For the first time ever, people of African descent living in Mexico were able to identify themselves as black in the national census.
Mexico’s 2015 population survey, released Dec. 8, counted 1.38 million people of African heritage, representing 1.2% of the country’s population (link in Spanish.) Most live in three coastal states, including Guerrero, where they account for nearly 7% of the population, and overall they are poorer and less educated than the national average, Mexico’s census bureau (INEGI by its acronym in Spanish) has found.
Including an “Afro” category in the census is part of a push to recognize Latin America’s black communities. Like the US, Latin America and the Caribbean have a history of slavery that resulted in a large number of residents of African descent—about 150 million, accounting for about 30% of the region’s population, according to the United Nations.
Similar to their American counterparts, Latin America’s black population also has been the target of racism, something that some countries are starting to address with anti-discrimination laws and affirmative-action policies. Governments have also committed to making more improvements to protect black Latin Americans as part of the UN’s international decade for people of African descent, which started this year.
But there’s still a long way to go for black Latin Americans to achieve equal status. Earlier this month, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaking at a meeting in Brasilia, said he was “struck by the enormity of the task before us.”
Compared to other countries in Latin America, Mexico had a smaller influx of African slaves. Still, many thousands were forcibly brought to New Spain, as the country was known when it was a Spanish colony, to work in silver mines and sugar plantations.
After independence, this population became largely invisible because it didn’t fit into the Mexico’s new national identity, built on the idea of mestizaje, or the mixing between Spaniards and indigenous people, says Citlali Quecha, a researcher at National Autonomous University of Mexico who has studied the country’s black community.
“All those who were different were considered foreigners,” she tells Quartz.
After fighting for recognition for more than two decades, Afro-Mexican activists are finally getting some traction. Being included in the census as distinct category is a big step. Mexico’s Human Rights Commission has also vowed to fight discrimination, and organized a forum (link in Spanish) earlier this year to discuss policies to achieve that.
And last month, a gathering of Afro-Mexican communities—once a relatively small affair—was attended by several high-ranking government officials, including the head of the senate’s commission on indigenous rights, who accepted a proposal (Spanish) to have black Mexicans formally recognized in the constitution.