Until a few years ago, most Mexicans had no real idea about how many Afro-descendants existed, where they live or how they live.
Afro-descendants are part of who we are as a country, part of our history, our culture and ethnic background but most Mexicans do not know much about them. We do not know about our third root.
In 2015, for the first time in Mexican history, the Institute of Geography and Statistics (Inegi) included in the national census a question asking respondents whether they consider themselves to be afromexicano.
The results surprised many. NGOs and academics realized they had seriously underestimated their pre-census population estimates.
There are almost 1.4 million Mexicans who consider themselves to be afromexicanos. The majority of them live in the coastal areas of Oaxaca, Veracruz and Guerrero, but Mexico City and Baja California Sur also have important afromexicano settlements.
In 2015, the afromexicanos won an important victory: they went from an invisible and almost mythological status to a recognized ethnic group in Mexico.
But the importance of the afromexicano community in Mexico goes beyond numbers. What the census results don’t tell us is that without the cultural and historical contributions of the afromexicanos, Mexico would not be where it is today. So to celebrate Black History Month and as a humble attempt to keep alive this vital part of Mexican history, let’s do a quick dive into the untold history of the afromexicanos:
During the colonization
The first African slaves were brought to Mexico in 1519 by Hernán Cortés and some were granted their freedom and rewarded with land because of their loyalty and bravery during the colonization battles.
One of the most renowned cases was that of Juan Garrido, who was very close to Cortés and was compensated with the prestigious job of guardian of the aqueduct of Mexico City in Chapultepec.
The first slavery-free community of the new world
In 1570, before the first slaves were brought to the United States, Gaspar Yanga, an African slave from Gabon, rebelled against his Spanish master and escaped to the mountains of the state of Veracruz. There, he and a group of escaped slaves established, with the recognition of the Spanish crown, the first slavery-free town of the new world.
There is no exact number of the African and African descendant populations during the first years of the Spanish colony, but some historians believe that the number of Africans living in Mexico superseded that of the Europeans.
War of Independence
During the Mexican War of Independence in 1810 the leader of the independence movement, Miguel Hidalgo, released a decree that abolished any kind of slavery. This action was aimed at weakening the economic and political power of the Spanish slave owners that opposed Mexican independence and to add the freed slaves to the troops fighting for independence.
In 1813, after the death of Miguel Hidalgo, José María Morelos took over the leadership of the independence movement and again declared illegal all forms of slavery.
Independent Mexico and the first Afro-descendant president in North America
In 1821 Mexico declared its independence from Spain and the anti-slavery spirit of the draftsmen of independence made its way into the first Mexican constitution in 1824. The abolitionist laws were, unfortunately, a dead letter during the first years of independent Mexico.
The economy of the northern states, especially Texas, depended heavily on slave labor and those states refused to follow the abolitionist laws.
In 1829 President Vicente Guerrero, an Afromexicano himself, vigorously enforced anti-slavery laws. Guerrero, in a conciliatory spirit, offered to pay the slave owners for the freedom of their slaves.
Black Seminoles or Mascogos in Coahuila
Not all the afromexicanos came to Mexico during colonial times. During the Seminole Wars in the United States some of the freed slaves settled with the Seminoles in what was then slavery-free Florida and fought against Andrew Jackson’s encroaching troops as he moved in to take the newly-purchased Florida back to a slavery state.
They fought for their freedom alongside the Seminole tribe in Florida but were eventually forced to abandon their land and relocate to Arkansas and Oklahoma. Some slaves took a small detour from the march to the west and escaped to northern Mexico where they had heard slavery was illegal.
In 1867, President Benito Juárez granted those refugees Mexican nationality and gave them the land that many still occupy in Múzquiz, Coahuila.
Maximiliano and the last attempt to reestablish slavery in Mexico
This might disappoint those of you who think Maximilian I was a kind-hearted “emperor” but it needs to be told. In 1865, in a desperate attempt to add allies to his fading cause, Maximilian attempted to reestablish slavery.
This was aimed at attracting the recently-defeated American confederates to northern Mexico as settlers in order to keep his “empire” afloat. Maximiliano met his end with Juárez’s firing squad, and the laws he signed never took effect.
Some important victories have been won recently in favor of the afro-descendants in Mexico. The results of the census have triggered public awareness campaigns like #SoyAfro by the National Council to Prevent Discrimination (Conapred) and NGOs.
Also, places like Veracruz, Guerrero and Mexico City have included the afromexicanos as an ethic group in their local constitutions. But there is still a long road ahead. It is important that we learn, share and divulge this part of history so we can keep the ball of equality rolling forward.
“It is important for all of us to appreciate where we come from and how that history has really shaped us in ways that we might not understand.” —United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Alvaro Amador Muniz hails from Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, is an honorary Tennessean and an avid basketball player currently living in Mexico City. He can be contacted at [email protected].
CORRECTION: The original version of this pieces stated that Hernán Cortés was around in 1919, a mistake of four centuries in magnitude.