MEXICO CITY — The Yarbroughs usually sat in the back of the bus on purpose. So, when police officers hopped on with their automatic rifles strapped across their chests this time in 2021, they already knew what to expect.

“I would always joke,” Apryl Yarbrough recalled in an attempt to downplay the traumatic events. “That the conversation between the bus driver and the police would be like, ‘Hey, you got Black people in the bus?’ ‘Yeah, in the back.’ Then they’d beeline straight to us.”

In their 2½ years living in Mexico, the couple estimates they were pulled over and questioned by Mexican police on 14 occasions. It wasn’t ideal, considering they moved to the country partly because they were tired of “taking back roads” in Florida to avoid police harassment. Usually, though, Yarbrough said, “once we’d show our blue passports, everything was good.”

But these encounters always left them feeling uneasy. It became even more troubling when they realized they were being targeted not just because of the color of their skin, but also because of the country’s brutal crackdown on Haitian migrants, who’ve moved through Mexico in record numbers recently. After being singled out and questioned by authorities five times in a span of three days in 2021, the couple took to the internet. That’s when they found out “if you fit a description, there’s a higher chance that you’re going to be stopped.”

Or worse.

Last year, four Black Americans were kidnapped after being misidentified as Haitian drug smugglers; only two survived.

These are occurrences that might only become more common for Haitians and Black Americans alike as the socio-political situation in Haiti continues to push thousands off the island and through Mexico on a journey to the U.S. Their experiences offer clear examples of how modern-day migration connects to the history of slavery permeating the Caribbean and North America, where the pursuit of a better life for Black people blurs the lines between survival and searching for comfort.

And it shows that even as the American “blue passport” affords some Black folks more privileges abroad than at home, “anti-Blackness and the exclusion of people with darker skin is global,” said Danielle Elizabeth Stevens, who first moved to Mexico from Los Angeles in 2016.

Apryl and Rondel Yarbrough are seen in northern Mexico at an establishment settled by Negros Mascogos, a group of Black Seminoles who migrated to Mexico to escape the threat of slavery in the United States. The Yarbroughs no longer live in Mexico. (Photo courtesy of Apryl and Rondel Yarbrough. Design by Alexandra Watts/Worldacad)

Since the 1990s, with a major uptick over the past few years, Americans have moved to Mexico by the tens of thousands every year. While neither Mexico nor the U.S. tracks racial data concerning American migration, from the coastal destinations like Playa del Carmen to the bustling city centers such as Merida, Black enclaves have popped up. Facebook groups like “Brothas & Sistahs In Mexico City” and “Black Expats in Mexico (drama free)” have amassed thousands of members.

There’s a saying that when Mexicans migrate to the U.S., they do so out of necessity, but when Americans migrate to Mexico, they do so for convenience — to ensure a higher quality of life at a lower cost. A majority of Black American expats are college-educated and securely middle class, experts told Worldacad.

Still, Blackness complicates this reality. It brings into question: can Mexico, which has its own history of racism rooted in slavery and colonialism, truly offer a reprieve for Black life?

For the Yarborughs, the answer was no, as they left for Colombia last year. But for many others, the answer is a lot more complicated.

“It’s not to say that just because moving here might put you in a higher social class because of the [U.S.] dollar that there’s no racism here, but American racism is just a very distinct one,” said Tiara Darnell, a D.C.-area native who opened the first Black soul food restaurant in Mexico City last year.

“Here, there’s a sense of being able to breathe a little bit easier without guns and mass shootings, and without immediately feeling the sense of deep segregation.”

Who fronts the bill for “opting out of the American dream”?

Since 2022, Lewis Miles, a doctoral student from the University of Michigan, has lived in Mexico City researching the experiences of Black American migrants in the country. It’s taken him to virtually every corner of the country, in cafés, countrysides, and beaches.

As he put it, Black migrants have moved to Mexico and “opted out of the American dream” — a dream that many say was never truly an option for them — and many are finding it largely because of the power of the U.S. dollar. The growing population has flourished in many ways, exporting soul food and Sunday dinners, hip-hop and R&B nights, and weekly Black book clubs.

The guiding question behind their migration, he said, is: “What else can I do with my U.S. citizenship? Because I’m not treated like a citizen in my own country, where can I go to get the experiences, the life that I want?”

Yet in a country where cartel violence has contributed to an estimated 100,000 plus Mexican people being “disappeared,” and where climate change and trade agreements with the U.S. have left the country reeling from a water and agricultural crisis, Miles said Black American migration to Mexico is a “very different experience than those taking a caravan up through Mexico to the U.S. border.”

Lewis Miles, who has traced the lineage of Black American migration to Mexico, is not surprised by the recent uptick. (Photo by Adam Mahoney/Worldacad. Design by Alexandra Watts/Worldacad)

In many ways, this search for comfort is paid for by Mexicans, whose country’s minimum hourly wage is about $1.25. This is particularly true as private real estate speculators snatch up properties and rent them out to Americans at prices eight times higher than what locals pay.

However, Black neighborhoods across the U.S. are experiencing those same transformations. “For generations,” Darnell, the D.C. native, said, “my family knows what it’s like to not be able to even recognize your home because Black life is so undervalued.”

And a majority of the Black Americans interviewed by Worldacad laid bare how that has contributed to their U.S. exodus. The dozen Black migrants interviewed by Worldacad cited a lack of safety and economic opportunity, racism, and heightened police violence as reasons for their emigration from the United States, begging the question: Are they migrating for survival reasons, too?

“I know there’s some people who will never be pleased by this answer, and especially because many Mexicans are not aware of Afro-Mexican history and the history of slavery here, but there is a difference between a Black person from the U.S. coming down here versus a more privileged white American,” Darnell said.

What “Little Liberia” tells us about Black migration today

Anti-Blackness flows through Mexico’s history, whether it is acknowledged or not. “There’s an idea here that if you’re Black, you can't be Mexican,” Stevens said, explaining how her Afro-Mexican friends are constantly othered and discriminated against. (Afro-Latinos make up less than 5% of the Mexican population.)

In fact, enslaved Africans were brought to colonial Mexico before they ever hit the U.S. colonies, not to mention “the African influence on Spain and Spanish conquests,” Miles explained.

There are countless examples of those in power in Mexico attempting to stifle Black American migration to the country. When free Black Southerners tried to build communities south of the border in the 1870s, Mexican newspapers decried that “the immigration that we need is that of the enterprising, robust, and civilized white race,” not those of African descent. Despite not being welcomed, Black Americans are credited with helping to industrialize Mexico and helping to build the nation’s railway.

But arguably, the most paralleling example of historic Black migration to current day begins on the shores of Ensenada, Mexico, in 1919 as anti-Black race riots spread across the U.S. As white rioters killed hundreds of Black folks across the U.S., Hugh Macbeth, an attorney in Los Angeles, set about establishing an all-Black agricultural community in Mexico. He, and hundreds of others, believed that nestled in Mexico, “Little Liberia” promised economic prosperity and a haven of tolerance and freedom where Black folks would be seen as equals.

Little Liberia would sprawl across 20,000 acres in a few years, lined with citrus orchards, fruit groves, and livestock, but the prosperity didn’t last. By 1923, afraid of racial tensions, Mexico began to curtail entry and investment by Black Americans. Little Liberia ceased to exist by 1928.

Miles, whose research has led him to interview more than 130 Black people who’ve migrated to Mexico, says Little Liberia shows the “ebbs and flows” of Black America’s “desire to escape.”

There has always been an underlying goal for “Black people to be more self-determined and more Black-led,” he said, which is driving a lot of migration to the country today, backdropped against a political reality in the U.S. that has left more and more Black folks feeling unsafe.

“When you’re Black in America, you’re reminded that you’re Black every five seconds,” said Bill Dallas Lewis, who moved from Ohio to Mexico nearly two decades ago. “And that means you’re experiencing everything that comes with being Black in America.”

Police brutality. Racism in health care and in employment opportunities. Mistreatment from government systems and individuals alike.

In the U.S., Stevens said she could not trust the government or those around her to regularly “protect and safeguard” her as a Black woman. While she can’t say she fully trusts those in Mexico to do so, either, she now has more of an ability to do it for herself because of financial stability. (Gender-based violence is on the rise in Mexico, as the country has one of the world’s highest femicide rates.)

But Stevens understands that stability can only shield you from the harmful realities of anti-Blackness and gendered violence for so long. She said she’s seen an uptick in “Black Americans [being] really eager to disprove that they’re Haitian,” but ultimately what she has found is there is no escape to what comes with being registered as Black. In her years living in Mexico, she said she’s regularly been accosted for photos and “fetishized” and openly discriminated against at restaurants and other public places.

Nevertheless, she was quick to say that building a life with more freedom, autonomy, and a loving community has been “seamless” in Mexico.

How Mexico has allowed some Black Americans to fill their spirit

As Tolu Familoni sat at Parque Mexico, dozens of people of all ages danced Salsa and Merengue behind her, kids rolled by on skates, and families bathed in the sun, slurping up mango juice; she felt no doubts about her move to the country. It was a life she had dreamt of during her commutes to work in San Jose, California.

Last summer, the 26-year-old quit her six-figure tech job and moved to the country. The U.S., its work culture, lack of green spaces, and the difficulty of building a supportive community pushed her out.

“The [American] work culture is very much you go to work, and then you go home, eat dinner, and then you repeat. It was not filling my spirit,” she said. Since living in Mexico, however, she’s had the opportunity to be more in tune with the world around her. She’s gotten involved with a church, began taking Spanish classes at a local school, and found it a lot easier to make friends, including many Mexican nationals.

It’s a freedom she had never experienced in the U.S. Lewis painted an even clearer picture — only slightly boasting.

“I’m looking out of my glass sliding doors, and I see palm trees. I can see part of the ocean,” he said. His rent in Puerto Vallarta is 60% less than the average 2-bedroom in Columbus, Ohio, where he once lived. The retiree has no desire to go back.

A group of Black travelers take a tour of a floating farm, known as a Chinampa, outside of Mexico City. (Adam Mahoney/Worldacad)

And with a growing community of Black expats, Black culture is not hard to find. In Mexico City, Darnell’s soul food restaurant, Blaxicocina, reminds people that pieces of home can be found everywhere — from Black yacht clubs in Tulum, to weekly Black expat dinners in Puerto Vallarta, and the organized Black family playdates throughout Merida.

Still, this search for ease opens up a lot of questions for some expats, particularly as none of the Black Americans living in the country interviewed by Worldacad considered themselves “fluent” in Spanish. The inability to build constant cultural connections with Mexicans has intensified growing xenophobic beliefs in the country

No country to “go back to”

Inside the El Americano Cafe, a group of Americans, including two Black women, discuss a civil rights bus tour profiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group based in Alabama. The menu, which is in English, features fried chicken and mac and cheese.

It truly is a piece of America tucked in Mexico. Although outside the café, on dozens of corners, light poles, and storefronts, a black-and-white poster reminds Americans that they’re not at home.

“We want you to go back to your country,” the poster reads, denouncing the ways that American migrants have transformed the city and contributed to a housing and water crisis.

But many Black Americans in Mexico feel like they don’t have a country to go back to. Adalia Aborisade, who first moved to Mexico in 2017, said she’d be lying if she said she didn’t feel the tensions between Mexican nationals and American immigrants. While on a trip to Oaxaca, a state in southern Mexico, she saw hundreds take to the streets in protest of short-term rentals and rising costs. And she also saw the police brutality those protestors faced. (Six Mexican activists were ultimately detained for promoting “hatred against foreigners.”)

“Gentrification is really getting to be a thing that you can’t ignore,” she said, explaining how she’s seen entire neighborhoods shift during her seven years in the country. “People are rightfully angry.”

At the end of the day, even when “you're escaping the racialization of Blackness and racism [in the U.S.], you come to Mexico with the dollar in your bag,” said Alejandro Gaona, who works for Humedalia A.C., an Indigenous nonprofit organization working to combat the environmental injustices spurred by industrial and population growth in Mexico City.

When people ask Adalia Aborisade what she considers home, she says Mexico. She says she's fully aware of the complications with that answer. (Adam Mahoney/Worldacad)

Yet for Aborisade, living in Mexico is a decision to sustain her well-being.

“If I can avoid even flying back to the U.S. for layovers, I do,” said Aborisade, who moved and left her job teaching high school social studies in Houston after she saw Texas veer further and further to the right and Black life continued to deteriorate.

“The thought of being back there leaves me stressed out — the thought of having to go back and put on all this armor again to live and just exist,” she said.

However, as a Black woman, she understands that several factors outside of her control will ultimately dictate where she can lay her head at night.

“I’m very aware of the environmental issues here, how climate change seems like it’s sped up in the last couple of years, so I know this place always had the potential of being a place that I could not stay even if I wanted to,” she said. “As much as my life is privileged here, I am still a Black woman. So who’s gonna jump up and down if I disappear, if I don’t have water, if I’m assaulted?”

She’s already seen how it’s impacted Haitian migrants; their tents lining the street one day, before they’re trashed and displaced the next.

“The problem is there’s no place I want to be other than here,” she said, “especially not the U.S.”

Adam Mahoney is the climate and environment reporter at Worldacad. Twitter @AdamLMahoney