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Exploring the African Presence in Mexico

Having been raised in the Los Angeles suburbs, most of my friends, like me, were first generation born outside of their parents’ home country. We often discussed our summer vacations traveling back “home” to our parents’ birth places. Many of my friends were Mexican or Mexican American and introduced me to aspects of their culture. Some of my other Spanish speaking friends identified as Black from places like Puerto Rico, Panama, Belize, Honduras and Costa Rica. I was familiar with the history of Africans throughout Latin America, however, this topic was not really discussed amongst my Mexican friends or during my frequent trips to Mexico.

Years later, in December 2019, a group of nineteen Morehouse College students, faculty, and staff traveled to Veracruz, Mexico, a port city located on the gulf coast of Mexico, as part of the Morehouse Pan African Global Experience (MPAGE). This was my first trip to that part of Mexico and as the plane landed in Veracruz and we took a bus into the city center, the landscape felt familiar. The broad promenades lined with palm trees, the seawall that lined the coastline, vendors selling coconut water, rows of sugarcane stocks and mango trees reminded me of several Caribbean countries. When we arrived at our historic hotel overlooking a beautiful town square, the melody of “La Bamba” echoed throughout the courtyard.

As an elementary school student, there were trips to Olvera Street, a historic district in downtown Los Angeles founded by and formally part of New Spain, now known as Mexico. I recall learning about the Spanish conquistadors and Indigenous cultures, but Africans were never mentioned. It wasn’t until college that I was introduced to Ivan Van Sertima’s “They Came Before Columbus,” a seminal text published in 1974 that theorized how Africans voyaged to the Americas, pre-Columbus. Van Sertima discussed the Olmec heads with phenotypical African features, as artifacts of the prehistoric African presence in Mesoamerica. Despite the book’s critics and detractors, I was most excited to see the Olmec heads. 

Prior to the trip, I thought a lot about transnationality and have challenged myself and my students to avoid using race, ethnicity and nationality interchangeably. I have exhausted my students with discussions on race as a social construct, with no biological basis. In addition, I recently co-authored a chapter exploring colorism and the contemporary caste system in the United States where proximity to Whiteness has been viewed as beneficial.

During our trip, we were informed that the Mexican context for caste-based on color differed significantly from the U.S. The intermixing of the African population with Indigenous and Spanish populations resulted in a somewhat more complicated caste system and the diffusion of African heritage throughout Mexican food, music, and dance, particularly prominent in the states of Oaxaca, Veracruz, and Guerrero. There were a documented 250,000 enslaved Africans who entered through the Port de Ulua in Veracruz, so the question that kept emerging was, why was the Mexican context so different in comparison to other Latin American countries where the presence of Africans and African culture is more visible.

We heard from several experts on the African presence in Mexico and visited smaller towns with direct descendants of the cimaroons (maroons/enslaved individuals who resisted by escaping bondage and forming their own communities). During our trip, we learned that Yanga was the first[1] settlement of free Africans recognized by the Spanish crown in the Americas. We also learned that there is a growing movement to acknowledge the contributions and current plight of Afro-Mexicans. Part of this movement is credited to a Trinidadian priest, Father Glyn Jemmott, who was featured in Henry Louis Gates’ documentary, Black in Latin America and helped spark cultural awareness about African heritage among Mexicans. Today, this movement is largely led by women with strong participation by youth. In a recent informal poll, nearly 1 million Mexicans, or 1% of the population, identified as Afro-Mexican. In March 2020, the Mexican census will ask individuals if they identify as Afro-Mexican, a first step toward gaining representation and trying to secure funds for a population confronted with discrimination, stigma, and lack of resources including education, jobs, and infrastructure. For some identification is determined largely on phenotype and/or African and Arabic influenced surnames (e.g., Mogo, Mazeba, Xoxogo) or surnames indicating conversion to Christianity (e.g., Tres, Diez, Cruz).    

The African contribution to Mexico is substantial and a growing source of pride for some, but also a part of history not known or discussed in many Mexican families. Slavery was abolished in 1830 by the second president of Mexico, Vicente Guerrero (who was of African descent). The Spanish were said to have more lenient attitudes toward mixing between the Spanish, Indigenous people, and Africans. However, racism and white supremacy created a color-based caste system whose remnants are still felt today. The majority of contemporary Mexicans identify as “mixed” or mestizo, with most referring to their Spanish and Indigenous heritage[2], with little to no mention of Africa. This omission is often the result of Blanqueamiento[3] or racial Whitening. I have heard some of my friends from Latin America mention the phrase mejorar la raza or improving the race by marrying individuals who are phenotypically closer to White, with the hopes of producing offspring with more “White” or “European” features. The notion that the closer proximity to Whiteness and the benefits that come with being in a higher caste is rooted in colonization. This practice is not unique to Mexico or Latin America but has been practiced throughout the colonized world, including in the United States. The Afro Mexican movement has flipped this notion on its head with the desire to embrace “Africaness.”   

While mixing was more prominent in Mexico, in comparison to the U.S., individuals of African descent were still seen as less than human, hypersexual, aggressive, sorcerers and many other familiar racial tropes. At times, mixing between groups was the result of violence or coercion, and ultimately contributed to the shame of the Black grandmother in the closet.

The history of Africans in Mexico is hidden in plain sight and has been engulfed in the larger Mexican culture. During the trip, high- school aged students joined us for a lecture about the African presence in Mexico. At the end of the lecture, we asked if the Mexican students were familiar with the African history of Mexico and the majority stated that they were not. This was a common theme throughout our trip, with the exception of those who were actively working to keep the history alive. As I left the classroom where our lecture was held, I looked down and noticed an Olmec head facing the playground where an impromptu basketball game had begun with our Morehouse students, all of whom would commonly be called African American, and the Mexican school children, some of whom had become aware of their possible African heritage just minutes before.

Had it been able to come alive, surely the Olmec head would have been pleased by this reunion, hundreds of years in the making.

[1] First settlement was in Columbia but not recognized by the Spanish rulers.

[2] There were a number of other ethnic groups present in Mexico including Chinese, Filipino, German, and others.

[3] Blanqueamiento was also used to erase the presence of Indigenous populations

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Sinead Younge is the Danforth Professor of Psychology at Morehouse College.