Mexico has definitely changed since the 1990s. It joined a powerful commercial block with the United States and Canada, known as the North American Free Trade Agreement. Its people elected a president from an opposition party, something that had not happened in 70 years. And, to boot, the country’s indigenous populations rallied behind an insurgency in the state of Chiapas, which sought, among other things, the respect for indigenous customs and rights.

For our purposes, the one change that over time may affect the country profoundly, was a constitutional amendment which, for the first time, established Mexico as a plural society. The amendment was designed to give voices to the different ethnic groups throughout the land and to give breathing space for the numerous non-Catholic religious groups. It was also a smoke signal to the stifling one-party rule of the past to open up the political system before it crashed under its own weight.

One effect, though, that can significantly alter the social and ethnic relations of the country, is the painfully difficult, yet steady, emergence of a group long forgotten by all constituted groups that make up the official Mexican mosaic: Los Negros, Mexico’s official, yet unrecognized, third cultural and racial root.

Mexican blacks have had a long and storied history in the country. Yet it is a story that is denied, not shared and officially obscured. It is that amendment that is acting as a resource for localized responses to this major oversight of Mexican history. Groups of AfroMestizos (or AfricanoMexicanos, as I prefer to know them) have started to organize and to demand a stronger acceptance of their historical role in the shaping of the country’s Mexican-ness, or national character.

Over the last few years, museums have begun to pay attention to this forgotten group. And, more importantly, museums emphasizing the African Mexican experience are appearing, and even more are planned. One is in the town of Cuaji, in the Guerrero and Oaxaca border, which finally incorporates the regional black history in its description of what is known as the Costa Chica, an area between Acapulco and Puerto Angel/Puerto Escondido on the Pacific coast.

But why has it taken so long for Mexico’s blacks to finally begin to be recognized as the country’s third root? Wasn’t it enough to let the numbers speak? For example, 200 years since the conquest, New Spain (Mexico) had doubled the size of Africans over Europeans. And, despite the country’s excuse toward slavery as something the Spanish did, from the 1500s to the 1700s, Mexico was the principal destination and port of entry for African slaves in the entire New World!

Part of the reason for this historical and racial amnesia rests in at least two reasons. One is Mexico’s unique form of mestizaje, an idealized form of racial and cultural mixing that states that Mexican people are the result of European and indigenous mixing. This official stance, long taught in elementary schools throughout the country, unequivocally left out the peoples of African (or Asian) descent.

Another cause, I believe, is this country’s own trajectory of blacks. The United States had such a virulent, racially motivated slavery system, that Mexico is content to let the United States keep the grand prize. If Mexico were to emphasize the key, yet tragic, role that Africans had in the economic development of the country, attention might be diverted from that other North American country which still cannot come to terms with this crucial past.

Mexico’s third-root movement, though not yet strong or long enough to reshape Mexican history completely, is beginning to be noticed. The Mexican government’s “Culture Office” of sorts, has officially funded a program to bring out the AfricanoMexicanos’ hidden past. Local researchers from universities in Guerrero (and Veracruz in the Caribbean coast, the other region with strong black legacies), are creating an African Mexican studies discipline of sorts – finally, after the Mexican anthropologist Gonzalo Aguirre Beltran proposed it in the 1940s!

Our own UCSB is in the middle of it too. Dr. Seth Fisher, from the Sociology Dept., with several other members of the Black and Chicano studies units on campus, attended a binational conference on issues of ethnicity, poverty and blackness in the port of Acapulco. Myself, I’m toying with the idea of a course on the AfricanoMexicano historical and cultural experience, surely to open up vast stores of hidden knowledge that will definitely have a positive effect on ethnic issues affecting us today.

La Tercera Rar’z, as the movement is known, has a long and difficult road ahead. Cultural and historical concepts, and the reality they socially construct, are slow to change. Countless Mexicans (and Mexican Americans/Chicanos) have no idea of this part of Mexico’s path. The common and popular view is that in Mexico no hay negros. If we have darker than usual skin, we blame it on the hot sun or on some group of unusually darker indigenous group.

We have been denied the knowledge of that other integral past of our history, the Third Root. Plurarity is a process, not a given. Welcome home, tercera ra’z.