Mexico has its own roots in Africa with ‘negritos’

Joe Olvera

© 2011

Joe Olvera is a long-time journalist whose latest book is - Chicano Sin Fin: Memoirs of a Chicano Journalist

They were called “negritos.” I’m speaking, of course, of the black people who graced Mexico’s shores many years ago, and who, in fact, still do. Although some Mexicans eschew the fact that blacks existed in Mexico, the reality is that there is black blood flowing through Mexican veins. For some reason, many Mexicans don’t want to be identified as potentially having black blood. But, to me, it’s a non-issue. It’s there, and there’s not much we can do about it except, perhaps, to acknowledge it.

My first awareness of blacks living in Mexico was as a kid by reading a very popular Mexican comic book called “Memin Penguin,” about a little black boy and his misadventures. There was also a movie, “El Derecho de Nacer,” about a young black woman who denies her African blood and tries to be white, something she’s not. To reach her goal of being accepted by her white Mexican friends, she denies her mother, who is, of course, black and a maid at a wealthy Mexican home.

It’s an unusual movie for Mexico because the existence of Africans in Mexico is not well known, or well accepted. The daughter in “El Derecho de Nacer” denies her mother because she doesn’t want to suffer the same discrimination which her mother suffered. Oh, yes, there was and continues to be discrimination against darker-skinned people in the Aztec Republic. Although it’s not as blatant as it is in the United States, still, it has existed, and to a certain extent, still exists.

In Mexico, there is a small village at the foot of Lake Chapala called San Nicolas. Some Mexicans there are very dark-skinned, and they know they are not the usual mixed-race majority – i.e., Mestizos – which consists of European and Indigenous blood. They only recently found out that they are more than likely Mexicans of African descent. They also recently found out that if they are in Mexico, their ancestors came in chains.

Although not much is known about slavery of blacks in Mexico, it did exist. And just as blacks were considered inferior in the U.S., so were they considered in Mexico. The first black in Mexico may have come with Hernan Cortes when that Spaniard arrived in Veracruz in 1519. The black’s name was Juan Garrido, a free man of color. It is generally believed that Juan Garrido participated in the conquest of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), and was a known participant in several expeditions to other parts of what became known as New Spain. He is also credited with being the first person to farm wheat in Mexico.

More blacks began arriving in Mexico in the mid-1500s, when a steady stream of some 30,000 to 40,000 African slaves entered the nation. Some of these were Hispanicized slaves or Africans who had been enslaved in Spain before they arrived in the new world. Many were imported directly from Africa. Because there was such a preponderance of male slaves, they began to seek American Indian mates. This began another process of Mestizaje, or racial mixing that continued for many years after Cortes’s arrival. Afro-Mexicans, whether free or slave, suffered from racism and discrimination like their brothers and sisters in the U.S. A man or woman’s social status was set in both countries according to the color of the skin.

Whether free or slave, Afro-Mexicans were subjected to the harsh rigidity of the Mexican caste system. Blacks had no right to attend school, were barred from some orders of the Roman Catholic Church, could not travel on their own, could not carry weapons and were forbidden to marry a white or indigenous woman and raise a family. The penalties for violating any of these dictates were harsh, often resulting in the severing of a hand, foot or ear. Some men were even castrated, depending on the severity of the violation. And, of course, there were revolts.

In the mid-1530s, a group of slaves in the vicinity of Mexico City threw off their chains and fought for freedom. After a brief period, they were defeated and decapitated. Their heads were displayed in a public plaza as a warning to other slaves. Escape to freedom became the norm, as groups of escaped blacks formed communities called Palenques. One of the most successful Palenques was established in Vera Cruz in the late 1500s. Led by a slave named Yanga, the palenqueros fought back Spanish reprisals and were so battle-hardened that Spain officially signed a peace treaty in 1612. The palenque, then, became a free settlement. It still exists today as the town of Yanga,. Although many Mexicans are still in denial, evidence abounds that there truly are three cultures in Mexico: Indigenous, European, and Africans.

Sin Fin





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