"Now, when I make agua de jamaica, I am reminded of my own ancestors, and of the people in history who have led the path for me to call my identity something whole, something beautiful"
I remember the first time I realized I was Black. It was also the same time I realized I was Mexican.
I was five years old and I had just moved to California from Virginia. In Virginia, I never felt forced to face my Blackness, as it blended in with the predominantly Black bodies in my neighborhood. But in Central California, I was among the few Black girls in my rural Mexican-American community. My skin tone now carried the burden of loneliness. At the same time, I was now living with my Mexican grandparents, who introduced me to Spanish phrases, homemade tortillas, and brought to my consciousness that I was Mexican too.
In school, however, my classmates would not let me forget that I am indeed Black. They regularly teased me in Spanish, thinking I wouldn’t understand them. “Muévete, pinche negrita,” they would tell me. “I’m Mexican too,” I would tell them. I was proud to be Black. I was proud to be Mexican. But why were they trying to take that pride away from me?
Food had become my refuge, a place where I could feel safe in my Mexican-American identity. I basked in the rice and beans, the menudo Sundays, the agua de jamaica, the dulces de tamarindo. Food represented my heritage — the “proof” that I was Mexican. But my Black side often felt neglected. I was not familiar with many references to Black culture. Even though I inherited some knowledge from my dad through his stories, I craved community. Cookouts and collard greens. Oh, how I long for you!
Little did I know, Black culture was right in front of me, in my glass of agua de jamaica. With every sip I tasted, I was also tasting Africa.
La flor de jamaica, scientifically known as hibiscus sabdariffa, has its roots in Africa and West Asia. It made its way to this side of the world with the enslaved West Africans who used it as a food plant. In the 1700s, the flower was called Jamaican sorrel, which is likely where la flor de jamaica gets its name. To this day, people from all across Africa and the Caribbean use this flower to make a cold, red tea called zobo or bissap, and other names depending on the region. Even in African American soul-food, one of the flavors associated with “red drink” is the hibiscus tea that traces back to Africa. In Mexico and Latin America, this tea is known as agua de jamaica.
I learned about flor de jamaica’s origins only recently after I moved to Mexico to study documentary film. While researching for a documentary about Afro-Mexicans, which is now called Jamaica y Tamarindo, I had lunch with an Afro-Mexican friend to learn more about her history. She then mentioned to me, “Did you know that la flor de jamaica is from Africa?” Later that night, I threw myself into the internet rabbit hole.
As I started to connect the dots of the diaspora personally, I began to realize the role that food has played in connecting those dots historically. I looked into another popular Mexican ingredient: tamarindo. Tamarind is indigenous to tropical Africa and has also been cultivated in South Asia for thousands of years. It was also brought to the Americas during the slave trade. A tamarind tree in the South American country of Guyana is seen as a symbol of slavery emancipation. I grew up knowing tamarindo for its dulces, its aguas, its sodas and its paletas. But there are so many more uses. People in Africa, the Caribbean and Asia cook tamarind in their sauces, their curries and their rice dishes.
Our food connects us — it connects our history, our cultures, our movements. As a child, I thought of food and cuisines as belonging to distinct groups, thus producing a line of separation between my own two identities. Now, when I make agua de jamaica, I am reminded of my own ancestors, and of the people in history who have led the path for me to call my identity something whole, something beautiful. My identity is like my agua: vibrant, liquid motion, expanding into gaps and crevices I’ve yet to discover.
Here are some recipes with two of the foods that represent, for me, my “Blaxican” identity:
Tacos de Jamaica with salsa de Tamarindo
--200g of dried flores de jamaica (dried hibiscus)
--250g of chopped mushrooms (I like setas/oyster mushrooms)
--1/2 of an onion (chopped)
--1 clove of garlic (chopped)
--Dried oregano to taste
--Salt, pepper to taste
First, boil the flores de jamaica to make tea or agua de jamaica.
Take the boiled flores and separate them into smaller pieces with your hands (you can also chop them if you wish). Set to the side.
Heat a pan on medium with a bit of olive oil and toss in the chopped onion and garlic then sauté for 2 min
Add the chopped mushrooms, sauteé for a few minutes until the they release their water
Then add the flores. Season with salt, pepper, a bit of cumin and dried oregano. Let cook for 10-15 minutes.
Warm up the tortillas and serve your tacos de jamaica, garnish with cilantro and eat with a salsa of your choice, perhaps a salsa de tamarindo.
Salsa de tamarindo
--8 dry tamarinds
--1 cup of water
--Two cloves of garlic
--A dash of sugar (or sweetener of choice)
--2 chiles habanero (you can get away with using just one chile if you find it too spicy)
Peel the tamarinds and let boil in water for 1 minute.
Reduce the heat to low-medium and let the tamarinds cook for another 10-15 minutes.
Turn off the flame and let the tamarinds cool off until at room temperature. Then, remove the tamarind seeds so that all you have left is the pulp.
Put the tamarind pulp and the rest of the ingredients (including the cup of water) in a blender. Blend until smooth.
Heat up a pan on medium with a bit of olive oil. Cook the salsa for a few minutes until the water evaporates and the salsa thickens.
Serve with your tacos de jamaica or food of choice.
Meet the Family
Ebony Bailey is a “Blaxican” writer and filmmaker from California whose work focuses on cultural intersections and diaspora. Her documentaries have been screened at film festivals in the U.S., Mexico and Europe. Her writing has been published in Remezcla, Pie de Página and the LA Times. She is completing her Master’s degree in documentary film at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Ebony tells stories on her website through film and writing with the hopes of building spaces of representation and empowerment between diverse communities of color.