Giovani Dos Santos and the Tangled History of Mexican Blackness

Mexican National Team star Giovani Dos Santos has quickly emerged as an integral member of five-time MLS champions LA Galaxy with his undeniable knack for flashy goal scoring, precise passing, and a relentless, competitive spirit. His charming and media-friendly personality have made him a fan favorite in the Latino community of Los Angeles. But as unmistaken as his talent is, there is another characteristic that hasn’t received the same recognition.

Dos Santos is the son of an Afro-Brazilian father named Zizinho, who played professional soccer in Liga MX in the 1980s, and a mestiza mother from the Northeastern Mexican state of Nuevo León. As a member of the Mexican national team, Giovani’s curly hair, bronze skin, and slightly broader facial features distinguish him from his mestizo teammates on the pitch. Still, his conspicuous features and Afro-Brazilian heritage go without mention by the Mexican media.

Zizinho during his time on América
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However, the neglect of Dos Santos’ blackness (in Mexico itself and abroad) comes as no surprise. Even though states like Veracruz and Guerrero have significant Afro-Mexican populations, efforts to build Mexico’s national identity in the early 20th century focused on mestizaje (or a blend of indigenous and European heritage), and that ideology continues to impact how Mexicans think about national racial identity. Giovani’s blackness is challenging people to think about Mexican racial identities in more inclusive ways. But why has his father’s racial identity been blatantly omitted by the Mexican media? The answer may lie in the historical and contemporary neglect of the African legacy in Mexico, or third root.

Giovani Dos Santos
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Between the 16th and 18th centuries, approximately 200,000 enslaved Africans were brought to the port city of Veracruz by the Spanish to replace a depleting indigenous labor force. Scholars agree that during this time period, nearly one out of every two African slaves headed for the Spanish Americas were brought to Mexico and forced to work in sugar processing mills, sugarcane fields, mines, or as domestic servants. During this period, New Spain, as Mexico was then called, constructed a racial order based on a system of castas – or what anthropologist Bobby Vaughn defines as “explicit hierarchies based on race and mixture.”

The castas created a racial order where white skin was not only privileged over darker skin, but also created restrictive systems of access and mobility throughout Mexico. To put it simply, if you were of “pure” Spanish blood you were granted membership into the highest ranks of society, whereas if you were of African descent you were placed at the bottom of the racial hierarchy. The “in-between” categories, according to scholar Martha Menchaca, included people who existed between the blanco and negro category, which included castizos, people of Spanish and Amerindian mixture; pardos, people of Spanish, African, and Amerindian mixture; and mulatos, people of Spanish and African descent.

Although Mexico abolished slavery in 1821 – decades before the U.S. – and had the first black president in the Americas (Vicente Guerrero), the legacy of the castas deeply affected Mexican ethnic and race relations following the abolition of slavery.

Castas Mural
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Almost a century later, following the Mexican Revolution of 1910, Mexican elites, artists, and intellectuals created a movement known as the Mexican Cultural Revolution, which sought to unite a fragmented country that had been plundered by a decade-long civil war.

Understanding this historical context is important to understanding Mexico’s current relationship to race, nationalism, and Giovani.

During this movement, a brand of “Mexicanness” was created, one that simultaneously celebrated an indigenous past and also rejected Mexico’s existing ethnic and racial diversity – which included people of Chinese and Filipino backgrounds in addition to individuals of African descent – according to UCLA Professor Robert Chao Romero. As a result of this Cultural Revolution, being Mexican became synonymous with being of mestizo descent; those who fell outside of this racial category were deemed non-Mexican.

Understanding this historical context is important to understanding Mexico’s current relationship to race, nationalism, and Giovani. Thus, the fact that a host of Mexican media outlets continue to deny his blackness given this historical knowledge and the modern-day treatment of Afro-Mexicans comes as no surprise.

But a deeper examination of the history of blackness in Mexico and in Los Angeles reveals that in many ways, Giovani’s new city was founded by a group of people in 1781 who reflected his racial background.

It is widely believed that 26 of Los Angeles’ original 44 settlers were of African descent, hailing from the Northern Mexican states of Sinaloa and Sonora. These early Afro-mestizo pioneers were integral to the founding of a city that emerged as one of the world’s largest metropolises centuries later. The last Mexican governor of California, Pio Pico, became one of the most notable Afro-Mexican descendants who not only advocated for the rights of Mexicans in California, but also became one of the largest cattle and landowners in Southern California.

Today, the recognition of blackness in the Mexican community is gaining traction with increased awareness for the experiences of Afro-Mexicans, particularly in places like Veracruz and Costa Chica, which spans the Southern states of Guerrero and Oaxaca.

In many ways, however, Giovani’s arrival to the Galaxy comes at a time when Los Angeles is not only embracing its own Afro-mestizo origin story, but also the children of African-American and Mexican unions – people who self-identify as “Blaxicans” (black-Mexican) like R&B sensation Miguel.

Only time will tell if Giovani’s move to Los Angeles will surpass or fall short of the expectations that came with his arrival. But for the time being, it appears that his new city seems like the perfect place to showcase his soccer talent and the fullness of his racial identity.