THE THIRD ROOT
Black people in Mexico? In recent years, Yanga has received considerable attention as one of the Americas’ earliest "Maroon communities": settlements founded by fugitive slaves. Originally known as San Lorenzo de los Negros. In 1932 the town was renamed for its founder, a rebellious Muslim man from what is now Nigeria.
In 1609, after resisting recapture for 38 years, Yanga negotiated with the
Spaniards to establish a free black community.
Today a recently erected statue of Yanga stands on the outskirts of the town, more a testimony to the persistence of a few Mexican anthropologists who "re-discovered" the place than to the historical memory of its founders' descendants. 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 the Revolution (1910-29). The Yangas of Mexico—most found dispersed throughout the states of Veracruz on the gulf coast and Oaxaca and Guerrero south of Acapulco--have been out of sight and out of mind, generally non-considered for any special attention.
Mexico's African presence has been relegated to an obscured past, pushed aside in the interest of a national identity based on a mixture of Indigenous and European cultural “mestizaje,” but the African "third root" is more dismissive.
For all intents and purposes the biological, cultural, and material contributions of more than 200,000 Africans and their descendants to the formation of Mexican society do not figure in the equation at all, because they live as their neighbors 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 society. 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. 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, (Vicente Guerrero & Jose Maria Morelos y Pavon).
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 recognizing 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 ourselves (Chicanos), and the Mexican people.
It is true that the state of Veracruz (and 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 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 nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
It is impossible to arrive at precise figures on the volume of enslaved
Africans brought to Mexico or the rest of the Americas by Europeans, traders and buyers hungry for slaves who often resorted to smuggling to avoid payment of duties. Therefore, the 200,000 figure is generally recognized as a conservative estimate.
The source of these figures is the census of 1646 of Mexico City, as reported in "La Poblacion Negra de Mexico". These approximate figures include as persons of African ancestry only those designated as "Afromestizos," (Spanish-African mix) in accordance with the caste-system definitions at the time. The census indicates that there were also more than a million indigenous peoples, and it is highly probable that the categories "Euromestizos" (Spanish-Indian mix), and "Indomestizos" (Indian-Black mix) also included persons of African descent.
Mexico itself had never imported slaves from Africa, the nation's peoples of African descent were relatively recent arrivals and many of the country's blacks were the descendants of escaped slaves from the United States and Cuba. These fugitives had sought and found sanctuary in free Mexico.
The historical record, of course, tells another story concerning the Spaniards who in the “sixteenth century,” New Spain (as Mexico was then called) 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 it lasted, the slave trade brought about 200,000 Africans to the colony. Many blacks were born in Mexico and followed their parents into slavery.
Not until 1829 was the institution abolished by the leaders of the newly independent nation of Mexico.
African labor was vital to the Spanish colonists. As indigenous peoples were killed or died from European diseases, blacks assumed a 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 skilled trade or on cattle ranches. Although black slaves were never more than two percent of the total population, their contributions to colonial Mexico were enormous.
Known as "mulattos," "pardos," or "zambos," many of them were either born free or in time acquired their liberty.
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. Although males outnumbered females, many slaves found spouses from their own or other 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 bloods emerged, gaining demographic ascendancy by the mid-eighteenth century.
As in the rest of the Americas, slavery in New Spain 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 ("palenques") in remote areas of the country.
These fugitives were a constant thorn in the side of slave owners. The most renowned group of "maroons," as they were called, escaped to the mountains near Veracruz. Unable to defeat these intrepid Africans, the Spaniards finally recognized their freedom and allowed them to build and administer their own town. Today, their leader, Yanga, remains a symbol of black resistance to the white man in Mexico.
Other slaves rebelled or conspired to. The first conspiracy on record took place in 1537, and these assaults on the Spanish 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, 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. No longer do they see themselves as Mandinga, Wolof, Ibo, Bakongo, or members of other African ethnic groups; 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. It is only within recent times that their lives have been studied and their contributions to Mexican society illuminated. Suffice it to say that contemporary black Mexicans can claim this proud legacy and draw strength from it, even as they become a shrinking part of their country's peoples.
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. 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 cruelties 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.
The Spanish colonists took full advantage of the technology in fishing, agriculture, ranching, and textile making that Africans had developed for work in the tropics and adapted and improved in the New World.
Although strongest in black enclaves like Costa Chica, the African presence pervades Mexican culture. In story and legend, music and dance, proverb and song, the legacy of Africa touches the life of every Mexican.
Still, it is difficult to single out any one influence as "purely" African. Certainly, the African presence in Mexico has never been monolithic. Although most slaves were brought from West Africa, they represented many ethnic groups (the Cafi, the Arara, the Carabali, the Wolof, and the Mandinga, to name a few), each with a different culture and worldview. Today, after five hundred years of blending with the traditions of Indians and Mestizos, it has become nearly impossible to trace the specific contributions of any of these groups.
Compounding the difficulty is the fact that the African elements in Mexico's cultures are not acknowledged as they are in other countries of the Americas. In fact, "el mestizaje," the official ideology that defines Mexico's culture as a blend of Spanish and Indian influences, continues to ignore in large part 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. So it is no surprise that blacks, who live primarily in rural areas lack a clear consciousness of their 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. 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. 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 being performed through frequent visits by Mexico’s 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." 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 that much the richer for it.