Scholars such as Ivan
Van Sertima (They Came Before Columbus) assert
that Egyptians and Nubians came to Mexico in the Pre-Columbian
period (c.1200 BC). [for more on this theory, read
about the African
Presence in America before Columbus or view the comparison
of Olmec heads to the Head of King Taharka, a Nubian-Kushite
ruler of ancient Egypt. Another intersting article
Came Before Columbus?] The
Olmec civilization may be descended from or had contact
with Africans. He cites as evidence the African
facial features of the Olmec heads at La Venta, Tabasco
and San Lorenzo. Van Sertima’s research is
controversial and not widely accepted by mainstream historians.
Those in the field would probably agree that Blacks who
accompanied the conquistadors of Cortez [they numbered
300 during his expeditions] were the first persons of
African descent in Mexico.
One of the
earliest was Juan Garrído, who accompanied Hernán
Cortes (c.1519) and participated in the fall of Tenochtitlan.
Afro-Mexicans in the 16th century fell
into three categories: slaves; unarmed auxiliaries
(servants and slaves) and armed auxiliaries such as Garrído,
who obtained their freedom. Garrído was also
credited with introducing wheat into the Americas.
According to Matthew Restall (Black Conquistadors), “it
is primarily after this date  that armed black servants
and slaves begin to play significant military roles in
Spanish conquest enterprises.”
The first Africans brought to Mexico
as slaves came with the party of Pánfilo
Narváez, also in 1519. They replaced Indios
in the early 1500s because of European-imported diseases
that had decimated the indigenous population. In
the period between the mid-16th and the mid-17th centuries,
the numbers of Africans at times exceeded the indigenous
population. In addition for a very short time more
Africans were imported into Mexico than any other part
of the Americas. As in other parts of Latin America,
slaves resisted their oppression. These maroons
or cimarrones were reported to have fled and
settled in such places as Coyula, Cuaxinecuilapan
and Orizaba. One of the more famous was Gaspar Yanga,
reportedly descended from a royal family, who led a revolt
on the sugar plantations of Veracruz in 1570. He
led his followers into the nearby inaccessible mountains
and kept the forces of the Crown at bay for many years.
[From 1521 to 1821, "as many blacks
as whites came to New Spain (also known as Mexico), about
250,000 of each," said CSUS historian Joseph Pitti.
"Spanish California was a frontier of inclusion --
there were no barriers as far as race or color."
Unprecedented in Mexican history, the
Crown acceded to a treaty in 1630 which included freedom
for the Yanguícos; self-government; and a farmable
land grant. The import of African slaves had all but ceased
by the mid-16th century. What the Spaniards were
confronted with in Mexico was an increasingly mixed society
racially due to miscegenation. These castas or
person of mixed blood not only blurred and crossed the
racial lines but economic ones as well. R. Douglas
Cope (The Limits of Racial Domination) describes
the Spaniard’s dilemma: “Stunning wealth and
wretched poverty, elegance and squalor, and sophistication
and ignorance all existed side by side. Hispanic order
[was imposed] on a recalcitrant population. In short
the elite faced a rising tide of mixed-bloods, blacks,
Indians and poor Spaniards that (in their view) threatened
to submerge the city into chaos.”
The Spanish casta dichotomy gave way
to a social dichotomy based on culture and economics
and not race. To reinforce their exclusive class,
a sistema de castas or caste system was instituted
in Mexico as a method of social control. This was a hierarchical
ordering of racial groups according to their limpieza
de sangre or purity of blood. That is, their
place in society corresponded to their proportion of Spanish
blood. Cope says that the castas for the most part
eschewed the sistema: “[By the late 16th century]
Africans and Afro-Mexicans created a ‘sphere of
relative autonomy.’ Their unity and boundaries
didn’t shield them from ‘ideological or structural
oppression.’ Through these multiple identities
they structured social relations and built boundaries
of kinship and family.
Multiple Black boundaries were characterized
by interactions between ethnic Africans, Africans and
Creoles, Negros, Mulattos, and Moriscos. In turn
this reflected a wide range of African and Afro Mexican
identities. Persons of African descent were only
united though contact with the non-African ‘other’
(this did not mean Africans) and left their culture behind.
Rather they molded it to fit circumstances [In the New
World].”It should also be noted that Afro-Mexicans
such as Vicente Guerrero played critical roles in Mexico’s
independence of August, 1821. A champion of rights
for all regardless of color and the country’s second
president; Guerrero was one of the signers of the Plan
of Iguala. The Plan led to Mexico’s freedom from
Spain and gave all men and women, regardless of color,
Martha Menchaca (Recovering History,
Constructing Race) discusses the reasons behind the
northward migration of Afro-Mexicans and other non-white
Mexicans in the early 19th century: “Blatant racial
disparities became painfully intolerable to the non-white
population and generated the conditions for their movement
toward the northern frontier, where the racial order
was relaxed and people of color had the opportunity to
own land and enter most occupations.”
In the period up to 1848 and the Treaty
of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the sistema “which was designed
to ensure the maintenance of caste, quickly disintegrated
on its northern frontier, allowing persons of African
ancestry remarkable social fluidity.” Like
the castas in that time period in Mexico City, early African
American Californians were “uninterested in
the complexities of the sistema de castas.”
It did not dictate daily life. The ambiguity of
the sistema made possible the success of Afro-Mexicans
Andres and Pio Píco.
was the last Mexican governor (1831, 1845-46) of California.
A "consummate politician and ‘revolutionist’
", Pio Píco was also a wealthy landowner,
military commander and Los Angeles city councilman (1853).
His brother Andres represented California at the signing
of the Treaty of Cahuenga (1847) ending the Mexican War
in California. He also served as state senator
(1851, 1860-61). Not only in California but across
the southwest, “afromestizos were part of the population
that founded Nacogdoches, San Antonio, Laredo, La Bahía,
Albuquerque, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara.”
Several of the pobladores recruited by the Spanish Crown
to settle Los Angeles in 1781 were of African descent.
Of the afromestizos in the group some hailed from Rosario,
Sinaloa (a town where many of the residents were of African
Indeed the Píco
family also hailed from Rosario. Among the
afromestizo families who became prominent landowners and
politicians in Southern California during the late
18th-early 19th century were the families of Luís
Quintero; María Rita Valdez; Juan Francisco Reyes
and José Moreno.
Maria Rita Valdez, granddaughter of
Luis Quintero, a Negro founder of Los Angeles, acquired
the rancho Rio Rodeo de Los Aguas in the 1820's, which
today is known as Beverly Hills. Their adobe was still
standing across the road from the Beverly Hills Hotel
as late as 1920.
Francisco & Isidro Reyes were grandsons
of Juan Francisco Reyes, first Los Angeles mayor of African
descent 1793-1795, who was also the first grantee of the
San Fernando Valley.
Reyes lived in Santa Monica canyon where his father worked
a large tract of land extending to what is now Hollywood.
He was sent by his father to the Brea pits to sell tar
to the Los Angeles people who used it for their roofs.
[But California's era of relative racial
harmony died in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
A defeated Mexico turned California over to the United
States, and within a few years, the California Legislature
ruled that anyone who was of one-eighth African descent
was black and, therefore, denied the right to vote, testify
in court, homestead or attend integrated schools.
Undaunted, many slaves worked double
time in California's gold fields to buy freedom for themselves
and their families, and black and white abolitionists
battled discrimination in San Francisco and Sacramento.
Though their numbers were small -- only 1,000 African
Americans were listed in California in 1852 -- they published
lively weekly newspapers in Northern California and established
schools and churches.
In 1858, Judge Edwin Bryant Crocker,
an abolitionist who helped found the California Republican
Party, successfully argued in Superior Court that Archie
Lee, a slave from Mississippi, was entitled to his freedom
because his owner had lived in California for a year,
was thus a citizen -- and citizens of California were
not allowed to own slaves.
The state Supreme Court overturned the decision, finding
Lee's owner had been ignorant of the law; eventually,
Lee, like hundreds of other California African Americans,
moved to British Columbia, Canada, where blacks were allowed
to vote, own land and attend public schools.
The seeds of the modern civil rights
movement were planted in mid-19th century California,
said Quintard Taylor, a professor at the University of
Washington. --Stephen Magagnini ]
In contemporary Mexican
society the sistema no longer functions overtly but Afro-Mexicans
remain largely marginalized and occupy places at the lowest
rung of the economic ladders. Bobby Vaughn, a scholar
of Afro Mexican Studies, asserts that issues of race in
Mexico have “been so colored by Mexico’s preoccupation
with the Indian question that the Afro Mexican experience
tends to blend almost invisibly into the background, even
to Afro Mexicans themselves.”
The national focus on Mexican identity
as a dichotomy of Spanish and Aztec-Mexica-Maya or
indigenismo-mestizaje effectively excludes them.
Anani Dzidzienyo (No Longer Invisible) characterizes
it as follows, “mestizaje ignores Blacks to such
an extent that it would make all Blacks mestizos of some
Since the mid 1990s, Afro Mexicans
from thirty African-descent areas are convening in what
is called an “Encuentro de Pueblos Negros”
or a gathering of Black towns. Led by Father Glyn
Jermott they are organizing, in his words, "…
to relate our common history as black people, to strengthen
our union as communities, to organize and open realizable
paths to secure our future, and to resist our marginalization
in the life of the Mexican nation." Their movement
parallels similar ones involving African-descended peoples
in Guatemala, Belize and the Honduras.
Alva Moore Stevenson
University of California, Los Angeles