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Center for Latino and Latin American Studies

"'We are not used to people thinking we are beautiful" -- The New Yorker

 
 
 
 

“We Are Not Used to People Thinking We Are Beautiful”

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It was a toothache that brought the Franco-Danish photographer Cécile Smetana Baudier to Costa Chica, on the Pacific Coast of Mexico. She was in Oaxaca at the time, for a project on women’s fashion, when she visited a dentist with a special reputation among cash-strapped local photographers. He accepted payment in the form of photographs. His waiting room, in Oaxaca City, was like a gallery, with framed images along the walls and piles of art books cascading over tables. There, just before getting a molar pulled, Baudier came across a series of photos of reedy men with fishing rods and nets, lolling in boats and along the banks of lagoons. She was surprised, given the fact that the men were black, to learn that the photographs had been taken in Mexico, in the remote southern states of Oaxaca and Guerrero. It was the first time she had ever seen images of Afro-Mexicans, and she decided to try to contribute some of her own. A few weeks later, she set out for El Azufre—a secluded coastal fishing village with a large Afro-Mexican population—where she spent five weeks living in a tent pitched on the front yard of an acquaintance’s house.

The African presence in Mexico dates back to the early sixteenth century, when Spanish conquistadors and colonialists arrived; with them came the slave trade. About half of all the African slaves brought to the New World wound up in Mexico—around two hundred and fifty thousand, according to academic estimates. At the turn of the nineteenth century, ten per cent of the population had African origins, but Mexican independence ignited a new national dialogue that downplayed race and elevated, instead, the idea of common citizenship. Even though some of the country’s most iconic freedom fighters and early politicians had African roots, their accomplishments fed a celebration of the broader mestizo culture. The history of Afro-Mexicans ever since has been one of erasure and marginalization. Today, there are 1.4 million citizens of African descent in Mexico, but the government did not recognize them officially until a 2015 census count.

In El Azufre, equipped with an old Mamiya camera, Baudier eased herself into the rhythms of daily life. “I always spend at least one week just walking around a place and not photographing,” she told me recently. “People eventually get curious, pop their head out, and ask, ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’ ” El Azufre is a self-contained locale, with scant Internet access and a dearth of smartphones. It made the people Baudier encountered at once more curious about her interest in them and less self-conscious about being photographed; none of their poses felt practiced or rehearsed. She liked to shoot in the lush light of dawn and dusk, which coincided with the bursts of activity in the village, where residents rise early, retreat to escape the hot sun in the afternoon, and then reëmerge in the evenings. A woman in her sixties named Nicolasa, with long, dyed-black hair and a look of casual self-security on her face, stares directly at the camera in one image. Other figures are bathed in shadows, their eyes flickering out from the dark. One day, Baudier came upon a group of three young girls sitting in an empty inflatable pool, putting on makeup. One of them, who was twelve years old, dabbed her face with a whitening powder to create a paler effect. She didn’t like being called “Afro-Mexican,” she said.

Baudier shoots on film, and there were often traces of smoke from burned wood in the air when she took her photographs. As a result, a barely perceptible haze seems to enshroud her subjects; they seem both available and recessive, inviting and reluctant. Several photographs show people partially submerged in water, faces and limbs poking out as the rest of their bodies disappear beyond our view. Are they turning toward us, and the world beyond? Or away from us, toward their own world apart? As one villager told Baudier, “We are not used to people thinking we are beautiful.”

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