Blacks in Mexico

San Felipe, Baja, Mexico

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 is Who Came Before Columbus?] Olmec vs. African HeadThe 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 [1510] 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." --Stephen Magagnini]

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, full citizenship.  

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.  

Pio PicoPíco 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 descent).   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.

Isidro ReyesIsidro 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 sort.”

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