Mexico’s ruling class is learning an enduring lesson that the nation’s African root will not remain buried in obscurity
This multiple-part series will unravel the little-known history of how Mexico’s 15th-century assimilation of Spaniards, indigenous Indians, and African slaves eventually led to the founding of Los Angeles by Black- Mexicans and Mestizos in the 18th century when California was still under the rule of Mexico. Even though the Black imprint in Mexico is unraveling more and more as time moves on, the reality of the truth is still largely mired in a Shadow History because the masses do not frequent libraries and this truth has never been taught as a history lesson in Mexico, much less as historic text in the U.S. To now, this invaluable historic truth has largely been available as scholarly works. The Compton Herald sought out this history, scaled down its volume from multiple scholarly sources, and now present it in nine parts for public consumption — the editor
Part III—“Black Mexico: Unearthing the ‘Third Root.’”
Mexico’s wholesale acceptance of a “Black Root” may be many years into the future. Colin A. Palmer in his essay, “A Legacy of Slavery” notes that ingrained beliefs endure. Palmer writes that the Mexican government is reluctant to acknowledge the historic African imprint. The government and the Mexican population at large ignore the truth, even as the evidence of a shared African history grows.
“When I arrived in Mexico about two decades ago to begin research on the early history of Africans and their descendants there, a young student politely told me that I was embarking on a wild goose chase,” Palmer writes. “Mexico had never imported slaves from Africa, he said, fully certain that the nation’s peoples of African descent were relatively recent arrivals.”
Born and reared in Jamaica, Palmer earned a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin and has taught at Oakland University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The university professor and prolific author writes, “This lack of knowledge about Mexico’s African peoples has not changed much over time. A short while ago a Mexican engineer, himself of African descent, told me adamantly that the country’s Blacks were the descendants of escaped slaves from North America and Cuba. These fugitives, he proudly proclaimed, had sought and found sanctuary in free Mexico.”
Palmer is the author of numerous books and articles, including Slaves of the White God: Blacks in Mexico, 1570 – 1650; Human Cargoes: The British Slave Trade to Spanish America, 1700 – 1739; and Passageways: An Interpretive History of Black America. He is also editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History.
Palmer notes in his essay, “African labor was vital to the Spanish colonists. As indigenous peoples were killed or died from European diseases, Blacks assumed a disproportionate share of the burden of work, particularly in the early colonial period. African slaves labored in the silver mines of Zacatecas, Taxco, Guanajuato, and Pachuca in the northern and central regions; on the sugar plantations of the Valle de Orizaba and Morelos in the south; in the textile factories of Puebla and Oaxaca on the west coast and in Mexico City; and in households everywhere. Others worked in a skilled trade or on cattle ranches.
“Although Black slaves were never more than two percent of the total population,” writes Palmer, “their contributions to colonial Mexico were enormous, especially during acute labor shortages.”
Mixed blood emerges
He continues, “Wherever their numbers permitted, slaves created networks that allowed them to cope with their situation, give expression to their humanity, and maintain a sense of self. These networks flourished in Mexico City, the port city of Veracruz, the major mining centers, and the sugar plantations, allowing Africans to preserve some of their cultural heritage even as they forged new and dynamic relationships.”
Palmer continues, “Although males outnumbered females, many slaves found spouses from their own or other African ethnic groups. Other slaves married or had amorous liaisons with the indigenous peoples and to a lesser extent the Spaniards. In time, a population of mixed blood emerged, gaining demographic ascendancy by the mid-eighteenth century. Known as‘mulattos,’ ‘pardos,’ or ‘zambanos,’ many of them were either born free or in time acquired their liberty
“As in the rest of the Americas, slavery in Mexico exacted a severe physical and psychological price from its victims. Abuse was a constant part of a slave’s existence; resisting oppression often meant torture, mutilation, whipping, or being put in confinement. Death rates were high, especially for slaves in the silver mines and on the sugar plantations. Yet, for the most part, their spirits were never broken and many fled to establish settlements in remote areas of the country.
Palmer continues, “Other slaves rebelled or conspired to. The first conspiracy on record took place in 1537, and these assaults on the system grew more frequent as the black population increased. Regardless of the form it took—escape or rebellion—resistance demonstrated an angry defiance of the status quo and the slaves’ desire to reclaim their own lives. As such, Black resistance occupies a special place in Mexico’s revolutionary tradition, a tradition that is a source of pride for many Mexicans.”
Beyond that, Palmer notes Africans in Mexico left their cultural and genetic imprint everywhere they lived. In states such as Veracruz, Guerrero, and Oaxaca, the descendants of Africa’s children still bear the evidence of their ancestry.
African traditions survive
“No longer do they see themselves as Mandinga, Wolof, Ibo, Bakongo, or members of other African ethnic groups,” Palmer notes in his prose, “their self-identity is Mexican and they share much with other members of their nation-state. Yet their cultural heritage has not entirely disappeared. Some African traditions survive in song, music, dance, and other ways. But much has changed since slavery ended, and it is difficult for a small minority to maintain its traditions in a constantly changing society.”
As their ancestors did, the few remaining persons who are visibly of African descent continue to be productive members of society. But history has not been kind to the achievements of African peoples in Mexico.
Palmer and Miriam Jiménez Román agree that only in recent times have Black or Afro-Mexicans been studied and their contributions to Mexican society illuminated. Black Mexicans can claim this proud legacy and draw strength from it, even as the full strength of their African origins become a shrinking part of their country, blending into the legacy of mestizaje.
Author and scholar on Mexican culture, Luz María Martínez Montiel, writes in her essay — “Mexico’s Third Root,” that, “Wherever people gather in the poor fishing villages of Costa Chica on Mexico’s southwest coast — in their homes, on the streets, in the town squares during festivals — someone is likely to step forward and start singing. These impromptu performers regale their audience with songs of romance, tragedy, comedy, and social protest, all inspired by local events and characters. At the heart of the songs, called ‘corridos,’ is a sense of human dignity and a desire for freedom rooted in the lives and history of the people of Costa Chica, many of whom are descendants of escaped slaves.”
“The corridos reflect oral traditions inherited from Africa. The words are improvised, and a corrido that brings applause is apt to be committed to memory, to be sung again and again as an oral chronicle of local life,” notes Montiel, author of Afroamérica II. Africanos y Afrodescendientes, and scholarly papers — Our Third Root On African Presence in American Populations, and Integration Patterns and the Assimilation Process of Negro Slaves in Mexico.
Montiel also writes, “The lyrics are also rich in symbols, a tradition that may have started when singers among the first slaves invented “code words” to protest the cruelty of their masters.
“The African imprint in Costa Chica is not confined to music. For the “Dance of the Devil,” performed during Holy Week in the streets of Collantes, Oaxaca, dancers wear masks that show the clear influence of Africa. And down on the docks, fishermen employ methods of work that may have been brought centuries ago from the coast of West Africa,” she writes.
Montiel documents that, “The Spanish colonists took full advantage of technology that Africans had developed for work in the tropics and adapted and improved” in the New World. “Yet today, many African contributions to advancing the technologies of fishing, agriculture, ranching, and textile-making in Mexico remain unappreciated.”
In Black enclaves like Costa Chica, the African presence pervades Mexican culture, Montiel writes, and “in story and legend, music and dance, proverb and song, the legacy of Africa touches the life of every Mexican. Today, after five hundred years of blending with the traditions of Indians and Europeans, it has become nearly impossible to trace the specific contributions of any of these groups.”
Montiel continues, “Compounding the difficulty is the fact that the African elements in Mexico’s culture are not acknowledged as they are in other countries of the Americas. In fact, [the] mestizaje, the official ideology that defines Mexico’s culture as a blend of European and indigenous influences, completely ignores the contributions of the nation’s ‘Third Root.’”
“Africans and their descendants, nearly invisible in the Spanish chronicles of the colonial period, continue to receive little attention in the official history of Mexico,” writes Montiel. “So it is no surprise that Blacks, who live primarily in poor, rural areas where the level of education is very low, lack a clear consciousness of their African heritage.
Geography helped preserve African heritage
“To an extent, geography has shaped the heritage of Mexico’s Black communities. The isolation of the west coast and the mountains, which offered sanctuary to escaped slaves, also preserved many elements of African tradition, Montiel continues. “On the other hand, the Gulf Coast region, especially the port of Veracruz, was a crossroads where Mexico’s indigenous culture blended with myriad influences from Africa, Europe, South America, and especially the Caribbean. In this variegated mixture, it is sometimes difficult to isolate the African presence.”
“As in the past, Blacks on the Gulf Coast are more likely to trace the origins of their lineage to the Caribbean,” notes Montiel. “The people on the west coast and in the mountains, however, have lately begun to acknowledge their links to Africa and to their slave past.
“In part, this is in response to recent ethnographic, folkloric, and historical studies as well as to frequent visits by scholars to these regions. It may be as well that the stress of increasing contact with other peoples — and with immigrants who now come to exploit their land and labor — has fostered a need among these groups for a self-identity defining them as “the Blacks from the coast,” she writes.
Accordingly, writes Montiel, “It is a fact that economic stresses compel ethnic groups in sudden contact with outsiders to either reinforce their traditions or capitulate to the attractions that cultural homogenization has to offer. This is how cultural groups are depersonalized and their traditional values lost. Hopefully, the Blacks of Costa Chica and elsewhere in Mexico will come to find new meaning in the traditions that have sustained them for centuries. Mexico will be much the richer for it.”
Research into Black Mexico continues
Influenced by the increasing interest in Africans and their descendants in other parts of the world, the work of a small but significant group of Mexican intellectuals, along with the contributions of researchers in the U.S. like Tony Gleaton, Roman, Palmer and Montiel, have expanded the focus on Black Mexicans and the body of knowledge and historical evidence about them.
Newly documented truth abounds. It is now established fact that the state of Veracruz — especially the port city of the same name — is generally recognized as having Black people. In fact, there is a widespread tendency to identify all Mexicans who have distinctively Black features as originating 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 between the 19th and early 20th centuries.
As far as the precise figures on the numbers of enslaved Africans who integrated Spanish America, there is no way to quantify the total. Some scholars believe 200,000 slaves were brought to Mexico for manual labor purposes while others believe the true number totaled more than 500,000. 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.”
The mingling of blood that occurred between the Spanish and indigenous natives of Mexico also occurred with African slaves. Historians differ on the actual number of slaves brought to Mexico during the colonial expansion.
The mulattos in Mexico race are a people seldom acknowledged. Traditionally, the mestizo race is a mixture of Spanish and indigenous blood. Mulattosare a blend of African and Spanish blood, which was absorbed into the fabric of the Mexican culture over the years, as racial co-mingling occurred throughout Mexico without boundary.
The first Africans to arrive Mexico, as well as their descendants, have greatly influenced Mexican culture. Throughout the centuries, Black Mexicans have made enormous contributions to the country and deserve recognition for their many accomplishments. Black Mexicans share a rich history and count heroes and presidents among their ancestors.
The historical record, of course, tells another story. In the 16th century, New Spain probably had more enslaved Africans than any other colony in the Western Hemisphere. Blacks were present as slaves of the Spaniards as early as the 1520s. Over the approximately three hundred years Spanish slavery lasted, the slave trade brought hundreds of thousands of Africans to the colony. Many Blacks were born in Mexico and followed their parents into slavery.
It wasn’t until 1829 that the institution of slavery was abolished by second Mexican president, Vicente Guerrero (a mulatto), 34 years before President Abraham Lincoln would declare the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery in America.