CELEBRATING AFRICAN ROOTS IN MEXICO
Cinco de Mayo is on its way to becoming one of America’s favorite holidays, even though most Americans don’t actually know what the holiday is all about. No, it’s not honoring Mexico’s independence from Spain, but we’ll save the history lesson for the next round of margaritas as long as you’re buying. Como de dice en Mexico, ni modo: it doesn’t matter at the moment. But what may surprise you is that Mexican culture is even more complex than you may realize.
Mexico calls itself “criollo” (Creole) and “mestiza,” both words referencing the complex, spicy blend of colonial and indigenous North American cultures. But the presence of Black people in Mexico, initially arriving from Africa centuries ago, typically is left out of the conversation.
The beauty of African features in many Mexican faces is not the result of recent contact but dates back to the Middle Passage. Contemporary DNA testing confirms centuries-old ships’ logs tracing the theft of human cargo from Arguin, Western Sudan, Congo, Bantu, Cape Verde, Guinea, and Angola, ferried across the Atlantic by Portuguese and Spanish mercenaries. The demand for stolen Africans grew exponentially as indigenous people died by the thousands in response to contagious infectious diseases introduced by Europeans.
By the 18th century, the growing racial complexity of Mexican society was scrupulously detailed in “casta” (“caste”) paintings that portrayed Iberians and other Europeans, indigenous Mexicans, recently arrived Africans, and the spectrum of their offspring.
Remarkably, 2020 was the first year that Mexicans of African descent were counted in the national census (¡!). That survey gave voice to 2.5 million Mexican nationals who self-identify as Black. Veracruz was historically the center of Black presence in Mexico because of its exceptional access as a superb natural port. But today, Cuajinicuilapa located in the Costa Chica region is vibrant with an estimated Black population of 229,660, and is home to El Museo de las Culturas Afromestizas, the first museum in Mexico dedicated to honoring the contributions of Black people in the region. Veracruz is now home to an estimated 50,000 Afro-Mexicans, surpassed by Oaxaca (100,000) and Baja (75,000).
Many scholars of diverse racial backgrounds maintain that the long history of Black people in Mexico has been systemically erased. As is the case in the USA, many Black Mexicans also identify with indigenous First Nations (AmerIndian) ancestry. Until very recently, all of Mexico’s indigenous people have been marginalized by Eurocentric governments, African-descended communities in particular.
Slavers brought an estimated 250,000 African people in bondage to the New World to work the sugar, cotton, and cocoa plantations and labor in the silver mines. Another element in the presence of Black people in Mexico is the fact that Mexico was one of the first territories to abolish slavery and label the practice a human rights atrocity. The promise of freedom initially lured enslaved Black people to the coastal states of Veracruz, Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Guerrero.
In fact, the state of Guerrero is named for Vicente Guerrero, a Black Presidente of Mexico. Guerrero served as a General who led his troops against Spain in the Mexican War of Independence who was hailed as a folk-hero among progressives for his abolition of slavery from Mexico.
Portrait of Black Mexican President Vicente Guerrero, by Anacleto Escutia, 1850. Guerrero’s fearless opposition to tyranny earned him a loyal grassroots following, making him a pop star of sorts as illustrated by his miniature likeness on a snuffbox. His radical politics as well as his visibly African ethnicity also led to his execution by the ruling class. Portrait called “El Costeño” (translation: the coastal-dweller) painted by Agustin Arrieta c.1843, of a young Afro-Mexican boy in Veracruz.
Based on their Arabic surnames in the ledgers, many Conquistadores were probably Muslim and probably Black, either mestizo Spaniards of Iberian and Arabian heritage, or North Africans (or perhaps Spanish nationals of West African heritage).
Within Mexico today, Black Mexicans continue to be dismissed by the government, in part because most of them speak Spanish and do not speak a unique, independent language, language being a key criterion in a group receiving official status as a recognized minority. The good news is this: denying Mexico’s African-ness and Blackness is a losing battle, because the evidence is everywhere. Consider the still-emerging legacy of revolutionary and abolitionist Gaspar Yanga, a 16th-century descendant of the royal family of Gabon. Born of the Bran people under the name Nyanga, captured and sold into slavery in Mexico to work in the sugarcane fields, he led a band of enslaved Africans into freedom by escaping into the highlands of Veracruz. In 2017, Yanga,Veracruz was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the decade-long celebration of the United Nations International Decade of Tribute People of African Descent.
This bronze statue of Yanga was designed by Veracruzano artist Erasmo Vasquez Lendechy and unveiled in 1976. The statue is surrounded by a wall with murals depicting the revolt, and together they form the “Monumento al Negro Yanga,” or “Monument to the Black Man Yanga.
The ominous but spectacular San Juan de Ulúa, a huge complex of fortresses, prisons, and a former palace on an island of the same name in the Gulf of Mexico overlooking the Veracruz seaport was built by generations of enslaved Black people between 1535 and 1843. It remains a major tourist destination today. The guidebooks prefer to call it a “castle.”
And in spite of centuries of oppression, Mother Africa shimmers and glows in Mexico, beginning with rhythm, music and dance. African vibrations course through the musical genre called chilena, named for the 19th century Chilean sailors who brought the sound to the Costa Chica en route to the California Gold Rush. The descendants of enslaved Africans expanded and enriched the sound with unique cultural touches, starting with the quijada, the dried donkey’s jawbone played as a percussive instrument (the loose molars rattle). Add to this the bote, a friction-drum which produces a funky, hook-y scratch-click that growls through much Afro-Mexican music.
Black Mexicans add their own historic twist to Dia de los Muertos (November 1), in “La Danza de Los Diablos,” or “Dance of the Devils.” Large paper-mâche masks with pink skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes portray the colonial overlords of Black Mexico’s recent past. The dance is led by a buffoonish character called Pancho, representing the plantation master. He struts with a whip while his bootylicious “white” wife, gleefully played by a Black man in drag, flirts shamelessly with the masked demons who prance and skip around the couple, backed by the persistent rhythm of the quijada and its rattling teeth. The surreal masks are sharp, geometric artworks with clear African roots, and the dancers’ kinetic, syncopated moves would have been right at home on Soul Train back in the day.
Mexico has so much more to offer than tacos and trinkets. Check out the travel tips and insights of Meckell “Kells” Milburn @travelwellwithmeckell_, a native of Lafayette, Louisiana who now calls Mexico City home and is the owner of a Black-owned travel brand, Travel Well With Meckell.
The town of Cuajinicuilapa located in the state of Guerrero celebrates Juneteenth, a tradition there for more than 150 years, and you’re invited! There’s still time to book your flight or cruise to this historic town on Mexico’s Pacific coast where Black Seminole culture thrives. And by the way, Guerrero’s beaches of Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo rival those of the Caribbean for pink-sugar beaches and crystalline, baby’s bathwater turquoise surf.
So this Cinco, don that sombrero, shake those maracas— and remember that when you celebrate Mexico, you’re celebrating the triumph and majesty of Black people as yet another facet of North America’s evolving history.