Little black ones

If the 2020 census takers have visited you, then you were asked if you had African heritage.

Negrita doll from Muzquiz municipality, Coahuila. Author unknown 2020

The question is significant because it is the first time it is being asked. Previously, ethnic diversity was represented in the census only through language(s) spoken, as a way to count those of indigenous heritage. The rationale behind that dates back to after the Mexican Revolution, when everyone was considered to be “equally Mexican.”

It has meant a lack of reliable statistics about people of African heritage in Mexico, and indeed, many people (Mexicans and non-Mexicans) believe that Mexico never had them or that the small population that existed had completely blended in.

Neither is true. There was a slave trade in Mexico during the early colonial period. The reasons why Mexico is not associated with such was that it was never as massive as it was in other parts of the Americas, and the import of African slaves was terminated in the 18th century.

Mexico’s social class system at that time, called casta, classified people be degrees of European, indigenous and African blood. This and other factors meant that the African populations that did exist blended in with the others over time. After the concept of mestizaje was formalized in the 1920s, most Mexicans identified themselves in this way, including those with visible African physical features.

What does all this have to do with dolls?

There is a kind of social amnesia about Mexico’s African heritage, leading many to think that slavery never existed in the country or that someone who is black could not really be Mexican.

Negrita doll, Author and location unknown,1970s? This version of the doll was popular inthe mid 20th century in Mexico City. The face is commercial plastic. Using such brought the price of the doll down, making it easier to sell them on the street.

The doll called La Negrita (Little Black One) is a kind of faint memory. While there are variations, these dolls have black, not dark brown “skin,” are always female and wear a frilly dress with a head kerchief. Almost always, the said outfit is of a red polka-dot fabric. The doll’s dress is quite reminincent of slave dress before the US Civil War and that of various parts of the Carribean.

According to the Museum of Anthropology, these dolls have never been documented although they are aware of their existance. Such lack of documentation means that people who are aware of these dolls have various stories about their origin. Those in Veracruz believe their origin is the Carribean, while in the north of the country, it is believed to have originated in the United States. Mexico’s largest population of Afro-Mexicans, in the Costa Chica of Guerrero and Oaxaca, simply say it is what they make for their children.

One coorelation suggests that the doll is a Mexican invention. During the colonial period, it became fashionable for wealthy families to have an Afro-Mexican slave nanny to raise their children. Such nannies and children would form emotional bonds. The doll has been popular in a number of major cities… Mexico City and the mining cities to the north, which do not have Afro-Mexican populations today. But they are areas where such nannies did serve.

The dolls have continued to be made, handcrafted and commercially, to the current day. They had a period of popularity in the 1950s and 1960s in Mexico City, likely due to the influence of Memín Pinguín and other popular culture that depicted people of African heritage.

I am currently working on a book on the history and significance of cloth dolls in Mexico and dedicating a chapter to the doll, if for no other reason, it points to a fascinating and forgotten bit of Mexican history. I am still not yet happy with the chapter, needing the opportunity to travel to the Costa Chica and the Muzquiz municipality of Coahuila. I should be able to get a complete idea of who makes them today and why, but it is very likely I won’t be able to definitively answer the question of the doll’s origins in Mexico.

Featured image Negrita Doll at the Amealco Doll Fair and Competition by Gabriel Bonilla of Querétaro

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