Afro-descendants: Mexico’s forgotten third root

From colonial times to the Mexican Independence, afro-descendants have played a relevant role in all areas of national life, yet they are often ignored and marginalized

Afro-descendants: Mexico’s forgotten third root
Mexico silenced the afro-descendant contribution to its society while other Latin American countries have fully recognized it - Photo: Featured photography/EL UNIVERSAL
English 22/02/2019 17:19 Gabriel Moyssen Mexico City Actualizada 17:19
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From colonial times to the Mexican Independence, Afro-descendants have played a relevant role in all areas of national life, yet they are often ignored and marginalized, living in poor rural communities as their ancestors.

While the United States and Canada are celebrating their Black History Month this February–also observed in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Ireland in October–it is worth having a look at afro-descendants in Mexico, after the first groups of African slaves arrived to the country in the sixteenth century, brought by Spanish settlers to work in gold and silver mines replacing the falling Native American population.

It is considered that during the Viceroyalty of New Spain nearly 250,000 women, men, and children from Sub-Saharan Africa came to Veracruz and Campeche ports in the Gulf of Mexico following the Atlantic route, as well as to Acapulco in the Pacific coast.

Slaves also worked in sugar mills, livestock, domestic service, and a variety of professions, from the current northern state of Coahuila to the Yucatan peninsula.

Mixing with other populations over time, they developed distinctive cultural traits, reflected for instance in “La Chilena,” a style of music introduced in the Costa Chica of Oaxaca by Chilean sailors traveling to the California Gold Rush, or “La Danza de los Diablos” (Demons Dance) performed in October and November around Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead).

In 1570, Gaspar Yanga, a member of the royal family of Gabon captured and sold into slavery, built with other rebels a Maroon colony in the highlands near Córdoba, Veracruz.

They successfully resisted a Spanish attack on the settlement in 1609 and ten years later achieved an agreement with authorities for self-rule of the colony, later called San Lorenzo de los Negros.

In the nineteenth century, Yanga was named as a “national hero of Mexico,” and “the first liberator of the Americas;” in 1932 the settlement he formed was renamed as Yanga in his honor.

After the Mexican Independence in 1810, the Spanish caste system that divided the society was abolished along with slavery.

National heroes such as José María Morelosleader of the revel Independence war in Mexico; the second Mexican President Vicente Guerrero, and President Lázaro Cárdenas, who ordered the nationalization of the oil industry in 1938, had African blood in their veins.

During the late eighteenth century, 26 of the first 44 Mexican settlers in California were of African descent.

Pío de Jesús Pico, who was of Spanish, African and Native American descent, served as the last Mexican governor of Alta California twice and as Los Angeles Common Councilman before his death in 1894.

Interestingly, yet another milestone of the afro-descendant history between the two countries took place in Mexico City during the Olympic Games in 1968, when U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos each raised a black-gloved hand–symbol of the influential Black Power movement–in their medal ceremony while the United States national anthem was being played.

Photo: Featured photography/EL UNIVERSAL

In Mexico, however, Afro-descendants are frustrated due to the lack of legal recognition as a minority on the grounds that they speak Spanish, according to experts.

Sing the national anthem

Even worse, from time to time abhorrent cases of discrimination arise.

In  2008, the family of Mexican citizen Simeón Herrera was detained at the Mexico City International Airport because authorities did not believe they were Mexicans.

Herrera’s relatives were interrogated and forced to sing the Mexican national anthem; they were released after they presented their birth certificates.

Despite the absence of a segregation system as the one established in the U.S. until the Civil War, the creation of a collective identity after the Mexican Revolution in the early twentieth century relegated the Afro-descendants.

The controversial Minister of Public Education, writer, philosopher, and politician José Vasconcelos defined the Mexican national personality as the union between Native Americans and Spaniards; in his famous theory about the “cosmic race,” following the nationalist trends of the time, Vasconcelos said that the “bronze race” was the result of the encounter of Europe and the Americas, ignoring Africa.

Nearly 500 years after the first Africans arrived on the shores of Veracruz, the federal government recognized Mexico’s third root.

For the first time, people polled in the 2015 National Census had the opportunity to identify as Afro-descendants, showing that 1.4 million people or 1.2% of the total population is Afro-descendant.

Nowadays, most Afro-Mexican communities still face discrimination and racism due to their lack of recognition in history.

A few paragraphs dedicated to their importance are included in school textbooks, often repeating stereotypes and prejudices, said to EL UNIVERSAL in English María Elisa Velázquez, National Coordinator of Anthropology at the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).

“Their history and importance are not addressed in museums; therefore, the majority of Mexicans believe ‘there are no Afro-descendants’ in their country and the communities and towns themselves do not know their own history,” she highlighted.

During colonial times, Velázquez explained, many slaves managed to achieve freedom and other Afro-Mexicans were born free, since the unions between Africans and Native Americans were common and the children of Native American women could not be considered slaves, due to the prohibition of slavery among Native Americans in 1542.

The scholar stressed that efforts in the last twenty years from Mexico's National Council for the Prevention of Discrimination, Mexico's National Human Rights Commission, and INAH with other institutions have made progress in the constitutional recognition of Afro-Mexicans in Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Mexico City.

Colombia, Perú, and other Latin American nations received a similar number of Africans as Mexico.

The total figure was much bigger in Brazil and Cuba, two countries without significant native populations where slavery continued well into the late nineteenth century, exploiting the boom of human trafficking and of “scientific racism” ideas.

Nevertheless, while Mexico silenced the afro-descendant contribution to its society other Latin American countries have fully recognized it, Velázquez added.

Editing by Sofía Danis
More by Gabriel Moyssen

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