Unearthing the 'Third Root'
By JARRETTE FELLOWS, JR.
Black Mexico: Unearthing the "Third Root," unravels the little-known history of how Mexico’s 15th-century assimilation of Spaniards, Indigenous natives, and African slaves gave rise to the unique ethnic infusion known as “Black Mexico" that eventually led to the founding of Los Angeles by Black-Mexicans and Mestizos in the 18th century when the Golden State, then known as Alta California, was under the rule of Mexico. Even though the Black imprint in Mexico is unraveling more and more as time moves on, the reality of the truth still is largely mired in a Shadow History, as the truth never has been taught as historic text in Mexico, much less as a history lesson in America, home to tens of thousands of Black-Mexicans with African roots.
Until now, this historical truth largely has been available as scholarly works in college and university ethnic studies, but never as part of the history curriculum of grades 1-12 in either the U.S. or Mexico. This multi-part series and soon-coming book was spawned to tell the hidden story that binds African Americans and Mexicans in a shared history that few knew about. This series seeks—as numerous others works have—to expose the shrouded history of Black Mexico’s link to the African continent. For some elders in the Mexican-American community, this little-known truth was something to keep hidden as the reality of Mexicans with "Black blood" has been considered a point of shame for hundreds of years. Now, for many whose eyes are being opened to the truth, the long-held shame is gradually giving way to ethnic pride as growing numbers of Black-Mexicans on both sides of the border are learning their uniqueness as a people and special place in Mexican and American society.
Part I First, Second, Third Root
THE INDIGENOUS PEOPLE of ancient Mexico were the Mayans, Olmecs, Toltecs, Zapotecs, and the Mixtecs. They inhabited a geographical area encompassing present-day Florida and much of what is now the Western United States, Mexico, and parts of the Caribbean. These ancient peoples comprised the pre-Columbian Indigenous civilizations before the arrival of all-conquering Spain as a colonizer of the region prior to the 16th century. These Indigenous natives constituted modern-day Mexico’s ethnic "First Root."
Years following Spain’s conquest and colonization of the region—which included Central America, and the northern rim of South America, according to scholar/historians, the Indigenous population was all but decimated by previously unknown diseases from Europe, brought there by Spaniards from Spain—the "Second Root."
Over time, the Spaniards assimilated with the Indigenous culture, producing a mixed race called mestizos, which eventually evolved as the most influential culture in the nation, dominating every facet of Mexican society in business and government to the present day. Mexico’s race mixing did not end there with the Spanish and Indigenous infusion. Though scant historical records exist about the acculturation of Africans in Mexico, the introduction of hundreds of thousands of African slaves—the ethnic "Third Root" into Mexico in the 15th and 16th centuries cannot be denied. This process of interracial mixing in Mexico became known as mestizaje.
Shadow History. A homogenous race of any significant Indigenous stock, which began to disappear as Mexico’s majority between the 17th and 21st centuries morphed into a cross-section of the three roots— Indigenous, Spaniard, and African. But due to the suppressive efforts of the mestizo-dominant government through an inexact census, little is known of Mexico’s Third Root or African ancestry as scholar/historians have come to identify Mexico’s African slave imprint, hence, Black Mexico. The inter-marriage of Spaniards and African slaves yielded the mulattos in Mexican culture, better known as Black-Mexicans, who have faced discrimination and largely been ignored by the ruling mestizos—a display of both classism and racism. Mulattos represent Mexico’s "Shadow History," which is only now being exposed by scholarly curiosity.
Enter Vicente Ramón Guerrero. Though Vicente Ramón Guerrero was a Mexican citizen without ties to the United States, he made an indelible imprint in the nation, dispatching a group of explorers or pobladores (more on them later) from Sinaloa, Mexico to plant a Catholic mission in what was then a Mexican territory called Alta California. Guerrero was of Afro-Mestizo descent and thus, Mexico’s first Black/Indigenous president, when he sent the pobladores on their quest. Vicente Ramón Guerrero rose to the highest office in post-colonial Mexico— a seminal achievement, but prior to that Guerrero attained many triumphs. He was one of Mexico's leading revolutionary generals of the Mexican War of Independence—one of the first impactful figures to emerge from Mexico’s shadow history. Guerrero fought against Spain for independence in the early 19th century, and was the grandfather of the Mexican politician and intellectual Vicente Riva Palacio.
To a lesser degree, Black-Mexicans also include zambos, a mix of Africans and Indigenous natives—more acculturation with scant documentation by the Mexican government due to the lack of investigative intrusion, analysis, and archiving. Like America where White colonialists from England spearheaded the direction of the nation, the European colonial influence of Spain dictated the political and economic direction of the country with African and Indigenous inroads minimal at best. The major difference is White settlers from England did not infuse with America’s Indigenous natives and African slaves who would come later, whereas the opposite was true in colonial Mexico.
Pictorial glimpse. The aforementioned history came painstakingly through the efforts of researchers and historians who traveled to the inner reaches of Mexico to locate the regions there bearing indelible imprints originating from across the Atlantic in West Africa. The late photographer Tony Gleaton photographed visual evidence in a stunning photo essay of Black-Mexicans titled, "Africa’s Legacy in Mexico." Images of the present day descendants of the African slaves brought to New Spain between 1500 and 1700—are on display in the Smithsonian Museum as part of an exhibit titled, "Migrations In History," which explores the nature and com- plexity of the movement of peoples, cultures, ideas, and objects. From 1982 through 1988, Gleaton traveled extensively in Mexico, eventually befriending the Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico where he came and went for nearly two years before traveling to Guerrero and Oaxaca, photographing the people there, whose darkened faces, Gleaton said "quietly testified of their African past."
"The photographs are as much an effort to define my own life, with its heritage encompassing Africa and Europe," Gleaton wrote in an essay, "as it is an endeavor to throw open the discourse on the broader aspects of 'mestizaje,'—the assimilation of Africans and Europeans with Indigenous [Mexicans]. I came to photograph this area just south of Acapulco, a place I have come to view simply as a present-day reminder of Black Africa’s legacy in Mexico."
Anthropology professor Bobby Vaughn of Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, Calif., has amassed a photo collection as part of his studies of Black-Mexicans of the Costa Chica regions of Mexico—Guerrero and Oaxaca. Both areas have significant populations of Black-Mexicans who originally settled in the area as escaped slaves. Vaughn’s website and photo galleries report his extensive studies on the culture, history, and unique experience of Mexicans of African descent. He writes on his website: "One of the research questions that most interests me is, ‘How do Black people in Mexico understand and live their Black identity—assuming they have a Black identity at all?'"
Delving Deeper Into History. The history of Black Mexico is both illuminating and mysterious. Scholars have long been acquainted with the history of slavery in Mexico. In fact, long before the first Spanish galleons appeared on the horizon, the practice of slavery was common among several Indigenous tribes in Mexico. So while it may be said that the Spanish did not originate slavery, they nonetheless relied upon it to expand their empire and to increase their enormous wealth.
As the colonial period in Mexico unfolded, in particular during the 16th and 17th centuries, the Indigenous population, weakened and reduced in number by disease, could no longer carry the heavy load of labor. That would induce Spain to introduce African slaves to Mexico to replace them, toiling in sugar fields and in under- ground silver mines. African slaves proved to be superior to their Indigenous counterparts and they were highly prized for their physical endurance and stamina in the debilitating hot tropical sun. The Spaniards were cruel taskmasters and drove the African slaves to work under horrendous conditions on the sugar plantations of coastal Veracruz. Attempting escape from their captors was the only viable option for the enslaved Africans. Successful escapees fled to the high country where jungle and canyons could conceal them. Indigenous natives also fled to these remote areas and joined forces with the escaped African slaves, which led to inter-mixing and the seed of the zambo culture.
Part II Black Mexico: Unearthing the Third Root
Gaspar Yanga African Warrior
THE FLIGHT OF AFRICANS into the highlands of Veracruz provided the foundation for a famous rebellion led by escaped African slave, Gaspar Yanga, in Mexico in 1571. Believed to be a member of the royal house of Gabon, Africa, Yanga went on to lead the slaves in a successful revolt against their Spanish captors. Gaspar Yanga’s African warrior roots run deep in Mexico’s history; 38 years of rebellion won freedom for the African slaves in Colonial Mexico. In 1609, after nearly four decades of fighting the Spaniards and eluding capture, Yanga ultimately negotiated a treaty with his nemesis and achieved his goal of freedom from bondage for his people. Today, the town of Yanga in Veracruz is living testimony to his incredible achievement. Located in the State of Veracruz on Mexico’s Gulf coast, Yanga has received considerable attention as one of the America’s earliest “maroon” settlements founded by fugitive slaves. Originally known as San Lorenzo de Los Negros, in 1932 the town was renamed for its founder, a rebellious Muslim man from Nigeria in West Africa.
Miriam Jiménez Román is another important contemporary figure whose work to unearth the buried history of Africa’s imprint in the mestizaje has yielded invaluable findings. Her work as a writer and professor has imparted light into the “black hole” of the Black-Mexican experience and uniquely positioned her as an authority on the subject. Her scholarly work, “The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States,” has been critically acclaimed for its diverse portrait of Black Latinos in America. Román contributed mightily to the Smithsonian’s Tony Gleaton photo exhibit through her travels in Mexico, tracking and back-tracking evidence of the elusive mestizaje. In 1990, she traveled to Yanga in search of undeniable proof that Africans have a deeply shared history in Mexico. Román shared her findings in the essay, “What Is A Mexican?”
Behold Gaspar Yanga. Román recalls the first time she beheld the towering statue of Gaspar Yanga: “Today, a recently erected statue of Yanga stands on the outskirts of the town, more a testimony to the persistence of a few Mexican anthropologists who re-discovered the place, than to the historical memory of its founders’ descen- dants,” writes Román. “As I strolled through the area and talked to the residents, and saw the evidence of an African past in their faces, I discovered that they have little more than amused curiosity about the outsiders who express interest in that past. Yanga’s people have quite simply been living their lives as they always have, making the adjustments necessary in a changing world and giving little thought to an aspect of their history for which they are now being celebrated.”
The story of Gaspar Yanga and his followers is remarkable for being so typical, writes Román. “The town’s relative isolation is the reason for its founding and for its continued existence as a predominately Black enclave. Fugitive slave communities were commonly established in difficult-to-reach areas in order to secure their inhabitants from recapture.”
But as Román notes, the physical isolation of Yanga has also led to the people and the town being ignored, particularly since the Yangas of Mexico — most found dispersed throughout the states of Veracruz on the gulf coast, and Oaxaca, and Guerrero south of Acapulco — have been out of sight and out of mind.
“Generally considered unworthy of any special attention, Mexico’s African presence has been relegated to an obscured slave past, pushed aside in the interest of a national identity based on a mixture of Indigenous and European cultural mestizaje,” writes Roman. “In practice, this ideology of ‘racial democracy’ favors the European presence. Too often the nation’s glorious Indigenous past is reduced to folklore and ceremonial showcasing. But the handling of the African ‘Third Root’ is even more dismissive. For all intents and purposes the biological, cultural, and material contributions of more than 200,000 Africans and their descendants to the formation of Mexican society do not figure in the equation at all,” she notes, “because they live as their neighbors live, carry out the same work, eat the same foods, and make the same music. It is assumed that Blacks have assimilated into ‘Mexican’ society. The truth of the matter is, they are Mexican society. The historical record offers compelling evidence that Africans and their descendants contributed enormously to the very formation of Mexican culture.”
When Gaspar Yanga and his followers founded their settlement, the population of Mexico City consisted of approximately 36,000 Africans, 116,000 persons of African ancestry, and only 14,000 Europeans,” Roman explains. “Escaped slaves added to the overwhelming numbers in the cities, establishing communities in Oaxaca as early as 1523. Beyond their physical presence, Africans and their descendants interacted with Indigenous and European peoples in forging nearly every aspect of society. Indeed, the states of Guerrero and Morelos bear the names of two men of African ancestry, heroes of the War of Independence that made possible the founding of the Republic of Mexico in 1821.”
What Is Mexico; Who Are the Mexicans? Addressing Gleaton’s images, Román notes, “The people in these images, ignored in the past, now run the risk of being exoticized, of being brought forward to applaud their ‘Africanness’ while ignoring their ‘Mexicanness.’ The faces of these children and grandmothers should remind us of the generations that preceded them.
“But we must not relegate them to history. As always, they remain active participants in their world,” she explains. “To understand the implications of the people of Yanga — and of Cuajinicuilapa, El Ciruelo, Corralero, and other like communities — we must go beyond physical appearance, cease determining the extent of Africa’s influence simply by how much one looks African, and go forward to critically examine what indeed is Mexico and who are the Mexicans. So, yes, there are Black people in Mexico,” writes Román. “We may marvel at these relatively isolated communities that can still be found along the Pacific and Gulf coasts. But of greater significance is recognizing the myriad forms that mark the African presence in Mexican culture, past and present, many of which remain to be discovered by [us] and certainly by the Mexican people.”
Part IIl Black Mexico: Unearthing the Third Root
An irrefutable ‘Africanness’ Abounds
MEXICO’S WHOLESALE acceptance of a “Black Root” may be many years into the future. Colin A. Palmer in his essay, “a Legacy of Slavery” notes that ingrained beliefs endure. Palmer writes that the Mexican govern- ment is reluctant to acknowledge the historic African imprint. The government and the Mexican population at large ignore the truth, even as the evidence of a shared African history grows.
“When I arrived in Mexico about two decades ago to begin research on the early history of Africans and their descendants there, a young student politely told me that I was embarking on a wild goose chase,” Palmer writes. “Mexico had never imported slaves from Africa, he said, fully certain that the nation’s peoples of African descent were relatively recent arrivals.”
Born and reared in Jamaica, Palmer earned a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin and has taught at Oakland University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The university professor and prolific author writes, “This lack of knowledge about Mexico’s African peoples has not changed much over time. A short while ago a Mexican engineer, himself of African descent, told me adamantly that the country’s Blacks were the descendants of escaped slaves from North America and Cuba. These fugitives, he proudly proclaimed, had sought and found sanctuary in free Mexico.”
Palmer is the author of numerous books and articles, including Slaves of the White God: Blacks in Mexico, 1570-1650; Human Cargoes: The British Slave Trade to Spanish America, 1700-1739; and Passageways: An Interpretive History of Black America. He is also editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of African American Culture and History.
Mixed Blood Emerges. Palmer notes in his essay, “African labor was vital to the Spanish colonists. As Indigenous peoples were killed or died from European diseases, Blacks assumed a disproportionate share of the burden of work, particularly in the early colonial period. African slaves labored in the silver mines of Zacate- cas, Taxco, Guanajuato, and Pachuca in the northern and central regions; on the sugar plantations of the Valle de Orizaba and Morelos in the south; in the textile factories of Puebla and Oaxaca on the west coast and in Mexico City; and in households everywhere. Others worked in a skilled trade or on cattle ranches.
“Although Black slaves were never more than two percent of the total population,” writes Palmer, “their contributions to colonial Mexico were enormous, especially during acute labor shortages.”
Palmer continues, “Wherever their numbers permitted, slaves created networks that allowed them to cope with their situation, give expression to their humanity, and maintain a sense of self. These networks flourished in Mexico City, the port city of Veracruz, the major mining centers, and the sugar plantations, allowing Africans to preserve some of their cultural heritage even as they forged new and dynamic relationships. Although males outnumbered females, many slaves found spouses from their own or other African ethnic groups. Other slaves married or had amorous liaisons with the Indigenous peoples and to a lesser extent the Spaniards. In time, a population of mixed blood emerged, gaining demographic ascendancy by the mid-eighteenth century. Known as ‘mulattos,’ ‘pardos,’ or ‘zambos,’ many of them were either born free or in time acquired their liberty.
“As in the rest of the Americas, slavery in Mexico exacted a severe physical and psychological price from its victims. Abuse was a constant part of a slave’s existence; resisting oppression often meant torture, mutilation, whipping, or being put in confinement. Death rates were high, especially for slaves in the silver mines and on the sugar plantations,” Palmer notes. “Yet, for the most part, their spirits were never broken and many fled to establish settlements in remote areas of the country. Other slaves rebelled or conspired to. The first conspiracy on record took place in 1537, and these assaults on the system grew more frequent as the Black population increased. Regardless of the form it took — escape or rebellion — resistance demonstrated an angry defiance of the status quo and the slaves’ desire to reclaim their own lives. As such, Black resistance occupies a special place in Mexico’s revolutionary tradition, a tradition that is a source of pride for many Mexicans.”
Beyond that, Palmer notes Africans in Mexico left their cultural and genetic imprint everywhere they lived. In states such as Veracruz, Guerrero, and Oaxaca, the descendants of Africa’s children still bear the evidence of their ancestry.
African Traditions Survive. “No longer do they see themselves as Mandinga, Wolof, Ibo, Bakongo or members of other African ethnic groups,” Palmer notes in his prose, “their self-identity is Mexican and they share much with other members of their nation-state. Yet their cultural heritage has not entirely disappeared. Some African traditions survive in song, music, dance, and other ways. But much has changed since slavery ended, and it is difficult for a small minority to maintain its traditions in a constantly changing society.” As their ancestors did, the few remaining persons who are visibly of African descent continue to be productive members of society. But history has not been kind to the achievements of African peoples in Mexico. Palmer and Miriam Jimenez Roman agree that only in recent times have Black or Afro-Mexicans been studied and their contributions to Mex- ican society illuminated. Black Mexicans can claim this proud legacy and draw strength from it, even as the full strength of their African origins become a shrinking part of their country, blending into the legacy of mestizaje.
Author and scholar on Mexican culture, María Martínez Montiel, writes in her essay — “Mexico’s Third Root,” that, “Wherever people gather in the poor fishing villages of Costa Chica on Mexico’s southwest coast — in their homes, on the streets, in the town squares during festivals — someone is likely to step forward and start sing- ing. These impromptu performers regale their audience with songs of romance, tragedy, comedy, and social protest, all inspired by local events and characters. At the heart of the songs, called ‘corridos,’ is a sense of human dignity and a desire for freedom rooted in the lives and history of the people of Costa Chica, many of whom are descendants of escaped slaves.”
“The corridos reflect oral traditions inherited from Africa. The words are improvised, and a corrido that brings applause is apt to be committed to memory, to be sung again and again as an oral chronicle of local life,” notes Montiel, author of “Afroamérica II. Africanos y Afrodescendientes,” and scholarly papers — “Our Third Root On African Presence in American Populations, and Integration Patterns and the Assimilation Process of Negro Slaves in Mexico.”
Montiel also writes, “The lyrics are also rich in symbols, a tradition that may have started when singers among the first slaves invented ‘code words’ to protest the cruelty of their masters. The African imprint in Costa Chica is not confined to music. For the ‘Dance of the Devil,’ performed during Holy Week in the streets of Collantes, Oaxaca, dancers wear masks that show the clear influence of Africa. And down on the docks, fishermen employ methods of work that may have been brought centuries ago from the coast of West Africa. [The Spanish colon- ists took full advantage of technology that Africans had developed for work in the tropics and adapted and improved in the New World.] Yet today, many African contributions to advancing the technologies of fishing, agriculture, ranching, and textile-making in Mexico remain unappreciated.”
In Black enclaves like Costa Chica, the African presence pervades Mexican culture, Montiel writes, and “in story and legend, music and dance, proverb and song, the legacy of Africa touches the life of every Mexican. Today, after five hundred years of blending with the traditions of Indians and Europeans, it has become nearly impossi- ble to trace the specific contributions of any of these groups. Compounding the difficulty is the fact that the African elements in Mexico’s culture are not acknowledged as they are in other countries of the Americas. In fact, [the] mestizaje, the official ideology that defines Mexico’s culture as a blend of European and indigenous influences, completely ignores the contributions of the nation’s 'Third Root.' Africans and their descendants, nearly invisible in the Spanish chronicles of the colonial period, continue to receive little attention in the official history of Mexico. So it is no surprise that Blacks, who live primarily in poor, rural areas where the level of education is very low, lack a clear consciousness of their African heritage.”
Geography helped preserve African heritage. “To an extent, geography has shaped the heritage of Mexico’s Black communities. The isolation of the west coast and the mountains, which offered sanctuary to escaped slaves, also preserved many elements of African tradition, Montiel continues. “On the other hand, the Gulf Coast region, especially the port of Veracruz, was a crossroads where Mexico’s indigenous culture blended with myriad influences from Africa, Europe, South America, and especially the Caribbean. In this variegated mixture, it is sometimes difficult to isolate the African presence. As in the past, Blacks on the Gulf Coast are more likely to trace the origins of their lineage to the Caribbean. The people on the west coast and in the mountains, how- ever, have lately begun to acknowledge their links to Africa and to their slave past. In part, this is in response to recent ethnographic, folkloric, and historical studies as well as to frequent visits by scholars to these regions. It may be as well that the stress of increasing contact with other peoples — and with immigrants who now come to exploit their land and labor — has fostered a need among these groups for a self-identity defining them as the Blacks from the coast.”
Accordingly, writes Montiel, “It is a fact that economic stresses compel ethnic groups in sudden contact with outsiders to either reinforce their traditions or capitulate to the attractions that cultural homogenization has to offer. This is how cultural groups are depersonalized and their traditional values lost. Hopefully, the Blacks of Costa Chica and elsewhere in Mexico will come to find new meaning in the traditions that have sustained them for centuries. Mexico will be much the richer for it.”
Influenced by the increasing interest in Africans and their descendants in other parts of the world, the work of a small but significant group of Mexican intellectuals, along with the contributions of researchers in the U.S. like Gleaton, Roman, Palmer, and Montiel, have expanded the focus on Black Mexicans and the body of know- ledge and historical evidence about them. Newly documented truth abounds. It is now established fact that, like the state of Veracruz — especially the port city of the same name — is generally recognized as having Black people. In fact, there is a widespread tendency to identify all Mexicans who have distinctively Black features as originating from Veracruz. In addition to its relatively well-known history as a major slave port, Veracruz received significant numbers of descendants of Africa from Haiti and Cuba between the 19th and early 20th centuries. As far as the precise figures on the numbers of enslaved Africans who integrated Spanish America, there is no way to quantify the total. Some scholars believe 200,000 slaves were brought to Mexico for manual labor purposes while others believe the true number totaled more than 500,000. The source of these figures is the census of 1646 of Mexico City, as reported by Gonzalo Aguirre Beltran in “La Poblacion Negra de Mexico.”
The mingling of blood that occurred between the Spanish and indigenous natives of Mexico also occurred with African slaves. Historians differ on the actual number of slaves brought to Mexico during the colonial expansion. The mulattos in Mexico race are a people seldom acknowledged. Traditionally, the mestizo race is a mixture of Spanish and indigenous blood. Mulattos are a blend of African and Spanish blood, which was absorbed into the fabric of the Mexican culture over the years, as racial co-mingling occurred throughout Mexico without boun- dary. The first Africans to arrive Mexico, as well as their descendants, have greatly influenced Mexican culture.
Few people know that Juan Garrido, a Black Moor and Black Mexican was the first farmer to plant wheat in Mexico. He also traveled with the Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca from Florida across the present American Southwest, between 1528 and 1536. Another Black Mexico shuddered in Mexican history is Esteban de Dorantes aka Estevanico or Mustafa Azemmouri, was the first African to explore North America. He was taken captive, enslaved and sold to a Spanish nobleman in Spain in about 1521.
Garrido's arly life and education. Garrido (1487-1550) was an African conquistador, born in the Kingdom of Kongo or "Kongo dia Ntotila." Kongolese by birth (not to be confused with Congolese from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) or the Republic of the Congo aka Congo-Brazzaville), he went to Portugal as a young man. Converting to Catholicism, Garrido chose the Spanish name, Juan Garrido ("Handsome John"). He went to Seville, Spain where he joined an expedition to the New World. Garrido joined a Spanish expedition and arrived in Santo Domingo (Hispaniola) about 1502, where he engaged in the invasion of present-day Puerto Rico and Cuba in 1508.
Garrido was among the earliest Africans to reach the Americas. He was one of numerous Africans or possibly a "freedman" who had joined expeditions from Seville to the Americas. From the beginning of Spanish presence in the Americas, Africans participated as voluntary expeditionaries, conquistadors, and auxiliaries. In 1513, as part of Juan Ponce de Leon entourage in search of gold, the expedition landed in Florida. Garrido is the first known African to arrive in North America.
By 1519 Garrido participated in the expedition led by Hernán Cortés to Mexico, where they lay siege to Tenochtitlan. In 1520 he built a chapel to commemorate the many Spanish killed in battle that year by the Aztecs. It now stands as the Church of San Hipólito. Garrido married and settled in Mexico City, where he and his wife had three children. Garrido and other blacks were also part of expeditions to Michoacán in the 1520s. Nuño de Guzmán swept through that region in 1529-30 with the aid of Black auxiliaries. Garrido prov-ided testimony on his 30 years of service as a conquistador, documented by the following letter in 1538:
"I, Juan Garrido, black in color, resident of this city [Mexico], appear before Your Mercy and state that I am in need of providing evidence to the perpetuity of the king, a report on how I served Your Majesty in the conquest and pacification of this New Spain, from the time when the Marqués del Valle [Cortés] entered it; and in his company I was present at all the invasions and conquests and pacifications which were carried out, always with the said Marqués, all of which I did at my own expense without being given either salary or repartimiento de indios [allotment of natives] or anything else.
The letter continues, "As I am married and a resident of this city, where I have always lived; and also as I went with the Marqués del Valle to discover the islands which are in that part of the southern sea [the Pacific] where there was much hunger and privation; and also as I went to discover and pacify the islands of San Juan de Buriquén de Puerto Rico; and also as I went on the pacification and conquest of the island of Cuba with the adelantado Diego Velázquez; in all these ways for thirty years have I served and continue to serve Your Majesty—for these reasons stated above do I petition Your Mercy. And also because I was the first to have the inspiration to sow wheat here in New Spain and to see if it took; I did this and experimented at my own expense."
Throughout the centuries, Black Mexicans have made enormous contributions to the country and deserve recognition for their many accomplishments. Black Mexicans share a rich history and count heroes and presi- dents among their ancestors. The historical record, of course, tells another story. In the 16th century, New Spain probably had more enslaved Africans than any other colony in the Western Hemisphere. Blacks were present as slaves of the Spaniards as early as the 1520s. Over the approximately three hundred years Spanish slavery lasted, the slave trade brought hundreds of thousands of Africans to the colony. Many Blacks were born in Mex- ico and followed their parents into slavery.
The institution of slavery in Mexico was abolished in 1829 by Vicente Guerrero, the nation's second mulatto president, 34 years before President Abraham Lincoln would declare the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery in America. That was a major leap by President Guerrero. Another seminal leap was a major leap to California.
Part lV continues
Part IV Black Mexico: Unearthing the Third Root
Vicente Guerrero Interlude
SECOND MULATTO PRESIDENT Vicente Ramón Guerrero Saldaña was a hero in Mexico’s War of Indepen- dence from Spain. The state of Guerrero was named in his honor. In addition, one of the most respected and honored generals in Mexico’s War of Independence, Jose Mar’a Teclo Morelos y Pavan, was a mulatto, as well. Guerrero’s grandson, Vicente Riva Palacio y Guerrero, was one of Mexico’s most influential politicians and novelists.
As more evidence of the Third Root is extracted from Mexico’s buried history, it is becoming more apparent all the time that Mexico’s ancient melding with Africans offers volumes of historical fact that, as a "social equalizer" must one day re-cast the truth of Mexico’s official history from the shadow of obscurity. Black-Mexicans have also contributed greatly to Mexico’s rich heritage of dance, music and song. The famous "carnival of blackness" cele- brated in Coyolillo in Veracruz has African origins. Mexico’s food, language, and spiritual practices have been influenced by the descendants of African slaves. Black immigrants to the country must be recognized and included in this equation. To add to this, many more African slaves fled from America to Mexico seeking asylum and refuge during the years of the brutal practice in America before slavery’s end.
Vicente Ramón Guerrero Saldaña, born Aug. 10, 1782, in Tixtla, Puebla, New Spain, died Feb. 14, 1831, in Cuilapan, Oaxaca, Mexico, at age 48, carved out an extraordinary life and career in nearly five decades. Born to an African mother, María de Guadalupe Saldaña, and Mestizo father, Pedro Guerrero, the ethnic fusion would cast Guerrero as Zambo. He was tall, robust, dark complexioned, often referred to as El Negro.
Guerrero made a career in the military from 1810-1821, serving in the army where he earned stellar rank as captain, lieutenant colonel, and general. During service to his country, he married María de Guadalupe Hernández. The couple produced one child named María de los Dolores Guerrero Hernández. The peculiar naming was the result of Spanish customs: the first or paternal name is Guerrero and the second or maternal family name is Saldaña. Guerrero was a member of the Liberal Party, and one of the leading revolutionary generals of the Mexican War of Independence. He fought against Spain for independence in the early 19th century, and later served as the second president of Mexico, April 1, 1829 to Dec. 17, 1829, coming to power in a coup d’etat.
President Guerrero championed the cause of Mexico’s common people, and abolished slavery during his brief term as president. It remains a sad reality how both a war hero, people’s champion, and president of Mexico would in the end lose his life by firing squad. His execution in 1831 by the conservative government that ousted him in 1829 left the entire nation numb.
Guerrero was born in Tixtla, a town 60 miles inland from the port of Acapulco in Sierra Madre del Sur. The region where he grew up had a large concentration of indigenous groups, and as a young man he was more conversant in the local language than Spanish. His father's family included landlords, rich farmers and traders with broad business connections in the south, members of the Spanish militia and gun and cannon makers. In his youth, he worked for his father's freight business that used mules for transport. His travels took him to different parts of Mexico where he heard of the ideas of independence.
Guerrero's father, Pedro, supported Spanish rule, whereas his uncle, Diego Guerrero, had an important position in the Spanish militia. As an adult, Guerrero was opposed to the Spanish colonial government. When his father asked him for his sword in order to present it to the viceroy of New Spain as a sign of goodwill, Guerrero refused, saying, "The will of my father is for me sacred, but my fatherland is first [mi patria es primero] is now the motto of the southern Mexican state of Guerrero, named in honor of the revolutionary. Guerrero enlisted in José María Morelos's insurgent army of the south in December 1810.
Guerrero married María de Guadalupe Hernández; their daughter María de los Dolores Guerrero Hernández married Mariano Riva Palacio, who was the defense lawyer of Maximilian I of Mexico in Querétaro, and was the mother of late 19th-century intellectual Vicente Riva Palacio.
Career as an insurgent, 1810–21.
In 1810 Guerrero joined in the early revolt against Spain, first fighting in the forces of secular priest José María Morelos. Morelos described him as "A young man with bronzed skin, tall and strong, strapping, aquiline nose, light-colored eyes and big sideburns." When the War of Independence began, Guerrero was working as a gun- smith in Tixtla. He joined the rebellion in November 1810 and enlisted in a division that independence leader Morelos had organized to fight in southern Mexico.
Guerrero distinguished himself in the battle of Izúcar, in February 1812, and had achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel when Oaxaca was claimed by rebels in November 1812. Initial victories by Morelos's forces faltered and Morelos himself was captured and executed in December 1815. Guerrero joined forces with Guadalupe Victoria ria and Isidoro Montes de Oca, taking the position of "Commander in Chief" of the rebel troops. In 1816, the royal government under Viceroy Apodaca sought to end the insurgency, offering amnesty. Guerrero's father carried one appeal for his son to surrender, but Guerrero refused. He remained the only major rebel leader still at large, keeping the rebellion going through an extensive campaign of guerrilla warfare. He won victories at Ajuchitán, Santa Fe, Tetela del Río, Huetamo, Tlalchapa and Cuautlotitlán, regions of southern Mexico that were very familiar to him.
Hoping to extinguish the rebellion, the royal government sent Agustín de Iturbide against Guerrero's forces. Guerrero was victorious against Iturbide, who realized there was a military stalemate. Guerrero appealed to Iturbide to abandon his royalist loyalty and join the fight for independence. Events in Spain had changed in 1820, with Spanish liberals ousting Ferdinand VII and imposing the liberal constitution of 1812 that the king had repudiated. Conservatives in Mexico, including the Catholic hierarchy began to conclude that continued allegiance to Spain would undermine their position, and opted for independence in order to maintain their control. Guerrero's appeal to join the forces for independence was successful. Guerrero and Iturbide allied under the Plan de Iguala and their forces merged as the Army of the Three Guarantees.
The Plan of Iguala proclaimed independence, called for a constitutional monarchy and the continued place of the Roman Catholic Church, and abolished the formal casta system of racial classification. Clause 12 was incorpor- ated into the plan. It read: All inhabitants ... without distinction of their European, African or Indian origins are citizens ... with full freedom to pursue their livelihoods according to their merits and virtues. The Army of the Three Guarantees marched triumphantly into Mexico City in Sept. 27, 1821.
Mexican Empire, 1822–23
Agustín de Iturbide was proclaimed Emperor of Mexico by Congress. In January 1823, Guerrero, along with Nicolás Bravo, rebelled against Iturbide, returning to southern Mexico to raise rebellion, according some assessments because their careers had been blocked by the emperor. Their stated objectives were to restore the Constituent Congress. Guerrero and Bravo were defeated by Iturbide's forces at Almolongo (now in the State of Guerrero) less than a month later. When Iturbide's imperial government collapsed in 1823, Guerrero was named one of Constituent Congress's ruling triumvirate.
In 1828, the four-year term of the first president of the republic, Guadalupe Victoria, came to an end. Unlike the first presidential election and the president serving his full term, the election of 1828 was highly partisan. Guerrero's supporters included federalist liberals, members of the radical wing of the York Rite Freemasons. General Gómez Pedraza won the September 1828 election to succeed Guadalupe Victoria, with Guerrero coming in second and Anastasio Bustamante, third through indirect election of Mexico's state legislatures.
Gómez Pedraza was the candidate of the "Impartials," composed of Yorkinos concerned about the radicalism of Guerrero and Scottish Rite Masons (Escocés), who sought a new political party. Among those who were Impar- tials were distinguished federalist Yorkinos Valentín Gómez Farías and Miguel Ramos Arizpe. The U.S. diplomatic representative in Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett was enthusiastic about Guerrero's candidacy, writing
"...A man who is held up as ostensible head of the party, and who will be their candidate for the next presidency, is General Guerrero, one of the most distinguished chiefs of the revolution. Guerrero is uneducated, but poss- esses excellent natural talents, combined with great decision of character and undaunted courage. His violent temper renders him difficult to control, and therefore I consider Zavala's presence here indispensably necessary, as he possesses great influence over the general."
Joel R. Poinsett, U.S. ambassador to Mexico, had strong opinions about the character of Vicente Guerrero, who
did not leave an abundant written record, but some of his speeches survive.
"A free state protects the arts, industry, science and trade; and the only prizes virtue and merit: if we want to acquire the latter, let's do it cultivating the fields, the sciences, and all that can facilitate the sustenance and entertainment of men: let's do this in such a way that we will not be a burden for the nation, just the opposite, in
a way that we will satisfy her needs, helping her to support her charge and giving relief to the distraught of humanity: with this we will also achieve abundant wealth for the nation, making her prosper in all aspects."
— Vicente Ramón Guerrero Saldaña, Speech to his compatriots
Two weeks after the Sept. 1 election, Antonio López de Santa Anna rose in rebellion in support of Guerrero. As governor of the strategic state of Veracruz and former general in the war of independence, Santa Anna was a powerful figure in the early republic, but he was unable to persuade the state legislature to support Guerrero in the indirect elections. Santa Anna resigned the governorship and led 800 troops loyal to him in capturing the fortress of Perote, near Xalapa. He issued a political plan there calling for the nullification of Gómez Pedraza's election and the declaration of Guerrero as president.
El Parián market in the zócalo, lithograph, early 19th century. In November 1828 in Mexico City, Guerrero supporters took control of the Acordada, a former prison transformed into an armory, and days of fighting occurred in the capital. President-elect Gómez Pedraza had not yet taken office and at this juncture he resigned and soon went into exile in England. With the resignation of the president-elect and the ineffective rule of the sitting president, civil order dissolved.
On Dec. 4, 1828, a riot broke out in the Zócalo and the Parián market, where luxury goods were sold, was looted. Order was restored within a day, but elites in the capital were alarmed at the violence of the popular classes and the huge property losses. With the resignation of Gómez Pedraza, and Guerreros' cause backed by Santa Anna's forces and the powerful liberal politician Lorenzo de Zavala, Guerrero became president. Guerrero took office as president, with Bustamante, a conservative, becoming vice president. One scholar sums up Guerrero's situation, "Guerrero owed the presidency to a mutiny and a failure of will on the part of [President] Guadalupe Victoria...Guerrero was to rule as president with only a thin layer of support."
Liberal folk hero of the independence insurgency Guerrero became president on April 1, 1829, with conservative Anastasio Bustamante as his vice president. For some of Guerrero's supporters, a visibly mixed-race man from Mexico's periphery becoming president of Mexico was a step toward in what one 1829 pamphleteer called "the reconquest of this land by its legitimate owners" and called Guerrero "that immortal hero, favorite son of Nezahualcoyotzin," the famous ruler of pre-Hispanic Texcoco. Some creole elites (American-born Whites of Spanish heritage) were alarmed by Guerrero as president, a group that liberal Lorenzo de Zavala disparagingly called "the new Mexican aristocracy."
Guerrero set about creating a cabinet of liberals, but his government already encountered serious problems, including its very legitimacy, since president-elect Gómez Pedraza had resigned under pressure. Some tradi- tional federalists leaders, who might have supported Guerrero, did not do so because of the electoral irregular- ities. The national treasury was empty and future revenues already had liens applied against them. Spain continued to deny Mexico's independence and threatened reconquest.
Guerrero called for public schools, land title reforms, industry and trade development, and other programs of a liberal nature. As president, Guerrero championed the causes of the racially oppressed and economically oppressed. He ordered an immediate abolition of slavery on Sept. 16, 1829. In central Mexico, there were few Black slaves, so that the gesture was largely symbolic, but in the Mexican state of Texas, where White-American slave-holding southerners were colonizing, the decree went against their economic interests Initially, White-American Stephen F. Austin, colonizer in Texas, was enthusiastic about the Mexican government.
"This is the most liberal and munificent government on earth to emigrants – after being here one year you will oppose a change even to Uncle Sam" –Stephen Fuller Austin, 1829, letter to his sister describing Guerrero's Government of Mexico (and Texas)
Ouster, Capture and Execution, Dec. 1829 – Feb. 1831. During Guerrero's presidency, the Spanish tried to reconquer Mexico, but they failed, being defeated at the Battle of Tampico. Guerrero was deposed in a rebellion under Vice-President Anastasio Bustamante that began on Dec. 4, 1829. Guerrero left the capital to fight in the south, but was deposed by the Mexico City garrison in his absence on Dec. 17, 1829. Guerrero had returned to the region of southern Mexico where he had fought during the war of independence. Elites in Mexico City feared Guerrero's appeal to mixed-race Mexicans and Indians. Bustamante feared the claim that Guerrero was descended from Aztec royalty would bolster his appeal to Indians.
"It is greatly to be feared that once the Indians were aroused by Guerrero they would form a party that would lead to caste [race] war."
Open warfare between Guerrero and his opponent in the region Nicolás Bravo was fierce. Bravo had been a royalist officer and Guerrero was an insurgent hero. Bravo controlled the highlands of the region, including the town of Guerrero's birth, Tixtla. Guerrero had strength in the hot coastal regions of the Costa Grande and Tierra Caliente, with mixed race populations that had been mobilized during the insurgency for independence. Bravo's area had a mixed population, but politically was dominated by Whites. The conflict in the south occurred for all of 1830, as conservatives consolidated power in Mexico City.
The war in the south might have continued even longer, but ended in what one historian has called "the most shocking single event in the history of the first republic: the capture of Guerrero in Acapulco through an act of betrayal and his execution a month later." Guerrero controlled Mexico's principal Pacific coast port of Acapulco. An Italian merchant ship captain, Francisco Picaluga, approached the conservative government in Mexico City with a proposal to lure Guerrero onto his ship and take him prisoner for the price of 50,000 pesos, a fortune at the time.
Picaluga invited Guerrero on board for a meal on Jan. 14, 1831. Guerrero and a few aids were taken captive and Picaluga sailed to the port of Huatulco, where Guerrero was turned over to federal troops. Guerrero was taken to Oaxaca City and summarily tried by a court-martial. His capture was welcomed by conservatives and some state legislatures, but the legislatures of Zacatecas and Jalisco tried to prevent Guerrero's execution. The govern- ment's 50,000 peso payment to Picaluga was exposed in the liberal press. Despite pleas for his life, Guerrero was executed by firing squad in Cuilapam on Feb. 14, 1831. His death did mark the dissolution of the rebellion in southern Mexico, but those politicians involved in his execution paid a lasting price to their reputations.
Many Mexicans saw Guerrero as the "martyr of Cuilapam" and his execution was deemed by the liberal news- paper El Federalista Mexicano "judicial murder." The two conservative cabinet members considered most culpable for Guerrero's execution, Lucas Alamán and Secretary of War José Antonio Facio, "spent the rest of their lives defending themselves from the charge that they were responsible for the ultimate betrayal in the history of the first republic, that is, that they had arranged not just for the service of Picaluga's ship but specifically for his capture of Guerrero."
Historian Jan Bazant speculates as why Guerrero was executed rather than sent into exile, as Iturbide had been, Antonio López de Santa Anna, and long-time late-19th century Mexican dictator, Porfirio Díaz:
"The clue is provided by Zavala who, writing several years later, noted that Guerrero was of mixed blood and that the opposition to his presidency came from Mexican landowners, military generals, clerics and [resident] Span- iards. Guerrero's execution was perhaps a warning to men considered as socially and ethnically inferior not to dare to dream of becoming president."
Honors were conferred on surviving members of Guerrero's family, and a pension was paid to his widow. In 1842, Vicente Guerrero's remains were exhumed and returned to Mexico City for re-interment. He is known for his political discourse promoting equal civil rights for all Mexican citizens. He is a Mexican national hero and has been described as the "greatest man of color" to ever live.
Part V continues.
Part V Black Mexico: Unearthing the Third Root
Founding Los Angeles:
Revealing a 200-Year Deception
IN 2022, IT IS ESTIMATED that more than a half-million Black-Mexicans are concentrated in the states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Veracruz. Black-Mexican communities can also be found in the states of Michoacan, Campeche, Quintana Roo, and the Yucatan. The majority of Black-Mexicans reside on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, in a region known as La Costa Chica. This stretch of coastline is a part of the Southwestern state of Guerrero and starts south of Acapulco and extends for approximately 200 miles. Fishing and agriculture are the mainstays of the economy. Africans had begun to enter the northwestern region of Colonial Mexico by the mid-1600s. Their descendants were racially mixed by the time the colonization of Alta California had begun in the second half of the 18th century.
What is more compelling, is that Indigenous natives, mulattos, mestizos, zambos, and other persons of mixed blood were actually the majority population in Mexico’s northwest region. This evidence proves that Mexico’s early origins as a sovereign nation were nothing close to being homogeneous — but, rather a blend of cultures. From the northwest region came the original settlers of Alta California who traveled north with Capt. Juan Bautista de Anza. between 1774 and 1776. Alta Loma marked the northern frontier of the Spanish empire in the New World. These settlers who accompanied Bautista de Anza were among the original settlers of Los Angeles.
Black Mexico and Los Angeles. Unbeknownst to many, the African American imprint in the history of Los Angeles is indelible. African Americans have made significant contributions to Los Angeles in all areas — from the arts and culture to science, education, architecture, and politics. Contrary to popular belief, the African American presence in the city did not originate from the waves of new settlers who came to Los Angeles in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — their presence and contributions to the City of the Angels stem from its founding in 1781, and the collision between U.S. and Mexican social histories. A review of the castas (race) of the 44 adult pobladores (settlers), according to the 1781 census, reveal the historic record.
The breakdown by ethnicity also reveals how race-conscious the ruling class Spaniards had been in colonial Mexico, thoroughly embedding this in the colonial mindset ensuring there would be no blurred lines along race, clearly establishing “class” privilege and secondary citizenship status. The class breakdown is Peninsular (Spaniard born in Spain); Criollo (Spaniard born in colonial Mexico); Mestizo (mixed Spanish and Indian); Negros (Blacks of full African ancestry); Mulattos (mixed Spanish and Black); Zambos (mixed Indian and Black).
The pobladores of Los Angeles came from the present northwest Mexican states of Sonora and Sinaloa, were of mixed Indian, African and European descent. This mixed racial composition was not only typical of the majority of settlers of Alta California, it reflected the majority population of Sonora and Sinaloa, as well as the entire northwestern region of colonial Mexico. Under the new governor of California, Felipe de Neve, El Pueblo de La Reina de Los Angeles was founded on Sept. 4, 1781.
The 44 pobladores arriving in Alta California in 1781 were 11 mulatto and mestizo families — including children. Only two Spaniards or Whites were numbered among the pobladores. The majority were mulatto. The original
contention that indigenous Mexicans founded Los Angeles was not completely true. A shameful omission was uncovered just weeks ahead of the city 1982 Bicentennial Commemoration.
Shameful 200-Year Lie. Los Angeles is a remarkable megalopolis with a population topping 4 million in 2019
with a vibrant tapestry of cultures and ethnicities from around the globe. The city had a humble beginning with the arrival of a band of dusty travelers — the 44 Original Pobladores or settlers, from Mexico on Sept. 4, 1781, whom local historians would not accurately identify for another 200 years. It was part of the city’s Shadow His- tory. Angelinos never knew the bloodline of Africa contributed significantly to the emergence of Los Angeles. The racial backlash against Africans — who had no say in their forced removal from Africa — persisted all the way to the seeding and germination of the “City of the Angels.” The original plaque at Olvera Street commemorating “Los Pobladores” or settlers, for many years harbored a shameful omission — never referencing the African heritage of the original settlers. The historic “Los Pobladores Walk to Los Angeles” a tradition that commem- orates the final nine miles of the great trek to California by the settlers, occurs each year over the Labor Day weekend, which coincides with the Sept. 4 anniversary of the city’s founding.
Original Mission Nuestra Senora Reina De Los Angeles. The commemoration was organized in 1981 by the Los Pobladores 200, an association comprised of the descendants of the 44 Original Pobladores and six-soldier detail that ushered them to California, then a territory of Mexico known as Alta, California. The commemoration celebrates the pobladores’final 9-mile trek to the city center.
Los Pobladores 200 proudly embraced their forebears until they were confronted by a cloistered secret of which a fringe minority of Mexicans never discussed beyond a whisper down through the years — that “black blood” or African DNA was infused in Mexican ancestry. The contention did not sit well with Los Pobladores 200 whose members considered themselves traditional Mexican with Indigenous roots and/or a blend of Indigenous and Spanish. For decades historians of Mexican culture had rejected the notion of African infusion. Eventually, scho-lars from the Los Angeles area, including professors from the University of Southern California, and California State University, Dominguez Hills—part of a sub-committee formed during a citywide effort to commemorate L.A.’s Bicentennial anniversary in 198l—became concerned and endeavored to set the record straight. Unfortu-
nately, divulging the true history of the original pobladores was “a political hot potato,” according to the late Dr. Doyce Nunis, Jr., professor emeritus of California history during the time at the University of Southern California.
Nunis said, “The descendants of Los Pobladores were very sensitive to the prospect of being revealed as having African roots. But history is history — you cannot change it. And the subcommittee found the evidence.” The
highly qualified team had been assembled by Nunis to establish the indisputable truth about the contributions of Black-Mexicans to the seeding and nurturing of colonial Los Angeles. The multiracial ethnicity of the pobladores was considered a fallacy by the scholarly establishment and never accepted until explicit census information was found in an archive in Seville, Spain. Documents there confirmed that 11 families recruited by Felipe de Neve, the first Spanish governor of Alta California, arrived from the Mexican provinces of Sinaloa and Sonora.
Los Pobladores 200 is reticent to this day to discuss the subcommittee’s groundbreaking findings. Nunis asked a
former student, Donald T. Hata, in 1978 to chair the Pobladores Subcommittee for the City of Los Angeles and to research and draft a commemorative plaque to honor the pobladores for the City’s Bicentennial celebration in 1981. They helped to replace the old plaque on display at Olvera Street with the current one which accurately depicts the multiracial make up of the founders, and the inclusion of the Third Root from Africa in Mexican history, and by extension, Los Angeles.
Olvera Street was a favorite destination for elementary school “field trips” prior to 1981 for children throughout L.A. County. Prior to 1981, Black pupils from the city’s urban core were not privileged to the truth that Black-Mexicans were not only involved in the colonizing of Los Angeles but were the dominant settlers in the city’s founding. This writer was one of those students who traveled to Olvera Street for field trips on several occasions during my years attending Clara Barton Hill Elementary in San Pedro, Calif.
It should be noted, the African connection occurred when more than 200,000 slaves from Africa were exported to colonial Mexico by Spain in the 15th century to labor in the sugar cane fields and silver mines. The region was colonized in 1519. Over time, the African slaves revolted against their Spanish enslavers, gained freedom, but never returned to Africa.
Inter-marriage with both Spaniards and indigenous resulted in mulatto and Zambo cultures, respectively. The inter-mix of indigenous people and Spaniards birth the mestizo culture. The 44 pobladores arriving in Los Angeles in 1781 were 11 mulatto and mestizo families — including children. The majority were mulatto.
Serving with Hata on the subcommittee was an A-team of scholars, that included Miriam Matthews, the first African American to earn a degree in library science at USC, who went on to have an illustrious career as a librarian and archivist of African American history in Los Angeles. Matthews helped to document the city’s multiracial origins, listing all of the pobladores by name, race, sex, and age.
Matthews, who died in 2003 at age 98, also amassed a collection of approximately 4,600 black-and-white photographs documenting the African American experience in Los Angeles and California, including images depicting the founding of the city, African American stagecoach drivers and overland guides to California, and the multiracial Californio family of Pio Pico, the wealthy Black-Mexican landowner for whom the City of Pico Rivera and Pico Boulevard are named.
Hata would go on to earn a doctorate in history and stellar achievement on the way to earning the distinction as an emeritus professor of history at California State University, Dominguez Hills.
The team also included David Almada, a Los Angeles Unified School District administrator serving at a time when few Latinos served in such positions; and historian Leonard Pitt, an emeritus professor of history at California State University, Northridge and author of Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish-Speaking Californians, 1846-1890. Pitt died in July 2015 at 85.
The truth of the city’s founding was a milestone set in stone, one of Nunis’ signature achievements. The esteemed historian died on Jan. 22, 2011 at age 86.
The voice of history resounded. While the First and Second Roots of Indigenous and Spaniard, respectively formed colonial Mexico initially, with the “Third Root” from Africa infusing into the culture later in the 15th century, the Third Root would eventually find its way to California by way of Mexico and plow historically into the fertile ground that spawned the City of Los Angeles.
That sealed the truth forever.
Black Mexicans in Los Angeles history. Francisco Reyes, for example, served as the first alcalde (mayor) from 1792 to 1795 and was the original owner of the present-day San Fernando Valley.
María Rita Valdez, a descendant of poblador Luis Quintero, was granted the Rancho Rodeo de Aguas in 1841. She later sold the property to developers. Today it comprises the City of Beverly Hills.
Pío Pico (1801-1894) is perhaps the most celebrated Black-Mexican in California history. He was the last governor of California under Mexican rule, an owner of huge rancho properties and prominent resident of Los Angeles. His parents and grandparents came with the Anza party from Sinaloa, Mexico in 1776, where two-thirds of the residents were mulattos. Pio’s younger brother, Andrés Pico was a wealthy landowner and military commander during the Mexican era. Under U.S. rule, he became a member of the State Constitutional Commit- tee, general of the State Militia and California state senator.
The grandchildren of Pío Pico, who also built the Pico House, were Luis Quintero, María Rita Valdes, and Eugene Biscailuz, who served as sheriff of Los Angeles County. It is in Biscailuz’ name for whom the L.A. County Sheriff’s Academy Training Facility is named.
Throughout the 19th century, the “rancho dons” and their families would intermarry with each other and with immigrant White-American merchants from New England, who arrived to trade in hides, creating strong family alliances. Many other Black-Mexicans during the Mexican and early American periods continued to make important contributions to the Pueblo of Los Angeles. Today, the “founders’ plaque” at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument serves as a tribute to the African-American origins of Los Angeles and an enduring hope for the future. The majority of the original founding pobladores or colonists of El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Ángeles (Los Angeles), approximately 300 years after African slaves arrived in colonial Mexico, were of African Ancestry. The founding families of from the original group, Nov. 19, 1781, Padrón of the Pueblo, included at least 32 settlers, including children, who were Black-Mexicans.
The following are the original 11 families of El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Ángeles who made the hot dusty trek of more than 1,000 miles across the desert in Northern Mexico to Alta, California to stake their claim, plant roots and go about the task of nurturing what would eventually become America’s “Golden State,” and the richest in the Union. Of the 44 original founding pobladores of Los Angeles, 20 were mulatto, linked to the Third Root; 11 were indigenous, 6 were indigenous/mulatto, 5 were mestizo, and 2 were Spaniard (White).
The following are the original 11 families of El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Ángeles:
Manuel Camero, 30, a mulatto from Nayarit, married Maria Tomasa Garcia, 24, a mulatta.
Antonio Mesa, 38, a mulatto from Sinaloa, married Maria Ana Gertrudis Lopez, 27, a mulatta. Two children accompanied them to Alta California; Marla Paula, 10; and Antonio Maria, 8.
Luis Manuel Quintero, 55, an African from Jalisco, married Maria Petra Rubio, 40, a mulatta. They arrived to Alta California with their five children — María Gertrudis, 16; María Concepcíon, 9; María Tomasa, 7; María Rafaela, 6; and José Clemente, 3.
José Cesario Moreno, a mulatto from Sinaloa, married María Guadalupe Gertrudis Pérez, 19, a mulatta.
José Antonio Basilio Rosas, 67, an indigenous native from Durango, married María Manuela Calixtra Hernández, 43, a mulatta. Six children arrived with them—José Máximo, 15; José Carlos, 12; María Josefa, 8; Antonio Rosalino, 7; José Marcelino, 4; and José Esteban, 2.
José Antonio Navarro, 42, a mestizo from Sinaloa, married María Regina Dorotea Glorea de Soto, 47, a mulatta.
Three children arrived with them; José Eduardo, 10; José Clemente, 9; and Mariana, 4.
Pablo Rodríguez, 25, an indigenous native from Sinaloa, married María Rosalia Noriega, 26, an indigenous native. They were accompanied by a 1-year-old child, María Antonia.
José Alejandro Rojas (son of José Antonio Basilio Rosas), 19, an indigenous native from Sinaloa, married Juana María Rodríguez, 20, an indigenous native.
Jose María Vanegas, 28, an indigenous native from Jalisco, married María Bonifacia Máxima Aguilar, 20, an indigenous native. A 1-year-old baby boy, Cosme Damien. arrived with them.
José Fernando de Velasco y Lara, 50, a Spaniard from Cadiz, married María Antonia Campos, 23, an indigenous native. Three children arrived with them; María Juan, 6; José Julian, 4; and María Faustina, 2.
Antonio Clemente Félix Villavicencio, 30, a Spaniard from Chihuahua, married María de Los Santos Flores Serafina, 26, an indigenous native. One child arrived with them; María Antonia, 8.
Part VI continues.
Part VI Black Mexico: Unearthing the Third Root
Colonial Los Angeles
THE STORY OF THE TRANSATLANTIC slave trade largely has been told from the perspective of Africans and African-Americans, whose forebears were the unwilling servants deracinated from the shores of Africa, shackled ankle to wrist in chains aboard converted English cargo ships in their dank, darkened, putrid holds. They were “tightly-packed” in vessels to include as many slaves as possible, fed slop like swine, left helplessly to wallow in their own excrement and vomit, to endure arduous, debilitating voyages across the Atlantic’s Middle Passage to America.
The journey to America for hundreds of thousands of these wretched souls destined for Jamestown, Va., was only one part of the story. Perhaps as many as a half million more, according to historians, were destined elsewhere in the Americas, to colonial Mexico aboard ships captained by seafaring Spaniards. The hellish voyages in the bowels of these ships with slaves chained suffocatingly squashed together was identical to the conditions in the American vessels — indescribably dehumanizing.
After arrival to New Spain, their stories of centuries of bondage and travail, revolt, subsequent emancipation, and their post-slavery evolvement have never been illustrated as vividly as the indentured experience in America. Most Black-Mexicans in contemporary society have little to no understanding of their unique Africanness — of their connection to the African continent by a “Third Root,” to a people whose blood courses through their veins and whose genetic code clearly defines them as a special people. Along with their centuries-long ethnic blending with Spaniards and the indigenous population of the region, many evolved to a mixed-blood culture called mulattos and zambos.
The homogeneous gene eventually dissolved into the ethnic soup, according to historians, but lives on in the unique expression of millions of Mexicans in 2022, and with Latin, and South Americans, as well. The enduring story of the African lived on in Mexico as it did in America, and made an indelible imprint in America on the Pacific Coast in previously-owned Mexican territory called Alta California, with the seeding of a city that would become one of the world’s most sprawling megalopolises — Los Angeles.
The late historian William M. Mason of the Los Angeles City Historical Society, researched and documented the 44 original pobladores who founded Los Angeles. As indicated in Part IV, of the 44 original founding pobladores of Los Angeles, only two were white from Spain. Of the other 42 — 26 had some degree of African ancestry, 11 were indigenous, and 5 were mestizos (Spanish and indigenous). According to Mason’s findings, Los Angeles had been multi-ethnic since its genesis. This was backed-up by author and historian, Dr. Antonio Ríos-Busta- mante, who wrote that the original settlers of all of California were almost exclusively from the Mexican states of Sinaloa and Sonora, and that “the original settlers of Los Angeles were racially mixed persons of indigenous Indian, African, and European descent.
“This mixed racial composition was typical of both the settlers of Alta California and of the majority of the population of the northwest coast provinces of Mexico from which they were recruited,” Ríos-Bustamante said, adding, that in the century preceding the founding expedition of 1781, many Indians in this region of Mexico had been “culturally assimilated and ethnically intermixed into the Spanish-speaking, mestizo society.”
It was because of the scholarly work by Mason and fellow historians, Paul de Falla, and Dr. Atilio Parisi, coupled with research by Ríos-Bustamante, that Mason recognized the need for an organization devoted to the preser- vation of the history of the original City of Los Angeles and established and incorporated the Historical Society with the State of California on Oct. 25, 1976. The author of six books and several articles regarding the early history and cultures around Southern California, Mason, and his peers would go on to uncover the ethnic rich- ness of the Pueblo de la Reina de los Angeles through extensive research. Mason is chiefly credited with helping to uncover the ethnic facts about the original families of Los Angeles and their bloodlines. One of the Historical Society’s first projects was to mark the four corners of the original Pueblo in a permanent and conspicuous manner. Through the Society’s efforts, plaques now commemorate these historic points located in contemporary settings: In Ernest S. Debs Park; near Sunset Boulevard at Fountain Avenue; near Olympic Boulevard at Indiana Street; and in Exposition Park—the Pueblo’s northeast, northwest, southeast, and southwest corners, res- pectively.
Mason died in 2000, but before his demise established one concrete fact; that the reach from Africa through the “Third Root,” deeply embedded in Mexico, also extended to California to a tiny Mexican encampment that would spawn the “City of the Angels.” The official foundation date of Los Angeles is Sept. 4, 1781. Tradition has it that on this date 50 pobladores gathered at San Gabriel Mission along with two local priests and set out with a four-soldier escort for the site that Father Juan Crespi had selected more than a decade earlier. El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora Reina de los Angeles sobre el Rio Porciuncula (Spanish for The Town of Our Lady Queen of the Angels on the Porciuncula River) is the original, official long version of the name of the colony founded by the pobladores.
Mexico’s northernmost frontier. Alta California, as the province was known in the 18th century, marked the northern frontier of the Spanish empire in the New World. The story of California’s African heritage began in 1781, when the settlers founded El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles, and more than half of these original pobladores had African ancestors, as was typical in the northern provinces of New Spain. The descendants of these early settlers eventually developed their own culture and sense of place and became the Californios. Some became owners of large land estates granted to them by the Mexican government, others became government leaders.
The descendants of the settlers and soldiers naturally played a prominent role in developing the Los Angeles area. As colonial soldiers retired, the government granted them vast “ranchos” as partial or full payment in gratitude for their services. Other settlers also acquired ranches. Compared to the size of the pueblo, these land grants were massive in size and rivaled the land holdings of the missions. They were instrumental in developing a local economy based on cattle ranching and their owners, later referred to as “rancho dons,” became the predominant figures in Southern California society.
Power players of colonial Los Angeles. In spite of the emphasis on race clearly established by the historical mestizaje, Black-Mexicans, or mulattos, established themselves at the top of the social order in colonial Los Angeles due to their dominance among the pobladores. Among those exercising considerable political and economic power in the 18th century were Luis Quintero, Tiburcio Tapia, Pío de Jesús Pico, and Maria Rita Valdez. The following are time capsules of their exploits.
Luis Quintero was a Black-Mexican tailor from Guadalajara, Jalisco, who later became one of the original pobladores, along with his wife Maria Quintero, a mulatta born around 1741 in Álamos, Sonora. They bore five children María Gertrudis, María Concepcíon, María Tomasa, María Rafaela, and José Clemente. Luis and María Quintero traveled from Sonora to Alta California to become one of the founding families of the new Spanish pueblo in 1781, escorted along with other settlers by Capt. Fernando Rivera y Moncada and a small detail. When the settlers and soldiers were in Álamos in January 1781, Quintero’s destiny was already tied to the historic expedition to Alta California.
Tiburcio Tapia was among the original Los Angeles pobladores who would earn a lifetime of triumph — soldier, politician, cattle rancher, wealthy Los Angeles businessman, husband and father (married to Juana Tomasa). On March 3, 1839, Gov. Juan Bautista Alvarado rewarded Tapia’s loyalty by issuing a 13,045-acre Mexican land grant. The land grant encompassed present-day Rancho Cucamonga in San Bernardino County, which was established by Mission San Gabriel as a region for cattle grazing. The area extended east from San Antonio Creek to what is now Turner Avenue (Hermosa), and from what is now Eighth Street, to the San Gabriel Mountains. Tapia transferred his cattle to Rancho de Cucamonga and built a fort-like adobe house on Red Hill. Tapia also established the Cucamonga Rancho Winery on the rancho.
This was once the oldest winery in the California and the second oldest in the U.S. Fortunately for Tapia, the cession of California to the U.S. by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, guaranteed that land grants would be honored. The rancho was inherited by his daughter, Maria Merced Tapia de Prudhomme, and her husband Leon Victor Prudhomme, who later sold Rancho de Cucamonga to John Rains in 1858.
Pio de Jesus Pico was one of the richest individuals in Alta California. In 1850, he purchased the 8,894-acre Rancho Paso de Bartolo, which included half of present day Whittier. Two years later, he built a home on the ranch and lived there until 1892. It is preserved today as Pio Pico State Historic Park. Pico also owned the former Mission San Fernando Rey de España, Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores (now part of Camp Pendleton), and several other ranchos for a total of more than 500,000 acres. In 1868, he constructed the three-story, 33-room hotel, Pico House (Casa de Pico) on the old plaza of Los Angeles, opposite today’s Olvera Street. At the time of its opening in 1869, it was the most lavish hotel in Southern California.
By the turn of the century in1900, it was deteriorating slowly along with the adjoining neighborhood, as the business center moved further south. After decades of serving as a shabby flop house, it was deeded to the State of California in 1953 and is now a part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Monument. It is used on occasion for exhibits and special events. In politics, Pico served two terms as governor of Alta California, taking office the first time from Manuel Victoria in 1832, when Victoria was deposed for refusing to comply with orders to secularize the mission properties. As governor pro tem and “vocal” member of the Departmental Assembly, Pico began secularization. After 20 days in office, he abdicated in favor of Zamorano and Echeandía, who governed the north and south, respectively, until José Figueroa reunified the governorship in 1833.
In 1844, Pico was chosen as a leader of the California Assembly. In 1845, he was again appointed governor, succeeding the unpopular Manuel Micheltorena. Pico made Los Angeles the province’s capital. In the year leading up to the Mexican–American War, Pico was outspoken in favor of California becoming a British Protectorate rather than an American territory. When U.S. troops occupied Los Angeles and San Diego in 1846 during the Mexican-American War, Pico fled to Baja California, Mexico, to argue before the Mexican congress to deploy troops to defend Alta California. Pico did not return to Los Angeles until after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and he reluctantly accepted the transfer of sovereignty. Pico was automatically granted U.S. citizenship, and was elected to the Los Angeles Common Council in 1853, but neglected to assume office.
Maria Rita Valdez was another prominent and affluent Black-Mexican in Los Angeles during the first half of the 19th century. According to the Beverly Hills Historical Society, in 1838, Valdez, the widow of a mulatto soldier was deeded 4,500 acres, in what is known today as the core of Beverly Hills. Her ranch was called El Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas (“the gathering of the waters”), with the main house situated at today’s intersection of Alpine Drive and Sunset Boulevard. According to historians, Valdez was constantly harassed by Native Americans and seriously assaulted in 1852. Two years later in 1854, she sold the ranch to Benjamin Davis Wilson (1811-1878) and Henry Hancock (1822-1883). By the 1880s, the ranch had been subdivided into 75-acre parcels that were rapidly bought up by White-Americans from Los Angeles and the East coast.
Racial Divide Opens. The stellar achievements of Black-Mexicans could not eradicate racial politics, rooted to a colonial caste system which still exerts considerable control in contemporary Mexico in terms of how people are perceived. Black or Afro-Mexicans, for the majority of their history, have been ignored by the government as a separate ethic group. Historically, “Mexican,” was the favored ethnic distinction. Upward mobility there is orches- trated by the ruling class Spaniards, or those of “unmixed blood” reigning at the top of government and the social hierarchy, followed by criollos, or the descendants of Spaniards born in New Spain; mestizos, and mulattos at the bottom of the rung.
In contemporary Los Angeles, those unknowing of the history could never have imagined that persons of African ancestry were the original stakeholders, that Blacks were the original landowners in such ritzy places as Beverly Hills and the Pico District, which includes Century City. Race politics according to a number of historians is the primary reason the Mexican government has been reticent for so long to recognize Black-Mexicans as a valuable ethnic component of Mexican society accepting of their African Third Root.
Patricia Ann Talley, an African American by birth, who picked up root and moved to Mexico’s Guerrero State nearly 20 years ago, confirms the racial animus in Mexico 16 years into the New Millennium. “There is a move- ment calling for the constitutional recognition of Africans as the ‘Third Root’ so that they can receive resources and government assistance, currently given only to the “indigenous [population],” said Talley, who headed a collaborative research project in 2011 about the African presence in Guerrero State titled “Pathways to Freedom in the Americas.”
The project was made possible with a grant from the Michigan Humanities Council and the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Task Force. Talley is active at ground-zero of a social movement in Mexico to affirm Black-Mexican identity. “Now, I am consulting with the founders of Mexico Negro, A.C., [which is like] the NAACP of the USA,” she said, adding that a recent seminar at the University of Mexico instructed people how to identify themselves as ‘Afro-Mexican.’ It is fascinating to be witnessing this history,” Talley said. “We have the annual ‘Encuentro de los Pueblos Negros’ in my adopted town of Cuajinicuilapa [every] November,” Talley added. In September 2016, the group honored and celebrated Vicente Guerrero in the Zihuatanejo town square.
The persistent grassroots activism in Mexico through the years did not return void. In January 2016 in a move that was unprecedented, the Mexican government recognized its 1.38 million citizens of African descent in a national survey. The survey served as a preliminary count before the official 2020 national census, where “Black” will debut as an official ethnic classification. That was a giant leap for Mexicans of African descent, who can now attempt to extend their embrace of the Mexican mainstream. Most also will have to gain a sharper focus on where they stand in the grand scheme and how to negotiate the playing field. That is why the work by Talley and others is so vitally important. The social activism as indicated by Talley gives a clear picture of the cultural distinction in Mexico.
Some historians and people, in general, have emphasized a difference between a “Spaniard” and a “Mexican” in terms of race. For example, “colonial Mexicans” are described as “persons of mixed blood.” The implication is, of course, that Spaniards are European persons of “unmixed blood” or racially “pure” types. But a fact that cannot be denied is the overwhelming influence of Africa. At one time in the history of Mexico, as historians in this series have observed, there were more African slaves in bondage in Mexico than in colonial America. Moreover, mesti- zos born in wedlock, at least during the 16th century, were accepted as criollos.
In short, the definition of “Mexican” often confuses race with nationality in the modern period and with caste in the colonial period. In addition, by this definition of “Mexican,” neither an indigenous, criollo, or African would be Mexican because they are, by social definition of “unmixed blood.” Like the original settlers of other parts of California and the American Southwest in general, the pobladores reflected varied backgrounds: Peninsular (born in Spain), criollo, indigenous, mulatto, mestizo, and zambo.
Part VII continues.
Part VIl Black Mexico: Unearthing the Third Root
Building Los Angeles
THE “THIRD ROOT” WOULD extend deeply into the fertile soil of Alta California by sunset of the 18th century. The original pobladores would eventually travel different paths outside El Pueblo de la Reyna de los Angeles on order of the provincial Mexican government to plant new pueblos and tame wild Alta California. The settlers arrived from Mexico in September 1781 in two groups. Some of them more than likely had been working in their assigned plots of land since the early summer.
El Pueblo de la Reyna de los Angeles would rise from the earth of Alta California largely due to the efforts of the new titular head of California, Gov. Felipe de Neve, who was touring Alta California in 1777 and considered it prudent to establish civic pueblos to support of the military presidios. The new pueblos would reduce the secular power of the missions by reducing the military’s dependence on them. At the same time, the pueblos would promote the development of industry and agriculture. Neve chose Santa Barbara, San Jose, and Los Angeles as sites for his new pueblos. His plans closely followed the Laws of the Indies, a set of Spanish city planning laws decreed by King Philip II in 1573. Those laws laid the foundations of some of the largest cities in California and the West — San Francisco, Sonoma, Monterey, Santa Fe, San Jose; San Antonio, and Laredo, Texas; and Tucson, Arizona.
Laying the foundation. According to research scholars, the Spanish system called for an open central plaza surrounded by a fortified church, administrative buildings, and streets laid out in a grid. Rectangles of limited size were to be used for farming (suertes), and residences (solares). It was in accordance with such precise planning, specified in the Law of the Indies, that Neve founded California’s first municipality — the pueblo of San Jose de Guadalupe, on the plains of Santa Clara on Nov. 29, 1777 For El Pueblo de la Reyna de los Angeles, the first settlers built a water system consisting of ditches (zanjas) leading from the river through the middle of town and into the farmlands. Indigenous natives were employed to haul fresh drinking water from a special pool upstream from the pueblo.
This town became known as a producer of fine wine grapes, and later a haven for cattle ranching. The expert craftsmanship of tallow and cowhides was also part of the culture. Because of the great economic potential for Los Angeles, the demand for indigenous labor grew rapidly. A nearby thriving native Indian village called Yaanga began attracting natives from the islands and as far away as San Diego and San Luis Obispo. The village began to look like a refugee camp. Unlike the missions, the pobladores paid native Indians for their labor. The natives were paid in clothing and other goods as well as cash and alcohol in exchange for their work as farm workers, vaqueros, ditch diggers, water haulers, and domestic help. The pobladores bartered with the natives for prized sea otter and seal pelts, sieves, trays, baskets, mats, and other woven goods. This commerce greatly contributed to the economic success of the town and the attraction of other indigenous peoples to the city.
Restlessness, strife grows. During the 1780s, San Gabriel Mission became the object of an indigenous revolt. The mission had taken away all the suitable farming land; the native people found themselves abused and forced to work on lands that they once owned. A young native female spiritual healer by the name of Toypurina began touring the area, preaching against the injustices suffered by her people. She won over four rancherías and led an attack on the mission at San Gabriel. The soldiers defended the mission and arrested 17, including Toypurina. In 1787, Gov. Pedro Fages drew up his “Instructions for the Corporal Guard of the Pueblo of Los Angeles.”
The instructions included rules for native employment, an end to corporal punishment, and protection for the indigenous rancherías. As a result, the local natives found themselves with more freedom to choose between the benefits of the missions and the pueblo-associated rancherías. In 1795, Sgt. Pablo Cota led an expedition from the Simi Valley through the Conejo-Calabasas region and into the San Fernando Valley. His party visited the rancho of Francisco Reyes, where they found the local native vaqueros hard at work caring for crops. Padre Vincente de Santa Maria was traveling with the party and recounted the following:
“All of pagandom [indigenous natives are] fond of the pueblo of Los Angeles, of the rancho of Reyes, and of the ditches (water system). Here, we see nothing but pagans, clad in shoes with sombreros and blankets, and serv- ing as muleteers to the settlers and rancheros, so that if it were not for the gentiles there would be neither pue- blos nor ranches. These pagan Indians care neither for the missions nor for the missionaries.”
Factors like economic incentives and the possibility of marriage attracted indigenous natives to life in the pueblo. The first recorded marriages in Los Angeles took place in 1784, just three years after the founding. The two sons of settler Basilio Rosas — Maximo and José Carlos — married two young indigenous native women, María Antonia, and María Dolores. To sweeten matters, the original pobladores were rewarded by the provincial Mex- ican government for their sacrifice and hardship in helping forge Pueblo de Los Angeles. They were given the title to their land in 1786, two years after a chapel was built on the Plaza. Each pobladores received four rectangles of land for farming — two irrigated plots and two dry ones.
Lay of the Land. When the settlers arrived, the Los Angeles floodplain was heavily wooded with willow and oak trees. The Los Angeles River flowed year round. Wildlife was abundant. Deer, antelope, black bear, even grizzly bear abounded before hunters decimated them years later after secession from Mexico. There were abundant wetlands; swamps and rivers teemed with salmon, steelhead, and other fish. In the years after 1781, the pobla- dores and Mexican migrants were agrarian and expertly skilled in a number of disciplines necessary for survival in Alta California. El Pueblo de la Reyna de los Angeles grew steadily as settlers and other soldiers came into town and remained. That precipitated a building boom, as the growing migrant population had need of living shelters. The growing economy servicing the needs of the migrants demanded business accommodations.
By 1800, 29 buildings had been constructed. Most were flat-roofed, one-story adobe dwellings with thatched roofs made of tule, a bulrush variety of a grass-like cyperaceous marsh plant Native Americans used for making mats. Indigenous labor drove the construction of the Plaza of La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Los Ángeles bet- ween 1818 and 1822. The new church completed Gov. Neve’s planned transition of authority from mission to pueblo. Angelinos would no longer have to make the bumpy 11-mile ride to Sunday Mass at Mission San Gabriel. In 1820, the route of El Camino Viejo was established from Los Angeles, over the mountains to the north and up the west side of the San Joaquin Valley to the east side of San Francisco Bay.
Sunset for the Amazing Pobladores. Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821 was celebrated with great festivity throughout Alta California. No longer subjects of the king, people were now citizens (ciudadanos), with rights under the law. People swore allegiance to the new government in the plazas of Monterey, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and other settlements. The new flag of independent Mexico replaced the Spanish flag. Indepen- dence brought other advantages, including economic growth. There was an increase in population as more native Indians were assimilated and others arrived from America, Europe, and other parts of Mexico. Before 1820, there were just 650 people in the pueblo. Twenty-one years later the population nearly tripled to 1,680. Los Angeles had grown to become the largest self-sustaining farming community in Southern California.
As for what became of the original pobladores that founded Los Angeles and sent it into motion, history recorded the following:
Antonio Mesa became disillusioned with the hardships in Alta California and received permission to return to Sonora, Mexico in 1782.
Jose de Velasco y Lara received permission to move to Ventura in 1782 to establish the Mission San Buenaven- tura, and later to Santa Barbara to establish the presidio. Unfortunately, he was ordered back to the State of Nayarit in Western Mexico by the government when he confessed to Father Junipero Serra that his first wife, whom he said had died — actually was still alive. He remarried and fathered children, but was never able to return to see his second wife and children in Santa Barbara. He died shortly after returning to Nayarit in 1783.
Alejandro Rosas remained in Los Angeles. He and his wife died a month apart in Los Angeles in December 1788, and January 1789.
Jose Antonio Navarro was sent to San Jose in 1790 and later to the Presidio in San Francisco. He was buried at the Mission Dolores in San Francisco in 1793.
Jose Vanegas remained in Los Angeles for 20 years during which he served as the first mayor (alcalde). Upon the death of his wife in 1801, he moved to San Diego and the Mission San Luis Rey.
Antonio Clemente Felix Villavicencio moved to Santa Barbara in 1797, and died there in 1802.
Jose Moreno remained in Los Angeles for 25 years, serving as a Los Angeles regidor (councilman). He died in 1806 and was buried at Mission San Gabriel.
Jose Antonio Rosas remained in Los Angeles 28 years. He died in 1809 and was buried at the Mission San Gabriel.
Luis Quintero received permission along with Jose de Velasco y Lara to move to Ventura in 1782 to establish the Mission San Buenaventura and later to Santa Barbara to establish the presidio. He may have wished to be near his three daughters who married soldiers stationed at the presidio in Santa Barbara. Quintero lived out the rest of his life in Santa Barbara, where he died in 1810. As noted earlier, Luis Quintero was already 55 years old when he arrived in Pueblo de Los Angeles from Jalisco, Mexico.
Pablo Rodriguez moved to San Diego in 1796, then to San Juan Capistrano, where he died in 1816 and was buried at the Mission San Juan Capistrano.
Manuel Camero remained in Los Angeles for 38 years. He served as an L.A. regidor and died in 1819.
A 12th settler, Antonio Miranda Rodriguez, a 50-year-old Filipino, and his 11-year-old daughter were also slated to settle in the new pueblo. They set out with the rest of the pobladores in early 1781, but fell ill to smallpox while in Baja, Calif. and remained there to recuperate. Upon arrival in Alta California, it was discovered that Antonio Miranda Rodriguez was a skilled gunsmith and was subsequently reassigned to the Santa Barbara Presidio in 1782 to work in the armory.
Maria Guadalupe Gertrudis Perez, a mulatta and wife of mulatto Jose Moreno, was the last surviving original pobladore. She died in 1860 at the age of 97— 54 years after her husband. Her granddaughter, Catalina Moreno, married Mexican military commander Don Andres Pico, brother of Pio Pico, who fought at the Battle of San Pascual during the Spanish-American War.
Pobaldores Descendents. Some of Quintero’s family members eventually ended up in Los Angeles. A Quintero granddaughter, María Rita Valdés de Villa, was the widow of Vicente Ferrer Villa, a Spanish soldier. When he died in 1852, Maria inherited a 4,539-acre ranch offered to her husband for his service in the military. Rodeo de las Aguas (Meeting of the Waters) eventually became the City of Beverly Hills. An ancestral link to settler Quin- tero can be found on a blog written by his seventh generation descendant, A. Anthony Leon, V, of Los Angeles. Leon, Victoria Duarte Cordova of Pomona, and Lawrence Bouett of Los Angeles, were members of Pobladores 200, the organization that participated in the 1981 Los Angeles Bicentennial anniversary of the city’s founding.
Duarte Cordova and Bouett, author of the blog L.A. Roots, are direct sixth-generation descendants of Mexican soldier Roque Jacinto de Cota, one of the four soldiers who accompanied the pobladores from Misión San Gabriel Arcángel to the site of the future El Pueblo de la Reyna de los Angeles.
Roque Jacinto de Cota, the son of Andrés de Cota and María Angela de León, was born around 1724 in la Villa del Fuerte in Nueva España in what is now Sinaloa, México. Andrés de Cota and Angela de León had at least four children, all sons and all born in el Fuerte. Three sons — Roque, Antonio, and Pablo Antonio — died in Alta California. Roque Cota’s younger brother, Antonio Cota, was also a soldado de cuera and a member of the escolta that came to Los Angeles from Mission San Gabriel. The third brother, Pablo Antonio, settled in Santa Barbara.
Part Vlll continues.
Part VIlI Black Mexico: Unearthing the Third Root
Legacy of Pio Pico
THE IMPRINT OF THE ORIGINAL POBLADORES in Los Angeles history is indelible. The African contribution, which was initially omitted by historians, was amended 200 years later at the arrival of the City’s Bicentennial celebration in 1981. While the ongoing contributions of the sons, daughters, and cousins of the original settlers remain sketchy, one individual, Pío de Jesus Pico, the son of a Spanish artillery sergeant, offers an amazing view. The surname Pico is widely familiar in Southern California — from busy Pico Boulevard, the City of Pico Rivera, the Pico House, to Pio Pico State Historic Park.
The surname adorns myriad businesses, from corner grocery stores, fast food establishments, and dry cleaners, to shopping malls. Despite all of this, much of what the general public knows about Pio Pico ventures little beyond the persona. In a lifetime that spanned 93 years under the flags of Spain, Mexico, and the United States, Pio Pico’s rise from humble beginnings to the highest office in the state places him among the most remarkable figures in California history.
Pico was born on May 5, 1801, at the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel to mulatto parents, José Maria Pico, and María Eustaquia Gutiérrez. His life shines brightest after the death of his father in 1819, and mother — the last surviving member of the original pobladores — in 1860. Pío Pico, who lived 93 years, succumbed 34 years after his mother in 1894. His life spanned several distinct periods in Southern California history — from Spanish colonialism to Mexican rule, and from American conquest to L.A.’s prodigious growth in the late 19th-century.
Pico’s paternal grandmother, María Jacinta de la Bastida, was listed in the 1790 census as mulatta. His paternal grandfather, Santiago de la Cruz Pico, was described as a mestizo in the same census. There is no question of Pico’s link to an African ancestry. He represented the clearest picture of the extended reach of the original settlers into the building of Los Angeles’ infrastructure in the early days. Before his expiration, he would go on to tremendous conquest in both business and politics.
By the 1850s, Pío Pico was one of the richest men in Alta California. In 1850 he purchased the 8,894-acre Rancho Paso de Bartolo, which included half of present day Whittier. He bought the acreage from the heirs of Juan Crispin Perez. Two years later, he built a home on the ranch and lived at “El Ranchito” from 1852 to 1892. According to some accounts, the house at one time included 33 rooms, and served as a respite for neighbors and business acquaintances traveling great distances between settlements. The land was also a working ranch. The discovery of gold on Jan. 24, 1848 at Sutter’s Mill in the American River at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Coloma, Calif., ignited the California Gold Rush, with more than 300,000 people surging to California to seek their fortunes from either mining for gold or selling supplies like food, clothing, burros, lumber, picks, and shovels to aid the prospectors.
The discovery proved a bounty for Pio Pico two years later after his purchase of the ranch. The timing could not have been better. The demand for beef surged with the Gold Rush and vaqueros tended to Pico’s large herds of cattle and horses. He eventually became one of the wealthiest cattlemen in California controlling more than a quarter million acres of prime grazing land. Most of the ranch has since been subdivided into the cities of Whittier, Montebello, and Pico Rivera. In 1883 inclement weather gave rise to a devastating flood that wiped out most of the mansion, leaving only the foundation and a few walls. It is preserved today as Pio Pico State Historic Park. Pico and his brother Andres, another leading figure of Mexican California, also owned Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores, an immense tract in northern San Diego County, which today is the sprawling U.S. Marine Corps base, Camp Pendleton. Pico also individually owned more than 500,000 acres comprised of large estates near Whittier and in the San Fernando Valley.
Governor Pío Pico of Alta, California. Looking back nearly five decades before Pico became fabulously wealthy, he served twice as governor of Alta California, and the last governor of the territory under the rule of Mexico. Pico was a mover and a shaker in the annals of early California. His rise to the governorship did not come by conven- tional means. Upheaval marked both of his terms, and in each case, Pico succeeded an ousted governor.
In 1831, a dispute over California’s mission lands escalated into an open revolt against the rule of Gov. Manuel Victoria, who refused to secularize the missions, to transfer their vast property holdings from ecclesiastical control to civil possession and use. Victoria and the rebels, led by wealthy landowners, converged on Cahuenga Pass on Dec. 5, 1831, launching the Battle of Cahuenga Pass, where Victoria was seriously injured, forcing him to flee vacating the office of governor. As the senior member of the territorial legislature, Pico became governor by default, but his tenure was disputed by Victoria’s hand-picked successor and lasted less than three weeks.
Following his brief stint as governor, Pico remained busy politically and became administrator of Mission San Luis Rey. Pico had established himself as a leading political figure in California and within 18 months, led the secular- ization of the missions. As the story goes, Pico joined the Mexican army for a brief time in 1828. The following year, he received his first land grant of 8,922 acres near San Diego, named Rancho Jamul. Years later in 1841, Pico and his younger brother, Andrés, were awarded the 133,441-acre Rancho Santa Margarita. Pico steered the missions under civil control in 1831.
The secularization paid great dividends, as the awarding of such vast land grants would not have been possible under mission ecclesiastical control. Following the end of the Mexican-American War with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Pico reclaimed his title to the land he had previously acquired and re-invested in still more real estate becoming a wealthy and influential private citizen. Trade and commerce further increased with the complete secularization of the California missions by the Mexican Congress in 1833. Extensive mission lands suddenly became available to government officials, ranchers, and land speculators. The governor made more than 800 land grants during this period, including a grant of over 33,000-acres in 1839 to Francisco Sepulveda which was later developed as Los Angeles’ Westside.
Sepulveda Boulevard remains one of the area’s major thoroughfares. Much of this progress, however, bypassed the indigenous Indians of the traditional villages who were not assimilated into the mestizo culture. They were regarded as minors who could not think for themselves and were increasingly marginalized. Due to increasing debt and rampant alcoholism the indigenous people increasingly found themselves relieved of their land titles and the properties repossessed.
Marriage and Political Office. Pico found time to take a brief respite, settle in San Diego and marry María Ignacia Alvarado on Feb. 24, 1834, in the Plaza church. It was attended by the entire population of the pueblo — 800 people, plus hundreds from elsewhere in Alta California. Shortly after his wedding while in San Diego, Pico ran for office the same year as the first alcalde (mayor) of San Diego after the secularization of the missions, but was defeated. He challenged Gov. Juan Bautista Alvarado on various political issues and found himself in trouble with the government, imprisoned on several occasions.
A year later in 1835, the Mexican Congress declared Los Angeles a city, making it the official capital of Alta California and the premier city. Ten years later in 1845, Pico, already a leader of the California Assembly for one year, was strategically positioned to succeed another deposed political leader, Gov. Manuel Micheltorena, an appointee of the Mexican government, who was staring down a rebellion by Californios — persons of Spanish or Mexican heritage whose birthplace was Alta California. The Californios longed for a native-born resident to hold the office. The influential Pío Pico led a popular coup against the unfavorable Micheltorena near the Cahuenga Pass in the Battle of La Providencia, after which Pico became acting governor.
One year later in April 1846, he was appointed as Micheltorena’s permanent successor. Pico didn’t waste time exercising his authority to make Los Angeles the capital of Alta California. By then the very real possibility of war hung over Alta California as the U.S. had designs on the Mexican province and northern territories of Mexico. Pico’s governorship would crumble soon thereafter upon the arrival of American forces later that year.
The U.S. declared war against Mexico on May 13, 1846 with U.S. forces quickly overcoming Mexican forces, occupying Santa Fe de Nuevo México and Alta California Territory, then invading parts of Northeastern Mexico and Northwest Mexico; meanwhile, the Pacific Squadron conducted a blockade, and took control of several garrisons on the Pacific coast farther south in Baja California Territory. U.S. army General Winfield Scott captured the capital Mexico City, marching from the Port of Veracruz, virtually unopposed. The war lasted one year until the fall of 1847 and ended in Mexico’s defeat, resulting in the loss of approximately half of its national territory in the north. When news of the war reached Alta California, the fall of the Mexican territory was swift. The U.S. captured Monterey on July 15, 1846, prompting Gov. Pico to issue the following proclamation:
“Pío Pico, Constitutional Governor of the Department of California, hereby makes known to its inhabitants that the country is threatened by the United States by land and by sea, that it now occupies Monterey, Sonoma, San Francisco, and other frontier points to the north of this department, where the Stars and Stripes now waves with further threatenings to occupy more ports and towns and to subdue them to its laws; therefore, this government, having stood firmly resolved to do its utmost to oppose unjust aggression committed during late centuries caused by a nation with extraordinary ambitions, purposely authorizing a cleverly disguised robbery, exercising power over us during a period of political weakness.”
It was one of Pío Pico’s final acts as governor. As American forces advanced on Southern California, Pico fled to Baja California, Mexico in a futile attempt to raise a resistance force and to prevent his capture and imprisonment. In the end, Los Angeles fell to the invading American troops and the capture of Mexico City in September 1847 sealed California’s fate, becoming a permanent American possession. The aggression against Mexico by the U.S. also established a long-held belief by Mexicans, and Mexican-Americans to this day — that the U.S. stole California.
Pío Pico’s focus on business. Pico returned to Southern California after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo established peace between the U.S. and Mexico. Although Pico would never learn English, relying instead on an interpreter, he remained one of Southern California’s leading citizens through much of the 19th century. He was a brilliant businessman and dealmaker as evident by his great wealth. But little is known as about the genesis of earnings. It can be assumed that Pico’s initial investment came from military service in Mexico, as the Mexican government was known to repay military service with the awarding of land grants.
In 1868, Pío Pico sold his vast landholdings in the San Fernando Valley to provide capital for the construction of the 33-room Pico House (Casa de Pico) on the old plaza of Los Angeles, opposite today’s Olvera Street. At the time of its opening in 1869, it was the most lavish hotel in Southern California and the city’s first three-story high rise. By the advent of the early 1900s, however, the Pico House had lost its splendor and was in decline along with the neighborhood, as L.A.’s business center moved further south. After decades of serving as a shabby flop house, it was deeded to the State of California in 1953 and is now a part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Monument. It is used today occasionally for exhibits and special events.
Fall of Pío Pico. Unfortunately, Pico’s wealth and affluence would fade 10 years later. He lost the hotel and other properties to foreclosure. His decline was attributed to extravagant living, heavy gambling, fraud, and poor bus- iness practices. The culmination conspired to rob him of nearly everything he accumulated, forcing him to liquidate his real estate holdings. In 1893, a committee of local boosters and history enthusiasts asked him to appear at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition as “the last of the California dons.” Pico refused, considering it an affront to his dignity. It is believed that Pico was later swindled out of his home and rancho in present-day Whittier. And even though he defended his position and fortune in more than 100 legal cases, including 20 that were argued before the Calif- ornia Supreme Court, he never regained his previous standing.
Tragically, Pío Pico’s latent years were impoverished. He died in 1894 at the home of his daughter Joaquina
Pico Moreno in Los Angeles and was buried in the old Calvary Cemetery on North Broadway in Downtown Los Angeles. His remains, as well as those of his wife, Maria, were disinterred and relocated in 1921 to a modest tomb in El Campo Santo Cemetery, now the Homestead Museum in the City of Industry. Besides Pío Pico’s gradual fall from grace, he also suffered a physical malady called acromegaly, the excessive hormonal production of the pituitary gland resulting in abnormal growths on the face, hands, and chest.
The disorder was also accompanied by occasional symptoms of headache, double vision, fatigue, chest pain, shortness of breath, frequent urination, extreme thirst, severe snoring, muscle weakness, and impotence. The legacy of Alta California’s final governor is enshrined in street names, schools, parks, and businesses across Southern California. Los Angeles boasts a proud history owing its greatness, in part, to an enduring personality
— an amazing Angelino named Pío de Jesus Pico.
Part IX continues.
Part IX Black Mexico: Unearthing the Third Root
Infusion of Zambos Ethnos
IN THE WAKE OF MEXICO’S OFFICIAL nod to recognize Black-Mexicans in the National Census in December 2016, further attention must now focus on these unique people to help them fully understand who they are as they emerge from the shadows of obscurity. Many falsehoods about the story of African assimilation into colonial Mexico history persist in 2018, lies infused by the racist caste system under Spanish-ruled colonial Mexico.
The most blatant of the story-telling is the whitewashing of African interaction with Amerindians — indigenous natives specific to Mexico — something rarely addressed. Historians have long identified progeny produced by race-mixing between African slaves, indigenous Indians, and their Spanish enslavers as mulattos or mestizos. The interaction between the Spanish and the indigenous population yielded mestizos, as noted earlier. Indige-
nous forebears to mestizos included the Nahua, Mayan, Zapotec, Mixtec, Zacatec, Mazatec, Coahuiltec, Tamaulipec, and Yaqui people, among others — the original First Root in Mexico. Spanish assimilation with the indigenous people burrowed the Second Root in Mexico.
The Third Root is the sub-Saharan Africans. The Black presence in Mexico dates back to the beginnings of colonization where Blacks were brought as enslaved soldiers. Later during the colonial era, they were imported from Africa to ports in southeastern Mexico to serve as slave laborers. These slaves were dispersed throughout Veracruz, Tabasco, Tlaxcala, Guerrero, and Oaxaca. Most mixed with Mexicans or other races because if one parent was free their offspring could be legally free.
Zambos Origins. In a short span of time, the Black slave population of Mexico decreased and many Black-Mexicans became known in the ethnic lexicon as zambos and mulattos. The racial classification zambos originated from the inter-marriage of Africans and indigenous natives, also known as Indians or Amerindians. Many of these Black-Mexicans were among the first settlers in modern-day northern Mexico and the South- western U.S., as documented by the arrival of the original pobladores in Alta California. In the official records of the pobladores, the majority of the settlers are identified as mulatto, which attests to their African ancestry.
But a closer examination of the records from Seville, Spain, yield that the settlers — or at least some of them — were zambos. The only pobladore listed as African or Black was Luis Quintero. In the past zambos formed a sizeable minority in Mexico, where they are called lobos. Culturally, Mexican lobos merged Amerindian traditions with African influences, notably in music and food. The first zambos were initially the offspring of escaping shipwrecked slaves, as well as plantation escapees, like Gaspar Yanga who fled into the Mexican highlands. Some zambos sought refuge from colonial authorities in remote Amerindian communities of Central America, South America, and the Caribbean jungles.
In the Caribbean on the island of Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), escaped slaves encountered the few remaining Tainos – indigenous people – on the island. Racial mixing occurred on the island. The Amerindians — themselves under threat from encroaching European colonizers — were sympathetic to the plight of the fleeing slaves. The natives welcomed the slaves into their communities, offering them food and sanctuary. As in the U.S. during slavery, there are instances in Mexican and Latin American history of Africans and Amerindians joining together and forming renegade encampments to fight their Spanish colonizers and slaveholders.
In Latin America, these primarily African settlements of runaways, or Maroons, were called Quilombos. The most famous of all Quilombos are the legendary Palmares in Brazil. At its height the nation boasted a population of more than 30,000. The African ancestry of the Garifuna is usually attributed to escaping shipwrecked slaves; escaping slaves are ancestors of the zambos of north-western South America, the lobos of Mexico, and most other zambos.
Origins of La Costa Chica. The prevailing theory of how Black-Mexicans arrived in the Costa Chica is underscored by the saga of 16th-century African freedom fighter, Gaspar Yanga. It makes sense that runaway slaves taking refuge within Mexico’s hills and mountains in 1570 would have settled and remained there through today. Yanga, Mexico, a municipality renamed in 1932 from San Lorenzo de los Negros, is located in the southern area of the state of Veracruz 50 miles from the state capital of Xalapa. Yanga was established by Africans and Amerindians escaping their enslavement under the Spanish empire, a history often over-looked in scholastic accounts. There has been more than a tendency to omit certain truths, such as suppressing or minimizing the confluence between Africans and Amerindians, and induce cover-ups of their assimilation and acculturation — even today.
Estimates by historians place the number of African slaves brought to Mexico between 200,000 and 500,000, compared to 450,000 in the U.S., and 4.5 million exported to Brazil. In the 1742 and 1793 censuses, the Black population of Mexico was roughly 10 percent. According to the scholarly work, The History of Mexico: From Pre-Conquest to Present, by Phillip L. Russell, which traces the last 500 years — from the indigenous empires that were devastated by the Spanish conquest through the 2006 election — 20,569 (0.6 percent) Blacks were recorded in the 1570 census, and 2,435 (0.1 percent) mulattos were counted.
The book offers a straightforward chronological survey of Mexican history from the pre-colonial times to the present, and documents census tracts for Blacks and mulattos in years 1646, 1742, and 1793. Documented figures for Blacks and mulattos in year 1646 were: 35,089 (2 percent), and 116,529 (6.8 percent), respectively; Year 1742, 20,131 (0.8 percent), and 266,196 (10.7 percent), respectively; Year 1793, 6,100 (0.2 percent), and 369,790 (9.7 percent), respectively. This equates to an influx of Black-Mexicans into colonial Mexico between 1570 and 1793, if one embraces the “one-drop” Black blood edict.
Truth of Zambos in Mexico. Indigenous and Black-Mexican are not exclusive categories. People who consider themselves both Black-Mexican and Amerindian, or zambo outnumber those who consider themselves to be solely Black-Mexican. The truth is, the Spaniards skewed the truth. Mixed babies — they wrongly assumed, perhaps deliberately — were of Spanish blood. But if more accurate scripting of Mexico’s history, such as fugitive slave Gaspar Yanga’s escape into the hills and mountains of colonial Mexico can be used as a gauge, the broad definition of mulatto for Mexicans with African ancestry has to be called into question. An undetermined number of Amerindian slaves fled with Yanga to freedom, as well.
Centuries of assimilation between former African and Amerindian slaves produced offspring who were neither full-blood African nor Amerindian, but a people with both distinct African and Amerindian features. Clearly, these ethnic Mexicans cannot possibly be mulatto due to the absence of Spanish blood. But rarely has much attention been given to the assimilation of Africans and Amerindians, both enslaved under Spanish rule and subjected to a class wholly sub-standard to Spaniards, including criollos, those of Spanish ancestry born in Mexico. The dearth of attention to zambos has major implications to the current day. Zambos are still obscure in contemporary Mexico and the U.S., as well.
With Mexico’s official recognition of Black-Mexicans, this may now change as all people of Mexico will be hailed and embraced for who they are. This will have a great impact in the U.S. as zambos surely were inclusive in the original group of pobladores to Mission de Los Angeles, and those settlers that arrived in increasing numbers from Mexico to Alta California. Today, large numbers of Black Mexicans — zambo and mulatto — make their home in Los Angeles. Many have embraced the racial designation, Blaxican. In Mexico, where zambos have not been fully embraced, concentra- tions of them may only be apparent in tiny communities scattered around the southern coastal states of Michoacán, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Campeche, Quintana Roo, Yucatán, and Veracruz.
Interestingly, Mexico’s second president, Vicente Guerrero, who ended slavery for Africans and Amerindians, long-held to be mulatto, was actually zambo, according to the book, The Legacy of Vicente Guerrero: Mexico’s First Black-Indian President by Theodore G. Vincent. The book asserts that most Black-Mexicans are not mulatto, but rather zambo and that the Spanish hierarchy from colonial Mexico to the present has had a tendency to “homogenize” people under the caste system. In Latin America, zambo is a term of Spanish origin describing Latin Americans of mixed African and Amerindian racial descent.
The feminine form is zamba. During this era, a myriad of terms were in use to denote other individuals of African/ Amerindian ancestry in ratios smaller or greater than the 50/50 of zambos — “Cambujo” (zambo/Amerindian mix) for example. Today, in Latin America, zambo refers to all people with significant amounts of both African and Amerindian ancestry. In Latin America, these populations of Amerindian and African mixed ancestry are generally marginalized and discriminated against, with color bias being pervasive throughout much of the region. Beyond the pockets of these specifically identified ethnic communities, in Latin American nations with large populations of people of African descent, the percentage of those with Hispanic ancestry is relatively high (though not as a ratio of the make-up of the individuals).
Zambos in Central and South America. Cultural and psychological change also took place in Bolivia. The Afro-Bolivian community absorbed and retained many aspects of Amerindian cultural influences, such as dress and use of the Aymara language. These communities of Afro-Bolivians reside in the Yungas, a stretch of forest along the eastern slope of the Andes Mountains from Peru, Bolivia, and northern Argentina of the Bolivian capital of La Paz. Marital and non-marital unions described as producing zambos took place all throughout the Spanish colonial empire, following the pattern established in Hispaniola; and the group was generally classified among those people who were not of European ancestry.
In the 18th century, the Spanish began producing systematic racial classifications, and zambo was defined in its final meaning. Such is the case in nations such as Nicaragua, and Panama, or in the case of Brazil, persons of primarily African descent who also have Portuguese ancestors. Some famous zambo groups were created by runaway or rebel Africans who mixed with or took over indigenous communities. In the unconquered regions of Esmeraldes, in what would become Ecuador, for example, a small group of shipwrecked former slaves managed to win control of the indigenous communities, eventually representing them before Spanish authorities in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
Another famous group of zambos were the Misquito zambos, who originated around 1640 when a group of African slaves revolted on a slave ship, took it over and wrecked it at Cape Gracias a Dios at the border of Honduras and Nicaragua. They united with the indigenous Miskito people, and by the early 18th century, dominated the kingdom, leading it on many extensive slave raids. Their alliance with and protection of English merchants and settlers in the area helped England found the colony of British Honduras, known today following independence, as Belize.
Zambos In 2022. Long-standing race and class discrimination of varying degrees in Latin America confront Latin Americans of African and Amerindian ancestry. The severity depends on their membership in or identification with a specific Afro-Amerindian ethnic group, or the degree to which ancestry manifests in physical characteristics. Dark skinned and curly haired people tend to be among the region’s poorest and most disenfranchised. In 1998, when Hurricane Mitch battered the northeast coast of Honduras, the Garifuna communities were among the hardest hit. In 2022, Black-Indians make up a small percentage of the populations of both Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Officially, in South America, zambos represent small minorities in the northwestern countries of Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador.
A small but noticeable number of zambos resulting from recent unions of Amerindian women to Afro-Ecuadorian men are not uncommon in major coastal cities of Ecuador. Before the rural-to-urban migration, the Amerindians were mostly constrained to the Andes region and the Afro-Ecuadorian ethnicities to the province of Esmeraldas. The communities that exist mainly along the northwestern region of Brazil are known as Cafuzos. In Honduras, they are known as Garifunas. While Zambos can also be found in the Dominican Republic, Belize, and in Nicaragua, their history and origins are not linked to the Garifuna.
Mexico’s Black Population. In Mexico, where zambos/lobos have not been fully embraced, the great majority have now been absorbed into the much larger Mexican mestizo population. Greater concentrations can only be found in tiny hamlets scattered around the southern coastal states, including Michoacán, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Campeche, Quintana Roo, Yucatán, and Veracruz, where the country’s Black-Mexicans reside.
Today, Black-Mexicans — mulatto and zambo — are believed to form about 1.7 percent of Mexico’s population and are limited to villages along the coasts of eastern and southwestern Mexico. The total population breakdown is estimated to be: Mestizo: 65-70 percent, Spaniard: 15-20 percent, Amerindian: 10-14 percent, and Black/ Mulatto/Zambo: 1 percent. The Black/Mulatto/Zambo figure could be much higher since the Mexican National Census is only now officially recognizing this population and people articulate their self-identity.
The 2015 population survey marked the first time since the 19th century that the Mexican government included a distinct category for people of Black-Mexican descent. As of 2015, the National Institute of Statistics and Geogra- phy (in Spanish, Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía or INEGI) found that 1,973,555 persons or 1.7 percent of the population self-identified as Black-Mexican. The percentage of the population that self-identifies as Black-Mexican at the municipal level tend to live in the Costa Chica of the state of Guerrero and Oaxaca, and Veracruz. This is no surprise since the isolated mountainous geography of the Costa Chica served as a natural barrier between the Black-Mexican community and the rest of Mexico. The highest percentage of Black-Mexicans live in this mountainous region.
Part X continues.
Part X Black Mexico: Unearthing the Third Root
Afro-Mexican Cuisine that Binds
AFRICAN CUISINE FLAVORS THE LEGACY of the introduction of slaves into colonial Mexico 600 years ago. A quarter million souls from across the Atlantic Ocean provided labor for their Spanish slave traders, but labor wasn’t the only endowment. African slaves also brought their culinary traditions that eventually fused a rich tradition called Afro-Mexican cuisine.
The Africans were transformative. Over the course of six centuries through the process of assimilation, they, along with an ethnic mix of Spanish and Indigenous counterparts, forged modern Mexico. The three cultures poured everything into a mixing bowl — their language, customs, cultural traits, gene pool, music, arts, even food — and fused the “Mexican” of the modern era. Externally the dark melanin of Africans may not be very pronounced in Mexico’s population of 128.4 million, but internally, the blood coursing through their veins is a blend of Spaniard, Indigenous, and African.
That means the Africans never left.
Nowhere, is this rich blending more evident than in Mexican cuisine. From across the Atlantic Ocean, Western and Central African cuisines contributed vastly to the origin and evolution of popular Mexican culinary traditions. In the State of Guanajuato, Mexico, once a substantially visible hub of African slaves, black eyed peas, historically associated with African cooking, is still a culinary legacy.
Food historian Rachel Laudan, the prizewinning author of “Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History,” who frequently writes about food and food politics, adds some perspective. On a trip to Silao, Mexico, the geographic center of Mexico, 10 miles south of Guanajuato, where centuries before runaway slaves escaped capture and fled into the hills, Laudan noted that a market there sold black eyed peas along with all the usual Mexican beans.
“You [could] see them in the sack at the back,” Laudan said. “When you ask the vendors how they cook them, they indicate that they ‘guisar’ them, that is they put them in stews as they would habas or garbanzos. They do not eat them alone and simply boiled as they would the huge variety of Mexican beans. This makes sense because all three are Old World, not New World, legumes. To see black eyed peas in Mexico [was] odd. You simply don’t run across black eyed peas in markets in Central Mexico. But the hypothesis that I have to consider is that these are a legacy of the African heritage in Guanajuato. “Black eyed peas have been closely associated with African cooking,” Laudan concluded.
The African slaves’ culinary influence is particularly noticeable in the mountain regions of Veracruz, where black eyed peas are regularly consumed. Here, dark-skinned Mexicans with African features, abound. The historical connection is fairly obvious as Guanajuato had a substantial African population in the 16th century. They were mainly slaves from West Africa. Guanajuato was an immigrant hub without a large settled indigenous community. Apart from Africans, it was comprised of Spaniards, particularly Basques and Castellanos, migrant indigenous particularly nahuas, michoacanos, otomis, and chichimecas, Portuguese (possibly crypto Jews), and French. According to a document that appears to date from the 1580s, in the mining area of Guanajuato, there were 400 Spanish, 800 slaves, 500 horses, and 800 mules.
Veracruz cooking commonly contains Spanish, indigenous, and African ingredients and cooking techniques. The slaves that came later brought black eyed peas to Mexico. The following is a popular black eyed peas recipe in Mexico.
Mexican Black Eyed Peas
1 (16 oz.) pkg. dried black eyed peas
2 lbs. bulk pork sausage
1 med. onion, finely chopped
1 (18 oz.) can whole tomatoes, undrained
1/2 c. water
2 tbsp. sugar
Chili powder, to taste
2 tsp. garlic salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
2 1/2 tbsp. finely chopped celery
Sort and wash peas. Place in a large Dutch oven. Cover with water 2 inches above peas. Let soak overnight. Brown sausage in a heavy skillet, stirring to crumble. Add onion. Cook until tender and drain. Drain peas well. Stir in sausage and remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat. Simmer 1 1/2 hours. Add water, if necessary. Recipe courtesy Mediavine.
Black eyed peas were a significant culinary contribution to colonial Mexico from the continent of Africa, but certainly not the only endowment. One of the most important contributions of African cooking was the peanut. The peanut plant probably originated in Peru or Brazil in South America. No fossil records prove this, but people in South America made pottery in the shape of peanuts or decorated jars with peanuts as far back as 3,500 years ago. European explorers first discovered peanuts in Brazil.
As early as 1500 B.C., the Incas of Peru used peanuts as sacrificial offerings and entombed them with their mummies to aid in the spirit life. Tribes in central Brazil also ground peanuts with maize to make a drink. Peanuts were grown as far north as Mexico when the Spanish began their exploration of the new world. The explorers took peanuts back to Spain, and from there traders and explorers spread them to Asia and Africa. Africans were the first people to introduce peanuts to the Americas beginning in the 1600s. The peanut was then brought back with African slaves who had eagerly adopted it as a satisfying addition to their diet.
Peanuts were used by Africans in meat stews, fish, vegetable dishes, and in seasoning pastes for grilling. Ground with onions and chiles, they formed sauces similar to the table salsa found in nearly every restaurant and home in the Mexico’s state of Veracruz. In this region, Africans have profoundly influenced people, cuisine, and music — even the names of many towns like Mocambo, Matamba, Mozomboa, and Mandinga. Still, African recipes have become part of Mexico’s national cuisine well outside of Veracruz. Peanuts can be found in regional dishes such as encacahuatado, an alcoholic drink called the torito, candies (especially in Tlacotalpan), salsa macha, and even in mole poblano from as far west as the state of Puebla.
The indigenous contribution is in the use of corn as well as vanilla (native to the state), and herbs called acuyo and hoja santa. It is also supplemented by a wide variety of tropical and citrus fruits such as papaya, mamey, and zapote. The Europeans introduced herbs to the region such as parsley, thyme, marjoram, bay laurel, and cilantro that characterize much of the state’s cooking. Huachinango a la veracruzana, a local popular dish, is red snapper prepared with a light tomato sauce seasoned with bay leaves, onions, capers, olives, and sweet yellow peppers. The Afro-Cuban influence also includes peanuts and can be tasted in dishes such as pollo encacahuatado or chicken in peanut sauce. As it borders the Gulf coast, seafood figures prominently in most of the state.
Another significant part of African cooking that became incorporated into Mexican regional cuisine was the use of plátanos (plantains), which came with the Africans via the Canary Islands. In Veracruz, they are heavily used in breads like empanadas, gorditas, and tortitas; and desserts like mole, and barbacoa. One other defining aspect of Veracruz cooking is the use of starchy tropical roots originating from Africa collectively known as viandas. They include cassava, yucca, malanga, taro, and sweet potatoes. These were ingredients in African cuisine that became important in Mexican cooking and traditionally provided readily available nourishment. Viandas are inexpensive and easy to grow. They are also versatile and can be used in dishes ranging from croquettes in garlic and tomato sauces to dessert fritters and sweet tamales.
Combined with tropical fruits, such as coconut and pineapple, they make delicious desserts. Africans brought and preserved many of their traditions and cooking techniques. Their captors often provided them the less desired cuts of meat, including shoulder and intestines. Menudo, for example, was derived from the habit of the Spaniards to feed cow’s intestines to the slaves. A similar practice occurred in the U.S. with hogs and pigs. After butchering swine, slave owners retained the best cuts of the meat for their families — ham, hocks, ribs, loins, chops, belly — and discarded the remainder; head, shoulder, intestines (chitterlings), ears, snout, jowls, feet, hooves, and lips, for slaves.
Slaves were resourceful and developed a way to clean the offal and season it to taste. In the U.S., Mexico, and South America, as well, the scraps of food landlords did not eat, often ended up as new cuisines that were mixed together by slaves, adopted into the cuisine of their respective nation, such as Peruvian tacu-tacu, a bean, meat and rice dish with assorted vegetables, herbs, and seasonings.
Cooks from a variety of cultures share recipes and stories that provide a glimpse into the preparation of both daily and festive foods. In a Maya village in Yucatán, cochinita de pibil is made with the native peccary instead of pigs. On Oaxaca’s coast, families of African heritage share their way of cooking seafood, including a range of recipes, from the delectably familiar to the intriguingly unusual.
Like La Costa Chica, the state of Veracruz has a number of pueblos Negros, notably the African named towns of Mandinga, Matamba, Mozambique, Yanga, and Mozomboa as well as Chacalapa, Coyolillo, and Tamiahua. The town of Mandinga, for instance, 45 minutes south of Veracruz, is particularly known for its numerous restaurants that line its main street. Some African-influenced cuisine that originated across the Atlantic Ocean from Western and Central Africa, can be ordered in restaurants with obvious African names like Villa Rica Mocambo, and Mandinga.
A number of exotic dishes are accompanied by peanut sauce. Peanuts are popularly eaten in the African nations south of the Sahara desert and infused in many dishes. Though peanuts were originally grown in Europe and imported to Africa, the crop grew popular there and became a mainstay in African cuisine. From there, peanuts arrived with African slaves to colonial Mexico and America.
Encacahuatado, grilled or fried chicken immersed in spicy peanut sauce, is a classic exquisite dish with roots to Africa. The dish is a popular Mexican entree on the menu in restaurants in La Costa Chica, Veracruz, and Guerrero. It is nearly identical to African grilled chicken, fish or beef served with peanut sauce or maafe, African peanut soup. Peanut sauce meat dishes are commonplace throughout sub-Sahara Africa.
Another important ingredient introduced by African cooking is the plaintain, which originated in Africa. In Veracruz, they are heavily used in breads, empanadas (a baked or fried pastry), desserts, mole sauce, and barbacoa — a style of cooking meat that originated in the Caribbean with the Taíno people, from which the term “barbecue” derives. In contemporary Mexico, it generally refers to meats or whole sheep slow-cooked over an open fire, or more traditionally, in a hole dug in the ground covered with maguey leaves.
Other defining ingredients in Veracruz cooking with origins in Africa, include starchy tropical root crops, called viandas, which include cassava, malanga, taro and sweet potatoes. A dish called Mogo mogo made from starchy fufu (cooked mashed cassava or taro), fried yucca — which resembles French fries, and black eye peas — are three popular items. Veracruz cooking commonly contains a fusion of Spanish, indigenous, and African ingredients and cooking techniques.
In the State of Guanajuato, Mexico, once a substantially visible hub of African slaves, black-eyed peas, historically associated with African cooking, is still a culinary legacy. The African slaves’ culinary influence is particularly noticeable in the mountain regions of Veracruz, where black-eyed peas are regularly consumed. Here, dark-skinned Mexicans with African features, abound. The historical connection is fairly obvious as Guanajuato had a substantial African population in the 16th century. They were mainly slaves from nations in West Africa like Ghana, Gambia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Equatorial Guinea, Cote d’ Ivoire, Mauritania, and Angola.
Guanajuato was an immigrant hub without a large settled indigenous community. Apart from Africans, it was comprised of Spaniards, particularly Basques, and Castellanos, and migrant indigenous, particularly nahuas, michoacanos, otomis, and chichimecas. Tribal and family group were separated, however and dispersed to a greater extent around the sugar cane crop in Veracruz. This gave rise to interracial marriage and the loss of many elements of African culture in just a few generations. Regarding racial immersion, while Veracruz remains “darkest” in Mexico’s popular imagination, those with black skin are mistaken for Caribbean and not Mexican. The total population of people of African descent including people with one or more Black ancestors is four percent, the third highest of any Mexican state.
Even in the U.S., according to Manta, a tracker of small business in the U.S., a few miles north of the border awaits a Houston Afro-Mexican culinary experience that bears a visit. A diner/market there called Mex-African Foods, located at 9819 Bissonnet St., Ste. L, in Houston, Texas, fills the bill. The owner dresses in authentic Nigerian garb and the music pulses with the beat of African drums. The place sells African, Caribbean, and Yucatecan cooking ingredients. The cuisines of East Mexico and West Africa share ingredients. The market shelves of Mex-African Foods are stocked with peanuts, plantains, and fresh herbs common to the two cuisines, and products rarely seen before, like giant dried fish, and diminutive bags of dehydrated wild greens.
African dishes include suya, moin-moin, jollof rice, and chin-chin. Mex-African Foods was established in 1994 and incorporated in Texas. Manta reveals that the company, owned by Lloyd Obi, hauls in annual revenue of $500,000 to $1 million.
Part XI continues.
Part XI Black Mexico: Unearthing the Third Root
La Bamba: Song from the slave fields
AFRICAN AND MEXICAN ROOTS have a historical connection, and that may be more obscure than denied, as some believe. Scholars and historians have established the empirical evidence, but their findings have lacked universal embrace necessary to erode the haze that still pervades the public psyche in Mexico. This could be the result of general ignorance and naiveté or reluctance by mainstream media and educational networks to inform and school the public. Whichever, the truth cannot be denied, and only now is unraveling that Africans left indelible imprints in Mexico during colonial gestation.
Now that the Mexican government has decreed official recognition of Black-Mexicans in the National Census, the estranged ethnic minority may now present a more pronounced public persona, sharing who they are — cultural traits, habits, norms that have been largely hidden from public view.
Carnival Coyolillo In Veracruz. Some cultural contributions from African assimilation interwoven in Mexican culture, are unknown by the larger society. Three areas of significance involve music, dance, and food. African-Mexican confluence in music, and dance are some of the cultural contributions from Africa interwoven in Mexican culture, wholly unknown by the larger society. In Mexico, indigenous people and Afro-Mexicans still play ancient African instruments performing songs and musical accompaniment to dances — which pay tribute to their forebears and recall uprisings by them against their cruel Spanish taskmasters.
Black-Mexicans have contributed greatly to Mexico’s rich heritage of dance, music and song. Many musicians there — Central American and Ecuadorian, included — play traditional African instruments like “hand pianos” and the marimba, which have their origins in Africa and are used to perform “the ceremonial dance of the Black people,” and “corridos” (song-stories), which tell of slave uprisings. The famous carnival celebrated in Coyolillo, Veracruz has African origins. Mexico’s food, language and spiritual practices on display at the festival have been influenced by the descendants of African slaves. Journalist Patrisia Gonzales, who along with fellow journalist and husband Roberto Rodriguez, collaborated on a series of columns published as an anthology in 1997, titled, Gonzales & Rodriguez: Uncut and Uncensored. They know the stories all too well.
“Black immigrants to the country must be recognized and included in this equation, as well. Many fled to Mexico during the years of slavery in the United States, seeking asylum and refuge,” writes Gonzales, who, along with Rodriguez served as lecturers on social movements in Mexico for years at the University of California in San Diego. Both are keenly familiar with music and dance traditions in Mexico, especially the highly popular annual Carnival Coyolillo of Veracruz. Gonzales offers a glimpse of the festival:
“The Coyolillo is a community located in the municipality of Actopan, about 21 kilometers east of the city of Xalapa and nine kilometers northwest of the county seat. In this region, the Spanish brought slaves from Africa to work in the sugarcane haciendas of La Concepcion, San Sebastián, Maxtlatlan, and Almolonga, formerly called Santa Rosa de Coyolillo. Within the festive season celebrating several communities in the river basin Actopan is particularly important carnival celebration, as in the case of The Coyolillo, Almolonga, Alto Tío Diego and white foam.
"In this carnival, a formation of 'black' runs through the village. His dress is round neck tunics made of printed cotton fabric with colorful flowers. This garment reaches below the knees and can lead fringed at the bottom edge. Above, the 'black' always has a layer that goes from the head to where the robe comes, although some people prefer to use shorter. Blacks are accompanied by the 'oldies' who wear masks elderly, and 'oldies,' men dressed as women. Together jarochos dance and dance sones 'Gule, Guamkulu' which is originally from Africa, these masks are sold. Some improvised masks and caps from any material: boxes of biscuits, footballs, plastic jugs, pots and sacks, among others. His attire is striking for carelessness involved, and that it may be pants inside or outside bags. These populations live in the countryside, and visitors only have welcoming smiles and invitations to eat, to taste the typical food of the region.”
“La Bamba” rooted to Africa. Many things in contemporary society are not as they appear. We think we know the truth about many places and things, but there is no merit to the stories about them and over time the stories and half-truths are just passed down from one person to the next time and again. One such fable is the origin of the famous song La Bamba. Mexican-Americans have adopted the rhythmic, guitar-laced Tejano rock and roll song for festive occasions since 1958, when it was famously adapted by singer Ritchie Valens.
La Bamba became a top 40 hit on the U.S. charts and one of early rock and roll’s best-known songs. Valens’ version is ranked number 354 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. But La Bamba wasn’t done reaching for higher heights with Valens’ version. The famed multiple Grammy Award-winning rock band Los Lobos from East Los Angeles, rendered a version that was the title track of the 1987 film La Bamba and reached No. 1 on U.S. and UK singles charts in the same year. The Los Lobos version was No. 1 for three weeks in the summer of 1987. The music video for Los Lobos’ version, directed by Sherman Halsey, won the 1988 MTV Video Music Award for Best Video from a Film. Quite an achievement and contribution from Mexican-American culture. There’s no understating that — but it would only be half true.
Most immersed in Mexican and Latin culture more than likely would not be able to conceive of the true origins of the song. The unmitigated truth about La Bamba is that it was created long before Ritchie Valens or Los Lobos ascended to stardom on its wings. It will surprise many that La Bamba owes its creation to enslaved Africans, specifically those of the MBamba tribe which inhabited Angola and Congo in West Africa and forged their exis- tence along the Bamba River that connects Angola and Congo, La Bamba is a traditional folk song and dance of the Mbamba of the musical genre,
Jarocho, first sung by them as they toiled in silver mines, sugar cane plantations, and cattle ranches of Veracruz, Mexico in 1683 under the cruel indignities of the Spaniards. The MBamba people may have been stolen from their homeland, but they did not part without their culture and origins of the song. It is documented La Bamba refers to a specific incident in Veracruz in 1683, when pirates attacked the people there – free and enslaved — creating a climate for revolt. Over time the Spaniards’ mistreatment of the slaves increased so horribly, they revolted in what became known as the “Bambarria” uprising.
The slaves fled their tormentors and joined forces with the indigenous natives in the rain forests and mountainous areas. Influenced by Afro-Mexican and Spanish flamenco rhythms, the song evolved from the slave fields with Spanish interaction using the violin, jaranas, guitar, and harp. Lyrics to the song also varied, as performers often improvised verses. According to Patrisia Gonzales, the Los Lobos version resonated most with her “because it [remains] more faithfully with the original song where the tempo increases at [the] song’s conclusion.”
“The traditional “La Bamba” as it evolved over time with the culture was often played during weddings in Veracruz, where the bride and groom performed the accompanying dance,” Gonzales writes. “Today this wedding tradition is mostly lost, but the dance survives through the popularity of [the] ballet Folklórico. The dance is performed in much the same way, displaying the newlywed couple’s unity through the performance of complicated, delicate steps in unison as well as through creation of a bow from a listón, a long red ribbon, using only their feet.
The ‘arriba’ (literally “up”) part of the song suggests the nature of the dance, in which the footwork, called ‘zapateado,’ is done faster and faster as the music tempo accelerates,” Gonzales continued. “The repeated lyric, ‘Yo no soy marinero, soy capitán’ (literally: “I am not a sailor, I am a captain”), refers to Veracruz’s marine locale and the husband’s promise that he will remain faithful to his wife.”
As Gonzales notes, “the African influence in Mexico, and the entire hemisphere, encompasses all of this hemisphere, from jazz, to blues, to gospel, to rhythm and blues, to the syncopated beat that still permeates much of American music, a beat with roots to African slaves in America, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central, and South America.”
“Everything to do with Blackness.” Dr. Bobby Vaughn, who earned a doctorate in anthropology from Stanford University and has taught courses at the university on Race and Ethnicity in Mexico, Blackness in Latin America, Anthropology of Mexico, Latin American Area Studies, and Race and Ethnicity in Cross-Cultural Perspective, added more insight into the African influence on Mexican and Latin America music.
“Perhaps the music that best personifies the culture of Veracruz is the son jarocho, the moniker by which most Veracruzanos identify their regional identity, regardless of their race,” Vaughn wrote in a 2005 feature article in Dialogo Magazine. “But the word’s origins have everything to do with Blackness. In the colonial era, the word was used to refer to Blacks of mixed race and to Blacks in general. The son jarocho is not simply a relic from the past, preserved by the older generations, however.
There are countless performers throughout the central and southern parts of the state,” Vaughn noted. “In addition to Afro-Mexican towns, like El Coyolillo, and mestizo towns, like Tlacotalpan, the son jarocho is also performed in Indigenous communities in Indigenous languages. Thus, the son jarocho is an example of the confluence of cultures in Veracruz, where the son, in spite of being a product of different heritages or perhaps precisely because of this is embraced by nearly all Veracruzanos as an important part of their jarocho identity.”
The legacy of Africa throughout the Americas rings with harmony as Gonzales eloquently writes: “Rumba, habanera, Argentine tango, bolero, merengue, cumbia, salsa, and even the mambo that was so popular in the U.S. during the 1950s and 1960s, all have roots in African (and Latin) traditions. The next time you hear the song La Bamba, take time to pause and thank the Black enslaved people of Mexico for giving us the gift of this song. If not for their contributions to the music of Latin America … we would not have such a lovely and delightful song to sing, and dance to. All are examples of the still thriving African legacy in Mexico.”
Part XII continues.
Part XII Black Mexico: Unearthing the Third Root
Black Mexicans After of the 2020 Census
MEXICO'S 2020 CENSUS represented a seminal achievement for the 2.5 million people in Mexico who identify as Black-Mexican or of African descent. The 2020 Census represents the first time in Mexico's history that Black-Mexicans have been acknowledged and counted based on their specific heritage, according to data collected and reported by Al Dia News Media.
According to Remezcla, an American media company focusing on the Latin American cultural sphere, a question on the 2020 census form asked Mexicans, “By your customs and traditions, do you consider yourself Afro-Mexican, Black, or Afro-descendant?” This was the closest the census had ever come to classifying race and ethnicity in Mexico’s population before 2022 — asking which indigenous language people spoke in the home.
With this new data, reports Remezcla, the Black-Mexican community now knows that more than 2.5 million of them are living in the country—which is 2 percent of the population. They also know that the average age of Black-Mexicans in Mexico is 32 and 7.4 percent them speak at least one indigenous language. Most Black-Mexicans counted were from Guerrero, Veracruz, Oaxaca, La Costa Chica, and Mexico City.
La Costa Chica extends from Acapulco to the town of Puerto Ángel in Oaxaca on Mexico’s Pacific coast. The Costa Chica is not well known to tourists, with few attractions, especially where Afro-Mexicans live. Exceptions to this are the beaches of Marquelia and Punta Maldonado in Guerrero and the Chacahua Wildlife Reserve in Oaxaca. The area for much of Mexico’s history was isolated from the rest of the country due to its mountainous geography, which prompted runaway slaves to find refuge there.
Black-Mexicans struggled for recognition by their government for years. In the 16th century, approximately 200,000 slaves were sent to Mexico by Spanish conquistadors. Many Mexicans do not know how far back their African ancestry can be traced.
“The story of the Black population has been ignored and erased from history,” Israel Reyes, an activist and teacher in Mexico, told the BBC back in 2016. The 2020 census results bring all Mexicans closer to understanding the significance and impact of African roots on their country.
While it is true that in many areas of the nation, African-descendants are marginally represented, like Northern Mexico, for instance, Mexicans of African descent can generally found throughout a good portion the country.
However, much has changed since colonial times. The construction of Federal Highway 200, also known as Carretera Pacífico, a Federal Highway of Mexico, accounted for the biggest difference. The Carretera Pacífico is the main leg of the Pacific Coastal Highway within Mexico and travels along the Pacific Coast from Tepic, Nayarit in the north to the Guatemala-Mexico border to the south. The highway links most of the cities along the Pacific coast, including Acapulco. African physical features are more prominent in Mexicans living in the La Costa Chica region than elsewhere in Mexico as the slaves here did not intermarry with the indigenous and Spanish to the same degree as in other areas of the nation.
In La Costa Chica, the African cultural imprint in music, dance, art, food, and physical appearance is indelible. Until recently, habitats in the area were circular mud and thatch huts, which can be traced to Ghana and Ivory Coast in West Africa. Stories passed down through generations still abound of slavery and tales of shipwrecks—often slave ships—whose survivors spawned successive generations through centuries and the Black-Mexican descendants of today.
The Afro-mestizo region of Coyolillo, Veracruz, situated at ground zero of African-Mexico culture, hosts a distinct annual African-influenced carnival called the Day of the Dead, where a popular ritualistic a dance called the Danza de los Diablos (Dance of the Devils), is performed at the festivity. It offers a view of how deeply the African footprint was stamped into the region. Similar in cultural zeal to the Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans, Louisiana, Black-Mexicans dance in the streets adorned in wild, vividly-colorful costumes and masks accom- panied by rhythmic music produced by a West African instrument called a bote.
The Danza de los Diablos is considered a syncretism of Mexican Catholic tradition and West African spiritual tradition. The tradition is gradually fading in the 21st century, as younger generations are losing the skill and mastery of the bote. There are a number of “pueblos Negros” or Black towns in the region such as Corralero and El Ciruelo in Oaxaca, and the largest — Cuajinicuilapa in Guerrero — home to the Museo (museum) de las Culturas Afromestizos which houses the history and culture of the region. The Black-Mexicans here live among mestizos and various indigenous groups such as the Amuzgos, Mixtecs, Tlalpanecs, and Chatinos.
Black-Mexicans in Northern Mexico. The phenomena of runaways and slave rebellions began early in Veracruz with many escaping to the mountainous areas in the west near Orizaba and the Puebla border. Here groups of escaped slaves established defiant communities called “Palenques” to resist Spanish authorities, the most important of which was established in 1570 by Gaspar Yanga Gaspar, as penned previously in Part II.
There are some towns with few Blacks in them, far north of Mexico, especially in Coahuila and the country’s border with Texas. Some ex-slaves and free Blacks came into northern Mexico in the 19th century from the United States. A few of the routes of the great emancipator Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad followed a route to Mexico. One particular group was the Mascogos, a tribe of Black Seminoles, originally from Florida were runaway slaves and free Blacks intermingled with Seminole natives. Many settled in and around the town of El Nacimiento, Coahuila, where their descendants remain today.
New Era Akin to Post-1863 America. With recognition by the Mexican government of its citizens of African lineage in the 2020 Census, Black-Mexicans alas have emerged from obscurity. And now many challenges to their accept- ance and assimilation into greater Mexican society will abound. In many ways the year 2020-2022 for Black-Mex-icans is akin to 1863-1865 for American slaves freed from bondage by the Emancipation Proclamation. Black-Mex-ican bondage was only marginally similar after slavery ended in Mexico in 1832. But mainstream society’s whole- sale reluctance to recognize them and withholding all rights and privileges of a free society, was a type of bondage.
Black-Mexicans are as indigenous to Mexico as the palest Mexicans heavily influenced by Spanish or White ancestry, but racist social stigmas associated with blackness and dark skin first promulgated by the Spanish enslavers and enforced and internalized in Mexican society, has created an inferiority complex in many Black-Mexicans that may require decades to heal. Black-Mexicans will have to undergo the same cultural immersion to develop racial pride as Black Americans did throughout post-slavery and the Jim Crow era to shed shame and racial denial, and embrace the uniqueness of their dark skin, hair texture, and African features.
Even though Black-Mexicans are now on track to the rights and privileges of a Democratic society, it can be reasonably assumed that institutional prejudices and biases toward them will persist the way it has in America for Black Americans 159 years after slavery faded to black.
All hopes and blessings go with Black-Mexicans in a new leg of their journey which began in a trek across a mighty ocean six centuries ago. Because they are resilient with strength and endurance to survive perilous ocean voyages, the inhumane toil of sugar cane fields, silver mines and war, the odds are with the Black-Mexicans to circumvent the latest challenges to achieve joy, freedom and blessings in the New Millennium.
Gaspar Yanga, Juan Roque, Vicente Guerrero, René Juárez Cisneros, and Pio Pico would surely be proud.
Jarrette Fellows, Jr. / Creative Commons CC0 License.