Posted by: Khepera | Saturday, 7 June 2008

Uncovering the Long History of Blacks in Mexico

A member of my temple gave a presentation earlier this year on aspects of history in the Americas, and it was then I discovered that he & I share a passion for this field of study. I shared some references & sources with him following that class, and am now posting the following info. It comes from a Yahoo Group founded by a good friend & well known historian, Runoko Rashidi. You can find this article, as well as others on his group site, once you sign up. You can also find a great deal of info on his other site, Global African Presence.

Uncovering the Long History of Blacks in Mexico by Alva Moore Stevenson
Posted March 31, 2008

My Afro-Mexican roots can be traced back to my grandfather Daniel Thornton. Born in Texas, he migrated to Mexico to escape the racism of the United States around the dawn of the 20st century. There he married my grandmother, Tráncito Pérez de Ruíz, in 1914. Lots of Afro-Mexicans have similar family histories. But many Black people arrived in Mexico centuries before my grandfather.

Scholars such as Ivan Van Sertima, author of “They Came Before Columbus,” tell us that Egyptians and Nubians came to Mexico in the Pre-Columbian period, around 1200 B.C. The Olmec civilization may be descended from or have had contact with Africans. He cites as evidence the African facial features of the Olmec heads in La Venta, Tabasco, and San Lorenzo, Veracruz. Van Sertima’s research is controversial and not widely accepted by mainstream historians.

It is generally believed that Blacks who accompanied the conquistadors were the first Africans in Mexico. One of the earliest was Juan Garrido, who accompanied Spanish colonizer Hernán Cortes around 1510 and participated in the fall of Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztecs. Garrido was the first person to sow wheat and manufacture flour in the Western Hemisphere.

A native of West Africa, he went to Lisbon, Portugal, to become Christian and educated. It is speculated that Garrido may have been a member of a royal family in his native land—thus his free status.

Before reaching Mexico, he was a member of the expeditions of Nicolás De Ovando, Ponce de León and Diego Velásquez. Garrido journeyed to Hispañola (the island comprised of Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guadeloupe, Dominica and Florida. Later in life, Garrído still searched for fame and fortune in such places as Michoacán and Baja California. He died poor and forgotten, but his contribution of a common foodstuff forever changed our eating habits.

Afro-Mexicans in the 16th century fell into three categories: slaves, unarmed auxiliaries and armed auxiliaries, both of which were comprised of men who were enslaved and others who were free. According to “Black Conquistadors” author Matthew Restall, “…it is primarily after this date [1510] that armed Black servants and slaves begin to play significant military roles in Spanish conquest enterprises.”

Other early Africans brought to Mexico as slaves came with the party of Pánfilo Narváez in 1519. In the early 1500s, they replaced indigenous laborers who had been decimated by European-imported diseases. Between the mid-16th and mid-17th centuries, the numbers of Africans at times exceeded the indigenous population. For a very short period, 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 most famous was Gaspar Yanga. He was reputedly descended from a royal family in the African nation of Gabon and brought to Mexico as a slave. He led an uprising and escape from a sugar plantation in Veracruz in 1570.

The enormous mountain peaks behind the Veracruz lowlands became the home of both African and indigenous maroons during that time period. Established in Cofre de Perote in the mountains near Orizaba, Yanga’s maroon settlement or palenque, called San Lorenzo de los Negros, had 60 dwellings where 80 men and more than 24 African and indigenous women and several children lived. This settlement was renamed Yanga in 1932.

The Yanguicos survived by raiding provisions from passing Spanish caravans. They also farmed and raised livestock. They practiced a form of self-government based on several Central African models. It was hierarchical and oriented towards the needs of self-defense and retaliation.

Yanga’s colony had grown to some 500 people and the Yanguicos continued to elude capture until the Spaniards decided to negotiate in 1608. It was the intention of the Spanish crown to crush Yanga and his followers. Before this could happen, Yanga and the Spanish colonizers signed a treaty, unique for that time, in September of that year. There was no surrender.

The points of the treaty were:

  • All Yanguicos who fled prior to September 1608 were freed and those who fled after this date were returned to their masters.
  • The palenque was chartered as a free town with Yanga as governor.
  • Only the Franciscan friar would minister to them.
  • The Yanguicos would return fugitive slaves and aid the Spanish in case of external attack.
  • The Spaniards could only visit on market days.
  • The Yanguicos received farmable land.

In addition, Yanga stipulated that he would be governor and the line of succession would accede to his descendants. The Spaniards ceded to the Yanguicos demands and the maroon community was officially settled on Mount Totutla in 1630.

Yanga’s maroon movement is a notable event in the history of African-descended Mexicans. It is the only known example of a fully successful attempt by slaves to secure their freedom en masse by revolt and negotiation and to have it sanctioned and guaranteed by law.

Africans have been in Mexico at least since 1510. Those who were imported as slaves resisted their oppression, as in other parts of the Americas. In my last article for, I wrote about one of the most famous, Gaspar Yanga, who led an uprising and escape from a sugar plantation in Veracruz in 1570.

Yanga went on to negotiate peace and freedom for his
community of escaped slaves. It’s the only known example of a fully successful attempt by a maroon colony to have free status sanctioned and guaranteed by law. Yanga’s efforts represent an exceptional legacy upon which Black Mexicans continued to build.

The import of African slaves had all but ceased by the mid-16th century. Spanish colonizers in Mexico were confronted with an increasingly mixed-race society due to miscegenation.

Castas, people of mixed blood, not only blurred and crossed racial lines, but economic lines as well. To reinforce their identity as the elite class, Spaniards in Mexico instituted a caste system as a method of social control. This was an ordering of racial groups according to their limpieza de sangre, literally cleanliness of blood. In other words, people’s place in society was determined by their proportion of Spanish blood. But the castas largely ignored this caste system.

Afro-Mexicans such as Vicente Guerrero played critical roles in Mexico’s independence of August 1821. Of African and indigenous ancestry, Guerrero was born of the peasant class and worked as a mule driver. He became commander in chief of the Mexican army during the last three years of the war for independence which lasted from 1810 to 1821. He was a member of the three-person junta that ruled Mexico for part of the post-war period from 1823 to 1824. And he was president of the country from 1829 into early 1830. Guerrero believed in ending privileges and he promoted equality for all races and social and economic classes. The Mexican government, during his presidency, abolished slavery in 1829.

Martha Menchaca, author of “Recovering History, Constructing Race,” discusses the reasons behind the northward migration of Afro-Mexicans and other non-White Mexicans in the early 19th century in her book. She writes, “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, Black Mexicans and African Americans crossing back and forth over Mexico’s northern border experienced great social fluidity.

California was a part of Spain from 1769 to 1821, and from 1821 to 1848 it belonged to Mexico. Like the castas in 17th and 18th century Mexico City, early Black Californians ignored social strictures related to race. This racial ambiguity made possible the success of the Afro-Mexican Pico family. Of Spanish, African,
indigenous and Italian ancestry, Pío Píco was the last Mexican governor of California. He served in that position in 1831 and again from 1845 to 1846.

A consummate politician and “revolutionist,” Pio Píco was also a wealthy landowner, military commander and also served as a Los Angeles city councilman in 1853. His brother, Andres, represented California at the signing of the Treaty of Cahuenga in 1847, ending the Mexican War in California. He also served as state senator in 1851 and from 1860 to 1861.

Members of the Camero, Moreno and Quintero families, and other Afro-Mexican families, were landowners as well as skilled tradesmen. Such families lived not only in California, but across the Southwest. Afro-mestizos comprised part of the population that founded the towns of Nacogdoches, San Antonio, Laredo and La Bahía in Texas, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Los Angeles and Santa Barbara in California.

In contemporary Mexican society, the caste system no longer functions openly. But Afro-Mexicans remain largely marginalized and are concentrated at the lowest rungs of the economic ladder.

Bobby Vaughn, a scholar of Afro-Mexican studies, says 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 blend of Spanish and Indian heritage effectively excludes Afro-Mexicans.

Since the mid-1990s, Afro-Mexicans from 30 African-descendant areas are meeting in what is called an Encuentro de Pueblos Negros, a gathering of Black towns. The annual event is led by Father Glyn Jemmott, a Trinidadian Catholic priest and an advocate for Afro-Mexican communities.

According to Jemott, the residents of these towns are striving “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 Honduras.

Part 2 of this article


Alva Moore Stevenson is a historian at UCLA’s Center for Oral History Research documenting the history of African Americans in Los Angeles. Her own academic research focuses on the history and culture of Afro-Mexicans.


  1. Brother Khepera,this post is excellent! Will copied it on our BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL! site at so that many more people will see it. Also will add you to THE BLACKEST BLOGS,AT my biolog.
    your Sister who went BACK TO AFRICA 30 years ago from Lawrence,Kansas
    Yeye Akilimali Funua Olade

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