Feb 24, 2017

Blaxicans, Reclaiming A Part of Mexico's History

I am more comfortable with the messiness of life
than the tyranny of perfection.

Sherman Alexie

Black Christ of San Román
It started with a Black Christ 

Less well known than its more famous counterpart, the Virgen of Guadalupe, are the Cristos Negros (Black Christs) of Latin America.  Carved of dark wood or painted with dusky colors, there are approximately 300 Cristos Negros revered in Latin America. 
Next door to Barrio (neighborhood) de Guadalupe where we are living, is Barrio San Román where the Cristo Negro of San Román resides in a church of the same name, Iglesia del Cristo Negro de San Román . This was our first time sighting a Cristo Negro. 

As is the case with many historical events, no one knows the true story behind the Black Christ of San Román. 
  • Some say that after a bad locust plague struck the area people ordered a black Christ from Europe in hopes of better days ahead.
  • Others say that it was originally made of white wood that turned black over time. 
  • Others that an atheist farmer was bitten by a poisonous snake and miraculously the Christ absorbed the venom, saving the farmer but turning black in the process. 
  • The ship that was bringing the Christ to Campeche burned and the Christ figure became the color of charcoal without changing the color of his cross.  The ship that was asked to bring the statue, but decided against bringing the Christ to the New World sunk. 
Whatever the truth, if any, it is an interesting, and perhaps a bit controversial piece of history. 
Bottom line: it is in the best interest of the religious leaders to show a representation of Christ as analogous to the natives as possible.  Even the Virgen of Guadalupe is represented as quite dark skinned in many areas of Mexico.  Easier endorsement by association.
Dark Virgen de Guadalupe
It is during that research about Cristos Negros that I came up with what follows:  the little-known history of Afro-Descendants (aka Afro-Mexicans, Black-Mexicans or Blaxicans) in Mexico.

Why do we know so little about this important part of Mexico’s history?  Other than the all too common reluctance to admit any history that is linked to individuals with darker skin, there are three main theories floating around. 
  • Since Mexico is primarily made up of mixed ancestry, no one bothered to differentiate Afro-Descendants from others, focusing on the fact that most Mexicans are mixed. 
  • Since Afro-Descendants do not have their own indigenous mother tongue, they couldn’t be recognized since language is the real criterion used by government. 
  • If Afro-Descendants succeed in being recognized and classified as a minority, they would be entitled to extra funds for promotion of their culture and public health programs, something the government is not eager to support.
It is not until the government of Mexico conducted a survey in 2015 that numbers finally emerged to show there are about 1.38 million (1.2% of population) of self-proclaimed Afro-Descendants in Mexico (DNA studies to come later).  It is believed that this number could go as high as 4.5 to 5 million once people better understand the characterization of Afro-Descendants and embrace its meaning.  Many are still confused by the survey and think it applies only to foreigners.  Education is needed and underway before the next official survey is to take place. By comparison, indigenous peoples are at about 10%.  Interestingly many more women (705,000) claim to be Afro-Descendant than men (677,000).  Mexico was one of only two Latin American countries (Chile being the other) that did not identify its black citizens on a national census.
 ‘The country’s black population has been largely ignored in favor of an ideology that declares that all Mexicans are mixed race.  But it’s the mixture of indigenous and European heritage that most Mexicans embrace; the African legacy is overlooked.  They are saying we are all the same and therefore there is no reason to distinguish yourself. What they are not saying is that in ordinary life in Mexico, lighter-skinned Mexicans are accepted and have first place.’  This sounds all too familiar for someone coming from the US…
Rather than admitting to African genes, the main tendency is to identify Mexicans with black features as coming from Veracruz where many reside. 
Interesting side note: At least until the mid-eighteenth century, an individual’s value depended more on their economic position and social recognition than on open discrimination or segregation related to skin color.  Various historians claim that racism began to make itself felt in New Spain from the time of the Spanish conquest.  Before the sixteenth century, the differential valuation of human ‘races’ was not a significant phenomenon.
Photographer Tony Gleaton – ‘Mother Africa’, Mexican family
How and when did it all start?

Again, there are two main theories. 
  • Africans were here long before the Spaniards/Basques, a theory highly contested by the Europeans who like to keep their title of first discoverers. 
  • Africans came here about the same time as the Spaniards/Basques.  The first group of Africans came aboard Columbus’ second expedition.
Either way, there is very little historical documentation on this subject.  The first theory is harder to prove.  Both theories could be right, meaning the possibility of two distinct waves of Africans came to this country.

Afro-Descendants were acknowledged by the Mexican government as far back as the 1990's.  They are considered the 'third root' of Mexico (Europeans and Indigenous being the other two).

They came about the same time as the Spaniards/Basques discovered the New World

Spanish brought Africans to Mexico in 1519 to work in agriculture (henequen [sisal - see previous post], sugar), mines (silver), mills (textile, especially wool), fishing, ranching, or be servants to wealthy families.  Colonial Spanish cattle ranchers often used them as foremen, in charge of indigenous Mexican workers who were not used to animals the size of cows and horses.  They were worth four times more than the indigenous because of their physical endurance and stamina in the hot tropical sun.  With Europeans came diseases that wiped out the indigenous population so they had to rely on more and more African slaves to get the work done.  The black slaves fared better against these diseases than the indigenous population.  Make no mistake though, not all were slaves, some were explorers and cofounders of settlements as far north as Los Angeles and other parts of the Southwest US.

Veracruz being a major slave port, also received significant numbers of African descendants from Haiti and Cuba in the late 19th, early 20th centuries.  Another source were the many slaves who fled to Mexico (around 1850) during the years of slavery in the United States, seeking sanctuary and refuge.  The total numbers of Africans coming to Mexico is thought to be between 200,000 and 500,000.  Slave traders did a lot of smuggling to avoid paying duties so it is difficult to arrive at more precise numbers.

Made to work under horrendous conditions, attempting escape from their captors was the only viable option for enslaved Africans.  Those that were successful fled to the areas high in the mountains where they could hide more easily.  Indigenous Indians also fled to these remote areas and joined forces with the escaped African slaves, forming communities and families.
La Venta Head
Or long before Christopher Columbus’ great, great, great, grandfather was born?

  • The 1858 discovery of gigantic head portraits with Nubian (negroid lips, noses, hair) features as well as head coverings carved out of very large single pieces of basalt dating back to 800-600 BCE led some anthropologist to say Africans were here at least that early.  They were discovered in the village of Tres Zapotes in Mexico.  Sixteen more heads have since been discovered all over South America. 
  • Hundreds of images of Africans in terracotta, made between 1500 BCE and 1500 CE, have been unearthed in the Americas, affirming a prolonged presence of African ancestors in that part of the world.
  • In September 1974, Dr Andrzej Wiercinski, one of the world’s leading experts on the Americas, announced that African skulls were found at the Olmec sites in Cero de las Meassa, Monte Alban, and Talatilco in Mexico.
Gaspar Yanga

A few examples

  • Around 1570, Gaspar Yanga, an African slave, led a rebellion with fellow black slaves.  Under his leadership, these slaves escaped to the safety of the high mountains around Veracruz.  After 30 years of living in the mountains, Yanga finally negotiated a treaty with the Spanish. This treaty was obtained after great hardship in 1609, years before the Mayflower landed on this side of the Atlantic. Yanga founded the first free African township in the Americas.  Today, the town of Yanga in Veracruz is living testimony to his incredible achievement. 
  • The second president of Mexico, the well-known Vicente Guerrero, and hero in the Mexico’s War of Independence from Spain was an Afro-Descendant.  He officially abolished slavery in 1822.  The state of Guerrero in Mexico is named in his honor.  Vicente’s father was a slave mule driver.
  • The city of Los Angeles was founded by 44 Mexicans in 1781 who came from the present-day Sonora and Sinaloa regions of Mexico; 26 of the original founders were of African descent, according to Dr. William D. Estrada, Ph.D., chair of the history department at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum.
Vicente Guerrero

DNA Testing

Thanks to new technologies and genetic studies of Mexican populations it has been found that the clear majority of Mexicans are part Black, something many Mexicans don’t want to hear.

The red bars represent European ancestry, the green bars Sub-Saharan African, and the blue bars indigenous ancestry. You can clearly see how just about everyone in Mexico has some very minor SSA ancestry, with a low variance, except for the states of Guerrero, Veracruz and Oaxaca where there were individuals with high African admixture. Also, note how those individuals have a high percentage of indigenous ancestry.


  • 1570 – African population is about three times the Europeans but Euro-Mixed are about five times Afro-Mixed.
  • 1646 – African population is about 2.5 times the Europeans.  Much fewer Indigenous due to diseases.  More Euro-Mixed than Afro-Mixed. 
  • 1742 – African population is about twice the Europeans. Euro-Mixed population is still larger than Afro-Mixed.
  • 1789 – Census shows 12% of the population in Yucatán to be black or mulatto.
  • It won’t be until 1810 that the Europeans outnumber the Africans.
Photographer Tony Gleaton – ‘Mexico's Black’

Where do they live?

Many Afro-Descendants reside on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, in an area known as the Costa Chica region. This stretch of coastline starts just south of Acapulco and extends for approximately 200 miles. Fishing and agriculture are the mainstays of the economy in Costa Chica. Afro-Descendants communities can also be found in the states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, Michoacan, Veracruz, Campeche, Quintana Roo, and the Yucatán.

In the end

  • The Afro-Descendants of Mexico say “We don’t want to be seen as different, we just want to be differentiated.” 
  • Researchers say “They were visible while they were workforce, but since they were liberated, they don’t exist.
  • Academics say “We have the obligation to give them their history before anything, that they know where they come from, not just romantically by the skin color.”

With better education, maybe some of the Afro-Descendants will be more free to move around Mexico.  Currently, even with valid ID (birth certificate, driver’s license, passport) some Mexican Afro-Descendants have been deported to Haiti, Honduras, and other places, officials not believing that such dark-skinned people could truly be Mexicans!

The biological, cultural and material contributions of these Africans and their descendants to Mexican society do not figure in the equation and it behooves everyone to fix that moving forward.

Sources: Miriam Jimenez Roman, Tom Mbakwe, María Elisa Velázquez, UNESCO, Patrisia Gonzales, and Roberto Rodriguez

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