The irony in this is that the second president of Mexico, Vicente Guerrero, was of both African and indigenous ancestry. I wrote about him in “Expanding the borders of Black History Month.”
His father, Pedro Guerrero, was an Afro-Mexican and his mother, Guadalupe Saldaña, was indigenous.
Disparagingly nicknamed "el Negro Guerrero" by his political enemies, Guerrero would in the United States have been classified as a mulatto. According to one of his biographers, Theodore G. Vincent, Guerrero was of mixed African, Spanish and Native American ancestry, and his African ancestry most probably derived from his father, Juan Pedro, whose profession "was in the almost entirely Afro-Mexican profession of mule driver." Some scholars speculate that his paternal grandfather was either a slave, or a descendant of African slaves.
Guerrero was born in 1783 in a town near Acapulco called Tixtla, which is now located in the state that bears his name. It is the only state named after a former Mexican head of state, and it is the location of the Costa Chica, the traditional home of the Afro-Mexican community in Mexico.
The art of the time also depicted Africans and their offspring with Spaniards and native peoples in what were called “casta paintings,” discussed here by Yasmin Ramirez:
Walter Benjamin's dictum that every work of art is also a work of barbarism comes to mind with "New World Orders," an exhibition of Spanish colonial casta paintings currently on display at the Americas Society. "Casta" is Spanish for caste and these "casta paintings" are incredibly frank documents--unparalleled by anything in our time--of the race-based social hierarchy that existed in colonial Latin America during the 17th and 18th century. However much these paintings can be seen today to suggest harmonious coexistence of Indian, Spaniard and Black, in 18th-century Mexico they also elaborated relations of social power and control. Bearing titles such as Espanol con India sale Mulato (Spaniard with Black makes Mulatto), casta paintings display male and female couples of varying ethnicities with their mixed-raced children. The works follow an order premised on the idea that each race carries a distinct kind of blood (with Spanish blood linked to civilization--no surprise--and Black blood associated with slavery and degeneracy). Casta painting cycles therefore typically begin with a depiction of a "pure" Spaniard with a "pure" African or Indian mate that respectively bear a mulatto or a mestizo child. From that progeny onwards, however, the further racial/ethnic mixtures take on Byzantine dimensions. Casta-painting series usually identify 16 racial taxonomies, including zoologically inspired terms such as "coyote and "wolf"--in one bizarrely named racial classification, children born of mulatto and mestiza couples are called "lobo tente en el ayre" (Wolf-Hold-Yourself-in-Mid-Air).
In “Afro-Mexicans, Black Angels (Angelitos Negros) and "Toña La Negra” which I wrote for Black Kos, I told the story of my first encounter with the idea and reality of Afro-Mexicans.
I first became aware of this community and its history when I spent time in Mexico in the early ‘80s. I was surprised when many Mexicans I came in contact with did not automatically ask me if I was a foreigner. Instead, over and over I was asked the same question: "¿Usted es de Veracruz?" (Are you from Veracruz?)
Puzzled, I asked my traveling companion Isabel about this. She laughed and said, "There are Afro-Mexicans you know," adding, "haven’t you heard me playing records by Toña La Negra? She is from Veracruz, where there are many Afro-descended Mexicans."
I had heard the recordings, but never thought about who the wonderful singer was. I looked through Isabel’s record collection and there on the album covers I saw a tawny-skinned woman, caramel in color, whose features and complexion showed obvious African and mixed heritage.
Years later, I would discover the work of Dr. Bobby Vaughn, professor of anthropology, whose dissertation was titled “Race and Ethnicity: A Study of Blackness in Mexico” and who maintains a website called “Afro-Mexico.”
So when did blacks first arrive in Mexico?
The first African-ancestored people arrived in Mexico (New Spain) with other Spaniards. "Ladinos,” or free African-ancestored Spaniards, were part of every expedition to the new world. The Spaniards also brought slaves with them, as servants. They intermarried with Indians and mixed with Spaniards as well, creating a mix called mulatto and or mestizo. Some traveled as far as California—where several the founders of Los Angeles were black or mulatto.
On September 4, 1781, El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles was founded by 44 pobladores from New Spain, now called Mexico. The heads of the eleven founding families were Antonio Clemente Villavicencio, a Spaniard; Antonio Mesa, a Negro; Jose Fernando Lara, a Spaniard, Jose Vanegas, an Indian; Pablo Rodriquez, and Indian; Manuel Camero, a Mulatto; Jose Antonio Navarro, a Mestizo; Jose Moreno, a Mulatto; Basillio Rosas, an Indian; Alejandro Rosas, an Indian; and Luis Quintero, a Negro.
The two Spaniards and three Indians had Indian wives; the remaining six had Mulatto wives. Despite their varied racial background, they shared a common language, culture and religion since all were Spanish subjects and Catholics.
On a trip to Los Angeles to visit my godson’s family who had a glass-blowing booth on Olvera Street, he took me to see the plaque commemorating the Los Angeles Pobladores, or city founders, who were listed in a 1781 census as:
Anthropologist Vaughn gives a history of the African presence in Mexico:
Blacks in Mexico - A Brief Overview
To begin a discussion of the Black Experience in Mexico, it is important to establish the quantitative significance of the black slave population in the colonial era. One of the most frequent responses I get when discussing my research with Mexicans, or Americans for that matter, is "there couldn't have been more than a handful of slaves in Mexico." This assumption is made because in most parts of Mexico, today, you don't see many black people at all. The assumption is made that if there aren't many blacks in Mexico, now, there never were. As we will see, this is not entirely true. The first African slave brought to Mexico is said to be one Juan Cortés, a slave who accompanied the conquistador Hernán Cortés in 1519. The Indians, reportedly astonished by his dark skin, having never seen an African before, took him for a god! Another of the early conquistadores, Pánfilo Narvaez, brought a slave who has been credited with bringing the devastating smallpox epidemic of 1520. Mexican anthropologist Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán estimates that there were 6 blacks who took part in the conquest of Mexico.
These early slaves were more personal servants of their masters, who may be thought of as squires. These slaves were most likely taken from Africa, then transported to Seville, where early slaves were christianized, and they probably spoke Spanish by the time they reached the New World. These slaves didn't come over on slave ships as part of an overt slave trade. The slave trade that changed the demographic face of Mexico began when King Carlos V began issuing more and more asientos, or contracts between the Crown and private slavers, in order to expedite the trans-atlantic trade. At this point, after 1519, the New World received bozales, or slaves brought directly from Africa without being christianized. The Spanish Crown would issue these asientos to foreign slavers, who would then make deals with the Portuguese, for they controlled the slave "factories" on the West African coast. Aside from these asientos, the Crown would grant licenses to merchants, government officials, conquistadores, and settlers who requested the privilege of importing slaves. The Crown had very few problems doling out these asientos and licenses, as a direct correlation was seen between the number of slaves imported to the new colony and the colonization and economic development of the colony. For these economic reasons, the black population soared to over 20,000 by 1553. According to early census data and allowances made for escaped slaves, Aguirre Beltrán arrives at the following estimates of the black population:
Black Population in Colonial Mexico
1646 : 35,089
The numerical significance of these figures becomes clear when we compare them to the Spanish population of the colonial era. In the early colonial period, European immigration was extremely small--and for good reason. There were great risks and many uncertainties in the New World, and few families were willing to immigrate until some assurance of stability was demonstrated. Because of this hesitance, very few European women immigrated, thus preventing the natural growth of the Spanish population. The point that must be made here is the fact that the black population in the early colony was by far larger than that of the Spanish. In 1570 we see that the black population is about 3 times that of the Spanish. In 1646, it is about 2.5 times as large, and in 1742, blacks still outnumber the Spanish. It is not until 1810 that Spaniards are more numerous.
So since few European women were available, Spaniards, mulatto Spaniards, and African men mixed freely with indigenous Indian women. The resulting admixtures are called "mestizo" today—with a range of skin colors, phenotypes, and hair textures that are not listed as "black" in the Mexican census.
Given the advances in DNA analysis, we are beginning to see a different picture. Some of that data is available on Diego Valle-Jones’ blog, called “Mexico’s Black Population.”
The history of the African presence in Mexico includes rebellion and resistance. Key in this history is the story of Gaspar Yanga.
Known as the Primer Libertador de America or “first liberator of the Americas,” Gaspar Yanga led one of colonial Mexico’s first successful slave uprisings and would go on to establish one of the Americas earliest free black settlements. Rumored to be of royal lineage from West Africa, Yanga was an enslaved worker in the sugarcane plantations of Veracruz, Mexico. In 1570 he, along with a group of followers, escaped, fled to the mountainous regions near Córdoba, and established a settlement of former slaves or palenque. They remained there virtually unmolested by Spanish authorities for nearly 40 years. Taking the role of spiritual and military leader, he structured the agricultural community in an ordered capacity, allowing its growth and occupation of various locations.
During that time, Yanga and his band, also known as cimarrónes, were implicated in the disruption and looting of trade goods along the Camino Real (Royal Road) between Veracruz and Mexico City. They were also held responsible for attacking nearby haciendas and kidnapping indigenous women. Perceived as dangerous to the colonial system of slavery through their daring actions against royal commerce and authority, New Spain’s viceroy called for the annihilation of Yanga's palenque. Destroying the community and its leader would send a message to other would-be rebellious slaves that Spain’s authority over them was absolute.
In 1609, Spanish authorities sent a well-armed militia to defeat Yanga and his palenque but were defeated. Yanga’s surprise victory over the Spanish heightened the confidence of his warriors and the frustration in Mexico City. After defeating other Spanish forces sent again the palenque, Yanga offered to make peace but with eleven conditions, the most important being recognition of the freedom of all of the palenque’s residents prior to 1608, acknowledgment of the settlement as a legal entity which Yanga and his descendants would govern, and the prohibition of any Spanish in the community. Yanga, in turn, promised to serve and pay tribute to the Spanish crown. After years of negotiations, in 1618, the town of San Lorenzo de Los Negros was officially recognized by Spanish authorities as a free black settlement. It would later be referred to as Yanga, named after its founder.
Dr. Henry Louis Gates’ series Black in Latin America highlighted the revolutionary Yanga.
Two years ago Univision aired a documentary on Afro-Mexicans which was covered in an Ebony article titled “Culture Clash: New Univision TV Documentary Reveals Afro-Mexican Struggle for Identity.”
What is it like to be a person of African descent in Mexico? Like most descendants of the Diaspora - it’s complicated. Living in a country that does not recognize race or their unique ancestral past, and being a part of a history steeped in mystery, many Black Mexicans are seeking to define and uncover their identity. UnivisionTV -- the largest Spanish speaking television network -- delves into this topic in a new documentary: “Quienes son los Afro-Mexicanos?” (Who are the Afro-Mexicans?). Co-produced by Arizona based, husband and wife multimedia/photography team, Hakeem Khaaliq and Queen Muhammad Ali, the two-part documentary is a compilation of photos and video footage from their many travels to Mexico. The documentary also features commentary from journalist and historian, Luis Manuel Ortiz.
Khaaliq and Ali have two have traveled to the country on over 40 cultural expeditions among researchers and historians between 1996-2011, capturing archeological monuments and images of the country’s Black and Indigenous peoples. Much of the their travels were in areas known as “pueblos negros” (black towns) in Costa Chica, Oaxaca, Guerrero and Veracruz -- all known for their large population of Afro-Mexicans. Initially their work was compiled into a book titled “Invisible Mexico” -- a labor of love, set to be donated to the Museo de las Culturas Afromestizos. The photos caught the eye of artist Gennaro Garcia who is a curator for Univision galleries. The photos were first compiled into an exhibit, and soon the network asked the couple to co-produce the two-part documentary.
“Our original goal was to show the beauty of these forgotten people who live in what are called ghost towns. [Many] of the people don't know much of their history, past being brought to the areas as slaves,” said co-producer, Hakeem Khaaliq. He recounted an incident during one of the trips where a strikingly beautiful, dark-skinned Afro-Mexican woman cried after watching a presentation from historian Runoko Rashidi as he showcased the vast impact of the African presence throughout the world. The woman shed tears as she recounted how she had internalized ideas that she was ugly and inferior growing up, not knowing much of her ancestral ties.
The genesis of the Univision documentary was an exhibit titled “Invisible Mexico:”
The exhibit features a wide variety of photos of people, places and cultures of Mexico while spotlighting on the Afro Mexican townships of Costa Chica and Veracruz. Invisible Mexico features the work of Nation19 Creative Director Hakeem Khaaliq and spans many years of researching black and indigenous cultures in Mexico and Central America. The exhibit is a display of 10 selected photos from the book of the same title soon to be released. After seeing the exhibit, Univision, the largest Spanish speaking television network, selected Nation19 and Hakeem Khaaliq to co-produce a two part mini documentary special with famed News Anchor and Television reporter Sergio Urquidi. The television special will air nationally and internationally on Univision.
Karma Frierson walks you through the streets of Veracruz, detailing the statues that depict the black presence in Black and Bronze in Veracruz:
In the old neighborhood of La Huaca there is a statue to the famed singer Toña la Negra in the callejón named in her honor. She is, perhaps, the most famous Afro-Mexican there is and a source of pride for many locals in the port city. The most recent statue to be erected is also to an Afro-Mexican woman—La Negra Graciana, a world-renowned harpist in the son jarocho genre. A silhouette of her playing now stands in the heavily trafficked Callejón Trigueros, which links the zócalo to La Campana. The fact that there are statutes to people of African descent is not in itself noteworthy. Statues abound in the port city—along the malecón or boardwalk there are statues to the Spanish, Jewish, and Lebanese migrants. There are statues commemorating the soldiers who have fought and died in the four times Veracruz has been heroic. There is even a statue to Alexander von Humboldt. But the statues to the Afro-Latin American musicians are not on the water’s edge—they are within the lived spaces of everyday life in Veracruz. These statues—most of which were installed as part of government-sponsored cultural festivals—are permanent, inert ways in which locals are telling themselves and others about themselves.
In 2012, the city of Veracruz celebrated the 100th birthday of its famed Afro-Mexican singer, Toña la Negra.
Antonia del Carmen Peregrino Alvarez was born into a family of musicians in the port city of Veracruz, on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. She started singing at social events, music competitions and carnivals at an early age. The name "Toña la Negra" came later.
In 1932, when she was 20, she moved with her husband and child to Mexico City. It wasn't long before she was discovered by the star-maker of the day, radio station XEW.
Veracruz writer Rafael Figueroa just published a book on Toña La Negra and he says, "she began singing at a place called "El Retiro," that was like the 'hip place' to be for bolero in Mexico City."
Soon after, Toña La Negra met one of Mexico's biggest songwriters, Agustin Lara, and her career took off. Legend has it that Lara was the one who named her Toña La Negra.
Rafael Figueroa says Lara found his muse in Toña La Negra. And she became the vehicle for his musical exploration of the black contribution to Mexican culture.
"And he acknowledged that," Figueroa explains, "Not only by naming Toña La Negra, Toña "the Black one or the Black Woman," but also by composing a lot of music based on the black Caribbean influence on culture in Veracruz."
The Afro-Mexican musical tradition lives on, and one of the current standard bearers is Alejandra Robles, dubbed “La Morena.”
Alejandra Robles Suastegui[ (born in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, Mexico - November 28) is a dancer and singer of traditional music. Her musical style represents her Afro-Mexican roots and that of the indigenous peoples of Latin America, in addition to the regional music of Mexico, Colombia and the Caribbean. Her style is based on the sounds of the coast of Oaxaca, Guerrero and Veracruz.
It’s not yet clear what the impact of government census changes will be for the Afro-Mexican population.
But one thing is certain: They are no longer “erased.”
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