Unless you live under a proverbial rock without Wi-Fi service, you know that New York City is now filled with members of the Mexican community, and Harlem has reflected this change in the type of businesses, food trucks, restaurants, and street vendors lining the streets. The type of music heard drifting out of bodegas now packed with items imported from Mexico adds to the city’s vibrant multicultural atmosphere.
I’ve lived in Harlem since the late ’80s, and I’ve witnessed the swirling of cultures as this section of the city has transformed. A blink of an eye turned what was once a stronghold for African Americans, Africans, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans into a new haven for immigrants, primarily Mexicans. I am Afro Mexican, and as an Afro Mexican, we are often lumped in and assimilated with the aforementioned groups. I’m not complaining. It’s all good. It’s not like we are trying to deny our African roots; it’s the opposite. We embrace our melanin with love.
With this influx, our cultural traditions find significance in the heartfelt commemoration of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) — observed from October 27th to November 2nd.
There are numerous misconceptions about Día de los Muertos, often originating from other Spanish-speaking communities. Perhaps it’s the skull decorations that trouble them or the belief that the departed, including pets, return to visit. Many also feel uneasy about the ofrenda, or altar, associating it with Santeria and Voodoo.
However, nothing could be further from the truth.
Creating an ofrenda, typically in private homes and cemeteries, is a simple yet profound way to honor our departed loved ones. It includes family photos, marigolds, offerings, water, food, salt, candles, and Pan de Muerto adorned with bones and skulls, symbolizing the circle of life. The aroma of copal incense often hangs in the air, carrying prayers and purifying the space, crafting a sacred atmosphere—a warm invitation for spirits to return. Día de los Muertos holds deep roots in the ancient traditions of Aztec, Toltec, and Nahua communities, where death was viewed as a natural phase in life’s cycle rather than an endpoint. This profound cultural heritage was acknowledged by UNESCO in 2008, recognizing it as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This designation emphasized that cultural traditions, like Día de los Muertos, are not relics but living expressions passed down through generations.
Here’s what Mercedes White, head of the Theater Program at the Harlem School of the Arts (HSA), model and influencer Nioby Monroe, and editor and content creator Michael Baca, aka The Black Mexican, have to share about being Afro Mexicans in this country and embracing both of our cultures, of which we are equally proud.
AMSTERDAM NEWS: Ms. White, you are like my spirit animal. It’s awesome that there is an ofrenda at The Harlem School of the Arts (HSA) to acknowledge the short film “Taking the E Train” (based on the upcoming children’s book) that you are producing. How was it for you, growing up, being Afro Mexican?
MERCEDES WHITE: Honestly, it was both awesome and confusing. Throughout my upbringing, my awareness of my Black identity was limited. I knew I was Black — how could I not? But Blackness is more than just skin color, and I struggled to relate. It wasn’t until I ventured into my predominantly Mexican neighborhood that I was sharply reminded of my differences. Despite sharing the same cultural upbringing and participating in the same traditions as my Mexican peers, I was always seen as Black, and that was that. This confusion escalated when my father’s side of the family insisted, without relent, that I was not Black but Mexican. So, how was this experience both awesome and confusing? Well, it was a mix of both. As a child, all I wanted was to belong. Yet, as I grew older, I realized that regardless of what others said or thought, I belonged to both cultures. Nothing could change that fundamental truth.
AMN: What elements of the beauty within each culture, both separately and when blended, do you wish more people comprehended?
MW: Both cultures have strong foundations in the family unit, especially under the influence of the matriarch. This shared aspect leads to notable similarities in upbringing experiences.
AMN: Nioby Monroe, thank you for representing both the African American and Mexican American communities as a model and influencer. I follow you on social media. What does that entail exactly?
Nioby Monroe: First, thank you. Embracing my African American and Mexican American heritage entails embodying the rich cultural traditions and experiences of both ancestries. It means having a unique identity that intertwines the histories, struggles, achievements, and resilience of two distinct communities.
AMN: What challenges did you face, if any, growing up?
NM: The challenges I’ve faced since childhood, and even now, stem from the fact that I’ve never fit neatly into any predefined category, leaving people often unable to truly understand me.
AMN: Thank you so much, Michael Baca, aka The Black Mexican. My brother from another mother. I follow you on social media. You make me laugh!
MICHAEL BACA: Thank you, my Afro Mexican sister.
AMN: Let’s jump into it. How do you celebrate Día de los Muertos?
MB: I celebrate Dia de los Muertos by spending time with my family and remembering the loved ones who have passed. We tell funny stories about them, and most importantly, we teach the children about relatives who have passed. Talking about relatives that have passed is our way of keeping them alive in our hearts. It is very important to my family that we remember our loved ones because we believe you only actually die when nobody remembers you.
AMN: I feel you, and I agree. What does being Blaxican or Afro Latino mean to you?
MB: When I was growing up, I would choose to identify as Mexican or Black only because I feel like society puts you into a box and forces you to identify with being Mexican or Black. Many job applications still force you to identify as Black or Hispanic, and if you check the box for Hispanic, then you cannot choose the box for Black or any other race. Also, as a content creator, I have received many comments telling me that I cannot identify as Blaxican, and comments such as, “if your dad is Black, then you’re Black.” Being Blaxican or Afro Latino is a way that I show respect to both of my cultures, which I respect and am proud to be a part of.