The African presence in Mexico

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THERE is a mythic story to explain the black presence in Mexico.
This story which has been told for generations says that Africans travelled to Mexico on a slave boat from Haiti and Mexico.
The boat sank off Mexico’s Pacific coast and the survivors hid away in fishing villages.
Then there was another general belief that Africans in Mexico were recent arrivals from the Caribbean.
But these stories are not true because Spanish colonialists trafficked African slaves on the Gulf coast and distributed further inland.
Historical records show that 300 000 – 500 000 African slaves were imported to Mexico beginning 1519 right through to the 16th and 17th centuries.
In late 17th century there were more Africans in Mexico than Spaniards.
They worked in silver mines, sugar plantations and cattle ranches, suffering harsh treatment, torture and abuse.
The men outnumbered women and there was inter marriage with indigenous people Slavery was officially abolished in Mexico in 1822. Then Mexico won its independence from Spain and from that time onwards, the black Mexicans were subjected to systemic racism.
This tragic history of Africans in Mexico has been recorded succinctly by Dr Gonzalo Aguirre Beltran a, Mexican Anthropologist in his 1944 book called La Poblacion Negra de Mexico.
Dr Beltran carried out enormous research on the historical Spaniard ship’s writings and found that 300 000 West African slaves were brought to Mexico.
Their role was to replace the dying indigenous slave population and another estimated 200 000 West African slaves were later illegally smuggled into Mexico after slavery was outlawed.
This research by Dr Beltran was banned by the Mexican government.
Basically, the ruling Mexican government wanted to hide the fact that the colonial African slave population existed.
Despite the Mexican efforts to hide the black presence, they could not erase African named towns in Veracruz changed such as Matamba, Mandinga, Mozambique, Mocambo, Yanga (formerly Nyanga), and Motamboa.
There are other several Mexican words with African or Bantu resonance such as ‘Chamba’ meaning work, job or, ‘Mondongo’ meaning tripe, and marimba meaning an African musical instrument.
For example, the song ‘La Bamba’ refers to the Angolan people called Mbamba.
The white ruling class of Mexico engaged in systemic wiping away of the African presence in Mexico.
They invited Germans, Irish, Italians, and middle easterners during the mid 1800’s soon after signing the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty.
Their main aim was to increase the ‘whitening’ of Mexico.
Spain feared the black population of Mexico would rebel possibly giving way to another Haiti so they started to fight, intimidate and even kill the Africans.
Today there are places in Mexico with black people called Morenos such as Vera Cruz where it is noted that the roots of Mexican culture are black as well as indigenous Indian.
Afro-Mexicans reside on the rural Pacific and Gulf Coasts in Veracruz in a place called Yanga which was the first Mexican town to be free from slavery.
The African Mexicans also live in dilapidated settlements outside of town.
Black Mexicans suffer a lot of racism and they are among the poorest in the nation, marginalsed in remote places where there are hardly any basic schools and hospitals.
There is a denial on the origins of black Mexicans because some Mexicans with ‘Afro’ features do not want to be identified as black.
This means Afro-Mexicans are considerably removed from their original African roots. In one small town called Cuajinicuilapa, in the state of Guerrero, a small museum has been dedicated to reclaim and tell the story of black people in Mexico. But, increasingly, Afro-Mexican activists identify themselves as part of the African Diaspora. Given their rejection from Mexican culture, this offers a more empowering cultural reference even though there is no collective memory of slavery.
Some Afro-Mexicans have tried to be recognized as one of Mexico’s 56 other official ethnic groups. But that has not happened as yet.
They are often seen as illegal immigrants and are discriminated against by immigration officials who do not recognise them as being Mexican.
Rodolfo Prudente Dominguez, an Afro-Mexican activist speaking to a journalist said, “there should be sanctions against security and immigration agents who detain us, because they deny our existence on our own land.”
As historians and others continue to highlight the story of Africans in Mexico, those who look African and have been rejecting that fact are beginning to feel proud of their African heritage. Sandra Trevino, a writer, commended that in Mexico they always hide the part of history where they had slavery but that is now changing.
An African Mexican commented on a video documentary on Africans in Mexico. She wrote, “I am a proud Afro-Mexican myself and this video thrilled me like not a lot of things have before!!!!
“The Fandangos!
“The girl in Yanga!
“It is simply beautiful to see people whose African features have been diminished but they still consider themselves black!”
It should also be noted that not all black Mexicans were slaves.
Some of them were explorers and co-founders of settlements including Los Angeles.
For example, Jose Maria Morelos, one of Mexico’s leaders for independence, was a mulatto or mixed race whose origins were not linked to slavery.
The African presence in Mexico is part of history that has been ignored and erased. Today, it is difficult to find any African contribution in the history books of colonial construction of Mexico.
As a result, there is a national loss of memory on the presence of Africans in Mexico.
The contribution of Africans to Mexican history and culture has yet to be researched and presented properly so the truth can be reclaimed as part of the black African Diaspora.

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