Last year, a bilingual exhibition, The African Presence in México: Yanga to the Present, was mounted by the Oakland Museum and the DuSable Museum on both sides of the Mexican border – in the US and Mexico itself. It traced how Africans – fewer than 2% of colonial Mexico’s (1521-1810) population – significantly enriched Mexican culture through their art, music, language, cuisine, and dance. The African Presence in México invited Mexican-Americans and African-Americans to look at their identities in light of their shared histories in Mexico and the United States.
The Spanish first brought Africans to Mexico in 1519 to work in the agrarian and silver industries, under often brutal conditions. There were constant slave protests and runaways (cimarrónes) who established settlements in the mountains of Orizaba. In January 1609, Gasper Yanga, a runaway slave elder, led the cimarrónes (or maroons) to a successful resistance against a special army sent by the Spanish Crown to crush their uprising.After several cimarrón victories, the Spanish acquiesced to the slaves’ demand for land and freedom. Yanga founded the first free African township in the Americas, San Lorenzo de los Negros, near Veracruz. It was renamed in his honour in the 1930s.
Slavery in Mexico was abolished in 1810 by Jose María Morelos y Pavón, leader of the Mexican War of Independence. As a mulatto (Spanish and African), Morelos was directly affected by Mexico’s prejudices. Racial mixes were seen as undesirable by a society that aspired to purity of race and blood (ie, Spanish only).
In 1992, as part of the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the Spanish in the Americas, the Mexican government officially acknowledged that African culture in the country represented la tercera raiz (the third root) of Mexican culture, with the Spanish and indigenous peoples. But the plight of Afro-Mexicans has not improved much since the recognition of 1992.
As Alexis Okeowo, a black journalist in the Mexican capital, Mexico City, attests, when she visited Yanga, her heart broke. “As I arrived in town,” she reported, “I peered out of my taxi window at the pastel-painted storefronts and the brown-skinned residents walking along the wide streets. ‘Where are the black Mexicans?’ I wondered. A central sign proclaimed Yanga’s role as the first Mexican town to be free from slavery, yet the descendants of these former slaves were nowhere to be found. I would later learn that most live in dilapidated settlements outside of town.”
The next morning when she went searching for the Afro-Mexicans, Okeowo found that though she had grown used to the rarity of black people in Mexico City, it was different at Yanga, where she was not only stared at but also pointed at.
“The stares were cold and unfriendly, and especially unnerving in a town named for an African revolutionary,” Okeowo recalled. “ ‘Mira, una negra,’ I heard people whisper to one another. ‘Look, a black woman.’ ‘Negra! Negra!’, taunted an old man with a shock of white hair under a tan sombrero.
“Surrounded by a group of men, [the old man] gazed at me with a big, toothy grin. He seemed to be waiting for me to come over and talk to him. Shocked, I shot him a dirty look and headed into [a] library’s courtyard.”
Okeowo continued: “The notion of race in Mexico is frustratingly complex. This is a country where many are proud to claim African blood, yet discriminate against their darker countrymen. Black Mexicans complain that such bigotry makes it especially hard for them to find work. Still, I was surprised to feel like such an alien intruder in a town where I had hoped to feel something like familiarity. Afro-Mexicans are among the poorest in the nation. Many are shunted to remote shantytowns, well out of reach of basic public services, such as schools and hospitals.
“Activists for Afro-Mexicans face an uphill battle for government recognition and economic development. They have long petitioned to be counted in Mexico’s national census, alongside the country’s 56 other official ethnic groups, but to little avail. Unofficial records put their number at one million.”
In response to activist pressure, Okeowo said, Mexico’s government released a study at the end of 2008 that confirmed that Afro-Mexicans suffered from institutional racism. “Employers are less likely to employ blacks, and some schools prohibit access based on skin colour. But little has been done to change this. Afro-Mexicans lack a powerful spokesperson, so they continue to go unnoticed by the country’s leadership.”
Rodolfo Prudente Dominguez, an Afro-Mexican activist, told Okeowo that all they wanted was recognition of their basic rights and respect of their dignity. “There should be sanctions against security and immigration agents who detain us, because they deny our existence on our own land,” said Dominguez.
Okeowo continued: “If you have not heard of Mexico’s native blacks, you are not alone. The story that has been passed down through generations is that their ancestors arrived on a slave boat filled with Cubans and Haitians, which sank off Mexico’s Pacific coast. The survivors hid away in fishing villages on the shore. The story is a myth: Spanish colonialists trafficked African slaves into ports on the opposite Gulf coast, and slaves were distributed further inland. The persistence of this story explains the reluctance of many black Mexicans to embrace the label ‘Afro’, and why many Mexicans assume black nationals hail from the Caribbean.
“Colonial records show that around 200,000 African slaves were imported into Mexico in the 16th and 17th centuries to work in silver mines, sugar plantations, and cattle ranches. But after Mexico won its independence from Spain, the needs of these black Mexicans were ignored. Some Afro-Mexican activists identify themselves as part of the African diaspora. Given their rejection from Mexican culture, this offers a more empowering cultural reference,” Okeowo reported, adding:
“In a place where everyone is considered ‘mixed race’, owing to the country’s long colonial history, skin colour is clearly a symbol of status. Many Mexicans are generous and kind to me, viewing my otherness as interesting and lovely. Yet black Mexicans are often mistreated and ostracised. I think about this unsettling tension when I occasionally pass a black Mexican in Mexico City, and she gives me a slight, genuine smile.”
Okeowo’s report has been confirmed by other writers such as Bobby Vaughn, an African-American whose interest in Afro-Mexicans has made him an expert on the subject. On his website, he compares census figures from colonial Mexico dating from 1570 to 1742, and shows that in 1570 while there were 6,644 Europeans in Mexico, there were as many as 20,569 Africans there, while native Mexicans were in the region of 3,366,860. By 1646, these figures had rocketed to 13,780 Europeans and 35,089 Africans, but the native population had decreased to 1,269,607. At the same time, the population of Africans of mixed race (Afro-Mestizos) had increased to 116,529 (from only 2,437 in 1570), while Europeans of mixed race had shot up to 168,568 (from 11,067 in 1570).
In 1742, however, the African population had decreased to 20,131 while the European figure had slightly come down to 9,814. But there had been a huge jump in the Afro-Mestizos population to 266,196 while the Euro-Mestizos had increased to 391,512.
“The numerical significance of these figures,” writes Bobby Vaughn, “becomes clear when we compare the African and Afro-Mestizo (mixed population) to the Spanish population. In the early colonial period, European immigration was extremely small – and for good reason. There were great risks and many uncertainties in the Americas. Few families were willing to immigrate until some assurance of stability was demonstrated. Therefore, 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 higher than that of the Spanish. In 1570, we see that the black population is about three 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.”
According to Vaughn, Mexico’s Costa Chica Region is one of two regions in the country with significant black populations today. The other is the State of Veracruz on the Gulf Coast. He, too, confirms that racism is still rife and there is little social interaction between Mexico’s black people and the indigenous people.
“Part of this is the issue of the language barrier, but I believe the issue is more complex than that,” Vaughn reports. “There has been a long history of hostility between the two groups, and while today there is no open hostility, negative stereotypes abound on both sides.”
In April 2008, the Los Angeles Times published an article confirming Vaughn’s views. “In Mexico, the story of the country’s black population has been largely ignored in favour of an ideology that declares that all Mexicans are ‘mixed race’. But it’s the mixture of indigenous and European heritage that most Mexicans embrace; the African legacy is overlooked,” said the article, written by the paper’s staff writer John L. Mitchell. Michell quoted Padre Glyn Jemmott, a Roman Catholic priest from Trinidad and Tobago who had been stationed in Mexico since 1984, as telling him: “They are saying we are all the same and therefore there is no reason to distinguish yourself. What they are not saying is that in ordinary life in Mexico, lighter-skinned Mexicans are accepted and have first place.”
The bilingual exhibition by the Oakland Museum featured paintings, prints, movie posters, photographs, sculpture, costumes, masks, and musical instruments associated with Mexico’s la tercera raiz. It was a fascinating hybrid – a visual arts exhibition based on a cultural history. A similar exhibition, by the same name, was mounted by DuSable Museum, curated by Sangrario Cruz of the University of Veracruz, and Cesareo Moreno, the visual arts director of the National Museum of Mexican Art. This exhibition also used paintings, photographs, lithographs and historical texts to highlight the impact the Africans had on Mexican culture.
The exhibition examined the complexity of race, culture, politics, and social stratification. No exhibition had showcased the history, artistic expressions and practices of Afro-Mexicans in such a broad scope as this one, which included a comprehensive range of artwork from 18th century colonial caste paintings to contemporary artistic expressions. Organised and originally presented by the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, this travelling exhibition made stops in New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington DC and California, as well as Monterrey and Veracruz, Mexico.
The exhibition featured important historical figures, such as Yanga, and illuminates the contributions of Africans to the artistic, culinary, musical and cultural traditions of Mexican culture from the past through the present day. Also featured were Afro-Mexican artists such as Ignacio Canela, Mario Guzman, Guillermo Vargas, Hermengildo Gonzalez; and other artists such as Rufino Tamayo, Elizabeth Catlett, Francisco Toledo, Maria Yampolski and Francisco Mora.
One of the star features of the exhibition was the stunning photographs by Tony Gleaton of the black people of Mexico. Gleaton is an Afro-Mexican himself, and the looks of amazement and disbelief on the faces of first-time viewers of his photographs were eloquent testimony to the significance of the images. Particularly to those who had little or no knowledge about societies beyond the borders of the United States, these photographs were a revelation. The photos forced them to rethink many of their preconceptions not only about Mexico as a country but more generally about issues such as race, ethnicity, culture and national identity.
On a hot and humid July day last year, I rode with friends to the town of Yanga, which has received in recent years considerable attention as one of the Americas’ earliest settlements founded by fugitive slaves.
Today, a recently erected statue of the town’s founder – originally a rebellious Muslim man from what is now Nigeria –stands on the outskirts, more a testimony to the persistence of a few Mexican anthropologists who “re-discovered” the place than to the historical memory of its founder’s descendants.
The story of Yanga
As I strolled through the area and talked to the residents, and saw the evidence of an African past in their faces, I discovered that they had little more than amused curiosity about outsiders who express interest in their past. Yanga’s people have quite simply been living their lives as they always have, making the adjustments necessary in a changing world and giving little thought to an aspect of their history for which they are now being celebrated.
The story of Yanga and his followers is remarkable for being so typical: the town’s relative isolation is the reason for its founding and for its continued existence as a predominately black enclave. Fugitive slave communities were commonly established in difficult-to-reach areas in order to secure their inhabitants from recapture. But their physical isolation has also led to their being ignored. Particularly since Mexico’s Revolution (1910-29), the Yangas of Mexico – mostly found dispersed throughout the states of Veracruz, Oaxaca and Guerrero (south of Acapulco) – have been out of sight and out of mind, generally considered unworthy of any special attention.
Mexico’s African presence has been relegated to an obscured slave past, pushed aside in the interest of a national identity based on a mixture of indigenous and European cultural mestizaje.
In practice, this ideology of “racial democracy” favours the European presence; too often the nation’s glorious indigenous past is reduced to folklore and ceremonial showcasing. But the handling of the African “third root” is even more dismissive.
There are notable exceptions to this lack of attention. The anthropologist, Gonzalo Aguirre Beltran’s seminal works (La Problema Negra de Mexico, 1519-1810 (Mexico’s Negro Problem) published in 1946; and Cuijla: Esbozo Etnografico de un Pueblo Negro, published in 1989 by the Universidad Veracruzana) remain among the most important on the subject.
Doubtless influenced by the interest in Africans and their descendants in other parts of the world, a small but significant group of Mexican intellectuals began, during the past decade, to focus on black Mexicans.
It is true that the State of Veracruz (and especially the port city of the same name) is generally recognised as having “black”
people. In fact, there is a widespread tendency to identify all Mexicans who have distinctively “black” features as coming from Veracruz.
In addition to its relatively well-known history as a major slave port, Veracruz received significant numbers of descendants of Africa from Haiti and Cuba during the latter 19th and early 20th centuries.
But, for all intents and purposes, the biological, cultural and material contributions of the more than 200,000 Africans and their descendants to the formation of Mexican society do not figure in the equation at all. It is impossible to arrive at precise figures on the volume of enslaved Africans brought to Mexico or the rest of the Americas because, hungry for slaves and eager to avoid payment of duties, traders and buyers often resorted to smuggling. The 200,000 figure is generally recognised as a conservative estimate.
Today, because they live as their neighbours live, carry out the same work, eat the same foods, and make the same music, it is assumed that blacks have assimilated into “Mexican” society. The truth of the matter is, they are Mexican! And the historical record offers compelling evidence that Africans and their descendants contributed enormously to the very formation of Mexican culture.
When Yanga and his followers founded their settlement, the population of Mexico City consisted of approximately 36,000 Africans, 116,000 persons of African ancestry, and only 14,000 Europeans.
The source of these figures is the census of 1646 of Mexico City, as reported by Gonzalo Aguirre Beltran in La Poblacion Negra de Mexico (p. 237). These approximate figures include as persons of African ancestry only those designated as Afromestizos, in accordance with the caste-system definitions at the time.
The census indicates that there were also more than a million indigenous peoples. In fact, such precise definitions were almost impossible to make, and it is highly probable that the categories Euromestizos and Indomestizos also included persons of African descent. Escaped slaves added to the overwhelming numbers in the cities, establishing communities in Oaxaca as early as 1523. Beyond their physical presence, Africans and their descendants interacted with indigenous and European peoples in forging nearly every aspect of society.
Indeed, the states of Guerrero and Morelos bear the names of two men of African ancestry, heroes of the war of independence that made possible the founding of the republic of Mexico in 1821.
It is within this context that one must view Tony Gleaton’s photographs. The people in these images, ignored in the past, now run the risk of being exoticised, of being brought forward to applaud their “Africanness” while ignoring their “Mexicanness”.
The faces of these children and grandmothers should remind us of the generations that preceded them. But we must not relegate them to history. As always, they remain active participants in their world.
To understand the implications of the people of Yanga – and of Cuajinicuilapa, El Ciruelo, Corralero, and other suchlike communities – we must go beyond physical appearance, cease determining the extent of Africa’s influence simply by how much one “looks” African, and go forward to critically examine what indeed is Mexico and who are the Mexicans.
So, yes, there are black people in Mexico. We may marvel at these relatively isolated communities that can still be found along the Pacific and Gulf coasts. But of greater significance is recognising the myriad forms that mark the African presence in Mexican culture, past and present, many of which remain to be discovered by people such as Tony Gleaton and ourselves, and certainly by the Mexican people.
Mexico’s real history
Interestingly, those interested in finding “the African presence in Mexican culture, past and present” do not need to look far. The earliest African presence in the Americas is that of the people of Nubia and Kemet. This was proved by the discovery in 1858 of a gigantic (head) portrait with Nubian features carved out of a single piece of basalt measuring 8ft by 18ft in circumference, and dating back to 800-600 BC. It was discovered in the village of Tres Zapotes in Mexico. Seventeen of these heads have since been discovered all over South America.
In 1869, Jose Meglar, a Mexican scholar, wrote a brief description of the sculpture in the Mexican Society of Geography and Statistic Bulletin. He stated: “In 1862, I was in the region of San Andres, Tuxtla. During my excursion, I learnt that a Colossal Head had been unearthed a few years before.
“I asked to be taken to look at it. We went, and I was struck with surprise. As a work of art, it is without exaggeration a magnificent sculpture. What astonished me was the Ethiopian type [Negroid] representation. I reflected that there had been Negroes in this country, and that this had been in the first epoch of the world.”
This article, along with other publications that boldly put Africans in association with Ancient America, was met with silence by Euro-American scholars, despite the physical evidence on the ground, such as the Colossal Head. The taboo was finally lifted in 1939, when the American scholar, Matthew Stirling, a researcher funded by the Smithsonian Institute and the National Geography Society (both American institutions), led an archaeological team to Tres Zapotes in Mexico and excavated the Colossal Head that Meglar had mentioned 77 years earlier.
The sheer size of the sculpture moved Stirling to say: “It presents an awe inspiring spectacle. Despite its great size, the workmanship is delicate and sure, its proportion is perfect. It is remarkable for its realistic treatment. The features are bold and amazingly Negroid in character.”
Additionally, hundreds of images of Africans in terracotta, made between 1500 BC and 1500 AD, have been unearthed in the Americas, affirming a prolonged presence of African ancestors in that part of the world long before Christopher Columbus’ great, great, great, grandfather was born. Columbus is said in European history to have discovered America in 1492, but, as proven by the Colossal Heads, the African ancestors had been there millennia before him. In September 1974, at the 41st Congress of Americanists in Mexico, Dr Andrzej Wiercinski, one of the world’s leading experts on the Americas, announced that African skulls had been found at the Olmec sites in Cero de las Meassa, Monte Alban, and Talatilco in Mexico.
Prof Alexander von Wuthenau, the German-born art historian and author of Unexplained Faces in Ancient America, has also made an impressive collection of pre-Columbian terracotta sculptures of African chiefs, dancers and drummers.
Indeed at one point, after stating his conviction of the trans-Atlantic voyage of the Africans, Prof Wuthenau was advised by his colleague, Dr Erwin Palm, thus: “Wuthenau, never say Negro, always say Negroid because then it would mean that the black specimens in pre-Columbian art are derived from Melanesian Negritos and not from African Negroes.” Wuthenau subsequently explained that his colleague meant well, and “probably intended to help me maintain my respectability in academic circles; because orthodox scientists are beginning to admit the possibility of Melanesian migration to America but are deadly opposed to contacts from Africa across the Atlantic.”
One of those “orthodox” scholars, Dr Micheal Coe, once of the Department of Anthropology at Yale University in the USA, a leading authority on South America, reasoned that the thick lips and broad nose of the Olmec heads (including the Colossal Head), were due to the fact that the sculptors did not want to create “protruding or thin facial features that might break off”.
Coe’s incredible scholastic insight, however, demonstrated a disdain for the achievements and history of Africa and its people. What he was trying to deny was the fact that the finding of the Colossal Head and the other African sculptures and terracotta in the Americas was an affirmation and evidence of the continuity of the great African history that went as far back as Nubia and Kemet.
The Olmec civilisation, 1200-400 BC
Many of the written records left by the Olmec in South America were systematically destroyed by the European “discoverers” of the New World. The very people who burnt down the libraries of the African Moors in Spain were the same people who destroyed the written records of the Olmec civilisation. Olmec is derived from the Aztec root, Ollin, meaning rubber, loosely translated as people from the land where rubber is produced. La Venta in Mexico was the capital of the Olmec civilisation.
Diago deLaanda, the Spanish bishop of Yucatan, admitted in his writings: “These people made use of certain characters or letters with which they wrote their books and ancient matter and their science … We found a large number of books. They contained but superstition. We burned them all which they regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.”
Antonio deCuidad Real, the Spanish historian, also affirmed in 1588 AD that the Spanish “burned many historical books of the ancient Yucatan which told of its beginning and history.”
The earliest settlers in Central America date from 3000-2000 BC, but the major civilisation that preceded them all was the Olmec, which influenced all the American civilisations, including the Aztec, the Mayans, and the Incas.
The Olmec civilisation (1200-400 BC) was all-pervasive, reaching Guatemala and Honduras to the west, to Central Mexico, Costa Rica and along the ancient American coast as far as Panama. Specifically, it was at La Venta in Mexico that the Olmec lay the foundations of ancient America, marked by pyramid complexes and hieroglyphic writing, a trait which was later to be assimilated by other civilisations in the Americas, including the Maya.
The sheer size of the Colossal Head and other finds, is a clear indication that Africans occupied elite positions in the ancient American civilisations. As the late Dr Ivan Van Sertima put it in his seminal work, African Presence in Early America: “If we examine some of those helmets [on the Colossal Heads], we will find they are uncannily similar to the leather helmet worn by the Nubian-Kemet military in the era of Ramese and in the first millennium BC. They completely cover the head and the back of the neck, and they have tie-ons attached to the crest and falling in front of the ear. The details on some of them, almost 3,000 years old, have circular earplugs and incised decoration, paralleled lines found on other colossal Nubian heads in the Egyptian seaport of Tanis.”
The African Ankh symbol of life is identical with the Olmec sacred cross both in function and name. The Olmec called it the “tree of life”. The Kemetic spiritual, ceremonial and sacred colours are identical with that of the Olmec who also used oxide dyes to evoke blackness, a colour they used mostly to paint their sculptures. Also, the pyramids in Mexico are identical in orientation to that of Kemet. And, too, the nine gods of Kemet mentioned in the Book of Creation are equally found in the Americas and recorded in the pyramids of Mexico as the “nine lords of the night”.
Said Dr Ivan Van Sertima: “It is important to understand what a great burden of proof is required to establish a cultural influence, even when there is a sound case for a physical presence and contact. Any one of the above traits, standing by itself as a single parallel can be dismissed as coincidence. When such traits appear as an interconnected cluster, performing a single function and
duplication nowhere else in the world except where the Egyptian travelled or left their influence, then only a dogmatic conservative or a bigot can deny the possibility of both physical contact and cultural influence.”
Thus, modern-day Mexicans who are discriminating against African-descended Mexicans on account of their colour and race, need to take a step back and look at the real history of the place they now call their country. They will find that the African ancestors had had a huge impact on the country thousands of years before the Spanish colonialists arrived and turned the place upside down.