Interview with Ayana V. Jackson and Marco Villalobos

Interview with Ayana V. Jackson and Marco Villalobos

by John Farris


      Ayana V. Jackson has exhibited her work in galleries and nontraditional spaces worldwide, including shows curated by the National Council de La Raza in Washington, D.C., Peter Hermann Gallery in Berlin, Germany, and Tribes Gallery in New York City. Selections from the "African by Legacy, Mexican by Birth" series have been included in Columbia University's Soul Magazine, while the World Bank has acquire a selection from her Hip Hop series, "Full Circle," for its permanent collection.

      Marco Villalobos's writing has appeared in publications such as Step into a World: a Global Anthology of the New Black Literature (John Wiley and Sons, 2000), Geography of Rage: The Los Angeles Riots of 1992 (Really Great Books, 2002). Villalobos has presented his work on stage and radio for more than a decade. He is author of the limited edition chapbook, Barrio Gold (Unilan Publishing, 2002). He is also a 2003-2004 Unesco-Aschberg Laureate and a 1998 Hispanic Scholarship Recipient.

      This interview was conducted at the Caribbean Cultural Center in the context of an exhibition of films and photographs by Jackson and Villalobos, running from January 9 to May 12, 2006.


So Marco and Ayana, we're here at the Caribbean Culture Center, where you are exhibiting your photographs and your film -- Mexican by Birth, African by Legacy. Ayana or Marco, whichever of you that wants to answer this, how did you come to this -- to make this show?}


Jackson:    Actually, it started out with a different title,{El Negro mas Chulo} -- African by Legacy, Mexican by Birth. And we started it in 2003. But actually the discussion comes back to the day that Marco and I met, when, in a conversation, we started talking about Afro-Mexico. I  had studied race relation in Latin America and the Caribbean, and that's where I learned about the African presence in Mexico, and the fact that there were still communities.


{Where'd you study?}


Jackson:    That was at Spelling College. I studied sociology, with a concentration in Latin American, Caribbean culture and society.


{What interested you in that?}


Jackson:    My father was a musician, and most of the music that he his group played had to do with the Diaspora. Brazilian music, and British-Caribbean music, all different kinds of musical manifestations of Africans in other parts of the hemisphere. Knowing that I had many cousins out there, that spoke languages that I didn't speak, from cultures that I wasn't familiar with, so it just became a natural curiosity as I went into my academic years. When I did my study abroad in the Dominican Republic and Argentina, I really focused on how different the culture is between more African-based cultures like Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, and -- as opposed to a place like Argentina, that has very little African presence.


{But some?}


Jackson:    But some. There's less than one percent in the city, the capital, Buenos Aires.


{When did they arrive there?}


Jackson:    Buenos Aires was also one of the larger ports for the transport of Africans into Latin America. Many would stay within the port area, doing work and working on the docks and things like that. But also, many of the ships were later disseminated to other parts of the region, like Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay. And in the late 1800s to the end of the 19th century, about 30 percent of Buenos Aires was still African descended. But they went to a process of blancoefficion, which was a whitening of the race. The president of that time wrote into the constitution that for the progress of the nation it was necessary to purify the blood lines, and that by mixing the indigenous and African communities with Europeans that they were bringing from Italy, or, from Spain, particularly Italy -- until the time of the World War when they started bringing in Germans.


{So they encouraged race mixing?}


Jackson:    Encouraged race mixing.


Villalobos: Encouraging whitening.


Jackson:    Yes, encouraging whitening.


Villalobos: Not darkening.


Jackson:    Yes, definitely not darkening.


{That could backfire on them.}


Jackson:    It didn't actually, because, to back up, they, as many countries did, offered freedom to the Africans were enslaved that went and worked in the frontlines of the army. Most of the male population, the African male population was completely obliterated, massacred in the war with Paraguay. That left the women who were very publicly celebrated if they mixed with these Europeans. Well, one of the stories that I always found fascinating, I read an article about this woman who gave birth to twins. One was very light, one was very dark, and they congratulated her in the newspaper for having bettered the race, for having done a good job for the patria by having this one white child.




Jackson:    So it was serious, it was in their constitution. So that was so different from the experience that I had in the Dominican Republic, which also has a problem in understanding its African population, but it's undeniable that it's there. Why I didn't have much information on was the Africans in more indigenous communities, like Mexico.


{Marco, what was your investment in this? How did you get involved? }


Villalobos:       The typical story is because of family history, right? But I'm sort of rethinking that, I'm wondering if that really true. I think basically as a Chicano, as a Mexican-American in California, there is a really internal racism that gets played out intra-ethnically among Mexicans in California, and that internal racism is directed not only at outsiders, such as whites or Asians or blacks, it also involves the different types of Mexicans in California, There you have different degrees or different sections of those types. One section would be recent arrivals to California, wetbacks, to use that term. Fresh from Mexico. Another one is people that have been there longer. They have these different hierarchies according to the amount of time you've been there, to hierarchies that revolve around how you got there. Someone, an academic from Mexico City that came legally, obviously has some sort of upper hand against someone who came from the countryside illegally, right? So you have this intra-ethnic racism, and then you have the friction between Mexicans -- and this is also intra-ethnic -- of different complexions, from darker to lighter, from real European to Indian, and then African, which is never spoken. And I think that what drew me to the project is that fact that the African contingent of the Mexican, or Californian, or anywhere in the states is never spoken out loud. And this is when I say that the real tradition response is that my family brought me into it. There are different shades of people in my family. It made me curious about how we never spoke about a specific aunt or her dark complexion unless it was about how she married someone lighter. We never questioned where that dark complexion came from. She has a broad nose, she has a full mouth, she has woolly hair. She has all of these features, these characteristic that would suggest African ancestry.


{Did she come from the Pacific coast of Mexico, around Acapulco?}


Villalobos:       I don't know. That's thing I don't know. I don't know where my father's from. I don't where anyone's from in my family. I don't know where my grandmother's from. All they ever say is they're Mexican. Much like the African Americans in the United States, a lot of times there's not generational knowledge of where people are from. Maybe Ayana would know that her Grandfather's from Georgia, or that their folks are from Florida. Beyond that there was a plantation maybe somewhere. Right now people are really only getting into discovering or questioning where they are from before the plantation.


{So how did you prepare for this show?}


Jackson:    We went on what we knew and what was inspiring to us. Prior to leaving, we did a few Internet searches, and we found out about Yanga, which was the African leader who lead a group of fifty self-liberated Africans into the mountains to start their own town. And they started negotiations with Spain where they paid taxes to the Crown in 1609.  Marco can tell more about that. It's in Vera Cruz. A friends father mentioned that there was a museum in Juahaca, and that if we really wanted to see and rub shoulders with Africans, with people who looked like me, then that would be a good place to start.


{When you got to Yanga, how did you make contact with people?}


Villalobos: Well, we didn't know which way to go, because we found that there were different traditions. In the traditions of self-liberated people on the Pacific side and those on the Gulf side, the cultural retention is different. Because those on the Atlantic side were more surrounded by European townships. They were isolated on the Pacific side, and now see the results of that isolation after three or four hundred years.  The Pacific is underrepresented in terms of education and political representation. While on the Atlantic side, there was more miscegenation and cultural absorption.


{Yeah, I was in Acapulco once. The people there didn't believe I was from anywhere else. They thought I was from Acapulco, and I was speaking English to try to impress the gringos. I couldn't make these people believe me. }


Jackson:    Yeah, these communities are 70 miles below Acapulco. They're fishing communities.


{Yeah, I was involved in one, Puerto Marquesa. That's only about two miles outside of Acapulco. I had a fight with my buddy. I thought I had killed him. I was hallucinating from all of that you know what, and I ended up sleeping in a canoe there. The next morning, I was woken by the fishing crew. I went out and fished with them for a couple of hours, during which time they would not believe I was from New York. I had thought I was in paradise and wanted to stay there forever, until they took me to this big white house, at the end of the beach, where this German lived. And they asked him if I was telling the truth. He told them yes after talking to me. And I didn't want to stay there anymore, if they couldn't believe me on my own. Later on I was sitting in the local, very expensive tourist joint, having hamburgers and malteds with my buddy, whom it turns out I hadn't killed after all, and when I saw some of them walking by, I waved to them. They believed me after that, for real. }


Jackson:    Yeah, most people we met were very happily identifying with me based on the fact that I was black. They'd say you look like my niece, you look like my grandmother. Which I found very interesting, because if I asked most people what are you, they would say Mexican. You have to really pry to get to the fact that they're black Mexican.


There's one trait that Mexicans and, at least, Nigerians seem to share, that I notice, and that's one of concealment, that is, they don't want to give too much information away about where they're from. They're not too willing to tell you stuff.


Jackson:    Yeah, it took a while to get to the topic of blackness. It seems to me that we never really got to it.


Were they very available when sitting for portraits? They're quite wonderful portraits.


Jackson:    The blessing for me was that we traveled together. Marco would do the interviews. We'd go to a house. We'd tell them who we are and what we were doing. Some would laugh and say, "We're not black. You've got to go closer to the water to get to the black people." And we found that was true, the closer we got to the water, the blacker the people got. Like you go to Llano Grande, which is really close to the water, and the people were very black there. And while Marco was doing the interviews, I was able to take these photographs.  


{Good luck with your show.}