Carlos Raba said he found comfort and friendship with Black people when other Latinos rejected him for being Mexican as a newly immigrated teen in Washington, D.C.
“When I was not accepted by Central Americans, because I’m Mexican, there were always a couple of friends who were African Americans,” he recalled of that period, in the late 1990s. “It helped me understand our cultures.”
To kick of Cinco de Mayo this year, the executive chef and co-owner of Clavel, a Mexican-themed James Beard Award-nominated restaurant in Baltimore’s Remington neighborhood, will join David and Tonya Thomas, who are both Black chefs and food historians, for a collaboration celebrating Mexican and Black cultures.
The event on Wednesday, which will begin at 5 p.m. and last until they run out of food, will feature a menu of items that are a blend of both cultures. A West African lamb dibi taco, burrito, quesadilla and torta will highlight the menu. The meat, which will be rubbed with a West African spice by David Thomas, will be braised by Raba. David Thomas will create slow-cooked black-eyed peas. And Tonya Thomas will prepare a version of capirotada (Mexican bread pudding), which will feature sweet potato, dried fruit, cojita, and white chocolate mole.
Raba, restaurant co-owner Lane Harlan and the Thomases will also lead discussions throughout the night reflecting on the blending of Black and Mexican cultures.
“I’m very particular about working with people,” Raba said. “I was a fan of them with Ida B’s [the Thomases’ former restaurant], the work they did with their staff and the community. We try to empower our staff as well. I wanted to celebrate that at some point.”
Fresh from a trip to Jalisco, Mexico in September, David Thomas said he is excited by the collaboration for Cinco de Mayo, which marks the Mexican Army’s defeat of France at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. The holiday is Friday.
“For us, we always wanted to represent what our people have done throughout the diaspora and understanding what our people have done in Mexico. What we found was that Africans have been there since the early 1500s and they have been part of the history there,” he said.
The event will be an opportunity for the chefs to serve foods inspired by the two cultures while also providing a history lesson. It will also be an opportunity for the cultures to mend relationships. Mexicans and Blacks in the United States share a complicated history, with the two groups having a history of racial tension in several regions of the United States.
In fact, in 2007, hate crimes in Los Angeles between Blacks and Latinos rose by 28%, according to the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission. The tensions between the two groups have not slowed.
“You are talking about two marginalized communities that have been pitted against each other,” Thomas said.
Thomas traces it back to an “us against them” mindset.
“Africans are indigenous to this country,” Thomas said. “This is our native land. The indigenous people in the Americas, we have an allegiance to them. We can understand their plight.”
Thomas added: “You are talking about strong-willed cultures and people who come from kings and queens. They work hard. There would be no hospitality industry without Blacks and Mexicans. We’re brothers and sisters because we come from a similar struggle.”
In Mexico, the two cultures have been intertwined from the 1500s, when Africans were everything from enslaved people to conquistadors.
In 1609, Gaspar Yanga, an African, led a maroon colony of enslaved Africans near Veracruz in resistance to a Spanish attack. He became a national hero. In 1932, the settlement he formed was renamed as Yanga to honor him.
In 1829, Mexico’s first Afro-Mexican president, Vincente Guerrero, formally abolished slavery in that country, except in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
From the 1830s until President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, an estimated 5,000 enslaved people fled south and achieved freedom when they entered Mexico.
In 2020, Mexico conducted its first census to include an option to identify as Afro-Mexican, Afro-descendant or Black. Afro-Mexican people now represent 2% of the country’s total population, with a majority residing in the southern portion of the country.
Raba, who agrees that tensions between the two groups in America are due to a lack of resources, chooses to focus on the positives between the two groups — and the many examples of shared culture.
“I have been exposed to a lot of the positive,” Raba said.
For example, Raba said that he and Tonya Thomas have bonded over the women in their families and their love of making bread pudding.
“I really want to showcase her desserts. We have not had a baker here at the level of Tonya,” Raba said. “It comes with same history of oppression. Our cultures have so much in common.”
The conversations Raba has had with the Thomases have helped to further enlighten him, Raba said.
“I didn’t know a lot of issues until I came to the U.S. at 16 and saw racism and segregation,” Raba said. “I have a safe space with David and Tonya. I’m a white Mexican. I have green eyes and white skin. It is also important for me to see that and embrace the issues. They have helped me see the privilege that I have.”
Tonya Thomas said their mission is “always to educate everyone about our culture.”
“Many did not know our history in Mexico itself,” she said. “The foods and cultures they interchange, and it’s reflective of the diaspora. It’s always important to be in Baltimore and work together. We need to show how alike we are and have similarities.”
In Baltimore, Blacks comprise 62% of the population, while Latinos make up just over 5%.
Raba said education and discussions between both communities will only help strengthen the city and the nation.
“We have to embrace each other and share space harmoniously and beautifully,” he said.