring up at the mountains and hills. The moon was majestic and much bigger than I had ever seen it in D.C. Before bed, each night, I looked at the moon and remembered my Grandmother.
I kept a journal and have only revisited it twice since. I get so caught up in my life here in the States that I almost forget some big moments, some new, some lonely, some horrific. Needless to say, I wasn’t the same little Black girl from D.C. when I returned. My dearest and closest couldn’t imagine what I had seen and how much I had been changed in a month’s time.
HU in Oaxaca, 2002
About 4 years later, I went back. You can’t go just once. At the time, I was in undergrad in the Department of Modern Languages and Literature at Howard University and participating in an independent study abroad in Oaxaca, México.
La Calle Alcala
Una Calle en Oaxaca
In Oaxaca, art was everywhere! – On the walls, in the cityscape, in the architecture, in the food, and the textiles dyed with leaves and plant seeds, raspberry-colored tea made from soaked flower petals. The quesadillas arábes were the best! I haven’t had a quesadilla like it since.
There was even art in the people, the beautiful burnt orange skin that was thriving in one of Mexico’s poorest and least educated areas, an area on the brink of war.
One day, I’ll go back. In the meantime, the museum, old photo albums, and memories will have to do.
Visit México without the plane tickets, the vaccines, or the heavy luggage. Do check out The African Presence in México: From Yanga to the Present exhibit in Anacostia. It’s there until July 4th.