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Vol. 72/No. 32      August 18, 2008

Exhibit explores African
slavery and rebellion in Mexico
(feature article/review)
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 Córdoba, 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.  
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