African-descended people have been a part of Mexican history from the very beginnings of the colony. People often assume that there couldn’t have been more than a handful of blacks living in Mexico at any given time. It’s easy to assume that because if you travel to Mexico or tune into Mexican media you don’t see black people at all. It’s easy to think that if there aren’t many blacks in Mexico, now, there never were. As we will see, this is not entirely true.
One of the earliest Africans brought to Mexico is said to be Juan Garrido, a free man who probably took part in the “Conquest” led by Hernán Cortés in 1519. Another of these early arrivals was Estebanico, a slave who took part in various expeditions in the 1520s and 1530s, including treks through what is now Florida, Texas, and New Mexico.
These early blacks (slave or free) were essentially personal servants of their Spanish masters. They were most likely taken from Africa, then transported to Seville, where they were Christianized and they probably spoke Spanish by the time they reached the New World. These slaves didn’t come over on slave ships as part of an overt slave trade.
Castas Painting "De Negro y d India, China-Cambuja" 1763
The slave trade that changed the demographic face of Mexico began when King Carlos V began issuing more and more asientos, or contracts between the Crown and private slavers, in order to expedite the trans-atlantic trade. At this point, after 1519, the New World received bozales, or slaves brought directly from Africa without being Christianized. The Spanish Crown would issue these contracts to foreign slavers, who would then make deals with the Portuguese, for they controlled the slave posts on the West African coast. In addition, the Crown would grant slaving licenses to merchants, government officials, conquistadores, and settlers who requested the privilege of importing slaves to the Americas.
***redacted population chart***
The numerical significance of these figures becomes clear when we compare the African and Afro-Mestizo (mixed) population to the Spanish population. In the early colonial period, European immigration was extremely small–and for good reason. There were great risks and many uncertainties in the Americas. Few families were willing to immigrate until some assurance of stability was demonstrated. Therefore, very few European women immigrated, thus preventing the natural growth of the Spanish population.
The point that must be made here is the fact that the black population in the early colony was by far larger than that of the Spanish. In 1570 we see that the black population is about 3 times that of the Spanish. In 1646, it is about 2.5 times as large, and in 1742, blacks still outnumber the Spanish. It is not until 1810 that Spaniards are more numerous.
Yanga, Leader of Mexican Slave Rebellion, 1570s to early 1600s
Afro-Mexicans — both slave and free — participated in a various kinds of labor in Mexico. The majority worked in the silver mine centers and large numbers worked in urban centers largely as domestic workers (having a black servant or maid was quite the status symbol for elites). Also in urban centers, blacks – both slave and free — worked as artisans, peddlers, and craftsmen. Africans were also deployed to rural coastal areas, such as Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico, and what are now the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca on the Pacific Coast. Interestingly, free blacks also participated in large numbers in military service during the colonial period.
In Veracruz, black slaves were used primarily in the labor-intensive sugar industry of Xalapa in the late 16th, and early and mid-17th century. In these sugar-processing mills, and cane fields, African slaves were imported specifically to replace Indian laborers.
On the Pacific coastal plains, blacks worked mainly as ranchers and cowboys. Livestock was the primary economic activity of that region in the colonial period, and continues to be important to this day. So the point here is that historically Afro-Mexicans were found throughout the country, and not only in the coastal areas where their descendents live today.
Aguirre Beltrán, Gonzalo. La Población Negra De México: Estudio Etnohistórico. 3rd. ed, Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán: Obra Antropológica. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1989.
Davidson, David M. “Negro Slave Control and Resistance in Colonial Mexico, 1519-1650.” In Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas, edited by Richard Price. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1973.
Gerhard, Peter. “A Black Conquistador in Mexico: Juan Garrido.” Hispanic American Historical Review 58, no. 3 (1978): 451-59.
Gordon, Richard A. “Following Estevanico: The Influential Presence of an African Slave in Sixteenth-Century New World Historiography”, Colonial Latin American Review 15, no. 2 (2006): 183-206.
Ngou-Mve, Nicolás. El Africa Bantú En La Colonización De México: 1595-1640. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas: Agencia Española de Cooperación Internacional, 1994.
Palmer, Colin A. Slaves of the White God: Blacks in Mexico, 1570-1650. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976.
Restall, Matthew. “Black Conquistadors: Armed Africans in Early Spanish America.” The Americas 57, no. 2 (2000): 171-205.
Valdés, Dennis Nodin. “The Decline of Slavery in Mexico.” Americas 44, no. 2 (1987): 167-94.
Vinson, Ben. Bearing Arms for His Majesty : The Free-Colored Militia in Colonial Mexico. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2001.
The first town of freed African slaves
in the Americas is not exactly where you would expect to find it — and
it isn’t exactly what you’d expect to find either. First, it’s not in
the United States. Yanga, on Mexico’s Gulf Coast, is a sleepy pueblito
founded by its namesake, Gaspar Yanga, an African slave who led a
rebellion against his Spanish colonial masters in the late 16th century
and fought off attempts to retake the settlement. The second thing that
is immediately evident to vistors who reach the town’s rustic central
plaza: there are virtually no blacks among the few hundred residents
milling around the center of town.
Mirroring Mexico’s history itself, most of Yanga’s Afro-Mexican
population has been pushed to neighboring rural villages that are
notable primarily for their deep poverty and the strikingly dark skin of
their inhabitants. Mexico’s independence from Spain and new focus on
building a national identity on the idea of mestizaje, or mixed
race, drove African Mexicans into invisibility as leaders chose not to
count them or assess their needs. Now many blacks want to fight back by
improving the shoddy education and social services available to them and
are petitioning for the constitution to recognize Afro-Mexicans as a
separate ethnic group worthy of special consideration.
“The two races that are most discriminated against here are the
blacks and the indigenous — but it is more accepted against blacks,”
says Hemeregildo Fernandez, a doctor in Yanga and one of the few blacks
still living in town. His office is tucked on a narrow street that juts
off the main square, where the rotund man with warm brown skin and
salt-and-pepper hair receives a fluctuating stream of patients. The
majority of the black Mexican population works in agriculture, fishing
or construction, and while, like Fernandez, some have achieved notable
positions in coastal towns, he says, “Most blacks have no economic
Edited by pattigurlatl - Feb 09 2013 at 11:10am