The Vanished African Roots of Mexico

Little known outside the country and poorly understood even in Mexico, traces of the country’s African heritage can still be seen along its Caribbean coast.

There is another Mexico profundo, one that is neither the Old Mexico of high plains and fields of corn, nor of the coarseness and violence of more recent times. This is the Mexico of the Caribbean coast, a land of sugarcane and coffee, of petroleum and danzon, a place with its epicenter in Veracruz, a city whose name alone evokes a sea of stories. A crossroads of global commerce in the colonial epoch, this city was where the conquistadors came to shore, and was the landing point for thousands of slaves stolen from Africa. They arrived enchained in the bellies of slave ships to work the sugar refineries, the haciendas and the mines. Captives, they occupied a social position below even that of the native Indians, and became the invisible ancestors of the Mexican nation. But history is a stubborn thing; place names tell their own tales, and the Afro-Mexicans still exist.

Distributed in scattered and small communities in various parts of the country, particularly in the state of Veracruz and on Guerrero’s Costa Chica, forgotten by official history and still victims of an unconfessable racism, their very presence is an affirmation of a cultural and social past that some anthropologists have called the third race, which together with the Spanish and the Indian, makes up modern Mexico.

Zosima, a black woman who is 80 years old, sits in the afternoon shade next to the door of her home, a house painted a now faded Mexican pink that stands out against the green of the sugarcane, lemon trees, mangos and pineapple plants that surround it. She has lived her entire life in Mata Clara, a small town an hour by car east of Veracruz; she gives the impression that she has lived by herself for a long time. There is not much work here and the young leave early, many departing for the United States. Zosima says that her grandfather came from Martinique in the 19th century, when black labor was imported from the Antilles. She recognizes that racism persists. “We have been Mexicans all of our lives, but for our color we are treated worse. My grandchildren are called names when they go to school.” Her son-in-law, young and strong, whispers: “There is racism. Only a little, but it is still there. You can see it in people’s eyes.”

Don Primitivo, 87 years old, lives two blocks farther down. Reclining like a patriarch in an unraveling chair, he says that he worked in a sugar refinery, that his family came here from Cuba. Black-skinned grandchildren of all ages play on the wooden porch. His son in law, with clearly Indian features, spits: “There are no blacks here.” A little later and a few kilometers away, a taxidriver from the neighboring town of San Miguel wanted to make things clear: “Around he there are only normal people.”

Mata Clara neighbors Yanga, “the first free town in America,” as a sign at the entrance says. Founded in 1608 by a group of escaped slaves, cimarrones lead by a legendary Nyanga, the town fought for its freedom for years, eventually obtaining the sanction of the viceroy, the Marquis of Cerralvo, who gave it the name of San Lorenzo Of The Blacks, or San Lorenzo Cerralvo, in 1630.

In the last decades of the 17th century, the cimarrones began to threaten the merchandise trade between Veracruz and central Mexico, and the state launched punitive raids against them. Nyanga and his followers took refuge in the sparsely populated countryside and after years of skirmishing went to the negotiating table.

Naceria became the first town of free blacks in the Americas which agreed to turn in slaves who escaped and sought protection among them. They never appear to have actually carried out the promise however. This town near the city of Cordoba, founded in 1618 as a kind of frontier to hold back the cimarrones, has some 5,000 inhabitants now. In a plaza stands a sculpture of the colossal Nyanga grasping a machete. The Jesuit priest Juan Laurencio, who accompanied the Spaniards on their punitive raids against the cimarrones described him as follows: “Yanga was a man of gentle body, of Bran (Ghanian) nationality, and of whom it was said that if he had not been captured would have been a ruler in his own land.”

“He would have been a Martin Luther King in our days,” says Bob Hayes, one of the many old gringos – among them the rock and roll pioneer Bill Haley- who live in Veracruz. Here in the Merced Cafe, where the real baseball fans meet, a place he has turned into his office, Hayes eats breakfast while a band plays Mandinga folk in the background. Hayes, an African-American of over 70, says he worked for 15 years for Los Angeles’ first black mayor, Tom Bradley. He has lived in this city since 2000 and has written several books on Yanga and slavery. A man of sharp opinions, influenced by the fight for civil rights and against racial segregation in the United States. “Mexico is a racist country. They say there is no discrimination, because they say there are no blacks here, and the blacks themselves think they are mulattos. They are stigmatized, but they have no pride.”

The historian Adriana Naveda Chavez-Hita, of the Institute of Historical and Social Research of the University of Veracruz, a specialist in Mexico’s black population, explains the real circumstances of the forced migration of the Afro-Mexicans and how it evolved. “Nowadays all that is left are the external characteristics; they are more Mexican than mole[Mexican dish]. Gonzalo Aguirre Beltran, the father of Mexican anthropology, calculated that some 250,000 slaves were brought to Mexico-equal to the total number of Spaniards who came to Mexico during the three centuries of colonial domination-although some modern authors raise this estimate to nearly 400,000 including those who were smuggled in. The majority arrived at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries. They were so few because the indigenous population was very large.” Nevertheless, he adds, “in the case of the port of Veracruz, they were the largest racial group, more numerous than the whites or the Indians. ” Many lived outside the city, neighborhoods like La Huaca-which still exists, with its wooden houses brightly painted, built originally, it is said, with wood recovered from shipwrecks.

The slaves who were brought in by the merchants of human flesh, mostly Portuguese, English or Dutch, were unloaded at San Juan de Ulua, an islet less than a kilometer off the coast. On it the Spaniards erected in 1535 a formidable fortress, and from there the slaves were distributed throughout New Spain. The fort, whose size gives an idea of the intensity of the slave traffic in the vice-royal era, likewise plays a part in the history of independent Mexico. Here the President Benito Juarez was imprisoned; here Venustiano Carranza was shot during the Mexican Revolution, in these dungeons rotted the legendary bandit Chucho The Broken, as well as the mythic Mulata of Cordoba, famous for her beauty and accused of witchery.

San Juan de Ulua now finds itself surrounded, besieged by the expansion of the city of Veracruz, but it is not difficult to imagine the panic and pain of these Africans, carried off to a strange land to be sold. A man between 20 and 50 years old might sell for 300 or 400 pesos, depending on his skills; young women a bit less; children, between 100 and 150 peso; babies some 70 pesos; and finally the old and sick, 25. These were the prices in 1758, according to the records of a hacienda. But they were not bought only by the owners of haciendas. Master barbers, pharmacists, mayors, church notaries, clerics, soldiers, clerks and widows also had slaves; they were even given away as dowries and donated to convents.

The only luggage they brought were their memories, and the acculturation of slavery gave way to a rapid process of interbreeding that rapidly outstripped the ability of even the most thorough bureaucrat to categorize and rationalize. As time went by, the three original castes-Spaniard, Indian and black- multiplied into castizo, mestizo, mulato, zambaigo (child of a black man and an Indian woman), mestindio, lobo, coyote, jarocho, cambujo, chino jarocho, chamiso, albarazado, gibaro, barcino, cuatralbo… until bureaucrats, “in evident desperation,” began resorting to absurd verbal contortions to describe complicated racial mixtures.

This intermixing of all with all was a characteristic of New Spain, where the disgrace of enslavement was nothing like that of the plantations of the Caribbean islands, Brazil or the United States. In the cauldron of colonial society, the African diaspora did not form a fixed and distinctive community. The Afro-Mexicans were a mobile workforce that could be moved to places where the indigenous population was nonexistent or had been decimated. “The impulse toward freedom favored mestizaje[intermixing], and in order to survive, the blacks had to learn Spanish,” says the Mexican historian Antonio Garcia de Leon, who in his history of Veracruz, Land Within, Sea Without, holds that their integration into Mexico was much more successful than in other countries.

By the middle of the 17th century, the majority of blacks and mulattos would be freed, and a century later, with slavery in decay, unprofitable, the most common designations were that of pardo (descendent of an Indian man and a black woman), and Moreno, (which now referred to any mix between a Spaniard and a black woman). An example of this abridgement, according to Navela, was the Free Pardos and Morenos Militia, which several times came to the defense of Veracruz in the face of foreign invasions. This piebald society, multiethnic and multicultural, gave birth to a mestizo culture in Veracruz, a jarocho culture which can still be seen in the place names of the region, with dozens of monikers like Mocamba and Mandinga. Near Congo Hill, a place about 40 kilometers from the state capitol of Xalapa, is the village of Coyolillo; at its outskirts a placard announces that it is a village of “Afro-Mestizo Race.” A sinuous highway ascends to the village through a fertile landscape of chayote, corn, bean, tomato and tobacco plantations; this place was founded in the 17th century by former slaves, probably liberated from the San Miguel de Almolonga hacienda.

The inhabitants are mostly elderly, or children; the young have left for the capital or the United States. They remember only that their ancestors worked grueling days and were beaten. Other than the great days of Carnival, which bring many African visitors to festivities which are a 140 year tradition here, the village’s memory is gradually dissipating, like drops of rain in the earth.

National independence in 1810, the wars which followed, the collapse of the sugar industry in those years, these closed an era, says historian Juan Ortiz Escamilla, providing the last push “toward the homogenization of society.”

“All of the castes voted together in the Ayuntamiento [constituent]elections of 1812, and in 1829 a national decree outlawed slavery.” A century later, with the Mexican Revolution and its exaltation of indigenousness, the existence of the black side and its own contribution to the country’s culture would be erased from official memory.

To this day, the color of an afro-Mexican’s skin, like some eternal mark of uprooting, makes him into an intruder, one who is mistaken for a Central American when he walks the streets of the capital, or whom US immigration agents at the border separate from the line of undocumented Mexicans, taking him for a compatriot of their own.

Luis Prados Translated from Spanish by International Boulevard.

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    Chief Yanni, its people,
    and its descendants