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. Mexico had never imported slaves from Africa, he said, fully certain that the nation’s peoples of African descent were relatively recent arrivals.
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.
The historical record, of course, tells another story. In the sixteenth century, New Spain–as Mexico was then called–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 it lasted, the slave trade brought about 200,000 Africans to the colony. Many blacks were born in Mexico and followed their parents into slavery. Not until 1829 was the institution abolished by the leaders of the newly independent nation.
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 Zacatecas, 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 (“obrajes”) of Puebla and Oaxaca on the west coast and in Mexico City; and in households everywhere. Others worked in skilled trade or on cattle ranches. Although black slaves were never more than two percent of the total population, their contributions to colonial Mexico were enormous, especially during acute labor shortages.
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 bloods 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. Yet, for the most part, their spirits were never broken and many fled to establish settlements (“palenques”) in remote areas of the country.
These fugitives were a constant thorn in the side of slave owners. The most renowned group of “maroons,” as they were called, escaped to the mountains near Veracruz. Unable to defeat these intrepid Africans, the colonists finally recognized their freedom and allowed them to build and administer their own town. Today, their leader, Yanga, remains a symbol of black resistance in Mexico.
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, 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. No longer do they see themselves as Mandinga, Wolof, Ibo, Bakongo, or members of other African ethnic groups; 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. It is only within recent times that their lives have been studied and their contributions to Mexican society illuminated. Suffice it to say that contemporary black Mexicans can claim this proud legacy and draw strength from it, even as they become a shrinking part of their country’s peoples.
This article was authored by the late Colin Palmer, a noted historian who became the first African-American chair of a major department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Palmer was the author, editor or co-editor of 17 books. He chronicles the history of the Caribbean in the wake of British and U.S. imperialism in a trilogy of books published by UNC Press—Freedom’s Children: The 1938 Labor Rebellion and the Birth of Modern Jamaica, Cheddi Jagan and the Politics of Power: British Guiana’s Struggle for Independence and Eric Williams and the Making of the Modern Caribbean.
This article was originally published by the Smithsonian Insitute’s Migration in History site and is being republished under the Smithsonian’s education fair use policy.