Mexico: Defining the Mix

A great number of the posts for this blog have referred to the history of the U.S. mainland. The African Diaspora includes, obviously, other regions of the Western Hemisphere as well. Mexico is such an example, and as a neighbor of the United States has shared culture, history and even land. Both countries practiced slavery, first of the indigenous people and later Africans and Asians. Both countries are ambivalent in acknowledging an African presence or contribution to their national identity. Both countries have now had mulatto presidents. And as in most areas of the former Spanish Empire, an African took part in the conquest and exploration of the territory. Juan Garrido, a free Black man, participated in the siege of Tenochtitlan in the early 1500s.

When defining Mexico, the borders have altered over time; just as Virginia once encompassed the territory that now forms the states of West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio to the Mississippi River, and Spain’s Florida extended along the Atlantic Coast from Maine to Florida and wet to Tennessee. Similarly, “in the beginning” Mexico represented most of Central America, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, California and territory north to the St. Lawrence River. The French had the slice in-between, land bordering the Mississippi – and what we now describe as the Great Plains reaching up into Canada. Mexico has been vast and varied throughout its history.

Only since the Mid-20th Century have Mexicans officially recognized what is commonly referred to as la tercera raiz, or the African third root of its identity as an ethnically diverse, mixed nation – a reality advanced only with much resistance. This is a country that proudly proclaims its mixed heritage of native and European people, but with claims of existence of the third part, the African part, some Mexicans have denied such a possibility.

In the past, children of African and indigenous parents were called jarocho (wild pig, boar) or lobo (wolf). These people were considered wild and dangerous. Initially claiming that it was not visible so it did not exist, any evidence of Africans in Mexican history was associated only with slavery or with an exotic culture. An even more specific category, mestizaje, was applied to a person who was known to have the mix of the Indian, African and European.

If history exposes lies, here are the facts. In order of populations represented in Mexico in the 16th Century, there were between a quarter to a half million Africans brought to the territory, principally to work the mines and grow sugar cane. The majority of the people occupying this area known as Mexico were indigenous, the second largest were Africans, and Europeans were the fewest. There were once 30 Africans for every Spaniard. What happened?

Although Mexico exalts in being a nation of the mestizo, that mixture is limited and clearly defined. Routinely it does not include or factor-in African heritage. As in every Euro-centric culture in the Western Hemisphere, the value of one drop of European blood elevated a person’s status, and that drop became more valuable than any other over centuries of colonial rule right up to independence. Most of the Africans mixed with Native people eventually leaving little physical trace, perhaps as in other Latin countries, much to the relief of Mexicans. Salto o torna atras which translates “leap or return backwards” is an expression that addresses the fear that the stain of slavery and a personal African heritage will carry a negative connotation even in a racially diverse culture.

But that is not the end of the story. African traces permeate Mexican culture – its music and musical instruments (hand pianos and marimbas), song, food, dance, language and spiritual practices. Along the coasts, both Atlantic and Pacific, the evidence is strongest. In Vera Cruz, the principal slave trade port, there is the Carnival of Coyolillo and in the Mexican states of Guerrero, Chiapas, Tlaxcala, Oaxaca, Michoacán, Coahuila, Quintana Roo, Campeche, Yucatan, El Naciamiento and even into the north, Africans made their mark and are part of the local history. Today jarocho refers to all inhabitants of the state of Vera Cruz which reinforces the awareness of Africans’ predominance in this region. On the west coast of Mexico from Acapulco extending two hundred miles to the south, the agricultural area (Costa Chica) is mostly inhabited by people of African descent. Professor Gonzalo Aguirre Beltran of the University of Vera Cruz published The Black Population in Mexico in 1946, which caused an academic and cultural furor. In addition, Ivan Van Sertima in his landmark work, They Came Before Columbus merely compounded Mexicans’ refusal to accept the extensive presence of Africans and their influence on the national culture.

In addressing colonial Spanish history and African slavery from the 16th Century until slavery was abolished by Mexico (in either 1810 by mulatto General Jose Maria Morelosy Pavon or in 1822 by Mexico’s second president after independence, Vincente Guerrero who was also a mulatto), there was always resistance. The year 1540 experienced two deadly uprisings of Africans near Mexico City. Many rebellions erupted among the Africans who worked the mines in Zacatas between 1560 and 1580. By the 17th Century, there were numerous palenques (maroon settlements) usually in obscure and hard to reach places where Africans escaped and mixed in with the native population. The first free town of Africans in all the Americas was in Mexico. Yanga was established in 1609 by its namesake who led raids and formed a safe territory for the runaway enslaved. The Spanish eventually made a peace treaty with this guerilla fighter and his followers granting them control of the area in exchange for peace. Throughout the area of Vera Cruz, close to Pico de Orizaba, there are towns with the names Mocambo, Matamba, Mozambique and Mandinga. By 1636 in response to the many uprisings and the presence of so many enslaved Africans, Mexicans enacted national slave codes. All Africans were mandated to be slaves: no escapes; no exceptions.

When Florida became a US territory, many Seminoles fled to Mexico in order to escape US policies and warfare against this racially mixed group, many of them of African descent. Buffalo soldiers were not only Black veterans of the Civil War; many of them originated in Mexico, the territory we now call the US southwest.

This blog reiterates and emphasizes historical data that estimates that by the 1820s approximately seventy-seven percent of the migrants to the New World were Africans. They were shipped to every country in the hemisphere. Having survived the Middle Passage, they lived, they built, they worked, and they mixed. They were an integral part of what we now know as all the nations of the Americas.

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