The existence of Afro-Mexicans was officially affirmed in the 1990s when the Mexican government acknowledged Africa as Mexico’s “third root”. But Mexico’s real history shows the African presence in the country going back thousands of years. Despite the official recognition of the contribution of Africa and Afro-Mexicans to Mexican society throughout the ages, the plight of African-descended people in Mexico is still desperate, reports Miriam Jimenez Roman. (Additional reporting by Tom Mbakwe)
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.”