Saturday, August 09, 2008

Exhibit Explores African Slavery and Rebellion in Mexico

Vol. 72/No. 32 August 18, 2008

Exhibit explores African slavery and rebellion in Mexico


LOS ANGELES—Spanish traders took African slaves to colonial Mexico early in the 16th century, long before the first slaves arrived in the British colonies of North America. Mexico has a rich history of anti-slavery rebellions and the country was a destination of the Underground Railroad. Slavery was ended in Mexico in 1829. Jim Crow-style laws were never enacted there.

These are some of the facts presented in an exhibit titled, “The African Presence in Mexico: From Yanga to the Present,” organized by the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. The exhibit, on display here recently at the California African American Museum, is traveling to other cities on an international tour that continues through 2010.

Through photos, paintings, sculptures, written narrative, and a video presentation, the exhibit describes nearly 500 years of history that Africans and Mexicans share. Most Black slaves came directly from Africa, but a smaller proportion were shipped from the Pacific, particularly the Philippines. They were Aetas, part of an ethnic group known as “chino slaves.” This is the origin of the term cabello chino (curly or tightly-coiled hair) in Mexico.

Veracruz, on the Gulf of Mexico, and Acapulco, on the Pacific Ocean, were two of the first Mexican ports authorized to import slaves. Today significant Black communities live in the surrounding regions.

Largest African population

Mexico’s slave trade peaked in the 17th and 18th centuries, with Portuguese, Dutch, and English traffickers. Slaves worked in sugar fields, refineries, silver mines, and on ranches and haciendas. More and more African slaves were imported as the brutal exploitation of Indian slaves wiped out many in the indigenous population. An estimated 250,000 African slaves were brought to Mexico during the colonial period. From 1580 to 1640 Mexico had the largest African population in the Americas.

Unlike the United States, enslaved Africans in Mexico could marry anyone they chose. Many male slaves sought unions with women who were “free wombs,” meaning they were not enslaved. Such unions ensured freedom for their children. Mixed-race common-law marriages were deemed dishonorable in upper-class Mexican society, but they were not illegal.

Some mixes of the races were considered purer than others and a caste system developed. Children resulting from a union of a Spaniard and a mestizo (someone of mixed Spanish and indigenous heritage) were called castizos (of good caste). If one parent was Spanish and the other Black, the children were mulatto. Access to privileged posts in the Catholic Church and the military was restricted for inferior castes, especially those with Black parentage. The lower castes were banned from bearing arms, learning to read, and riding horses.

Rebellion of cimarrones

The exhibit tells the story of Yanga, a slave who led a group of cimarrones (runaways) out of the sugar fields to set up their own free community. This was the most famous of many slave rebellions. The Spanish military fought hard to crush Yanga’s rebellion but failed. As a result, Yanga was able to negotiate a settlement that led to the establishment in 1630 of San Lorenzo de los Negros, a free African town close to C√≥rdoba, Veracruz. In 1930, the name was changed to Yanga. Today an annual festival is held there to celebrate the victory of the cimarrones and to highlight Black African culture. A bronze statue honoring Yanga is in the town’s park.

The Underground Railroad was a network of people and safe houses that helped slaves in the United States escape to freedom. The majority of slaves who used the Underground Railroad fled to northern states and to Canada. After Mexico abolished slavery, it became an added destination. A few thousand slaves went to Mexico.

The exhibit explains that many Mexicans in Texas resisted the white slaveholders’ oppression, which affected them also. Mexicans living in Texas were victims of verbal abuse, pistol-whippings, and lynchings if they displayed what was considered insolence or disrespect toward whites. There were many Mexicans who took risks to assist runaway slaves in their journey to freedom.

“The African Presence in Mexico offers an unusually magnificent opportunity for both African-Americans and Mexicans to celebrate a unique bond,” said National Museum of Mexican Art founder and president Carlos Tortolero in the exhibit catalog. “This project also offers Mexico the opportunity not only to revisit its African legacy but also to actively embrace it as an important element in Mexico’s cultural heritage.”

An April 13 article about the exhibit in the Los Angeles Times interviewed Mexicans of African descent. “Some people see the exhibition and discover they are African descendants,” said Sagrario Cruz Carretero, one of the curators from the University of Veracruz. “One man came up to me and told me, ‘Now I know I am part African.’ He showed me a picture of his grandmother and said, ‘Until I was a teenager, I believed she had an accident [and] that is why she was dark.’”

Soledad Silver, a junior at John Muir High School in Pasadena, said, “I have African American friends who say, ‘You’re not Mexicans. I saw you with your dad and he’s a black man.’ I say, ‘Yeah, he’s a black man, but he’s also Mexican.’”

The museum’s Web site,, offers a mini-video showing and other materials, including a fact-filled catalog on the exhibit in English and Spanish. Currently on display in Philadelphia (June 25-Oct. 25, 2008), the upcoming stops include Oakland, California, (April-Aug. 2009) and Washington, D.C. (November 7, 2009-July 4, 2010). Additional locations and more details are on the Web site.

The Legacy of Vicente Guerrero, Mexico’s First Black Indian President

Author: Theodore G. Vincent
Publisher: University of Florida Press, 2001

Reviewed by William Loren Katz

Vicente Guerrero has been a towering figure in the Americas, masterfully commanding Mexico’s liberation army during much of its independence movement in the early 19th century, and in 1829 assuming his country’s presidency where he again fought off foreign invaders.

Born poor to a Black Indian family and growing up without formal schooling, he taught himself to read and write as he trained his troops in the Sierra Madre mountains. He was able to help write Mexico’s constitution, free its slaves, take steps to educate and elevate its poor and people of color, and serve as his country’s first president of African and Native American descent.

Guerrero at 27 was a hard-working mule driver until the spirit of freedom moved him to action along with tens of thousands of other men and women of his racial and economic background. In 1810 he cast his skills and offered his sacred honor in the struggle against a Spain that dominated his country and most of Latin America.

African American historian J.A. Rogers called Guerrero the George Washington and Abraham Lincoln of Mexico an assessment that indicates the man’s stature. Now, Theodore G. Vincent, no stranger to Mexican cultural development or the African American experience, has written a thorough study of this important figure, The Legacy of Vicente Guerrero, Mexico’s First Black Indian President. More than just the biography of a public figure, Vincent weaves an inspiring addition to the freedom-fighting heritage of the Americas and uncovers the untold story of "Mexican cultural nationalism."

In 1810 Guerrero joined the struggle in which he would fight in "491 battles without a defeat" and began his rise from the ranks of other "pardos" or people of mixed races. His attributes included an ability to speak many indigenous languages and a command of military tactics. When first given command, Guerrero had 500 unarmed troops, but he soon remedied this with a midnight cavalry attack on a Spanish fortification that gained his men, guns and ammunition. In his first year when he was elevated to Captain, he was able to convince many Indian men of military age to support the revolution.

The Mexican Independence war was one of the first modern guerrilla wars against an imperialist army that burned villages. It was also one of the first instances where guerrilla fighters without an urban base maintained a political base. The revolutionaries lacked enough guns and ammunition, and had to battle against local militias determined to settle old scores. Roadsides were marked by crucifixes bearing the rotting bodies of bandits and insurgents. Guerrero had to make it up as it came along.

Guerrero’s humanitarian impulses, close identification with his soldiers and public speaking skills helped cement a relationship with his "pardo" army. When he won a victory he would claim he was a soldier in the ranks and, "It wasn’t me . . . but the people who fought and triumphed." He appointed Pedro Ascencio Alquisiras to be the first Native American General in Mexico’s army—and this when more citizens considered not Africans but Indians as the lowest rung of the social and political ladder.

Vincent is carefully tuned to the complicated racial structure of Mexico caused by the Spanish invasion, and he paints a vivid and sharp picture of the changing social relations caused by the revolution. He points out that the great liberator, Jose Maria Morelos y Pavon who mentored Guerrero, was also a Black Indian as were many other high officers. By 1800 Africans were a majority of settlers in Durango, Sinaloa, Sonora, and California and Acapulco was 95% pardo. By 1820 the Independence movement boasted only one standing army, the dark freedom-fighters under the command of Guerrero.

Spain’s obsession with race led to laws that denied people of color advancement, but permitted many to bribe their way up the caste ladder. Even the first revolutionary Constitution of 1812 included article #22 that excluded African Americans from benefiting from many reforms such as political rights and freedoms. But this only mobilized Guerrero and others to see that the overthrow of Spanish officials also included an agenda of freedom and equality for all.

Guerrero also had to defeat efforts of the white elite of Mexico to highjack the revolution won by his dark-skinned soldiers. Terms such as pardo, zambo, mulatto lobo were erased from the Mexican language. In 1823 he declared, "We have defeated the colossus, and we bathe in the glow of new found happiness." True freedom, he declared is "living with a knowledge that no one is above anyone else, and that there is no title more honored than that of the citizen" and this applies equally to soldier, worker, official, cleric, landowner, laborer, writer and craftsman.

On April first, 1829 Vicente Guerrero assumed the presidency of Mexico and his partisans riotously celebrated this "father of his people." Decades before Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address spoke of a democracy of, by and for the people, Guerrero promised to be guided always by "that important truth that those in office are for the people, and not the people for those in office." In his first address to the Mexican Congress, Guerrero said:

The administration is obliged to procure the widest possible benefits and apply them from the palace of the rich to the wooden shack of the humble laborer. If one can succeed in spreading the guarantees of the individual, if the equality before the law destroys the efforts of power and of gold, if the highest title between us is that of citizen, of the rewards we bestow are exclusively for talent and virtue, we have a republic, and she will be conserved by the universal suffrage of a people solid, free and happy.

On his third day in office, the president invited people of all races to his 47th birthday party, a fiesta held on the city outskirts. On the fourth day he addressed a letter to his constituents in the "land of the pintos" meaning darker people, commending their 33 martyrs in the fight for liberty. At the same moment, Guerrero was being roundly denounced by conservative and liberal politicians for being of a lower class and lower caste and was snidely called "the commoner" as though this made him unable to lead.

He rejoiced in his own common touch. In Oaxaca he was supported by a 23-year old Indian campaign worker, Benito Juarez, who would become the first Indian president and drive out the last foreign invasion of Mexico in the 1860s. Guerrero sought out the wisdom of his wife Maria Guadalupe Hernendez de Guerrero who became an important advisor known as "la Generala." She later became the leader of his movement.

Guerrero began his term by ending the death penalty by edict, and also commuted all death sentences. Next he raised taxes to pay for improvements in the lives of the poor. Then he proclaimed "Slavery is abolished in the Republic" on Independence Day, September 16, 1829.

However, Guerrero, concerned with the plight of his people rather than distant investors, did not repay foreign loans and little investment capital reached Mexico from abroad. The rich staged a tax rebellion against his policies and as his army went unpaid units became muntinous. Some of Guerrero’s officials were assassinated, and army desertions rose. The Mexican Congress finally declared by a vote of 23 to 17 he had abused his presidential power and had provided funds for revolutionaries in Haiti. His foes wanted to have him declared morally unfit and "crazy" but this did not happen.

However, his foes had him kidnapped at a dinner party aboard an Italian ship in Acapulco and executed by a firing squad in February, 1831.

Vincent relates Guerrero’s story with verve and style. He also modernizes it, using phrases such as "funky neighborhoods," "closet white bigots" and "affirmative action" unknown in the nineteenth century and hardly useful to understanding old Mexico. However, his fine, detailed study restores one of the great figures of the Americas, and places him along with others of his class and color in the limelight of history they earned through daring, courage and sacrifice.

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