Conversation with Mennlay Golokeh Aggrey: Afro-Mexicans in a Mestizo Nation
Who is Black-American? If you ask anyone in the Americas south of the States, the answer doesn’t fit the conventional U.S. definition of what we considered to be “Black American.” Rather, the conception of Black American identity is believed to extend throughout the Americas, encompassing all African-descended people from Canada, to Guatemala, to Brazil.
Mennlay Golokeh Aggrey is a multi-talented cannabis entrepreneur and researcher exploring the history of Afro-Latinidad. She has been working legally in the cannabis industry for 13 years, working for the likes of Whoopi Goldberg and the award-winning edible company, Om Edibles. Last month, she held her debut event in Mexico City, Quién es Africanx (Who is African?) which centered on the history, the struggles and the celebration of Afro-Mexican identity. The panel galvanized an engaging community of Afro-Mexicans, Queer creatives and intellectuals which probed issues of class, pigmentocracy, and Black activism in Mexico. I caught up with Mennlay after the event to learn more about her work — and what it's like to be Black in Mexico:
How’s it going? The last time I saw you was in Mexico City at Quién es Africanx, a panel you organized discussing the complexities of Afro Mexican Identity. What other projects are you working on at the moment?
These days I balance my career as a creative in the legal cannabis industry between independently researching the African diaspora here in Latin America. At the moment, I’m manifesting a residency to work on a project that directly connects the two. It would be nice to not have to hustle so hard, but instead have more time for research and writing.
What initially drew you to explore more about Afro Mexican history? What continues to motivate you?
My parents are from a small coastal country in West Africa. They immigrated to New York where I was born. I grew up in an immigrant household never feeling like I belonged in the United States nor Africa. I moved all over the U.S. and eventually came to Mexico in the winter of 2014.
To my disappointment and surprise, Mexico was also racist. As a 34-year-old black women, I’m well acquainted with discrimination based on sexuality, age, class and race. But how could a country full of brown people, discriminate against another people of color? This inspired me to research initially and is the same reason why I continue to do so. I do it for my hood and all the Black folks here in Mexico.
What are the primary focuses and concepts integrated in your research? What are you dedicated to investigate further about the diaspora?
I'm most intrigued by the tangible connections Mexico has to Africa. You see the parallels in baskets, masks, textiles, agricultural techniques, food, etc. These are the things that remind me that we are connected. Seeing these blatant similarities eases the anger I sometimes have for those in Afro-Mexican communities who are marginalized. There is a sense of pride I have the more I learn. I hope Afro-Mexicans and Mexicans alike can be proud of their African heritage as well.
I’ve heard a lot of dialogue about the erasure of Blackness as a legitimate identity in Mexico, a country that simultaneously idolizes whiteness. What does “Blackness” mean in present day Mexico?
Blackness in Mexico means many things — some aren’t pretty. Blackness can mean hyper-sexuality, and exoticism. But for those who know their history and understand that their Mexican identity is mixed with Blackness, it means proudness in a robust culture.
In the States, there’s been a recent push to embrace natural Black hair. Do you see similar movements manifesting in Afro-Mestizo communities?
I’ve been natural since 2002, and as a true Black woman who wears my hair like a crown — i’ve had about a million hairstyles (natural and unnatural). I could be cynical and say that there is some appropriation of hairstyles here in Mexico. Yet I sense excitement. Just last week I braided a friend’s hair of mine, Rose Pistola, she’s one of the best female reggaeton DJs in Mexico. She has shaved sides, with medium length hair and bangs, so we did small single braided plaits, adorned with black beads. At first, it was hard for me to attach the beads on her slack hair, but she taught me the “Latina” way, adding a small bit of aluminum foil on the ends. Not to be corny, but it was a beautiful cultural exchange. I realized that this hairstyle was also very Latina and African alike. I think that goes for braids in general. You’ll find that in most native cultures, braids are very common.
Who are some of your top 5 Afro-Mexican creatives (writers, researchers, dancers, visual artists, musicians, etc.) right now?
I have four:
I’m really impressed with the work Walter Thompson-Hernandez has been doing. He’s a multimedia journalist, photographer, and researcher who works at The New York times and began the “Blaxican” movement visually telling various stories about Afro-Mexicans in Los Angeles.
Sista Eyerie is an adorable, and stylish roots reggae lyricists. Her style is light with a mix of Spanish and Jamaican batwa.
Then there’s Miguel Pimentel, aka Miguel, who is one of the most tender, sexually fluid, sexually attractive singer afro-mexican songwriter and producer in the world. It wasn’t until a couple years ago that he came to Mexico for the first time to meet his father’s side (Mexican side) of the family.
Dolores Medel, is a talented Mexican photographer capturing the anti-Black notions of “good hair” here in Mexico. She works as a freelance photographer and teaches photography at the University of Veracruz and is the Editor of Everyday Veracruz, as a part of The Everyday Projects.