The Erased History of Afro Mexicans: Why are Their Contributions Not Acknowledged?

I love history and my passion for it made me stumble upon a blog post about Afro Mexicans and their contributions to not only the fight for our independence but also to our cuisine, customs and traditions. I started asking myself why this part of our history isn’t widely known.

I did some research and found not only how much they helped in the shaping of our country but also the struggles they face, the racist ideas that still prevail, and how their history was erased. Let’s look at what I just mentioned and why it is important to give Afro Mexicans the recognition they deserve.

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO RECOGNIZE AFROMEXICANS?

It is important to be aware of this part of our past and help afro Mexicans since they suffer high levels of poverty and exclusion and they are subject to discrimination, lack of education and rights. These situations position them in a grave situation of social vulnerability.

THE HISTORY OF AFRO MEXICANS

Along with Hernan Cortes and other colonizers, arrived the first Africans to Mexico. Many of them were rewarded with land and others with their freedom for helping in the colonization of indigenous towns.

The rapid decrease of the indigenous population—almost 90% of the original population died—and the prohibition of enslaving them, made it hard for colonizers to find people to work in ranches as well as domestic laborers, these problems led to the commercialization of enslaved people between Africa and Mexico. In three centuries, 12.5 million Africans arrived in Mexico.

However, at the beginning of the 17th century the importation of enslaved people declined, and at the same time, the number of afro descendants increased. The coexistence of indigenous people, afro descendants and Europeans formed a mixed nation, resulting in the formation of a system of castes in the 18th century.

Throughout the vice regal period, many enslaved people got their freedom via several ways like buying it or being granted it to them by slave owners. Another way was via relationships between them and other groups: enslaved men used to stablish relationships with indigenous women so their children wouldn’t inherit the condition of slavery, which was transmitted via the mother. On the other hand, enslaved women sought relationships with the Spanish, criollos or mestizos, sometimes achieving their children being recognized by their father, granting them their freedom. After getting their freedom, they started forming families or communities along with people from other social groups. This allowed access to better life conditions, working as muleteers, merchants, militiamen, and artists.

Even though many enslaved people got their freedom in the ways I mentioned before, many others (known as cimarrones) ran away from the haciendas and established in isolated zones known as “palenques”. Ñyanga, a rumored african prince, led one of the most important rebellions of the vice regal period, which took place in Cordoba, Veracruz. For years, the authorities tried to control them until 1609 they came to an agreement with Ñyanga to end the assaults that happened in roads and to prevent other enslaved people from escaping. That way, San Lorenzo de Los Negros was established as the first free town in Mexico.

In 1810, with Mexico’s independence finally came the abolition of slavery. The movement’s two main slogans were the abolition of slavery and the suppression of the “qualities” of people, which involved differentiations based on physical appearance and socioeconomic position.

MISCEGENATION: HOW IT ERASED AFRO IDENTITY

Scientists and intellectuals, influenced by racist ideas and worried about what they called “the indigenous problem”, formulated theories about the characteristics that the population needed in order to ensure the country’s progress. After long debates, they concluded that Mexicans must have the best characteristics of each “race” (European and indigenous) and developed this idea in scientific papers, political speeches and novels. They also glorified miscegenation—the union between the Spanish and indigenous—and believed that it was going to solve Mexico’s problems: differences between regions and communities and foreign invasion.

After Mexico’s independence, the idea of miscegenation unifying the different groups, occupied an important place in this period and became even more relevant with the Mexican Revolution in 1910—when several actions oriented to guarantee the formation of a mixed nation took pace.  However, miscegenation silenced the participation of Afro descendants in the formation of Mexico in the 19th and first half of the 20th century and contributed to the development of racist ideas.

Since the second half of the 19th century, the idea of Mexico being a “mixed nation” still prevails.

AFROMEXICANS IN THE FIGHT FOR INDEPENDENCE

The independence of the 13 colonies, the French Revolution, Napoleon’s invasion, the abdication of Fernando VII, and the Bourbon reforms, which caused a lot of discontent and economic inequality, influenced the insurgent movement of 1810.

This cause got a lot of support from places where slavery was still in force, like in Veracruz, where afro Mexicans fought the realist troops.  In contrast, in places like la Costa Chica de Oaxaca and Guerrero, afro Mexicans supported the realist troops since many of them were part of them. The most known support of afro descendants to the independence cause, was that of José Maria Morelos’s troops.

Many afro descendants like Morelos, Vicente Guerrero and Juan Alvarez, were essential in the fight for independence. Even though their participation is well known, little is known of their African descent.

In 1813, Morelos presented his project called “Sentimientos de la Nación” or feelings of the nation, in which he advocated for Mexico’s independence and sovereignty and the abolition of racial differences so everyone could be equal. He then fell prisoner in November of 1815, tortured and considered a traitor to God, the king and the pope. It was stipulated that in case he didn’t receive the death penalty, he would be deported to Africa. He was then shot on December 1815.

Unknown author / Public domain

ATTRIBUTIONS AND CULTURAL EXPRESSIONS

Since Gonzalo Aguirre Beltran’s study in 1946, studies about the participation and influence of afro Mexicans have increased. These studies have demonstrated the importance of Afro Mexicans in the economy, society and culture during the vice regal period.

African influence can be seen in traditional medicine, ways of cooking, dances, clothing and religious ceremonies.

In dances, African influence can be seen in “el baile de artesa”, in which couples dance shoeless over a platform adorned with figures that allude to animals like horses and cows, and “la danza de los diablos”, celebrated on the day of the dead and where they play instruments like “bote”, which looks like a drum with a rod on the center.

Other cultural expressions like the “Carnavales del Puerto” and music like “el son jarocho”, reggae, cumbia and salsa, and the names of several towns like Mandiga, Matosa and Mozomboa—probably derived from palenques—are also examples of the influence of Afro descendants.

Danza de los Diablos

By Adhana khalevi – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=90585518

Food also reflects African influence: for example, the dish known as “mogomogo” is considered as coming from African origins because of its ingredients and the way it is cooked (varies from region to region). Also, more than 100 species of vegetables and fruits like the pearl millet, sorgum, coffee, watermelon, okra, black-eyed peas, palm oil, tamarind, hibiscus flower, and varities of rice, came from Africa along with enslaved people.

EFFORTS MADE FOR AFRO MEXICANS:

Since the 90’s, there has been a surge in the number of organizations whose goal is to bring awareness to the contributions of Afro Mexicans and fight for their rights. This process has led to increased interest from public institutions which resulted in initiatives to improve their life conditions.

One of these initiatives was the creation of the first Mexican museum dedicated to Afro Mexicans, “Museo de las Culturas Afromestizas” in Cuajinicuilapa, Guerrero, which has helped communities in la Costa Chica know their history and their origins.

WHAT CAN WE DO FOR AFRO MEXICANS?

First, we should acknowledge their efforts because we have a historical debt with them for their contributions and their help in the fight for independence.

Concerning discrimination, its is essential to make bigger efforts. The first is to acknowledge that in Mexico, racist practices are still prevalent. There are testimonies from afro descendants who are deported due to racist practices and the ignorant belief that there are no afro descendants in Mexico.

CONCLUSION

Afro Mexicans still fight every day for their rights and to be recognized as an ethnic group. It is important to acknowledge their contributions in the fight for independence and in the building of the Mexico, bring awareness to the problems they face and most importantly to stop with the belief that there are no afro Mexicans since it is a harmful and erases their identity.

Tell me in the comments what your thought of this post, and if you liked it, don’t forget to share!

Want to learn more?

check out this blog post:

And this book:

http://www.conapred.org.mx/userfiles/files/TestimonioAFRO-INACCSS%281%29.pdf