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Black in the Mayan Riviera

Originally written on April 20, 2023

by Jamaica Aali

A woman squats in front of the ocean.
A morning yoga class. (Image: Jamaica Aali 2023)

Hello friends!

I'm back in Mexico, specifically Playa del Carmen, for the fourth time in two years. However, this time around, my cell phone camera isn't getting as much action. Playa remains as picturesque as when I first visited in 2020. The ocean is beautifully nestled against the city, separated only by a small strip of white sand. During the best of times the beaches are Instagram-worthy. During the worst of times, when smelly seaweed mars the beach, the vibrant city itself remains colorful and “social media-worthy”. The streets are perpetually adorned with papel picado (bright paper flags), offering endless photo opportunities. This place is a would-be influencer’s dream.

Nevertheless, this time around I feel like I've already captured the pictures I needed. I'm taking things slower, spending the hottest part of the day working on my computer or taking a quick dip in the pool. Early mornings are reserved for beach walks, and evenings are for exploration. In 2020, when remote work became more prevalent, many Black Americans flocked to Playa del Carmen. It was an obvious choice due to its warm weather, water activities, reliable internet, affordable prices (by US standards), and the thriving Black community. After hearing about it in a Clubhouse room in 2021, I packed my bags and headed there.

My partner and I spent three months in Playa in 2021, and we absolutely loved it. The Black community offered an abundance of activities—a weekly party for Black expats, kickboxing classes led by a Black fitness instructor, Friday night live music on the beach, and even a walking group I started called the Playa Sol Steppers, which met early mornings. We had BBQs, worked together, and hung out on rooftops. We had a group chat and a Facebook group with constant conversations and event invites. It was exciting and fulfilling to have created our own space in Mexico. And of course, there was plenty to do in Playa del Carmen outside of the Black community—drink specials, rooftop parties, paddle boarding classes, ATV tours, you name it. It was beautiful, and it felt like this thriving Black community was here to stay.

Two years later, Playa has changed. A new shopping center has emerged, and the once common two-for-$5 margaritas are now a rarity. Some popular venues have closed down while others have taken their places. The Black expat group chat has become much quieter, and the presence of Black individuals along the Quinta Avenida, the main promenade, has significantly diminished. Although many Black people still call Playa del Carmen home, many more have returned to the United States. Despite that, Playa has plenty to offer, and for less than the price of a trip to Miami, you can enjoy a Miami-style week of fun if that's your vibe.

Personally, I prefer local experiences, and one of my favorites is grabbing food from the bustling street behind the grocery store. There, local vendors cater to the working people who serve tourists on the main avenue. It's just a few minutes away but feels like a completely different world from busy Quinta Avenida (5th Ave). Customers sit on curbs and inverted buckets, food signs are handwritten, and none of them are in English. Public city buses, known as "collectivos," drop off local residents from all over the region on adjacent streets. Here, no one tries to sell me things in broken English—I'm not their target market. Growing up in South Los Angeles, some of this feels very familiar to me. Since I was seven years old, I've been ordering "dos tamales de queso con salsa picante" (two cheese tamales with hot sauce) from the "tamale lady." It's no different here, and the tamales are just as thick and delicious as the ones from my childhood.

What I find unfortunate about Playa is the stark contrast between the local and tourist experiences. Either you're paying $14 for a margarita that most locals couldn't afford, or you're enjoying tacos on a curb behind the grocery store. There's no middle ground. In 2020, even the prices in the tourist zone of Playa del Carmen hadn't caught up with those nearby Cancun and Tulum. The secret of Playa del Carmen is no more, and now you'll find yourself spending about as much as you would in a typical mid-priced US city if you stick to the most easily accessible options. However, most US cities don't offer rooftop pools and ocean views like Playa does, so that $15 burger provides a lot of value.

In Playa, as in many international cities, Black Americans are primarily seen as Americans. Any biases against darker-skinned people are mostly overshadowed by the belief that we are affluent. The average wage in Mexico is around $600 USD per month, while the average wage for a Black American is $3800 USD per month. So, in a way, they're not entirely wrong. Personally, I'd rather be seen as an opportunity for a tip than the way I often feel in the US—as a potential criminal or worse.

However, I do miss the Playa I knew two years ago and I miss the thriving Black community that initially drew me here. Overall, I consider Playa del Carmen a favorable place for Black people, but it doesn't feel like home to me anymore.

A group of people gather in a semi-circle on the beach.
An evening of communion in Playa del Carmen (image: Frantz Joseph 2020)



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